By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
World War II came a lot closer to Mainland American shores than most people might realize, especially in Florida. With almost 1200 miles of coastline, Florida was a great asset to the military, with its mild climate for year-round training and strategic locations for military bases. Yet those 1200 miles of vulnerable, exposed beaches also posed a significant liability; before the explosive population growth brought on by World War II and especially the post-war boom years, Florida was largely a state of sleepy little southern towns, rural/agricultural lands and few urban areas, with large areas of coast sparsely populated, if at all.
The danger was mainly from German U-boats of Nazi Germany’s “Operation Drumbeat,” patrolling just off the coast, not only in the Atlantic, but also in the Caribbean…and even the Gulf of Mexico.
In fact, the early days of the war saw as many as 20 U-boats in a single fleet regularly patrolling the Gulf, determined to disrupt the shipment of military hardware and other supplies to Europe.
The merchant ships were particularly hard hit, and the German subs were especially determined to disrupt the vital flow of oil via tanker ships from ports in Texas and Louisiana. In the early days of the war, they were so successful that two U-boat captains earned Germany’s Distinguished Iron Cross for their efforts, according to Logan Hawkes of www.wintertexansonline.com/uboats. 56 ships are officially listed as having been sunk in the Gulf of Mexico; 39 of those are now believed to have been in state or Federal waters off the Texas, Louisiana and Florida coastlines. The Florida Memory Project (www.floridamemory.com) puts the total number of ships lost in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Gulf Stream at over 100.
Another threat was the presence of Nazi war agents operating throughout Mexico. Nazi Germany imported over half of Mexico’s oil production, and Italy, another Axis power, imported another 25 percent.
In response, oil production was ramped up in the Texas and Louisiana oil fields, but there remained the problem of German U-boats patrolling the Gulf, Caribbean and Atlantic as tanker ships rounded the Florida Keys to haul oil to England and the rest of Europe. In February of 1942, German U-boats attacked four merchant ships just off the coast of Cape Canaveral. In another attack, the passenger ship SS Robert E. Lee was sunk just a few miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. The U-166, the submarine responsible, was also sunk just a few hundred yards away, the only U-boat officially listed as sunk in the Gulf by Allied forces.
Even though the production of oil had been increased, getting that oil from ports on the Gulf coast to its destination was a troublesome and dangerous venture. Even domestic shipments of oil were not safe. On April 22, 1942, the SS Gulfamerica, carrying 90,000 barrels of fuel oil from Port Arthur, Texas to New York, was torpedoed just four miles off Jacksonville Beach. Dozens of other ships were attacked and sunk a mere handful of miles off Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
German U-boat captains used the light of coastal cities to spot the silhouettes of target ships traveling near shore, prompting blackout orders among many coastal cities, but deep-water travel made ships even more isolated, vulnerable to attack, and farther from the safety of land for any survivors.
In early 1943, U.S. Naval ships were assigned to accompany convoys of freighters and passenger ships. The Civil Air Patrol was organized in March of 1942 to protect Florida coasts, aided by the “Mosquito Fleet,” groups of volunteer civilian boats, who patrolled the waters off the coast, looking for submarines and performing search-and-rescue operations in the aftermath of torpedo attacks. Thousands of other volunteer civilians, known as “spotters,” were trained to watch the skies and keep track of air activity up and down both coasts.
All of these measures served to greatly diminish the carnage inflicted by “Operation Drumbeat,” but did not eliminate it entirely. Attacks and sinkings continued until the end of the war.
The Gulf of Mexico remained a dangerous place, as was the Caribbean Basin and the Atlantic.
Thus, the Cross Florida Pipeline came about, beginning in St. Marks and running through Madison County, just south of where I-10 is now, south of the town of Lee, across the Suwannee River, and ending in Jacksonville, which had a big port to accommodate the huge tankers that came in, and a pumping station to fill them. Madison County was the location of another pumping station that pumped the oil into huge storage tanks and maintained the pressure in the pipeline.
Herman Cherry, former Madison Chief of police, was in the 10th grade when the war broke out in the 1940’s and remembers “a pile of pipes stacked up at Lee, and a pile of welders,” waiting to weld them together when the pipeline was first being built. He also recalls “the pumping station was built on Tommy’s (Tommy Greene of Greene Publishing) daddy’s land.” After an oil tanker filled up at the port of Jacksonville, which took about five hours, the pumping station at Madison would build up the pipeline pressure again to fill the next tanker.
The tankers could then join the transatlantic convoys well protected by Naval gunboats and submarine-detecting planes, and make it to England in about eight days’ time as opposed to the 30 days it had taken before the pipeline became operational. As Cherry explained, the longer those ships stayed in the water and the greater the distance they had to travel, the more vulnerable they became to the German U-boats. The Cross Florida Pipeline was faster and safer for getting the vital gas and oil from the Gulf side of Florida to the Atlantic side.
Tommy Greene’s brother, Bubba Greene, recalls “when they mapped that pipeline out, they pretty well went in and took the land they needed (through eminent domain).” However, in those post-Pearl Harbor days, there was a lot more cooperation. “There was a war on and people generally wanted to help out the military,” said Greene.
However, “during the war, a lot of this was secret,” Greene added, explaining that folks in the north part of the county generally had no clue what was going on in the southern end; most probably weren’t even aware there was a pipeline. In the north part, the emphasis was more on the “volunteer patrol families” who took turns spending the night in the fire towers across the county, watching the skies, tracking and reporting any unrecorded, undocumented planes in the area, much like the “spotters” on both coasts of Florida.
“It wasn’t something that was publicized,” agreed his brother Tommy, speaking of the pipeline. “You didn’t want it sabotaged.”
The danger of saboteurs was a justified concern at the time; in the summer of 1942, four German saboteurs carrying munitions supplies made it ashore from a German sub off Ponte Vedra Beach just south of Jacksonville. Intent on blowing up Florida’s railroad lines to disrupt the shipment of war supplies and the transportation of military personnel, they were arrested before they could carry out their plans. Had they known about the pipeline, it too might have been a likely target.
Every inch of pipeline was inspected daily for leaks or damage, whether due to sabotage or any other causes. Local resident Henry Lewis had uncles who were part of the daily inspection teams that consisted of two men either setting out on foot or riding out on horseback in opposite directions from a single point on the pipeline, looking it over for any signs of something amiss; Tommy Greene believes that these men were also armed, with at least a rifle, or something, “for snakes if nothing else,” since they had to cross a lot of swampland. The men would generally ride about half a day’s journey along the pipeline (where the pipeline crossed ponds or rivers, there was a narrow walkway built across the water alongside it) until they met up with another inspector coming from the opposite direction; then, confirming that everything was as it should be, the two would turn around and ride back to where they had started their journey.
The Madison pumping station itself became quite an installation during the war years. On what had once been farmland, there were huge storage tanks of oil and gas, perhaps 40 feet wide by 40 feet across, as Tommy Greene recalls; he remembers them being about as big across as they were tall, and also remembers the big tractors pushing up the large earthen berms that completely encircled each tank, high enough to contain an oil spill should any of the tanks rupture, spit or leak. The pumping station operated 24 hours a day during that time, running thousands upon thousand of gallons of gas, oil and diesel through the facility.
There were also five identical little white government-built houses for the families of the men who lived and worked at the pumping station. Roy Milliron, Sr., was the plant supervisor.
With several miles of pipeline running through Madison from Aucilla to the Suwannee River, engineers tried to keep it mostly as level as possible, and above the waterline wherever it crossed water. There were also the several miles of the wooden walkways that went with the pipeline across the rivers, ponds and swamps.
However, while there was a war on as many people probably said with great frequency, and the danger was as close as the Gulf, at times it could seem far away to a quiet little place like Madison County. There was the rationing, the shortages and the stories on the radio and in the newspapers. There were the families with a loved one in the war and the volunteer patrol families that spent nights in fire towers watching the skies overhead.
Still, there was normal daily life for many. While the pipeline pumped oil for the war effort overseas, life went on back home as it was meant to. Children still played after school and explored the great outdoors if the weather was good; those who lived near the pipeline even played on part of the pipeline infrastructure. Those little walkways that went next to the pipeline where it crossed ponds and rivers and swamps with the handrails on one side were like miniature bridges, perfect for children, especially little boys, to play on. Herman Cherry remembers a very young Bubba Greene being especially fascinated by the walkways and thinking they were “really cool” or whatever the equivalent vernacular was during the war years.
The little bridges were also excellent fishing spots for a cast from a cane pole to hook a few fish. They also made great places from which to lower wire or wooden fish traps into the water beneath. Tommy Greene also remembers seeing fish traps made from 55-gallon drums with a hole cut in one end, allowing the fish to enter, and smaller holes at the opposite end for drainage when lifting the drums out.
Brothers Tommy and Bubba frequently played with two boys named Rudy and Grady, who belonged to one of the families employed by the government to run the pumping station. They lived in on e of the five little white houses next to the facility, and the four boys spent many Sunday afternoons playing together, but now, neither Bubba nor Tommy can recall the other boys’ last names.
After the war ended in 1946, the pipeline was dismantled and taken up; some people say it was because the government didn’t really have “official” easement or right of way for much of the line, just the good graces of citizen landowners who wanted to help out with the war effort. Others say it was mainly due to the trucking unions who wanted to eliminate the competition the pipeline posed to the fuel hauling business.
Whatever the reason, the pipeline was taken apart. Some local residents bought pieces of the pipeline and used them to build things like cattle gaps. The large storage tanks were taken out; all that remains are the berms that once surrounded them, some four to eight feet high.
The families who had once lived in the little white wooden houses at the pumping station packed their belongings and moved away. The government wanted to move the houses off the property, but didn’t want to relinquish the lease on the land in case they needed it again. However, in order to get to the houses and relocate them, they had to cross more land owned by the Greenes, land that wasn’t leased to the government.
Eventually, as Bubba and Tommy both recall, the government reached an agreement with their father, relinquishing the lease on the land where the houses sat, in order to be able to get to the little houses and move them.
At least two of those houses still remain in the city of Madison, one on SW Madiosn Ave., just off Lake Frances, and the other on Range Street, about a block or so south of Gordon’s Tractor.
Of the families who used to live there, Tommy Greene recalls that one of them owned a German Shepherd dog they were unable to take with them; they finally ended up giving the dog to the Greene family.
“I can see the image of the man who gave us the dog,” says Tommy Greene, even though he has long forgotten the man’s name. “That was the best dog I ever had.”
Of the pipeline that was once so vital to the war effort, very little evidence remains. A few relic pieces of pipe, perhaps on some land in the southern part of the county. Some of the earthen berms that surrounded the huge storage tanks are still there. A couple of the little government houses now occupied by families in other parts of town.
The rest is mostly whatever those who lived in those days can remember of the pipeline. Perhaps somewhere there are photograghs or documents tucked away in trunks or boxes, along with family photographs and papers that would tell more of the story about the vital link that once ran through the state from coast to coast and undoubtedly saved lives and ships from the U-boat infested waters off Florida.
This report was supplemented with information from www.floridamemoryproject.com, http://fcit.usf.edu/florida/lessons/ww_ii, www.wintertexansonline,com/uboats, and www.floridavets.ord/wwii/history/asp.