Area played a vital role in training pilots

Munitions from military training exercises continue to be found on island

Plaque to commemorate World War II training exercises
WWI Training Commemorative Plaque - The plaque at 4250 Gulf of Mexico Drive recognizes Longboat Key for its pilot training services in World War II.

Longboat Key played a vital role in training fighter pilots during World War II, a fact many longtime residents of the island have known for years. In the 1940s Longboat Key was more desolate and Florida had ideal weather for training. Along the Sarasota and Manatee county line, the attraction wasn’t tourism, it was warfare preparation. What started as construction of a civilian airport under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the current Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) was transformed as one of three landing strips in the area used to launch the U.S. Army P-40s and P-51s fighter planes.

From different bases including the Sarasota Army Air Base, they would practice their bombing runs over Longboat Key with powder-filled bombs that a made more visual impact than explosion. Spotters could gage the accuracy of the pilots with the flurry of smoke the bombs made on impact.

The Venice Army Air Base, now the Venice Municipal Airport (VNC), was the second training ground for fighter pilots of four different planes who also practiced bombing runs over Fruitville Road area and Osprey locations. The third was MacDill Air Force Base (MCF) located in Tampa, still in use today as a military base of operations. The training was treacherous and pilots lost their lives with skip bombing practice runs. Skip bombing was used to attack ships by dropping the bombs at low altitude and have it skip across the water into the hull. The town and the Longboat Key Historical Society have commemorated its role in the war with one of seven historical markers at the Town Water Plant located at 4250 Gulf of Mexico Drive.

World War II artifacts are continually unearthed to this day. Occasionally 50-caliber shell casings have been found on the beaches. A P-40 canopy washed up on the shore in 1985. Contractors that sift through the sand during dredging and renourishment projects regularly find shell casings and rounds. Even live rounds have been reported. The Department of Defense has scheduled a munitions cleansing project for Longboat Key in 2047 after labeling the area a low-risk for hazardous rounds of ammo. Two years ago the U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched to waters off the northern tip of Anna Maria Island on reports of an unexploded ordnance.

The famed Lido Key Casino was also built starting in 1938 as a WPA project and opened in May of 1940. During WWII the casino was host to many military personnel relaxing from the rigors of training at nearby military bases. The casino was used as a lookout post for German U-Boat submarines during the war and reports of U-boats in Charlotte Harbor have been recorded. The casino lasted a scant 29 years before its demolition in 1969.

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