As World War II raged in Europe and Asia, hundreds of local volunteers joined the nation's Aircraft Warning Service (AWS), the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Army's Ground Observation Corps, to watch for enemy planes flying over Florida's airspace.
The AWS was organized through city and county civil defense agencies beginning in May 1941 in anticipation of the war coming to America's shore. At its peak, the AWS numbered 750,000 aircraft spotters along the Atlantic coastline from Canada to Key West, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast. A majority of the observers were women.
By Sept. 20, 1941, there were 514 aircraft observation posts established in Florida. These included 13 stations in Palm Beach County, four in Martin County and two in Okeechobee County, according to the Florida State Planning Board in Tallahassee. More area observation posts were added after America entered the war.
AWS volunteers were trained to identify the silhouettes of German, Japanese and American aircraft. Reported sightings were forwarded to regional "filter centers," and if confirmed, to the U.S. Air Corps First Fighter Command headquarters based in New York. Data gathered from multiple observation stations was used to track the movement of aircraft.
With German U-boats lurking off the coast of southeast Florida in 1942-43, there was a real fear in the Army's air command that the submarines might be assisted by enemy reconnaissance aircraft.
AWS aircraft spotters were stationed on the roofs of the tallest office buildings in West Palm Beach, and on the Lake Worth Casino building. In Boca Raton, observers were stationed from dawn to dusk on a wooden tower built on the Red Reef beach.
The AWS reporting stations were linked by telephone lines so volunteers could report suspicious aircraft or submarine sightings immediately.
While the threat of German U-boats off Florida's coastline was proven by the loss of many ships, as the war progressed it became apparent that the Germans and Japanese lacked long-range bombers capable of raiding the U.S. mainland.
Germany's only four-engine bomber was the Fw200 "Condor". The Condor was essentially a civilian airliner refitted for combat as a patrol bomber to sink allied shipping in the mid-Atlantic.
Prior to the war, a Condor made the first direct 4,000-mile flight from Berlin to New York City in August 1938. Ironically, the first generation of Condor airliners were powered by Pratt & Whitney engines purchased in America.
There were no AWS reports of bombing missions over the U.S. cities by the thin-skinned patrol bomber during World War II.
German Ju88 Bomber Buzzed the Palm Beaches
However, in December 1943, three AWS spotters in West Palm Beach, Mr. and Mrs Merritt Smith and Mrs. Herbert Weiss, sent a "flash message" to the Army Air Corps by telephone. They correctly identified a German Ju88 light bomber flying over the Palm Beaches and reported its location.
The Junkers Ju88 sighted by the observers was one of 15,000 twin-engined fighter-bombers built by Germany during the war. A Luftwaffe pilot decided to surrender by flying his Ju88 to an allied airfield. The aircraft, in perfect flying condition, was confiscated by the Army Air Corps and eventually transported to Morrison Field in West Palm Beach.
The Army conducted a test flight over the Palm Beaches to evaluate the aircraft's strengths and weaknesses. The German crosses on the wings of the Ju88 were replaced by Army Air Corps stars. While the AWS volunteers correctly identified the Ju88 as an enemy plane flying over Palm Beach County, it was in fact piloted by an American.
With the Germans and Japanese in full retreat, the U.S. Army disbanded the AWS in May 1944. The 14,000 observation posts in the United States were closed. The wooden AWS tower resting on Boca Raton's beach was dismantled in 1946.