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Sarasota County's Bombing Ranges in WWII

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Mark D. Smith, former County Archivist
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Sarasota County's Bombing Ranges in WWII photo

The state of Florida proved to be the ideal place for the U.S. Army to train bomber and fighter pilots during World War II. Florida in 1940 had a statewide population of 1,900.000 and Sarasota County had a total population of 19,200. The U.S. Army came here for the sparely populated areas and the fact that they could train year-round due to Florida's climate.

To help in the training of these pilots, gunnery, firing and bombing, ranges were established in remote sections of Sarasota County and on Longboat Key. Sarasota County also had two U.S. Army air bases established, one located where the present Sarasota-Bradenton Airport is and the present Venice Municipal Airport.

The Sarasota-Manatee Joint Airport Authority had begun building the present day airport with funds and assistance from the WPA in 1939-40. With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, the U.S. Army finished building the airport as the Sarasota Army Air Base for use as a training field.

The 97th Bombardment Group was the first to use the airbase in the spring of 1942. During the following year the base was turned into a fighter base and at the peak of the field's operations, more than 3,000 personnel were stationed there.

At the Venice Army Air Base the primary mission was to serve as a finishing school for fighter pilots. The trainees were introduced to P-39s, P-47s, P-40s and eventually to the P-51 North American Mustang aircraft. After the end of war in August of 1945, both bases were deactivated and were turned over to local authorities.

There were four bombing and gunnery range sites in the county that appear on the USGS maps. The Fruitville Gun Range was located about one mile north of present day Fruitville Road, just north of the Sarasota International Trade Center and Tatum Ridge Golf Course. There were two U.S. Army bombing ranges, one was located about three miles east-southeast of Osprey, close to I-75 today. The other was located less than one mile south of U.S. 41. These bombing ranges, located in the interior of the county, were huge targets for the pilots to train.

The pilots practiced mainly with bombs containing white and black powder which would produce a big cloud. Spotters would report on the accuracy of the drop and make recommendations for improvements. As late as 1957 the outlines of the target areas cut out of the woods could still be seen in the historical aerials of the area.

Pilots flying P-40s and P-51s first used the Army Firing Range, located just north of the Sarasota-Manatee County line on Longboat Key. They would practice dive-bombing and gunnery tactics. In 1943 the target range was used for training by fighter planes. Planes from Sarasota, Venice, Mac Dill in Tampa and well as other planes stationed in nearby counties used the range. An emergency landing strip was located just north of the range.

The training was dangerous and accidents occurred. In 1943 alone, two planes crashed into Longboat Key, killing three pilots and two pilots were killed in a mid-air collision over the key.

Today the bombing and gunnery ranges no longer exist and many have been developed. Occasionally, shell casings wash up or are dug up near these sites to remind us of Sarasota and Manatee county's contributions during World War II.