Boca Raton Army Air Field

Boca Raton Army Air Field

By Susan Gillis

At the beginning of World War II, Boca Raton Mayor J.C. Mitchell convinced officers of the Army Air Corps to move its technical school for radar training from Scott Field, Illinois, to Boca Raton. “Radar,” an acronym for radio detection and ranging, was a new top secret technology at the time. A small airport stood just north of the present Glades Road to the west of downtown. Here the land was relatively high and dry, yet close to the ocean and shipping lanes with a good climate for flying. The decision was made - Boca Raton was to be home to the Boca Raton Army Air Field (BRAAF), the Air Corps’ only airborne radar training facility during the war years.

The former Boca Raton “airport” quickly grew as hundreds of structures were constructed north of Palmetto Park Road to Yamato Road and from Dixie Highway to what is today the CSX (Amtrak) tracks. In addition, the military took over the Boca Raton Club for housing and classrooms from 1942 until 1944. Although hotels up and down the southeast coast of Florida were commandeered by the military for similar purposes, few were as luxurious as the Club. Eventually even the glamorous resort succumbed to overcrowding and wartime conditions. “Foxholes” covered the golf course and the antique furnishings were packed away.
BRAAF offered classes for electronics and radar officers and related specializations for enlisted men. Thousands of men took their radar training at Boca Raton, including all the Army Air Force’s flight crews. Pop-singer Tony Martin, some of the Tuskegee Airmen, the crew of the Enola Gay, and future astronaut Gus Grissom all served a brief time at Boca Raton.

Included amongst the servicemen who trained at Boca Raton during the war were a significant number of  African-Americans, who were commonly housed and trained in separate facilities during the days of segregation. Additionally, women of the Women's Army Nurse Corps and Women's Army Corps served at the BRAAF as nurses and in technical clerical capacities.

The impact of the presence of an important military facility on the little town of Boca Raton can hardly be imagined today. Although we do not know exactly how many people came to the base between 1942-1947, it was likely between 50,000-100,000 men and women were stationed here, in a town of about 750 residents. Every available room or house in town was rented. In addition to the enlisted personnel, as many as 1500 civilians were employed on the base at one time during the war years. The permanent population was a little over 700 individuals. Every available room or house in town was rented.

The Boca Raton Army Air Field continued to operate as a military installation until September of 1947, when a nasty hurricane struck Boca Raton, causing extensive damage to base buildings and widespread flooding. Most operations and personnel were transferred to Keesler Field and BRAAF became the much smaller Boca Raton Auxiliary Air Force Base until 1959. In 1949, the Town of Boca Raton purchased 2400 acres of the former air field property from the U.S. government for $251,284. Today the northwest section of the former Boca Raton Army Air Field is the site of two younger “installations” of great significance to the community: Florida Atlantic University and the Boca Raton Airport. And if you look hard enough, you can still detect some aged cracked asphalt – the “apron” of the landing strips, where B17s, B25s, and C47s once parked.