St. Augustine is well known as the site of America’s oldest masonry fort, constructed during the 16th century to defend the city. Since 1565 to today, the city has played an important role in America’s military operations. When the US entered World War II, St. Augustine became a training center for the Coast Guard and served as an important coastal defense. The flat land, vast coastline, and Florida climate created the perfect setting for training and operations, especially aviation and amphibious landings. This blog unveils the military history of some of our most popular destinations and public works that honor those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom.
The former Ponce de Leon Hotel is easily one of the city’s most popular attractions as it’s celebrated for the marvelous Gilded Age architecture and rich history. Between 1941 until the end of World War II in 1945, the federal government occupied the building to serve as a training facility for the Coast Guard as well as the living quarters for up to 2,500 recruits at any given time. Tourism saw a steep decline during the war, but this contract helped to offset the loss.
Most of the Coast Guard’s women’s reserve, known as SPARs (Semper Paratus, Always Ready), lived and trained at the hotel. St. Augustine is considered the birthplace of the Coast Guard Reserve as its first graduates completed training here in 1941 with thousands more receiving basic and advanced training onsite.
Just a few blocks from Flagler College, Coast Guard recruits would march over to the Castillo de San Marcos to complete drills, boot camp, and other training. The Fort grounds were used daily with up to eight companies onsite most days. With permission from the National Park Service, four of the Castillo de San Marcos’ ammunition rooms were converted to classrooms and the courtyard set the stage for graduation ceremonies.
Tour the grounds to learn about the full history of the oldest masonry fort in America with ranger talks, educational videos, and reenactments.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a Coastal Lookout Building was constructed on the grounds of the Lighthouse. From here, “Coasties” could survey 14 miles to the horizon to seek out German U-Boats targeting cargo ships importing British supplies. In fact, U-Boat 123 operator Korvettsenkapitan Reinhard Hardegen mentioned St. Augustine’s “slender lighthouse” in his log while patrolling the Atlantic shoreline during Operation Drumbeat.
Visitors can still explore some of the barracks and the old jeep repair garage with a WWII exhibit inside. Make time for lunch at the WWII-themed Tin Pickle restaurant between climbing the tower and browsing the keeper’s house.
This memorial is located at the northeast corner of the Plaza de la Constitución, just next to the old Public Market facing the Bridge of Lions. The St. Augustine Pilot Club presented the monument in 1946 to memorialize the citizens of St. Johns County who gave their lives during World War II. Later, bronze plaques were added to the six-foot square, stucco-finished masonry shaft to include those from St. Johns County who died in Korea and Vietnam.
When coming into the historic downtown district of St. Augustine from the iconic Bridge of Lions, visitors will see an American flag flying high just to the right. Located just across the way from the American Legion, this memorial honors the young men of the city who served in the First World War from 1917-1918.
The memorial flagpole was designed by Charles Adrian Pillars, the city’s foremost sculptor, and some regard this as his most significant work. It was commissioned in 1923 by Dr. Andrew Anderson, a local philanthropist who donated several works throughout the city, including a fountain at the Governor’s House and the statue of Juan Ponce de Leon nearby. Six panels at the base of the flag outline significant dates and portraits of important people to the city’s history like Ponce de Leon, Pedro Menendez, and Henry Flagler.
Lakeside Park, located on A1A South behind the St. Augustine Beach City Hall, boasts almost a dozen carved sculptures by Thomas Glover White, a locally loved artist who passed in 2012. In his honor, more local artists donated several large works to the sculpture garden.
Just a slight right from the parking lot stands The Veteran’s Memorial, a circle of pillars, plaques, and flags to recognize and salute our local war veterans. Take advantage of the tree-shaded picnic tables and benches, then stroll over the boardwalk to enjoy the turtles and jumping fish.