Sarasota Naval Militia

By | March 29, 2014

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sarasota-naval-militiaMore than a year before the United States entered World War I; Sarasota began to organize a naval militia division. In March 1916 an announcement in the Sarasota Times invited young men to meet at the Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club to become part of the Florida Naval Militia. By that time, the U.S. Navy Department had begun to provide equipment, uniforms, rifles, tents, and boats to states for the formation of such groups. These would provide already-trained men when and if the United States entered the European war.

Within a month nearly sixty men enlisted in the group, making Sarasota the nation’s smallest city (population approximately 2,500) to form a military unit from its own population. Warren F. Purdy, with twenty years of active and reserve military experience, commanded the group. Initially, the militia held weekly drills upstairs over Turner’s store on Main Street. In May, Governor Park Trammel approved the application for the militia and on June 16, 1916, Capt. John Bland administered the oath of allegiance to each of the members and the Third Division of the First Battalion of the Florida Naval Militia was established in Sarasota. Along with participating in weekly drills, the men underwent physical examinations and measurements for uniforms and were vaccinated for typhoid and smallpox.

The local militia increased their drills to twice a week to prepare for two weeks in July on a Navy-sponsored training cruise, but threat of war with Mexico prevented any ships from being freed for such training. In August the men’s uniforms arrived, having been sent by steamship from New York. According to the Times, each man received three white work suits, one white dress suit, one navy blue undress suit, one navy blue dress suit, jerseys, knit caps, leggings, a black silk ‘kerchief, and two white woolen blankets.

That same month the militia acquired an armory. The Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club had fallen on financial difficulties and failed to maintain interest payments on the loan for their building. Located on the northwestern end of Gulf Stream Avenue and with a long dock into the bay, the building was made available for the militia. Its thirteen rooms and basement provided needed space for equipment, recreation, and drills. (The militia is shown in front of the Yacht club in the above photo).

On April 4, 1917 the United States entered the war. The next day the Red Cross Auxiliary of the Sarasota Woman’s Club sponsored a patriotic meeting at the Virginian Theater of Main Street in honor of Sarasota’s naval militia. Patriotic speeches and songs filled the evening. Within hours Lt. Purdy received orders for the militia to report to the Charleston Naval Yards. On Easter Sunday morning, April 8, the city’s churches met for a joint Easter service at the Virginian. The Times reported a mixture of patriotic support for the militia and the country’s war efforts and the more traditional Easter message. That afternoon, large crowds gathered in the rain to see the militia off at the Seaboard Air Line train depot on Lemon Avenue near Main Street.

For the next year and a half, the Sarasota community supported its men in the war effort. After the Armistice was signed, all but one of the more than 250 men who had enlisted returned home.

Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive!


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