Boca Raton: The Secret Weapon That Won WWII

Apr 29, 2018

Discover how a small Florida town called Boca Raton and a tiny device turned the tide of World War II in WLRN’s  original production.

In the first year of World War Two, after the fall of France, Britain stood alone.  Hitler's U-boats operating in so-called Wolf Packs ruled the Atlantic, sinking American ships carrying essential supplies to the beleaguered British while President Franklyn D. Roosevelt hesitated to enter the conflict directly, believing Churchill would surrender in the face of the Nazi siege, as had the French.

Civil Air Patrol photograph of a ship torpedoed off Palm Beach during WWII. Circa 1942
Credit The Historical Society of Palm Beach County

As Britain prepared for a German invasion, Churchill made a bold gamble. He dispatched a delegation to the United States to share his country's top scientific secrets, including a key technological breakthrough that, if developed in time, would turn the tide of battle, both at sea and in the air. 


Scientists fine tune radar data. Circa 1945
Credit MIT Museum

The biggest secret was a small device, no larger than a fist, which would transform radar from a defensive into an offensive weapon, dooming the Wolf Packs and giving Allied bombers the precision tool they needed to destroy the Nazi war machine.


Working with cavity magnetron, a device used to compress radar for use in war planes. 1941
Credit MIT Museum

Churchill's gambit would not only convince Roosevelt that Churchill could be trusted to fight on, it would also thrust South Florida into a pivotal role in the conflict and make the small town of Boca Raton the base for a new battle front that would prove decisive.


Boca Raton Army Airfield, a closely guarded secret base, circa 1942.
Credit Boca Raton Historical Society

The atomic bomb may have ended the Second World War, but historians now agree it was radar that won it. Exactly how has been classified as top secret until now.  This is an unknown chapter in the Sunshine State's rich and diverse history told by WLRN, your South Florida Storyteller station.  


Lt. Col. Manuel Chavez USAF (R), taught cadets to fly at Boca Raton Army Air Field. 1943
Credit Manuel Chavez

Local legend has it that two German spies holed up in the vacant Sanborn house and spied on the Boca Raton Army Air Force Base.  They vanished after a neighboring house reported seeing lights signaling out to sea.  When authorities arrived to investigate, they found evidence of habitation and a hasty exit in the shuttered home.  


Sanborn home where German spies took up residence.
Credit Boca Raton Historical Society


BONUS: WWII Army training in Wakulla Springs and Carrabelle Florida 

Footage from FLORIDA MEMORY, an online archival resource from collections housed in the State Library and Archives of Florida. (NO AUDIO)

In Wakulla Springs Army troops practice maneuvers through cypress swamps, make a human chain across the river and use weeds and Spanish moss for camouflage. In Carrabelle soldiers practice jumping from the deck of a rusty derelict ship. 

Correction: The original version of this story mentioned the Historical Society of Palm Beach. The correct name of the organization is the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.