For proof that those coming of age during World War II truly were America’s Greatest Generation, historians need look no further than right here in the Golden Isles.
And that is what an Atlanta-based documentary crew has done with “The Golden Isles at War,” a one-hour presentation that features local residents’ recollections of the community’s contributions to the war effort. The documentary chronicles in detail everything from the U.S. Navy’s SONAR school at the King and Prince hotel to the coastal observatory blimps that operated out of what is now the Brunswick-Golden Isles Airport and to the massive shipyards that arose in the port of Brunswick to build Liberty Ships.
The film premieres Tuesday at the Cloister on Sea Island with a private screening to fete the 27 local residents whose featured narratives tell the documentary’s story of how World War II changed the Golden Isles. The public can get a sneak peak of the documentary when it gets a trial launch at 1 a.m. Dec. 21 on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s local channel, said Jack English, a partner in Broadcast Solutions, which produced the documentary. The film will get prime GPB airtime in 2017.
Residents sharing memories of the era include Bill Brown, Ida Mae Lawson, Jack Lang, Bob Torras Sr. and Bobby Roebuck of Brunswick, Susan Smith, Winn Baker, Sanja Olsen Kinard, Mimi Rogers and Bill Walker of St. Simons Island and Carabeth Highsmith of Jesup. Local historian Leslie Faulkenberry contributes significantly to the documentary; its Executive Producer is Sea Island resident Lance P. Toland.
“These stories are best told by those who lived them,” English said. “The value in telling this story can be seen in the expressions of those reminiscing to recount what happened over seventy years ago.”
Here in the Golden Isles, the filmmakers managed to tap a rich vein of that resiliency, fortitude and can-do attitude that exemplified the American spirit during World War II. Like the rest of the nation, the Golden Isles was caught flat-footed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, forcing America into the global conflict.
German submarines, known as U-boats quickly launched Operation Drumbeat, prowling the nation’s Atlantic Coast and mercilessly sinking merchant ships bound with supplies to the war effort in Europe.
These clandestine vessels had already sunk more than 23 merchant ships in northern waters of the Eastern Seaboard when the reality of war struck home on the Georgia Coast with chilling effect early in 1942.
German U-Boat 123 torpedoed and sunk the merchant ships SS Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rouge offshore of St. Simons Island in darkened hours of April 8, killing 22 seaman. St. Island resident Olaf Olsen, a charter boat captain, disregarded personal safety and set out to rescue survivors, a moment documented in the film.
With a total of nearly 400 freighters and tankers sunk and more than 5,000 seamen killed on the nation’s Atlantic Coast, historian Michael Gannon has termed this period “America’s Second Pearl Harbor.”
“One purpose of this documentary is to tell the true and little known story of the carnage sewn by U-boats beginning a month after Hitler declared War on America in December 1941 and extending through late August 1942,” English said. “There was a looming sense of danger living on the coastline that could not be understood by someone living in the Midwest, for instance.”
The German captain of U-123 would later recall his surprise at finding St. Simons Island homes so brightly lit on the night of that attack. It would not happen again. The Golden Isles began observing the coastal blackout orders much more seriously from that point forward.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘the Germans are here,’” St. Simons resident Winn Baker says in the documentary.
Such words of serious resolve were quickly followed up with action here on the homefront, both on the barrier islands and the mainland.
The Civil Air Patrol operated out of McKinnon St. Simons Airport, sending hearty civilian pilots in flimsy small-craft planes to patrol the coast and thwart future U-boat attacks. Also, the Navy and Marines established a large base on the island airport.
By 1943, Naval Air Station Glynco was established at the county’s present day commercial airport, from which a fleet of lighter-than-air ships patrolled this sector of the coast and provided escort for merchant and Liberty Ships.
The whole region was booming as result of the ship building yard established at the Port of Brunswick, churning out scores of Liberty transport ships. Young ladies like Highsmith and Lawson traded households for the shipyards to become the embodiment of Rosie the Riveter. Highsmith tells a charming story about her POW husband’s shock upon learning that he was reunited with his homeland on a Liberty Ship his wife had helped weld together.
The ships had a 10,000-ton capacity, transporting a steady supply of troops, armaments and supplies overseas to the front lines.
War-time demands bulged the local population from less than 15,000 to nearly 65,000. Likewise, workers’ paychecks also were bulging. Now a nonagenarian and always a cutup, Brunswick native Bill Brown recalls a visitor asking a shipyard assembly line worker exactly what it was he was making.
“He answered, ‘$1.20 per hour,’” Brown recalls, citing steep pay in those days.
The documentary is sprinkled with anecdotes about gas and meat rationing, fleeting flirtations, lasting romances and the sense of unifying purpose that bonded folks together during the war years, from 1941-45. The film concludes with reminders of the lasting local legacies from the era that were bequeathed to the Baby Boomer generation and endure still today.
“The second purpose of this documentary is to bring attention to those remaining GI Generation seniors who can tell the story from personal experience,” English said. “The patriotism, the community, the hard work and even the good times that were a reflection of that. We have localized the story to the Golden Isles because we are Georgians and the Golden Isles made significant contributions to the war effort in soldiers that went off to war and those who supported the war effort at home building liberty ships, blimp hangars and sacrificing their own personal needs to the benefit of a much larger cause.”