In honor of Veteran’s Day, an in-depth glimpse at new PBS documentary titled ‘A State at War: Florida During WWII’ (Part I)

November 6, 2021
By T Michele Walker

It was September 1941 and Leading Aircraftsman R A G Cleave, a British student pilot training at the Lodwick School of Aeronautics in Lakeland, Fla. was getting ready to take flight. Little did he know that this was the day he would become a prisoner of war.

As Cleave took off in his Stearman biplane, he received instructions to land due to an approaching thunderstorm. He was then directed to fly toward the foul weather to remain upwind of the airfield. Acknowledging his orders, Cleave flew toward the storm and promptly disappeared.

The Civil Air Patrol and the Coast Guard were notified as they coordinated search parties. They failed to locate any trace of the aircraft.

A few weeks later, a trawler working the fishing banks off the coast of Alabama located the wreckage of an aircraft that contained the serial number of the missing Stearman. The report was official. The RAF student had crashed into the Gulf of Mexico and drowned. No trace of the pilot was found, and a further search was canceled.

Here’s where the story gets good.

At the end of the war in Europe, interrogation of released RAF prisoners of war revealed a prisoner with an unusual story. Verification of this story proved that this was the young pilot who disappeared in 1941 in the Stearman.

Circling what he thought was the same position, he ran out of fuel and was forced to ditch in the Gulf of Mexico. He extricated himself from the wreckage and floated in the Gulf until an hour later when a German U-boat that witnessed the crash appeared and plucked the pilot from the water. Taken aboard the submarine, he eventually was taken to Germany where he was interned at a Luftstag prisoner of war camp.

The story is just one of many thrilling tales that are included in the upcoming PBS documentary titled “A State at War: Florida During WWII.”

The production company is Sarasota-based 82 degrees. The producers are Chip Nusbaum and Craig Worsham and the narrator is the legendary journalist Bill Kurtis. Working in partnership with Florida Veteran’s Foundation, the research, and preparation for this important documentary has been in the works for years.

Nusbaum and Worsham have their work cut out for them. Take the story of the RAF airman, for example. As in any story that has been passed down for 79 years, it is riddled with holes and half-truths, making it difficult to get to the truth.

After some investigation, the U-boat Museum in Germany claims that activity in the Gulf didn’t begin until April of 1942. If Cleave went missing in September of 1941, the dates don’t line up. And upon closer look, the weather was noted to be fine flying weather the day he disappeared. Was it a case of fickle Florida weather? And if there was a U-boat off the west coast of Florida that day, why would it have fired on an aircraft with U.S. markings? We weren’t at war at that time.

But before you dismiss the entire account, it is interesting to note that there are corroborating stories, such as Sgt. Waldo S. Cleveland. He claims to have met someone in France who knew somebody who picked up a former POW who claimed to be flying a routine flight over the Gulf when he was shot down by a U-boat and sent to a German POW camp.

It’s a lot of speculation and muddy facts, but when there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Imagine sitting on the beach in Boca Grande. It’s a delightfully sunny day and you are going for a swim when you look to the horizon and see a periscope from a German U-boat. Seems farfetched? Think again. German U-boats sank dozens of Allied ships along Florida’s Gulf coast while Floridians observed the carnage from the beaches.
From U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico to landmines littered through our aquatic backyard, it’s clear that the history is rich with stories that deserve to be preserved.

Florida played a major role in WWII and the stories are plentiful. Because the storytellers are getting older, time is of the essence in documenting this rich and barely tapped history.

Some of the veterans and civilians who are sharing their personal Florida war stories with Nusbaum and Worsham are Clinton Burns who is 99 years old, Bob Bloomfield who is 97 years old, and Sally Wetherell, 92 years old.
Funding and support are always a factor when producing a documentary. “As you can imagine, given the age of some of our interviewees, funding is a major focus for us,” said Nusbaum.

Stay tuned for part two of the series when we learn the Florida WWII story of abandoned landmines in the southwestern Gulf coast and the shrimp boat that ignored the warnings as recently as 2009; how sunscreen was invented in Florida during WWII as well as frozen orange juice.

If you would like more information about the documentary, please contact Craig Worsham 941-323-4331 or Lew Wilson President and CEO Florida Veterans Foundation 850-488-4181 Extension 1.

See next week’s Boca Beacon for Part II.