The Dark Days of 1942: Upper Valley Residents Aided the War Effort at Home

  • (Valley News - Shawn Braley) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News illustration — Shawn Braley

For the Valley News
Published: 4/21/2017 9:58:46 PM
Modified: 4/22/2017 12:05:43 AM

All the war news seems to be bad for the Allies. It is so bad one dares hardly think what the next batch of news may bring forth,

The United Opinion, Feb. 20, 1942

The year following the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was a year of uncertainty for America. It was also a year of patriotic dedication and sacrifice as the war effort evolved, in the Upper Valley and across the country, 75 years ago.

This account includes information taken from The United Opinion, local town histories and research by Orford historian Art Pease as well as online sources and interviews with elders who lived locally during the period.

In a radio fireside chat, President Franklin Roosevelt said “There is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States, every man, woman and child, is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives and in our daily tasks.”

In anticipation of involvement in an ever-spreading conflict in Europe and Asia, the United States took action in 1940 to mobilize. Construction of military hardware, ships and combat gear was expanded and the first peacetime draft was instituted.

These actions affected local residents. Hundreds of men volunteered or were drafted for military service. Many more took defense jobs to help meet the President’s goal of “out-producing and overwhelming the enemy.”

The newspaper’s front page listed draft and induction status for local men. Town correspondents submitted columns full of the news of military assignments, furloughs, promotions and citations. Added to these were reports of men and women home for a break from war plants such as Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut.

This departure of men from the area created a shortage of workers for mills, mines and farms locally. As in earlier wars, area women took up the additional burden.

At one point in 1942, several towns listed the number of men in uniform as follows: Ryegate, Vt. 34, Fairlee 25, Orford 43 and Piermont 15. These numbers increased significantly by war’s end with Bradford, Vt. having 209 in service and Ryegate and Newbury, Vt. about 120 and 175, respectively. Each town also had women in service.

Occasionally, the paper would print excerpts from letters sent to families by service personnel. Unable to reveal their stationing or give details of actual combat, writers would hint at living conditions, give thanks for gifts and ask for prayers and support for their efforts. Among the letter writers were Fairlee’s Layton Blake and Lois Ackerman, Bradford’s Allen Hutchinson and Orford’s Francis Bean.

The paper listed the mailing addresses of local service personnel and families and friends sent letters, knitted items, toiletries and even maple sugar. Layton Blake mentioned that he had received a package and 51 letters all at once, with the package having been sent six months earlier.

An article described a postcard sent to a St. Johnsbury family from their son Michael Economou taken prisoner by the Japanese after the fall of Wake Island in December 1941. He told them he was being held in the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp and assured them that he was “well and healthy.” He was later removed to a camp in Japan and held for a total of 1,361 days before being liberated.

Charles Pierce, of Orford, was not so fortunate. He was reported missing in action after the fall of Bataan in 1942 and died of malaria in a prisoner camp in 1943.

As American industries began to turn out massive numbers of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, substantial amounts of metal were required. Knowing that “junk makes fighting weapons,” scrap drives were held throughout the nation.

Locally, “attics, cellars, garages and barns have yielded unexpected treasures.” Scrap piles were located near the library in Orford and the railroad station in Fairlee. Everything from old cars, farm equipment and household appliances to a cannon and a century-old iron coffin joined the pile. In October, it was reported that Orange County residents had collected 160 pounds of scrap per person, with Bradford among the leaders with 214 pounds per person.

In the fear that village lights along the Connecticut River might guide invading planes toward possible targets, trial blackouts were held locally. Woodsville held one in December 1941.

Bradford held its first blackout in early April 1942. There were warning blasts from the whistles at several mills along with the continuous ringing of a church bell. In August, both New Hampshire and Vermont held statewide drills, with area towns participating. In November, Bradford had its first daytime mock raid with three planes buzzing the village creating simulated casualties and damage.

While few really expected an actual attack, they were determined to be prepared for “whatever may come.” That preparation also helped to create a sense of participation by the civilian population. The paper encouraged volunteers to be trained and ready in the case of emergency. One front page article read “American is calling! Take your place in the local defense effort.”

Additional articles gave details for dimming headlights, creating blackout curtains for homes and businesses and foregoing traditional outdoor holiday lights. They encouraged residents to know the rules, take simple precautions for the safety of family and property, and, above all, “Don’t lose your head. Panic hurts more people than bombs.”

Hundreds of residents manned local observation posts watching for enemy aircraft, trained as civil defense and Red Cross workers and participated in the local unit of the State Guard. Under the command of Maj. Irwin Worthley, of East Corinth, this military unit included area men who were exempt from regular military service.

Mass media became an important component of the war effort. Radio news broadcasts and newsreels that accompanied film showings gave the public some of the details. The Office of War Information carefully censored the details of battles and war strategies to keep the information from the enemy.

During 1942, most of the military action involving American forces was in the Pacific. News of the fall of the Philippines and the continued retreat of Allied Forces in the Pacific was widely covered. The United Opinion joined other magazines and newspapers with regular columns reporting news of the war.

Sometimes there was a delay of several weeks before specific details of battles were made available to the public, perhaps more so when defeats were experienced. The editor talked about the problems of “scant information about our Pacific fleet” but went on to say that secrecy was essential. In late 1942, news of actions in Europe and North Africa was included, especially as Allied forces notched victories over German troops.

Bradford’s Colonial Theatre, Woodsville’s Orpheum and the Fairlee Theatre showed motion pictures during 1942, with the Colonial increasing to two nights per week to provide additional local entertainment. For the relatively small price of admission, viewers could escape the realities of the war through screwball comedies and trips of fantasy and adventure. Films took on the added tasks of raising morale and patriotism and informing the public about the reasons for the conflict.

In 1942, supplies of consumer products fell short, leading to civilian rationing by the War Productions Board. Nonessential items such as automobiles, refrigerators and other products requiring large amounts of metal were banned. There were shortages of rubber products, oil, sugar, butter, meat and coffee.

Everyone received a ration book with stamps to use when purchasing rationed items. Even when a family had the necessary coupons, the commodities were not always available. My mom recalled going early and standing in line at a Fairlee market hoping to get a cut of meat for supper and coming away with none.

Gasoline rationing had a major impact on families, with pleasure cars allowed only three gallons of gasoline a week. A 35-mile-per-hour speed limit was implemented nationwide. Some events were cancelled or downsized, and the tourism industry suffered in both states. Walking or biking became more popular and train travel became a necessity.

For the homemaker, the paper offered recipes to conserve or preserve food and tips on the planting of Victory gardens. Amid a shortage of fabric, “patriotic chic” offered patterns for shorter skirts.

To meet the increased costs of military operations and other government services, the War Finance Committee sold war bonds that tapped into personal savings and financed over 50 percent of the increased cost of operating the federal government. Businesses, schools and organizations joined in the efforts to sell victory stamps and bonds and local towns often exceeded their assigned quotas for both bonds and Red Cross drives.

Changes in the conflict had a major impact on the emotions of the public toward the war and their own roles in it. The following excerpts from The United Opinion reflect those evolving emotions. Right after Pearl Harbor the editor wrote “It may be a big war, it will be a difficult war, but we believe we have what it takes to win.”

In January 1942, the editor warned against “too deep gloom” and went on to prophesy: “In the end Japan can’t win, but there is going to be a lot of china broken before we get this bad boy of the Rising Sun properly spanked.”

As news of the first air attacks on the Japanese homeland were revealed in May, there was concern that the public was “too optimistic.” At the same time, the editor wrote “We know we’re not to have an easy victory, but there seem to be a definite feeling that things are getting better.”

Later that year the “apprehensive” fear of something less than total victory still prevailed for many. There was hope that the “dark days of the summer” would “stiffen the determination to win.” But at same time, articles began to appear about hopes for a lasting post-war peace and the threats of possible economic downturns.

As the year drew to a close, war news still “shoved other stories out of the headlines.” It was reported that “the number of American dead, wounded, missing, interned and captured” in the first year of the war had reached 58,307. One of those dead was First Lt. Raymond S. Wood, of Woodsville, who died on Dec. 30 in the battle for Guadalcanal. His remains were missing until early 2008.

The newspaper printed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s prediction that 1943 would be a “stern and terrible year” and that the war was by “no means approaching its end.” In fact, it would take almost three more years before the Allies achieved unconditional surrender from Germany and Japan. Those were three years of struggle on all fronts, military and home. But from the dark days of ’42, the gloom was lifted and there was, increasingly, a victorious light at the end of the tunnel.

Larry Coffin is president of the Bradford Historical Society. An earlier version of this article appeared in theBradford Journal-Opinion.

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