Saving History

Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum is working to become a lure for tourists

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Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

During the predawn hours of June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers invaded a handful of French beaches along the coast of Normandy, one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. Seventy-one years later, the sacrifices and achievements of many of those troops, and other soldiers who fought in World War II, are still kept alive in tiny coastal Carrabelle, Florida.

Uniforms, medals, pictures, letters and thousands of other keepsakes are displayed throughout eight rooms of the city’s not-for-profit Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum, housed in an out-of-the way, aging municipal complex with a leaky roof and limited air conditioning.

The museum’s humble location belies the importance of the historic collection within. Camp Gordon Johnston was a World War II Army post in Carrabelle and the surrounding region. From 1942 to ’46, more than 250,0000 soldiers were trained at the camp for amphibious landings in Europe and the Pacific. The military installation, known for its rugged, commando-style training, occupied nearly 20 miles of coastline on the Gulf and 165,000 acres of Franklin County. The 4th, 28th and 38th Infantry Divisions trained there, as well as the 6th Amphibious Brigades and other specialized forces.

The artifacts and mementos go beyond the Carrabelle camp. This is the only museum dedicated to World War II in Florida and most of the Southeast. Items from Korea and Vietnam are also on display.

Yet the museum, a tribute to the past, faces an uncertain future.

Supporters stress it’s urgent that the museum move to a new site to survive and preserve all of its items, most donated by veterans and their families. The 225-member Camp Gordon Johnston Museum Association has already purchased a 1.3-acre site at 1873 U.S. Highway 98 West for a new 6,000-square-foot building across from Carrabelle’s public beach. The site has a view of the Gulf, where soldiers once practiced their skills on amphibious landing craft.

Problem is, there aren’t enough funds to build a new facility.

“I firmly believe we could be an economic boon to this county,” said museum curator/director Linda Minichiello. She and her husband, Tony, both volunteers, have kept the nonprofit museum going since it first opened nearly 20 years ago in makeshift headquarters in a former fish shack. The museum is now in its fourth location.

“We average a little over 4,000 people a year and we could double that, at the least, with a new facility on the beach,” said Tony Minichiello, also the association president. “Right now we can’t even put a sign on 98 to let people know we’re here.”

In a major victory, the Florida Legislature voted during the 2015 session to give the military museum $500,000 to build a new structure and appropriately display its historic gems. But hopes were dashed by a June veto by Gov. Rick Scott.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” said state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who sponsored the budget request for the museum along with Monticello Republican Rep. Halsey Beshears. “It has great historic value, and if not for volunteers, we would have lost a treasure.”

Both legislators vowed they will be pushing for funding again in 2016 and intend to make a more high-profile appeal.

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