A forgotten plaque by a parking lot names some of the Volusians who ventured from their small town into a world at war.
At Breakers Oceanside Park, near the stairs to the parking lot, is a flagpole. At the base of the flagpole is a bronze plaque set in coquina rock with stars carved into it. It’s easy to miss and is marred by a long scratch. It was commissioned in the 1920s by a long-ago disbanded club called the Mother Service Flag Club of the Peninsula. It has the names of men from the Daytona Beach area who served during World War I.
It’s not a complete list. There are only 73 names there. The Florida Archives in Tallahassee has 271 induction cards on file for men from the cities of Seabreeze, Daytona and Daytona Beach that would later form Daytona Beach. Black soldiers and sailors aren’t on the plaque. In the 1920s, even war memorials were segregated.
There are some notable local names there: David Sholtz, who would become governor of Florida during the depths of the Great Depression; Robert Wilder, who would write novels like “God Has a Long Face,” and “Flamingo Road” (the movie version starred Joan Crawford as A Woman With a Past); Fred Langworthy, longtime News-Journal outdoors writer; and Rubert Longstreet, noted educator and Florida bird expert for whom Longstreet Elementary is named. (His name is misspelled. It was “Rubert” not “Rupert.”)
“The war that will end war,” as it had been optimistically called at its start in 1914, ended 100 years ago today on Nov. 11. It’s not a widely acknowledged anniversary anymore. Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I, morphed after World War II into Veterans Day, a day honoring all veterans.
And the living memory of the Great War died out as the generation that fought in it died off. The last veteran of World War I in Volusia County is believed to be Ernest P. West, who died in 2000 at 104.
West turned 21 in Tennessee the year the United States declared war in 1917 and volunteered for the 114th Field Artillery Regiment where he served as an artillery spotter. He survived a poison gas attack and had a narrow escape when a shell that landed near him failed to explode.
"It was a miracle because if it had exploded I would have been all over the place,” he told The News-Journal in 1999.
The year before he died, the French deputy consul general drove up from Miami to the Emory L. Bennett Veterans' Nursing Home to present West with the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
“Over 4 million went over. A lot of them died and many were taken prisoners. Today we want to show our deepest esteem to survivors like Mr. West," said Deputy Consul Didier Samson at the nursing home ceremony.
"I thank you," West replied.
Slackers and Home Guard
During the war, the Daytona Beach area was a tiny place — the 1920 Census would count 6,841 people in the three towns — but a surprising number were among the more than 42,000 Floridians who served in the armed forces.
And there was a lot of community pressure to do so. “In wartime, the most damning tag we can tie to a man is the despised "slacker," declared a 1918 editorial in the Lakeland Evening Telegram.
The DeLand News even printed a list of area men who failed to report to the draft board.
“In the list of delinquents from Volusia County, reported by the selective draft board and published in the DeLand News, the names of only two Daytona white men were given and both unjustly,” the Daytona Morning Journal scolded, noting that one of the men was in the army and one failed the army physical. "Thus, through no fault of their own, two patriotic and worthy young men are advertised to the world as slackers.”
Some men who stayed at home joined Florida’s Home Guard. Because the state’s 2,000 National Guard soldiers were brought into national service, the Legislature created the Home Guard in 1917 to take over civil defense duties. Halifax Home Guard and New Smyrna Home Guard companies formed in 1918 and disbanded soon after the war’s close.
The Halifax Home Guard was particularly active. It organized an encampment and parade for units around the state on the Labor Day holiday in 1918. Photos at the Halifax Historical Society show group shots of the unit, parades and guardsmen marching around a tank.
Tanks were first used in combat only two years before. The sight of one on the dirt roads of a little Florida backwater must have been like seeing a spaceship.
Toll of the dead
The first casualty from this area didn’t serve in the U.S. military. He got into the war early by serving in the British Royal Flying Corps. Frederick Sheppard was an aircraft mechanic training in Toronto. He died Jan. 26, 1918, according to Veterans Affairs Canada records.
“Weakened by the injuries resulting from a fall in an airplane which collapsed as the result of tampering by German agents, Sheppard fell a victim of pneumonia almost on the eve of his departure for Florida on furlough to complete his convalescence,” The Daytona Beach Morning Journal reported.
News of the first Daytonan killed in battle did not reach here until after the armistice. “Russell Warner was the first actual resident of Daytona whose death in action has been reported, but there have been others who laid down their lives in camp preparing to fight the battle for the freedom of the world,” The Morning Journal reported. He was one of 26,000 soldiers killed in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
“We have been unexpectedly fortunate in that our toll of the dead is very small,” the newspaper observed.
And, indeed, local losses were light. Something you can confirm by wandering to the war memorial in Riverside Park in downtown Daytona Beach. There’s a plaque there with the World War I dead cast in 1921. It has seven names.
Warner’s name is there, and so is Sgt. Allston Dryer of Seabreeze, an instructor at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.
“One of the disappointments of his life being that he was not allowed to see service in France,” according to his Morning Journal obituary in December 1918. Dryer was ill with the Spanish flu for five days before he died.
Dyer, 22, died in the second wave of the flu pandemic. More than 100,000 Americans perished of the flu in October 1918 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 675,000 Americans would die before the flu outbreak subsided in summer 1919.
Nor was the pandemic limited to military bases. By the end of 1918, 4,100 Floridians had died. Flagler County’s most prominent leader, Isaac Moody, died of Spanish flu on Dec. 17, 1918.
Moody served in the Legislature and was instrumental in the formation of the county the year before. Some had proposed naming it Moody County in his honor.
'Glad thrill' of war's end
It must have seemed that no sooner were men drafted, mobilized and sent abroad, Home Guard Units trained and war bond drives got underway than it was all over. Throughout fall 1918, The Morning Journal carried word of peace feelers and assured readers that German units were collapsing and routed.
“Daytona evidenced its patriotism yesterday afternoon when the entire city turned out to celebrate a report that peace had been accomplished. The report was untrue, but the celebration was an inspiring evidence of the interest of the people in a victorious peace,” a Morning Journal editorial said on Nov. 8, 1918, putting the best light on things.
When the armistice finally was announced and confirmed by the newspaper’s Associated Press wire, the town went wild.
“Seabreeze and Daytona Beach entered most enthusiastically into the peace celebration yesterday,” the Morning Journal reported. “Automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, baby carriages, buses and every form of locomotion carried flags and more flags, and every form of noise was tolerated just so it expressed the glad thrill all felt at the close of the world war.”
The beachside celebration started in the morning and moved across the bridge to downtown. Businesses closed for the day. The Home Guard, encamped by the Burgoyne Casino in present-day Riverside Park, organized itself into a parade and guardsmen, cars, bicycles, flag-waving kids and dogs trooped up Beach Street and around downtown.
“Headed by the Halifax guards, the line formed at the casino. Crowded in behind the guards came hundreds of cars all decorated and dressed up,” the newspaper reported. The parade lasted until the crowd got tired and people peeled off for lunch.
In contrast to World War II, which brought dramatic changes, a major economic boost and an influx of new people to the Daytona Beach area, World War I had surprisingly limited effects here. The Home Guard units disbanded, patriotic memorials went up around 1920 and life resumed.
And the 73 men on the all-but-forgotten flagpole plaque near the Daytona Beach Pier got a glimpse of the bigger world and brought it home with them.