During World War II, Miami Beach transformed from a tourist haven to military training ground. Tens of thousands of troops passed through South Florida to prepare for combat.
“America’s winter playground, home of the press agent and the bathing beauty, has gone to war,” LIFE reported in its December 18, 1942 issue. “…instead of tourists in gay sports clothes, young men of the U.S. Army Air Forces, dressed in drab khaki, drill on the green golf courses and live in hotels. For now Miami Beach is a vast army training center.”
The military was drawn to Miami for much the same reasons that vacationers have been for decades—they liked the climate and seaside location, as well as flat terrain. Within a year of the United States joining World War II, the army’s Air Forces (what it was called before the Air Force became a separate branch) had leased “almost all of the 332 resort hotels” in Miami Beach, according to LIFE.
As one history tells it, the transformation worked well, even if the effect was sometimes jarring: “The hotels,” a reporter wrote in 1943, “make good barracks. The baby pink and eggshell furniture is stored now. Three-decker army bunks jam the pastel-tinted rooms, dance floors, night clubs.”
LIFE’s photos, taken by Myron Davis and William C. Shrout, capture the juxtaposition between Miami’s picture-postcard surroundings and the seriousness of the Army’s mission. Soldiers cram into baseball stadium stands to take a course on chemical warfare. Future mess hall cooks learn their trade in resort kitchens. Palms trees sway in the background as soldiers are pushed through the exercises meant to toughen them up for combat.
The few pictures that might be mistaken for classic beach vacation photos are the ones of shirtless soldiers rushing into the water. In those shots, there is no hint of the hell they could be headed for, once they were done in Miami.
Army recruits exercised on a Miami Beach golf course in 1942; the buildings in the background were used as classrooms.