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When Franklin County Went to War

By David Brand 
Law Enforcement Coordinator, Florida Sheriffs Association


When the Higgins boats landed, and their ramps came down on Omaha and Utah beach, as part of Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944, a newly developed weapon stormed the beach; the Amphibious soldier. Many of these soldiers were trained in Franklin County, located south of Tallahassee. But, how and why was this area selected?

Build Up To War 

Germany, in their expansionism to develop the Third Reich, began attacking Great Britain with their Luftwaffe air force in July 1940. The following September, Germany joined together with Italy and Japan to form the AXIS forces. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, clearly seeing the danger, froze all Japanese assets in the United States effectively cutting off their access to U.S.-produced oil. No oil, no wheels. 

On December 7, 1941, Japanese Imperial Forces attacked Pearl Harbor sinking much of our Pacific Fleet. This was followed by attacks on Guam, Malaya, the Philippines and other locations to establish access to oil and rubber that they needed to prosecute the war.  The United States then entered the war on two fronts: Europe and Asia. Both would require waterborne landings. 

In an April 1942 report, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall declared that the planning, preparation and training for amphibious operations was so deficient that a combat operation would result in disaster. The report went on to recommend that the Army be charged with training for large-scale amphibious operations and the Navy assist the Army with the shipping and operation of landing craft. 

Developing The Amphibious Training Camp 

In response, the Army Ground Forces Site Board examined several proposed training sites in Virginia, as well as the Everglades and Venice, Florida, before selecting Carrabelle as the Amphibious Training Center’s home.  The ATC began operating on Cape Cod’s Camp Edwards in June 1942, as a stopgap until the construction of facilities was completed at Carrabelle, which was considered the Center’s home base. Personnel had only a few weeks to prepare for the arrival of the first training unit, the 45th Infantry Division. Between July and October 1942, both Divisions trained there. 

To acquire enough land, the government purchased about 10,000 acres from landowners and leased 155,000 acres, mainly from the St. Joe Paper Company. As a side note, much of the St. Joe land was purchased by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and is now part of the “Tate’s Hell” park at St. Teresa Beach. 

While the training area was originally known as Camp Carrabelle, it officially became Camp Gordon Johnston in January 1943 and was located in three areas: Carrabelle, Lanark Village and St. Teresa Beach. It was named in honor of Colonel Gordon Johnston, U.S. Calvary, who saw action in three wars and was highly decorated including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Born in 1874, he served in the Spanish-American war, led American troops during the Philippine Insurrection and served in France during World War I. 

St. Teresa Beach, at low tide, as it exists today

Camp Life

When soldiers learned they were going to Florida they must have envisioned palm trees swaying in gentle, balmy breezes. Instead, they encountered wild hogs, snakes, chiggers, yellow flies, and the famous Florida humidity. It was a hardscrabble place. Living conditions were basic and crude. The barracks were little more than tar paper shacks with no floors. The latrines were outside. Meals were eaten outside from the mess kits they carried in their packs. 

Chow Line at St. Teresa Beach

General Omar Bradley, who would later command U.S. forces on D-Day, arrived at Camp Gordon Johnston in January 1943. He wasn’t shy about his opinion that it was a miserable place but later admitted that the training there was invaluable. While there, General Bradley’s wife took up residence at the Wakulla Springs Lodge in nearby Wakulla County. 

Barracks at St. Teresa Beach

Barracks Area Today

To make door-to-door training realistic, a mock German village called “Schickelgruber Haven” was built in the area of Harbeson City, a pulp wood and lumber harvesting town. Soldiers were trained in urban fighting there. This area was located on the Crooked River in Franklin County.
As an interesting footnote to this story, Adolf Hitler’s father was born Alois Schickelgruber but later changed his name to Alois Hitler, after the man who married his mother. 

Between 1942 and 1946 approximately 250,000 men were trained in amphibious warfare at the camp.  When Camp Gordon Johnston was decommissioned in 1946, it simply vanished. However, an unexploded ordinance was left behind. When the St. Joe Company developed the Summercamp properties, No Trespassing signs were erected with the caveat that there may be live bombs in the ground. Army personnel searched for and cleared out any potential threats.


Today the area where many of the brave soldiers that invaded Europe trained has beachside neighborhoods, pristine white beaches and a large state park. Children play in the sand where amphibious soldiers stormed ashore on training missions and hikers traipse through the park where the barracks and parade field were located. 

The Camp Gordon Johnston Museum in Carrabelle, financed by private donations, educates new generations about the sacrifices that the men and women who served in the military made during World War II. 

Annual Parade in Carrabelle Honoring Camp Gordon Johnston

Sheriff A. J. Smith, who grew up in Franklin County, is completely familiar with the history of the camp. While visiting the museum, he remarked that it was important to remember and honor the brave men and women whose sacrifices allow us to live in freedom today.  

Sheriff A. J. Smith, Franklin County Sheriff


Click on the link below for a tour of the Camp Gordon Johnston Museum.



1  Becker, Marshall O. The Amphibious Training Center: Study No. 22, Army Ground Forces Washington D.C., 1946
2 Ibed 
3  Heavy, William F. Down Ramp!: The Story of the Army Amphibian Engineers Washington D.C., 1947, p. 10-15  
4 “Colonel Gordon Johnston Fought in 3 Wars and Received His Country’s Highest Honors” Tallahassee Democrat September 10, 1943  p. 9  
5  Pfankuch, T. Bart Tallahassee Magazine November 5, 2015 
6  Smith, Sheriff A. J.  Personal interview  March 29, 2023