The Coastal Star

Around Town: Film recalls Boca airfield’s vital contribution to victory in WWII

ABOVE: Fewer than 700 people called Boca Raton home when the airfield dominated the area that is now home to FAU.  
BELOW: A promotion for the WLRN documentary.  Photo provided by Boca Raton Historical Society

By Thom Smith

The Calusa and Tequesta were here first, perhaps more than 10,000 living along the coast when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513. But European diseases, tribal warfare and slavery had reduced the population to a few hundred by the time surveyor Thomas Rickards bought 50 acres on Lake Boca Raton in the 1880s.
    Even after Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway opened in 1895, Boca Raton was hardly an international destination.
    From those early days, Boca’s status ebbed and flowed — first driven by agriculture, then by tourism as Addison Mizner turned saw palmetto and scrub pine into a paradise around the Boca Raton Resort and Club.
    The real estate boom didn’t launch until the 1960s as entrepreneurs linked to the likes of Arvida and IBM saw financial gold in the scrub.
    For some people the inspiration first occurred two decades earlier, during World War II.
    Even before Pearl Harbor, the military had begun building bases, and South Florida’s flat terrain and year-round warm weather were ideal for aircrew training. Despite a population of barely 700, Boca had an airport. It had lots of vacant land, much of which was owned by the Japanese-American farmers at the struggling Yamato Colony. It also had a ready-made headquarters — the Boca Raton Resort.
    Said Susan Gillis, curator at the Boca Raton Historical Society: “Before the war, the town had two traffic lights and two bars. It’s changed a little.”
    Boca Raton Army Airfield became the nation’s only development and training center for a new technology that had been developed by the British: radio detection and ranging — or radar.
    During the war, the base grew to 800 buildings housing more than 16,000 troops and employing more than 1,200 civilians, yet it operated in the strictest secrecy.
    After the war, however, word spread. Many veterans returned, some earning degrees at Florida Atlantic University, which now occupies the land and some of the remaining buildings.
    The airfield eventually showed up on the radar of Deerfield Beach journalist and author Sally Ling, whose book Small Town, Big Secrets: Inside the Boca Raton Army Air Field during World War II caught the attention of Miami public television station WLRN.
    The station has produced a documentary, Boca Raton: The Secret Weapon That Won WWII.
    Before the TV debut in early November, the film was screened Nov. 1 at FAU, where several airfield veterans proudly repeated a popular phrase: “Radar won the war; the A bomb ended it.”
    By the way, Gillis appears in the film.
    For more than two decades, Delray’s Frank McKinney has been building and/or remodeling big, fancy, expensive houses, usually on the beach or no more than a stone’s throw away.
The Manalapan monster — three stories, 14 bedrooms and an 18-car garage on 5.5 acres with 520 feet of beachfront — is still available at $135 million or a reasonable offer.
    In Ocean Ridge, 19 Tropical is a slightly more modest offering. Built on one-sixth acre on the fourth lot from the beach, this “micro-mansion” includes a 650-square-foot master bedroom, an LED-illuminated living reef aquarium wall, an office surrounded by glass and water and the latest in smart-home technology. Asking price: $2.95 million.
    A few others are still for sale, but McKinney has announced that his next project, on the 18-foot-high coastal ridge in South Palm Beach, will be his last. He introduced the finale at a double-barreled, invitation-only full house Oct. 24 at the Lake Worth Playhouse.
    Barrel No. 1: The house will feature five bedrooms (four oceanfront) with a 1,270-square-foot master bedroom that rises 31 feet above sea level, ocean-view glass elevator, cantilevered deck, oceanfront kitchen and 50-foot disappearing edge pool. Preliminary price is around $20 million.
    Given the usual McKinney amenities perched atop the highest elevation in southern Palm Beach County, he’s confident he’ll find a buyer.
    Barrel No. 2:  He’s leaving the luxury housing business. He’ll continue his commitment to build affordable housing in Haiti — he’ll start his 26th village next year — but will pursue his endeavors as a full-time writer. After three real estate books and a children’s fantasy recounting his daughter’s imaginative adventures as she walked to and from school for 10 years, he has turned to inspiration.
    The Tap dealt with accepting the responsibility and gaining confidence to handle what one prays for. Early next year, The Other Thief, billed as “a collision of love, flesh and faith,” marks his entry into Christian romance.
    “It’s a pretty racy book,” McKinney claims. “It’s sort of a combination of Fatal Attraction and The Passion of the Christ. It’s a novel, but it combines the real-life fall from grace of a high-profile Christian singer and his progress toward redemption and mercy and grace. Secular readers will enjoy it for all the reasons they should, and the Christian reader will enjoy it for the biblical references.”
    Haiti also will benefit, as each $20 preorder will provide 200 meals to children in McKinney’s Caring House communities.
    No word yet, but you can bet the first family will return to Mar-a-Lago for Christmas  —  about the same time that other D.C.-based group hits town. No, not the Florida congressional delegation, the Limbaugh-Coulter axis or the Tea Partiers; we’re talking about those notorious Capitol Steps.
    For several years the spare-no-politician comedy group, many of whom are former congressional staffers, has made Palm Beach County its winter home. Capitol Steps will begin the campaign New Year’s Eve with two shows at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, then hit Delray Beach’s Old School Square on Jan. 4 and 5 and make frequent campaign stops across the South Florida countryside. From March 2-18, they’ll filibuster at the Kravis Center.
    The Steps, which proudly “put the MOCK in democracy!”  just released a new album, Orange is the New Barack. Surprisingly, they have never played Mar-a-Lago. “I have honestly never heard if President Trump is a fan of the Steps, dislikes us, is completely ambivalent towards us or even knows we exist,” Manager Mark Eaton said from Washington. “We have not been invited, yet.
“We certainly aren’t visiting uninvited — certainly not on actors’ salaries! But if we get an invitation, we will certainly go!  (hint, hint).”
    The snowbirds are flocking back and the regulars are arising from their nine-month summer stupor. Time for festivals.
    All-event passports for the 11th annual Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival, Dec. 14-17, are sold out, as are several individual festival events. Tickets do remain for individual events at the likes of Buccan, PB Catch and Cafe Boulud. Chefs include those with local ties such as Lindsay Autry, Daniel Boulud, Clay Conley and Michelle Bernstein, plus Food Network stars Robert Irvine and Jeff Mauro, James Beard Award nominee Elizabeth Falkner and Chopped winner Giorgio Rapicavoli. (Tickets at

Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks of the Tedeschi Trucks Band will perform Jan. 14 at the Sunshine Music Festival at Mizner Park in Boca Raton. Photo provided

Worthy of advance note are the Sunshine Music Festival, Garlic Fest and SunFest.
    Again headlining Sunshine, set for Jan. 14 at Mizner Park, will be the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The performance will be its first local show since Derek Trucks’ uncle and Allman Brothers bandmate Butch Trucks committed suicide in late January.  
    Also on the bill are Medeski, Martin and Wood; Galactic; Hot Tuna; Foundation of Funk, and The Suffers.
    For those who prefer their music a bit more Vegas-like, at the other end of Mizner Park that night, Clint Holmes performs at the Cultural Center’s RRazz Room.
    What used to be the Delray Beach Garlic Fest is now for all of South Florida. For the second year, it will take over John Prince Park in Lake Worth from Feb. 9 to 11. The move was necessitated when the Delray Beach City Commission decided the city was suffering from event fatigue. The Garlic Fest was scratched in favor of the Delray Beach Open tennis tournament.
    Bruised but not broken, organizers of “the best stinkin’ party in South Florida” looked northward and vowed to make it bigger and better. Being a celebration of all things garlic, the food and a host of chef competitions return. A second stage has been added to accommodate the likes of Hoobastank and the Donna Summer Celebration headlined by Summer’s sister, Mary Gaines Bernard.
    For the first time, fans who want to stay on site all weekend can reserve RVs from Giant Recreation World; chairs are now permitted thanks to the extra room, and cash or credit cards will be accepted at all food and beverage vendors. Tickets, $27 to $100, are available at
    Of course, the biggest party is SunFest, although it’ll be different — only four days instead of five. Ironically, that’s good news: Festival managers believe they can use the money saved from daily overhead to bring in more and better acts. The party will run May 3-6.
    On Dec. 16 comedian and The View stalwart Joy Behar will bring her comedy to FAU’s Carole & Barry Kaye Performing Arts Auditorium.
    On a more refined level, Symphonia Boca kicks off its season Dec. 10 at St. Andrews School with a concert that will be especially memorable for guest conductor Gerard Schwarz, who will be celebrating his 70th birthday. But in an unusual turnabout, he’ll be the one bringing the gift — a world premiere of his composition for cello and orchestra.
    Solo work will be handled by Gerard’s son Julian on cello and Jeffrey Kaye on trumpet. The concert begins at 3 p.m. Ticket holders who would like to learn a bit more about the scheduled works can take part in a pre-concert discussion with the performers at 2 p.m.  
    “Slidemap” is a device that integrates a motorized stage used in 3-D printers, microscope imaging, and machines learning algorithms to distinguish tumors as cancerous or benign, increasing accuracy and speed of diagnoses.
    Sounds like something that might have come from MIT or Stanford. Wrong. It was developed by Devin Willis, a ninth-grader from Florida Atlantic University High School, who in October placed fourth in 3M’s Young Scientist Challenge in St. Paul, Minn.
    Devin hopes his innovation will enable faster, more accurate and affordable diagnoses, especially in developing countries where access to medical professionals is limited.
    Taking first was Gitanjali Rao, a Colorado seventh-grader who is developing Tethys, a low-cost method to quickly test water contamination and decrease health effects from lead exposure.
    Wheelin’ and dealin’. Last December when Wheel of Fortune’s “Wheelmobile” contestant search stopped at the Broward Mall in Plantation, Boca Raton resident Cathy Murray, a Palm Beach County firefighter, and her longtime friend Staci Hill, a Davie middle school teacher, tried their luck.
    They made the tryout show at the mall and then waited. Finally, in September, the call came to go to California to compete in “Girlfriend Getaways” week. They had to keep quiet, however, until the show aired in early November, but now they can crow.
    Guessing the phrase “juicy roast & avocado toast,” they beat the two other teams, winning $30,100 and a trip to Puerto Rico (maybe they can help with hurricane recovery while on the island!), and in the bonus round, they correctly guessed “gulping down coffee” for another $35,000.
    Both plan to use their winnings to remodel their kitchens, and Murray is looking forward to a family trip to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.

Has Lane Kiffin has changed the Owls’ luck? Photo provided

Who woulda thunk it!
After years of subpar performances and losses in its first two games this year, the future hardly looked bright for Florida Atlantic University’s football team. But from the start, new coach Lane Kiffin remained steadfast, sticking with a mantra older than the game itself: one game at a time.
Kiffin arrived with a mixed bag of credentials, having blown gigs with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Southern Cal before a rehabilitative stint as offensive coordinator at Alabama that included a national championship. But the Owls are flying. A 52-24 romp over local rival FIU and a victory at Charlotte extended their winning streak to eight.  The Owls won the East Division title in Conference USA with a game to spare.
Looking back, the opening losses to Navy (42-19) and Wisconsin (31-14) don’t look so bad. It’s the 34-31 defeat by Buffalo in game No. 4 that still sticks in Kiffin’s craw.
A big win was the 69-31 thrashing of the not-so-Mean Green of North Texas back on Oct. 21, but that’s all out the window in the rematch for the conference title on Dec. 2. Still — one game at a time.                 

Meanwhile, for the first time in team history, FAU won a few votes in the coaches’ Top 25 poll after the FIU game, and regardless of the outcome of the championship game, the Owls will play a bowl game.            
Conference USA has affiliations with six bowl games: Boca Raton, Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla in St. Petersburg, Bahamas, R&L Carriers New Orleans and Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas — plus a conditional spot in the Camping World Independence Bowl in Orlando if the Atlantic Coast or Southeastern conference can’t fill the spot. But with another win over North Texas, FAU might be able to write a better ticket.
 So might Kiffin. Even as his good fortune continues, he still insists on pursuing one opportunity at a time. But no doubt big schools will come calling, schools with much more history and a lot more money than FAU.  But his corner includes two major figures: Athletic Director Pat Chun and President John Kelly. Chun comes from Ohio State, Kelly from Clemson. Both are accustomed to winning. And where else can a fan see the ocean from the stadium?

    Thom Smith is a freelance writer who can be reached at

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