Walk Through History

Florida Press Club 2012 First place winner, Travel & Tourism.

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style/VILLAGES Edition, November 2011 •
Photos by Tony & Mary Ann DeSantis •

A little known museum honors the WWII soldiers who stormed the shores of Florida’s eastern panhandle.

Most people driving along Florida’s Scenic Highway 98 east of Apalachicola don’t realize the area was as important to World War II as the beaches of Normandy and the sands of Iwo Jima. Today, St. George Island is a tranquil paradise that ranks among Florida’s top 10 beaches, but almost 70 years ago the sandy shores were under assault by thousands of young soldiers training for amphibious landings abroad.

Down the road near the small fishing town of Carrabelle, Camp Gordon Johnston was the last stop for many G.I.s before they shipped out to distant shores. Today, the former camp is the site of a World War II museum dedicated to the amphibious soldiers who trained there. The Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum has one mission: to preserve the heritage of WWII soldiers.

Housed in a former school, the museum’s entrance is inconspicuous and hardly noticeable from the street. Walking the large, wide hallways to the curator’s office feels more like a trip to the principal’s office. The halls are covered with newspaper clippings about the war, and nothing reveals the treasures soon to be found in the former classrooms. But when museum curator Linda Minichiello pokes her head out of one of the doorways and asks if you are ready for your tour, it’s only a matter of seconds before you realize a spirit of patriotism emanates from every corner.

“People walk St. George Island looking for sea shells, but what they really should be looking for are ammunition shells,” says Minichiello, a former school teacher who has been the museum’s only curator since it opened in 1998.

A 105mm projectile shell was found in an underdeveloped area that once was Camp Gordon Johnston.And shells aren’t the only artifacts buried in the sand for decades. As recently as two years ago, Minichiello says that a bayonet was found on the island. Many of the found items wind up in Minichiello’s cache of memorabilia. Most items on display, however, come from veterans who are now nearing their 90s.

In fact, the idea of the World War II museum began in 1996 when a group of veterans returned for the 50th anniversary reunion of Camp Gordon Johnston’s closing, which occurred in April 1946. Those who attended brought memorabilia, mostly patches or parts of uniforms.

“All of veterans who came to that 50th reunion didn’t want it to be one-time thing,” explains Minichiello. “When vets returned the next year, they brought even more memorabilia. The idea actually began with vets themselves, and the museum opened with their donations.”

Uniform on display at the Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum. Photo by Mary Ann DeSantis.Today, the 5,000-sq.-ft facility contains 5,000 items from small buttons and pins to a large DUKW, a six-wheel drive amphibious truck used to transport troops over land and water during the war. Some of the items came from behind enemy lines, such as Japanese propaganda fans and German rifles. The museum has been nationally honored by Smithsonian Magazine for three consecutive years and is also a recognized Corps of Engineers Awareness Program. Minichiello and her volunteers work with developers to make them aware of artillery occasionally found in the area, such as projectile shells and rockets.

All it takes is a few minutes with Minichiello to see her passion for the museum and for honoring the sacrifices of men and women in uniform. Her on-site hours go far beyond the 12 hours a week she is paid to be there.

“I’m doing this for my Dad,” says Minichiello, whose father served in the Aleutian Islands. “For my dad, the war was never really over. I see that every day with the veterans who visit.”

Admission to the World War II Museum is free, although it is open only on weekday afternoons and from 10a.m. to 2p.m. on Saturdays.

Many people head to Apalachicola’s popular seafood festival in November, and pass through Carrabelle without realizing the wealth of historical information the town contains — not only at the World War II museum but also at the Carrabelle History Museum downtown.

Barracks at the Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum. Photo by Mary Ann DeSantis.“When you come here, you don’t expect to see this if you don’t know the history of this place,” says Minichiello. “But this little museum renews feelings of pride about America’s efforts during those dark, uncertain days of WWII.”

For more information, visit saltyflorida.com or campgordonjohnston.com/museum or call 850.697.8575.

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