World War II Memories
By William W. "Billy" Mahaffey
I was just a boy during the years of the Second World War, and it affected Lacoochee in many ways. Foremost among my memories are the airplane spotter teams, the German prisoners that worked in the mill, the experience of one of our own enlisting in the Army, the flyovers by a special airplane, and a prank that my friend Bill Andrews and I carried out from the water tower.
One of the wartime duties of the Lacoochee adults was to man the aircraft warning service observation post, a tower that had been built near the water tank, to report aircraft flying through the area. When planes were spotted, the observers called in the information to a warning system base in Tampa. A group of us boys made ourselves assistants to the official spotters. We sat outside the tower and watched for planes. We got quite adept at it. With us as helpers the adult observers could play cards or sit and talk during watch time. I helped them in other ways, too. When they got thirsty, they sent me across the railroad tracks to the "juke joint" to buy them beer and soft drinks. Back then, there was no such thing as checking ID's!
During the war German prisoners of war were incarcerated in Dade City and around fifty of them were assigned to work at the mill in Lacoochee. These men had been part of Rommel's Africa Corps and for the most part fit easily into life at the mill. Hans was the highest ranking of the men, and he spent a lot of time with our family driving my Daddy around and eating meals with us.
All of the Germans took a special interest in the children of Lacoochee, possibly because they missed their own children. Hans had repaired vehicles in Germany and was handy with woodworking as well. He used his talents to help both my brother and me. His gift to me was a five foot boat that he built and painted red. Another of the prisoners was a silversmith by trade. He asked my Dad to get him two silver coins so that he could make my little sister a ring. He melted the coins down and made Harriet a pretty ring with an "H" engraved on it. She still has the ring today.
Hans' gift to Jimmy was a bit more complicated. Jimmy was four years older than me and by then old enough to drive. One Halloween night after a night in Dade City in my Daddy's car, Jimmy came home with the left side of the car pretty banged up. He parked the car in the garage and went to bed. The next morning when Daddy went out to get in the car, we heard him hollering all over the place. He was furious with Jimmy, and said to him, "It would have been all right if you had just told me!"
When Hans saw the damage, he came to the rescue. He asked Daddy to get him a "goon hammer." It took a while, but Daddy finally realized that he was talking about a rubber hammer. Once he had the hammer, Hans went to work taking the dents out of the car. Then he covered the repairs with a fresh coat of paint. The unbelievable thing is that Jimmy did the same thing the next Halloween night, and Hans restored the car again!
That second Halloween night Jimmy woke Daddy up to tell him he had wrecked the car. Daddy again blew his stack and started yelling at Jimmy. He had to hush, though, when Mama reminded him of what he had told Jimmy the year before. Thanks to Hans the car was soon patched up again.
The prisoners were quite helpful to the mill. After a storm blew down the conveyer that went from the mill to the burner, the Germans repaired it. To save money and due to the shortage of building supplies in wartime, they took every nail out of the old structure, straightened it and used it to rebuild the conveyor. It is hard to imagine anyone doing that today!
The German prisoners were treated well in Lacoochee. The Vivian Theater was opened just for them on Sunday mornings. During the time the soldiers worked at the mill only two tried to escape. Those prisoners slipped into a train car filled with lumber as it headed out of Lacoochee. When local law enforcement found out about the escape, the FBI got involved. It did not take long for them to determine the probable means of escape. After the train arrived in Jacksonville, the FBI had the suspect car sealed and pulled off the train. Rather than trying to enter the boxcar, they let it sit out in the hot summer sun for a couple of days. By the time they finally opened the car doors, they found the prisoners more than willing to surrender peacefully. The two escapees were sent to Arizona to be incarcerated. That was the end of escape attempts.
Friendships were made between Lacoochee residents and the Germans during those years, some of which continued after the war. The Mahaffey family received a letter from our friend Hans in Germany shortly after the death of my father in November of 1949.
One of the Lacoochee workers had an unusual war experience that created a tale that was told and retold many times. Jim Tom Johnson worked in what was called the "blocking woods". He was drafted into the Army and left town. It was not long, however, before he was back at work in the logging operation.
Mr. Bill McKinstry, the logging superintendent, was confused when Jim Tom came back so soon and questioned him about it. Jim Tom told him that he had reported for duty all right, but had been sent home. He really did not know why. He told Mr. McKinstry that when he reached his destination, he was told to strip down and line up with a group of other men. Then the doctors came through and "looked at everything a man had".
After that Jim Tom said he was sent in to see the "talking doctor". When Mr. McKinstry asked what the doctor had asked him about, Jim Tom merely responded, "Things". Mr. McKinstry followed with, "What things?" The response was, "Well, they asked me if I could be anywhere in the world, where would I want to be?" Mr. McKinstry said, "Where did you tell them?" Jim Tom responded, "I told them I would rather be right in the middle of the Titantic with just my dog."
What the doctor did not know was in those days, we referred to the Lacoochee swamp as the "Titanic Swamp". While Jim Tom simply meant that he would like to be back at home, the doctor thought he was suicidal. The Titanic was a well-known ship that sank after hitting an iceberg, and many passengers died. The doctor could not imagine anyone wanting to be on the Titanic unless they wanted to die. Through a set of unusual circumstances Jim Tom Johnson's love of home saved him from fighting in World War II.
Each of us old enough to have watched on television the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson remembers his announcer, sidekick, and friend, Ed McMahon. What you may not know is that Ed married a Lacoochee girl. Nell Moody Woodcock, has written a bit about our Alyce Ferrell on the East Pasco County Historical Society's website. Alyce was the small town girl who married Ed McMahon and moved to the big city. The Ferrells lived across the street from us. and although Alyce was older, I remember her well. She was pretty and sweet and, even better, she always had time for me.
Alyce met Ed during the war. He was a Marine fighter pilot instructor and was stationed at a base in Jacksonville. As their courtship progressed, he came to see Alyce as often as possible. His job required him to fly from Jacksonville to the Army/Air base in Zephyrhills. When he did so, he had a unique way of letting her know that he wanted to see her. We became accustomed to seeing a Corsair fly low over town as McMahon dipped down to let Alyce and the Ferrells know he was in the area. When he was to land in Zephyrhills, he would tip one wing of the fighter plane to give her a message to send someone to pick him up.
Years later when I was in New York, I tried to call Alyce. Instead I got her husband. After I explained to him who I was, he promptly invited me to attend the Johnny Carson Show. He said he could not get me tickets, but if I would come to the back door of the studio, he would walk me in. That was nice of him, but all I really wanted was to talk to Alyce. Luckily I did get to have a long conversation with her later. After about twenty years, the McMahons divorced, but to this day every time I see anything about Ed McMahon, I think of Alyce.
Now for the story of my mischievousness during the latter days of the war. Then again, I can't take all the credit, for my best friend, Bill Andrews was with me. One dark night the two of us climbed up the water tower carrying with us a small flashlight and a kite. We turned on the flashlight and tied it to the tail of the kite. There was a stiff breeze, and the light was soon seen floating in the skies above Lacoochee. It was not long before we started hearing voices saying, "The Japs are coming. The Japs are coming."
The next evening when my father came home from work he was upset. He said he had not gotten much work out of the men that day because they had been up all night watching some fearful light in the sky. They were absolutely good for nothing that next day. Bill and I kept our secret, and my father never knew that we were the ones behind the mysterious light over Lacoochee.
The World War II years were not easy, but all in all, Lacoochee managed to get through them quite well. The Cummer Sons Cypress Company's Lacoochee mill family worked together despite difficult times. Those of us who were lucky enough to be there during that period have good memories because it was a community that looked after its own.