by Nancy McCammon-Hansen
War and politics make strange bedfellows, so they say, but war can also bring about major changes to “business as usual” in a community. Such is the case of Fort Wayne during World War II. Close to a year ago we brought you a blog post about the work that Jeanne S. Miller and Lorraine H. Weier had completed after two years working on documents of the World War I era Allen County Council of Defense (COD). This year they turned their attention to World War II and so we asked them to share a little of what they learned about that time in Fort Wayne history.
On March 25, 1942, the “New York Times” published an article stating that the possibility of an enemy attack on the continental United States was slim at best. Distances were too great between the continents and even a one-way flight did not seem likely. The United States military did not share this view, nor did Fort Wayne’s residents, who knew that the many defense industries located here could make the city a likely target for an air strike or poison gas attack, especially after the bombing of London in 1941.
Protection of the city was the one and only purpose of WWII’s Fort Wayne Civilian Defense as opposed to the multiple roles that the WWI era organization fulfilled. By WWII, the national government was more centralized, with federal agencies and bureaus that could handle the work that local efforts had accomplished in the past.
Although no air raids against the city occurred, and the NYT was correct, the efforts of the 8100 unpaid citizen volunteers, in league with paid fire and police personnel, led to “many mythological barriers of religion, race and neighborhood prejudice” being “broken down by wide participation. The training and service united the people in their will to victory. It maintained their morale. It taught them discipline and initiative, and skills which would be of use to future generations should another nationwide emergency arise,” said Jeanne and Laurie when asked to reflect on the times and referencing the August 19, 1944 issue of “Civilian Front”.
Just as in WWI, leadership roles were filled by “captains of business and the professions”. Mayor Harry Baals was Director and Police Chief Carter Bowser Commander of the Control Center. Men dominated the group but two women did hold responsible positions: Margaret Ann Keegan chaired the Salvage Committee and Ann Waterfield the Red Cross Motor Corps. In all there were 4,137 wardens, 513 auxiliary police, and 532 auxiliary firemen.
“The enthusiasm for volunteering is illustrated by Mrs. Laura Trowbridge, 311 Brandriff Street, pledging her services, at age 101, to help civilian defense.”
Jeanne and Laurie said there is no clear answer as to why business leaders also held the leadership positions in the Civilian Defense organization, but they speculated that leaders in the group had already demonstrated their abilities and had the experience that would mean they would “naturally be selected for this new task which would require a great deal of organizational ability. The regular police and fire fighting forces were the core of the organization. They already had experience dealing with catastrophes and were most frequently involved in training volunteers to respond appropriately in the event of disaster. The desire to show the soldiers abroad, who were risking so much, that the people at home were likewise doing their part must have been an important motive. One might call this patriotism or service to country, or even self-preservation, but there were many volunteers who cooperated and served without complaint.”
Civilian Defense started on one’s home block. Each block had a warden and an assistant warden who, as residents of the block, likely knew most of the people who lived or worked there. These two inspected each home or building on the block and were warned by the mayor that no “Gestapo” methods were to be employed in fulfilling the task. Since no one knew when an emergency could arise, and because the wardens were trained to look out for the welfare of those in their area, cooperation was high. The WWII era Civilian Defense workers had no authority to investigate loyalty to the government and so prejudice against those of German descent was not as blatant as in WWI days.
In 1942, Civilian Defense conducted surprise blackouts in all parts of the city. Block wardens were responsible for making sure no lights were shining to make the city visible to enemy planes. Vehicles were drive without headlights and streetlights were also extinguished. Air raid warning sirens announced the commencement of a blackout and the approach of an enemy bomber. Minute by minute warnings came via radio. Fire and police were dispatched to find the location of bombs.
A Control Center coordinated transportation and communications. First aid stations, doctor, nurses and ambulances were made ready. As one of the most important and best documented activities of this time, military officials were in the city to determine the effectiveness of the efforts, naming Fort Wayne as an example to be emulated in other parts of the country.
Civilian Defense oversaw US government properties in the city such as 77,748 four-gallon fire extinguishers, 2,825 gas masks and 4,820 military steel helmets. Chicago, which had less need for helmets, somehow acquired more, upsetting our local officials.
The phone number “119” (no, that’s not a typo—it was 119) put the public in immediate touch with fire stations and the Control Center for the reporting of fires and bombs. Materials that the duo cataloged did not uncover where the idea of the “119” phone number originated.
Fort Wayne even “went Hollywood” with the production of the film “Bombs Over Fort Wayne”. Created and produced by Civilian Defense with assistance from WOWO, the film was a look inside the Control Center during a simulated air attack at the corner of Calhoun and Pontiac. After distribution to many other locales, Fort Wayne received a letter of commendation from James M. Landis, the national director of Civilian Defense in Washington, D.C.
Two copies of the script are in the History Center’s archives but no known copy of the film itself is in existence to the best of our knowledge.
All of the training for an air raid paid off in 1943, not when the city was bombed but during a major flood. Auxiliary firemen secured boats and hoses, rescued stranded people and animals, measured the river as it rose, flushed debris from streets and mapped damage.
Sometime in 1943, efforts switched to welcoming veterans home from the war and providing services to them. Families of soldiers were assisted in getting help from the appropriate social service agencies, a corps of chaplains was formed to help deliver the news of casualties to families, and work to provide solutions to postwar social and economic problems begun. As the threat of enemy air raids receded, a history of the war effort was written and donated to the Historical Society by the Fire Department.
A Veterans Aid Committee administered benefits to servicemen as late as July, 1945 and in a story in the April 8, 1944 edition of the “News Sentinel”, the wardens are quoted as saying, “’Let there be no forgotten soldier during or after the war’ is the objective of Civilian Defense in its program for service men and their families.”
Jeanne and Laurie both remember WWII, although from different perspectives.
Laurie’s family lived on a farm in Illinois. She recalls food stamps were needed for items such as beef, sugar and coffee. Gasoline was also rationed but farmers could get all they needed to run their machinery. Auto speeds were limited to 35 mph to save on gas. Feed sacks replaced fabric to make aprons and tablecloths. Laurie walked to school because there were no bicycles available for purchase.
“…I always walked down the country roads to my one-room school house, often seeing Stars in the farm windows of those neighbors who had children in the service. I had two cousins in the service overseas. Whenever family or friends gathered, the conversation would always begin, ‘Did you hear from Joe or Harold this week?’.”
Jeanne was a teenager at this time and remembers R. Nelson Snider, principal at South Side High School, announcing one morning over the loud speaker that President Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war. Jeanne’s father was chairman of Selective Service Board 98 and so conversation at home concerned the draft. The schools cooperated with the need for military personnel by allowing accelerated courses and early exams for those wishing to enlist.
“Occasionally a young solder or sailor would visit the school while on furlough before being sent overseas. How handsome they were in their uniforms. Patriotism in the school was high. We all knew about the evil Hitler and Mussolini and wanted to stop those dictators. We were less aware of what that would take. The war seemed far away and even exciting. Not until newspaper headlines and movie theater newsreels announced casualties, including the death of my first cousin, Charles Pask, did the enormity of it all strike home to me.”