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Revisiting The Lost Soldiers of 1935 Hurricane

Jerry Wilkinson
Jerry Wilkinson

Just inside Woodlawn Cemetery off busy Eighth Street, across from an AutoNation Nissan dealership, a granite monument marks the final resting place of 79 U.S. soldiers buried in a mass grave after one of the worst hurricanes to ever strike U.S. shores.

The marker, erected by a Miami American Legion Post, is dedicated to “our comrades … lest we forget.”

Yet that’s what has happened in the nearly 80 years since the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane struck the Florida Keys. No marker names the fallen, buried in five narrow trenches overlooking a road and a trailer park. Only five have headstones. More flags fly over the AutoNation than at the vets’ grave.

At the time, their deaths were a national humiliation — soldiers sent to a mosquito-infested rock during hurricane season to work for the government only to be abandoned once the inevitable storm arrived.

“Ignorance has never been accepted as an excuse for murder or for manslaughter,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in the days after the storm, when no one could explain why American soldiers on American soil were left waiting for a rescue that never occurred.

With yet another hurricane season starting Monday, the Labor Day storm serves as a reminder of the nightmare power of a Category 5 storm. The looming anniversary may be the last significant milepost for the storm’s few remaining survivors. And for two aging vets wrestling with Washington and military bureaucracy to recognize the dead, it might also finally mark the end of a frustrating effort to honor men mistreated not once, but twice, by the country they served.

“To me it’s a scandal,” said Richard Bareford, a retired U.S. Army major who lives in New Jersey and joined Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson in the fight to obtain individual grave markers. “This was a great tragedy. But the story isn’t over yet.”

Labor Day hurricane survivors remember

Vets without work

The vets, from World War I and the Spanish-American War, had been part of about 43,000 marchers who camped in Washington, D.C., three years earlier to protest Depression-era wage cuts. After Congress failed to help, President Herbert Hoover ordered the camps closed.

“Hoover used Army guys with bayonets to chase soldiers out of Washington, and that didn’t play very well,” said Thomas Neil Knowles, a Key West conch and author of Category 5: The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, a history of the 1935 storm.

President Franklin Roosevelt tried to fix the problem when he took office in March 1933 by putting the men to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. When the economy began showing signs of recovery, many vets headed home. But some — written off as hopeless hobos by many but likely suffering combat-related disorders — returned to Washington to resume protesting. Faced with another showdown, Roosevelt persuaded Florida and two other states to reopen work camps.

By late summer 1935, about 700 soldiers were in the upper Keys building a highway bridge to link Lower Matecumbe and Fiesta Key, and open the hardscrabble Upper Keys to the flow of tourism filling coffers in Key West.

Outside the grocery, the post office and train depot — little else existed at the time — the vets were a foreign presence not always welcomed by locals.

“They were living on the fringe,” said author Les Standiford, a Florida International University professor whose 2002 history Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean detailed the harrowing attempt to rescue the vets.

Alma Pinder Dalton, 91, who lived at the end of Beach Road in Islamorada, where the upscale Moorings Village resort was built in the late 1980s, remembers her parents warned her to steer clear of the men, living in camps on Lower Matecumbe and Windley Key.

“Most of them drank a lot and you weren’t allowed to have anything to do with them,” said Pinder, who still lives nearby.

‘Nobody knew’

Long before radar and televisions and satellites, predicting hurricanes was a hit-and-miss science. Forecasters relied on barometers, telegraph cables and “an awful lot on ships at seas,” said Neal Dorst, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist and historian. Advisories and warnings came from faraway Washington and forecasters frequently grappled with what Dorst called the “lost hurricane problem” when ships fled and information dried up.

Late on Aug. 29, meteorologists in San Juan first detected the brewing storm east of the island. They predicted it would strike Cuba on Labor Day four days later. But when Monday arrived, there were no squalls, no radical drop in barometric pressure. At 10 a.m., a Pan Am plane making a run from Key West to Havana spotted storm clouds far north of where the storm should have been.

An American barnstormer in Cuba training pilots volunteered to check out the storm and got close enough to provide an ominous warning: The storm looked to be churning straight for the ribbon of islands unfurling from the Florida mainland.

When Labor Day 1935 arrived windy in the upper Keys, it gave little hint of what was to come. A 9:30 a.m. advisory, Knowles reported, had the storm making a slow westerly trek 200 miles due east of Havana with “shifting gales and probably winds near hurricane force over a small area.”

“Nobody knew,” said Everett Albury, who was six at the time and living in Tavernier, where the Driftwood Trailer Park now sits. “That was the scary part of the whole thing.”

That morning, he tagged along with his dad on a drive in the family’s Model A. Seemingly out of nowhere, rain pelted the car. In the next hours, the stormed reached record intensity. The barometer dropped to 892 millibars — it’s still the only storm to make landfall below 900 millibars in the Western Hemisphere — and gusts hit an estimated 200 mph. A massive storm surge swept across the islands, knocking tracks off a railroad viaduct 30 feet above sea level. The sea ripped the Albury house off its foundation, setting it afloat and drifting until it struck the raised railroad embankment, where U.S. 1 now sits.

The family had little idea of the horrors that lay farther down the tracks.


A train too late

With earlier weather bulletins calling for the storm to pass south, Ray Sheldon, a civilian running the camps, had made no plans for the soldiers to evacuate. It wasn’t until 1:30 p.m. that he called for a train, worried by fresh warnings and plunging barometer.

By the time the train got underway, it was 4:25 p.m. After a brief stop in Homestead, the train crossed from the mainland over Jewfish Creek at about 6 p.m. But at Windley Key — a barren island used as a quarry — a thick cable used to hoist rock had swung across the track like a trip wire. While the crew worked in the dark to untangle the wire, minutes passed.

In Upper Matecumbe, the full force of the storm was tumbling ashore. The house where Dalton, then 11 years old, sought shelter with her family disintegrated.

“It just flew apart and we was all thrown out in the water. All of us,” she said.

An uncle, who had been ill, struggled to hold on to Dalton but finally had to let go. After pushing her onto floating debris, “he told me to fight for myself. I found Mother and Sister and was with them the rest of the night.”

Sand mixed with the rain and wind, scouring the shattered landscape and those left clinging to trees and debris. The faces of some of the dead were simply sanded away, Standiford wrote in his book. The living did what they could.

“Everybody who kept their back to the rain, their ears had scabs on them,” Dalton said. “It peeled the skin off, the rain was so bad.”

Historians know the eye of the hurricane probably passed the area about 8:10 p.m. when the lighthouse keepers at Alligator Reef reported a sudden end to the wind. In his book, Standiford described a massive tidal wave striking the train — about 50 feet from the Islamorada station near Snake Creek — and knocking all but the engine off the tracks, dousing the engine boiler and turning the cars into coffins.

“Panicked men flailed blindly, their limbs tangling with those of others clawing just as wildly in return,” he wrote. “As best we know, no one drowns with dignity.”

Farther south, the veteran camps — the closest settlements to where the eye passed over Long Key — simply washed away as sustained 185 mph winds hammered the flimsy tents. Soldiers later recounted lashing themselves to trees or hanging on to railway tracks. Some sought cover in trenches where rock for the highway bridge had been quarried, only to drown when the storm surge filled them.

“In the dark, if they knew what was going on five feet away from them, they were lucky,” said Wilkinson, who has spent four decades compiling documents and thousands of photos for an online museum for the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys.

Of the 695 vets still working in the camps, which had run out of money and were expected to close in two weeks, 257 were confirmed dead. Another 228 civilians died in the storm.

The ravaged landscape quickly turned gruesome. Bodies were tangled in mangroves. Some washed across Florida Bay to Cape Sable. When Hemingway arrived by boat from Key West three days later, he found corpses floating in the ferry slip at Lower Matecumbe.

“You found them everywhere and in the sun all of them were beginning to be too big for their blue jeans and jackets that they could never fill when they were on the bum and hungry,” Hemingway wrote at the time.

A national horror

Outrage quickly spread across the country.

Roosevelt ordered the vets returned to Arlington for burial. But in the hot, humid weather, bodies rotted quickly. Knowles said FBI experts sent to help identify the dead had trouble even finding fingerprints — the skin on corpse fingertips kept slipping off. The crew of a Coast Guard cutter that retrieved 75 bodies and stashed them on its top deck later reported sharks banging against the hull, attracted by the leaking bodies, Knowles wrote.

Hastily built coffins did little to contain the smell. Hoping to speed burial, the government purchased 110 plots at Woodlawn cemetery in Miami, Wilkinson said. But the sickening conditions in the Keys — authorities increasingly worried about the spread of disease —prompted the decision to burn many of the bodies.

That decision, for a country still troubled by the gruesome combat of World War I, only caused more outrage.

“It became a national thing,” Knowles said. “They’re burning the bodies of World War I vets down in the Keys. They tried to give them some kind of burial rite with an honor guard that would play at the pyres. But bodies found … out in Florida Bay, they’d just burn them right there.”

In the end, a massive service — accounts put attendance at 20,000 — was held at Miami’s Bayfront Park after 81 vets, nine civilians and 19 unidentified bodies were buried at Woodlawn in wooden caskets lined with copper, by Bareford’s count.

Anger over the failed rescue sparked a congressional hearing that remains a frank reminder of how powerless government can be in the face of a monster storm. After an initial report blamed God, a lengthier probe concluded three Florida officials acted negligently. The American Legion also investigated, blaming the deaths on “inefficiency, indifference, and ignorance.”

The congressional hearing lasted more than a month, but came to the same conclusion as the initial investigation: God, not man, betrayed the soldiers.

“Sometimes there are catastrophes that are simply accidents,” Standiford said. “I think this was one of them.”

Forgotten men no more?

Today, a granite marker — Bareford believes it went up in 1936 or 1937 — is the only official sign of who is buried in Woodlawn’s northeast corner. Flat headstones, probably placed by families, identify five soldiers. Two bodies were exhumed and buried elsewhere.

But 74 others, identified in the Veterans Administration documents with last names like Beganski, Stone, McGuire and even a Kjar — lie in a state no more distinct than the dirt that surrounds them.

Bareford has written repeatedly to VA officials, appealing to have the graves marked but finding his efforts tangled in a bureaucratic rule change.

For decades, anyone with knowledge of a soldier’s grave could petition the VA for a marker. The rule successfully allowed for hundreds of Civil War graves to be marked, Bareford said. But over the years, disputes arose over what the agency calls an “emblem of faith” — the religious icon etched into markers. Sometimes families fought over whether the emblem should be a Star of David or a cross. Some started requesting Wiccan symbols or emblems for Scientology, he said.

In 2009, the VA changed its rule to allow only direct descendents to apply for markers.

“In trying to solve one problem, they created another one,” Bareford said. “That brought everything to a screeching halt.”

Last spring, the agency began again revising rules to allow cemetery directors to make such requests. While the rules are still being reviewed, the VA in May 2014 agreed to allow Woodlawn to make an application. But Woodlawn director Gabriel Romanach hit another roadblock: Cemetery lawyers told him he could not place markers on plots owned by somebody else. American Legion Post 29 owned the plot, and Romanach had trouble contacting its commander.

This spring he finally got permission, and he said last week that he is working hard to identify the plots and put in the application.

“It’s no fault of anyone,’’ he said. “It’s just the way the forms were created.”

In the meantime, Wilkinson said he still receives inquiries from families asking if a relative might be among those buried. At 86, he worries time for him to get markers on the long-neglected graves may be running out.

One day last month, he walked around the granite monument with a legal description he obtained from the 1936 congressional hearings, pointing to where he thought trenches were dug and bodies buried, mystified that after all these years, soldiers forsaken in life remained forgotten in death.

“I could spend the rest of the day here,” he said, “trying to figure out the politics of what they did.”

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