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Summer of 1953, far from a war

Life in the Tampa Bay area was far more innocent than today. Even then, with a war going on, Korea was a world away.

STEVE BOUSQUET
Published July 27, 2003

The sunrise of that day in 1953 foretold a typically sultry Sunday in Tampa Bay. Church bells summoned worshipers. Ceiling fans stabbed at thick, stagnant air.

Many hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, their windows covered with brown paper. Those who could afford to get away were in North Carolina.

Blacks and whites still drank from separate water fountains. Young couples necked at the drive-in. The area's only TV station, WSUN-Ch. 38, perched on the Million Dollar Pier in St. Petersburg, broadcast a snowy test pattern for hours at a time.

In Tampa Bay as elsewhere, few minds that day were on the events of Panmunjom, Korea, halfway around the world, where the signing of an armistice would bring a merciful end to the forgotten war.

"There wasn't a great concern about war," said Carmine Ranieri Zinn, 68, a St. Petersburg High Class of 1953 graduate whose thoughts that summer were on college. "It was going on. But we weren't really attuned to it."

People were tired of war. The fear of polio was a bigger concern than a "police action" in Asia.

Charlie Fuss, 73, a Tampa native who served tours of naval duty in Korea in 1950 and 1951, was struck by the indifference when he returned home on a leave.

"I came back and nobody paid any attention," Fuss said. "People were interested in other things ... building houses, raising families."

That last weekend in July 1953, a matinee showing of Dangerous When Wet, starring Esther Williams drew a good crowd to the Florida Theatre in St. Petersburg. The downtown movie house, after all, had a special attraction.

Air conditioning.

In Panmunjom, 14 hours ahead of Tampa Bay, carpenters had worked through a night of rain to finish the buildings where the armistice was to be signed.

The sun managed to break through the gloomy clouds, but the boom, boom, boom of the big guns in the background was a steady clue that the war was not over. Still, the carpenters weren't finished.

Gen. Mark Clark, supreme commander of the U.N. Command, had demanded that two Communist "peace dove" symbols be removed from the pagoda and that a new door be built on the building's south side so that the U.N. delegation wouldn't have to walk through "enemy territory."

Korea.

Barbara Shorter didn't like hearing the word in the summer of 1953. A proud recent graduate of Gibbs High School, St. Petersburg's only high school for blacks, she was headed to Florida A&M University for a degree in education.

War had tainted her joy. Her brother, David, had left home and joined the Army without saying goodbye to his family, disappeared in Korea, and was still missing that summer.

"He just signed up. He wanted to go," she said.

After the war, she said, the Army found his remains and honored him posthumously. The family held a funeral.

"I guess it was not a good summer for me," Shorter said. "It was different."

Indeed. Blacks were forced to ride in the back of city buses. Some parts of town were off limits.

"It was an almost automatic thing. Blacks sat in the rear," said Jodie Johnson, 69, of St. Petersburg. "We always thought the rear of the bus was the safest place to ride."

Readers of the St. Petersburg Times found segregated news for a segregated community. A page entitled "Local and National Negro News" reported black achievements on the athletic field and in beauty pageants.

In Tampa, black women took out two-line classified ads seeking work. "Colored girl wants 4 or 5 days' work. 43-0063," said an ad in the Tampa Morning Tribune.

"Being black, there were no jobs like you find now, in commercial or in retail developments," Shorter said.

Shorter found work that summer, cooking meals for a local family. Later that year, she enrolled at Florida A&M, earning a degree that would lead to a career with Pinellas County schools.

She retired this summer after 12 years as principal at Gibbs.

The armistice ceremony was only 30 minutes away.

Correspondents and cameramen took their places inside the pagoda. They were followed soon after by the military officials who would act as observers.

At 10 a.m. precisely, the two delegations entered the opposite sides of the pagoda.

On the southern side, a U.N. honor guard -- in white gloves, scarves and helmets, lined the walk.

The Communist soldiers on the north side were dressed in their fatigues and canvas shoes.

In the summer of 1953, pop culture spun at 45 rpm, on record players.

"Don't let the stars get in your eyes," crooned Perry Como.

Kids danced to Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page and Les Paul and Mary Ford.

"The waltz, the two-step, sambas, rumbas," recalled Carmine Zinn. "We took dancing as part of our phys-ed program. Everybody was taught dancing."

Girls wore Peter Pan collars and crinoline skirts. Boys chose dress shirts and khakis.

All was not sweetness and light. War dragged on. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair for selling A-bomb secrets to the Russians. Sen. Joseph McCarthy bullied his way through the fourth year of his anti-Communist crusade, and artists, actors and playwrights were blacklisted over the mere suspicion of long-ago associations with Communists.

In Brooksville, in Hernando County, books labeled "Communist literature" were briefly banned from view, except by county commissioners and members of the American Legion.

But for many who lived through it, the summer of '53 was a time of sweet innocence that seemed to transcend the more grave issues of the time.

"It was wonderful. Perfect," said Carol Sue Stevens, who grew up in St. Petersburg, the daughter of a downtown dentist, and was voted "Most Friendly" in her 1953 class.

Tampa was a blue-collar town then. It had seen a decline in cigar manufacturing, but tourism and the port brought economic promise. The city had a vibrant multiethnic mix of Cubans, Italians and blacks.

Tampa Bay literally teemed with life.

Charlie Fuss remembers cruising in his little wooden sailboat, Tampa Bay so clean he could see bottom in 15 feet of water. He used a three-pronged hook with no bait to snag mullet.

"There was no pollution and the water was clear," said Fuss, a Navy veteran and retired oceanographer.

Across the bay on Sunday evenings, the Lowe kids liked to eat hamburgers at Triplett's Drive-In restaurant across the street from St. Petersburg High.

"My parents I don't think liked it, but I was the oldest of four children," said Charlie Lowe, 65, a banker like his father. "My mother wanted to get out of the house on Sunday nights, and we all wanted to go to Triplett's."

Lt. Gen. William Harrison led the U.N. delegation, dressed in khakis. He sat at a table with nine blue-bound copies of the armistice agreement and a small U.N. flag.

At the other table was North Korean Gen. Nam Il, with nine maroon-colored copies before him.

The North Koreans and the Chinese, in full formal uniform, sat rigid and straight.

At 10:12 a.m. it was over.

The two men, still silent, stood and left through their appointed doors. Harrison spoke with reporters outside for a few minutes, then left in a helicopter for U.N. Advanced Headquarters at Munsan. Nam and his group drove away in Russian-built jeeps.

By 1953, Tampa Bay was showing the strain of growth.

St. Petersburg added as many new homes from 1950 to 1953 as it did the entire preceding decade. Paving streets took on new urgency, and 1953 was the year the city paved Central, from 34th Street to the bay, to accommodate all those DeSotos, Packards and Studebakers.

People wanted to enjoy prosperity.

Thousands of veterans flocked to the Gulf Coast, drawn by abundant sunshine, warm winters and new homes. A Times cartoon depicted a GI clutching a map of Pinellas County with the words, "the good life."

Orange groves in Palm Harbor were being cleared for brand new subdivisions, and streets and sewers were being installed for the giant Meadowlawn development in St. Petersburg.

Real estate ads beckoned veterans with low-cost "GI loans."

A two-bedroom model home in St. Petersburg's Woodland Heights sold for $9,950. For an additional $2,000, a buyer could have central air and "automatic thermostat controls."

Veterans also enjoyed free health care at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Today, the bay area is home to tens of thousands of Korean War veterans. But for many of them, the mood of that summer, and the widespread indifference to the Korean War, still hangs heavy in their hearts.

"The Korean War was the silent war," said Louie Adcock, 72, a lawyer who grew up in St. Petersburg, joined the Army, and went to Seoul soon after the armistice was signed, 50 years ago today. "Nobody cared about it unless they had someone over there."

At 10 p.m., the boom, boom, boom stopped.

Quiet settled over the hills and into the valleys across Korea.

Gen. Arthur Trudeau, commander of the 7th Division, picked up a shell casing as a souvenir.

He later told author Max Hastings: "I was happy it was over. It was apparent that all we were going to do was sit there and hold positions.

"There wasn't going to be any victory. All we could do was go on losing more lives."

- Times staff writer Brady Dennis and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Other sources include the New York Times, Tampa Sunday Times, Tampa Morning Tribune and Clearwater Sun; St. Petersburg Museum of History; Tampa Bay History Center; Pinellas Peninsula, by June Hurley Young; St. Petersburg, Once Upon a Time, by Del Marth and Martha J. Marth; St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950, by Raymond Arsenault; Timelines, by Paul Dickson; Florida State Archives. Details of the armistice signing and the final hours of the war are from The Korean War, by Max Hastings; Truce Tent and Fighting Front, by Walter G. Hermes; and Volume II of The United States Army in the Korean War series from the Center of Military History.

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