In the Sarasota-Times, references to Sarasota forming its own fighting force began as early as November 12, 1914. According to that day’s issue, Colonel J. Hamilton Gillespie, “known for years as the ‘golfing mayor of Sarasota,’” had recently begun drilling soldiers from Sarasota to join British forces in France.1 This article provided no details as to what kind of force these men would constitute. Over the next year, however, the paper published occasional calls for Sarasota men to join a local naval militia.
On May 25, 1916, the Sarasota-Times called for volunteers with the article, “Five More Men Needed To Make Sarasota’s Quota In The Florida State Naval Militia Complete.” The force described in this article was no longer a group formed by Colonel Gillespie with the goals of joining the British. Instead, Sarasota’s goal of forming its own naval militia came with the state’s larger efforts to participate in preparing for potential United States involvement overseas. The paper characterized the efforts by writing, “Florida seems to have been caught in the wave of enthusiasm for preparedness which is sweeping the country.” After describing the need for more men, however, the article ended with, “It will be unfortunate if Sarasota must acknowledge that a rumor of war is all that is required to disorganize a movement which means so much to all young men in this city and vicinity.”2
An unwillingness to acknowledge the power of such a rumor must have taken hold, because on June 22, 1916, the paper celebrated the official induction of fifty-two men into Sarasota’s naval militia. Not only did Sarasota form its naval militia, it also managed to be the smallest city in the country to do so. The Times expressed the pride of Captain Purdy, the Militia’s lieutenant, at this fact. In its description of the induction by Florida’s Naval Secretary, the article stated, “Captain Purdy then made a short talk to the boys and told them that he was very glad to think that a town the size of Sarasota–with 2,500 population–and with such few young men, could be able to get up such a fine looking company of young men, and that he was proud to be their lieutenant.”3
Beyond relating the sentiments of Captain Purdy, the paper itself expressed a proud sentiment of its own when it wrote, “The organization of this division is another evidence of the spirit which pervades this community.”4
Less than a month later, on July 13, the paper announced the impending arrival of the militia’s gear.5 The group continued to drill until it was called to Charleston, South Carolina in April 1917, days after the United States declared war on Germany. The Tampa Tribune reported on April 7 that Lieutenant Purdy was instructed by the attorney general to report with his men at the Charleston Navy Yard. The Tribune illustrated the excitement of the group by writing, “one and all are enthusiastic to be in the thick of the fray with the Germans.”6
Updates on the militia’s status came in the form of a letter to the Sarasota-Times. Lieutenant John W. Philip, Captain Purdy’s second in command, wrote the paper from the U.S.S. New Mexico, at sea, on August 20, 1918. At the time of writing, Lieutenant Philip was no longer with Captain Purdy. In fact, many of the militia members had been split up. He expressed a strong desire to rejoin Captain Purdy, reporting that he applied for transfer five times to no avail. Lieutenant Philip was able to reveal how the militia fared when they first arrived at camp in Charleston, SC. He wrote that the group,
Rapidly made for itself, amongst the rest of the Camp, and also amongst the officers of the regular service at the Yard, the reputation of being the best Naval Militia Division in camp. This in all ways and things appertaining to Naval Service.
You may well imagine what Purdy and I thought. As far as I have been able to find out, the boys have lived up to this reputation wherever they have gone.7
The Lieutenant provided updates on the few individual soldiers he knew about. Though there is no more available information on the duty of the sailors, we do know that all but one, Horace W. Mink, came home to Sarasota alive and well.
Fig. 1. “Sarasota Naval Militia in Black Uniform, 1917” photograph, courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources, Sarasota, Florida.
Fig. 2. “Sarasota Naval Militia in White Uniform,” photograph, courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources, Sarasota, Florida.
Fig. 3.”Two Interesting Letters From Sarasotans Now In The Service,” Sarasota-Times, September 5, 1918, courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources, Sarasota, Florida.
- “Col. Gillespie Drilling Soldiers,” Sarasota-Times, November 12, 1914.
- “Five More Men Needed To Make Sarasota’s Quota In The Florida State Naval Militia Complete,” Sarasota-Times, May 25, 1916.
- “Smallest City in the U.S. To Have a Deck Division Of A State Militia, And That Is Sarasota,” Sarasota-Times, June 22, 1916.
- “Naval Militia,” Sarasota-Times, July 13, 1916.
- “Sarasota Naval Militia Leaves For Charleston,” Tampa Tribune, April 7, 1917.
- “Two Interesting Letters From Sarasotans Now In The Service,” Sarasota-Times, September 5, 1918.