Monday, January 22, 2018

Media, PA during World War II

A fascinating story of what it was like to grow up in Media, PA during World War II.  Special thanks to Stan Woerth for sharing this story.



Growing Up in World War II
By JOHN J. HILFERTY

          Twelve miles west of center-city Philadelphia, Pa., sits the small town of Media, a leafy suburb known for its towering curbside oaks.  Sixty years ago, Media, then a borough of about 5,000 persons, fit the sociological index of Middle America in the most literal sense. Officially created in 1850 to serve as the county seat, it was pinpointed on the Delaware County map smack in its middle.
 
         Our compass back then pointed to worldly opposites.  To the east, a bustling urban mass, Philadelphia, which was at that time the U.S.'s third largest city (Media is still the last stop on the trolley line), to the west, farms and horse pastures of rural America, known as "Wyeth Country", to the north the estates and manors of the Main Line, where some of our schoolmates' parents were employed as chauffeurs and maids, and to its polar opposite to the south, an industrial beehive anchored by the gritty little city of Chester on the Delaware River.  Many of our parents earned a living there.
 
         We stake our claim to being special on the simple fact that no other generation was born in the Great Depression and nurtured during World War II.  We look back and laugh at the first 13 years of our lives, from birth to war's end, knowing now that the economics of those years of sacrifice shaped us into what we are today.
 
         Our parents knew the difference between good times and bad, but generally their offspring didn't.  The Depression hit the elders hard and the sacrifices and doubts of the war years even harder, but for children born in the early 1930s, starting at ground zero, we suffered our ignorance in a state of relative bliss.  We were economically poor but didn't know it and we say that they were great years to be alive.
         Nearly everyone back then can remember where they were when the news broke on the radio on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.  Some of us were on our living room floors listening to the Philadelphia Eagles-Washington Redskins football game on the radio and reading the funny papers.  We asked, “Where is Pearl Harbor? And I will never forget Pop saying, “We're at war.”
 
         As kids, we were caught up in World War II with a mix of fear and excitement.  Compared with the Depression years, the war was a time of boundless energy, with Delaware County's heavy industries working around the clock for the war effort.  Many of our fathers, and then our mothers, were employed in those bustling mills and plants, mostly located along the Delaware River in Essington, Chester and Marcus Hook. 
Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. in Tinicum made gears for submarines, steam turbines, gauges and other instrumentation for the ships of war.  General Steel, Penn Steel and H. H. Ward Co., owned by the father of a classmate, Dick Ward, were major suppliers of steel and sheet metal for the companies making war implements.  Baldwin Locomotive Works made Army tanks.
 
         Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., where at least a dozen fathers of classmates worked, produced oil tankers.  Each one that was launched was a major news event, with bunting, marching bands and huge crowds on hand.  On the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, the launching of a tanker, the S.S. Vincennes,  that was christened by the mother of our classmate, Betty J. Nelson, made headline news.
 
         Alice Virginia Robinson Nelson was, according to the Chester Times article, the first black woman to christen a ship on the East Coast.  (operatic singer Marian Anderson of Philadelphia had christened a ship on the West Coast prior to that.)  Nelson was chosen as the wife of James Wilson Nelson, who at 55 was then the oldest member in point of service in his department at Sun Ship's new Fourth Yard.  (At least a half-dozen Class of '50 graduates counted fathers and mothers who worked at the shipyard.) With two sons in the Army and a third employed as a Sun Ship crane operator, the Nelson family war effort was significant.  James Nelson had been employed there for 22 years and was an assistant foreman on the third shift.  “I'm about the happiest man in the shipyard,” Nelson said.  “And don't you think my missus don't appreciate it.” 
 
         Just south of the shipyard was Scott Paper Co., which packaged military toilet kits.  At the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant, where my father worked as did the fathers of classmates Jay Mullin and Barbara Lee Thomas McKay, the parking lots were full of Jeeps and Sherman Tanks that were assembled there.  The big refineries of Sun Oil Co. and Sinclair provided fuel for tanks, trucks and planes.  The Viscose plant made material for parachutes, and wartime ships featured anchor chains made by Baldt Anchor Chain and Forge.
 
         There were frequent simulated “air raids”, with wardens, usually your neighbor, like classmate Shirley Ottey's father, patrolling the streets to make sure that houses and businesses were honoring the “lights out” rule, one that was not taken too seriously, particularly as the war effort grew stronger and actual threats of foreign aerial bombardments lessened.
 
         “We would sit quietly on our grandmother's porch until the Air Raid Warden asked us to go inside,” recalled Bob Brubaker, later in life an Air Force colonel who flew combat helicopters in Vietnam.
 
         Most families put up dark curtains over their windows and kept some inside lights on.  Our blackouts became “brownouts”.
         ”Since my father had poker games going on the weekends, he bought pitch black blinds to pull down over the windows so he could continue to play poker!” noted Vince Gabany, a retired electrical engineer living in Ramona, Calif.
 
         On Sunday mornings, I accompanied my father to his Civil Defense Air Spotter's post in a field in Upper Providence.  Wielding binoculars and feeling immensely important, I searched the peaceful Sunday skies from a wooden shack, memorizing from a CD manual the silhouettes of every aircraft involved in the war, including Japanese Zeros and Mitsubishis and the German Messerschmitts and Junkers.
 
         During the Fall of 1942 through the Spring of 1943, the Army had established a perimeter of anti-aircraft defenses around industrialized areas, like Chester and Wilmington.  Dick Ward recalled that as a part of this network, "an anti-aircraft searchlight battery was moved in and set up in our back field in Chester Heights. The men were housed in eight-man squad tents. When the huge searchlights would inadvertently shine in my bedroom window, it would turn night into day!  I can still remember the perpetual mud and the deeply rutted field after they departed, and recall finding numerous spent carbon rods from the searchlights which would turn up with each subsequent spring plowing."
 
         Though we were far from the front, the urgency of the global fighting was brought home with mile after mile of Army truck convoys moving day and night on Baltimore Pike (U.S. 1) which ran through town.  The National Guard Armory on State Street in Media served as a staging barracks for soldiers on their way overseas and was wall to wall with Army cots.  Across the street from it was the USO in the Philadelphia Electric Co. building.  Often, companies of soldiers drilled on Edgemont Street near the Media athletic field and in a field behind the Bowling Green trolley stop.  Many a soldier had Sunday dinner with families in Media.  My cousin, Frank Dolby of Salisbury, Md., was one of those.  A quiet, polite young man, he was killed during the North African campaign. 
 
         After the D-Day invasion of France, we began learning the names of small towns and villages in Europe.
 
         "We had a map on the wall at home of North Africa and Europe, and followed the advance of my favorite cousin, who was with Gen. Patton's troops," said Pat Hanley Hoopes.  "Our Bill was killed in Sicily the summer of '43.  I lost my interest in the map but my Dad kept tabs on Patton until they stopped his advance.  Bill received the Congressional Medal of Honor."
 
         War or no war, we'd spend weekends at the Jersey Shore or beaches in Delaware.  Very often, patches of oil were washed up from tankers and Victory ships torpedoed at sea by offshore Nazi U-boats.  Neil Carney remembers Coast Guardsmen patrolling Bethany Beach in Delaware with watch dogs: “During the day we would play in the machine gun nests that they built along the beaches.”  In many public places, posters would warn of espionage: “A slip of the lip can sink a ship!”
         Mostly though, our hardships consisted of sacrifice.  Commodities like sugar, butter, meat, gasoline and cigarettes were rationed and sometimes so scarce that long lines at grocery stores were created whenever something like real butter went on sale.  People who were caught hoarding items in their basements acquired bad reputations throughout the neighborhood, and those who drove their cars to the movies were singled out for their lack of patriotism.
 
         “No gas, no tires, no travelling around,” recalled Delores De Nenno Twaddell.
Popular cigarettes like Chesterfields, Lucky Strikes, Old Golds and Philip Morris were seldom available to civilians.  Our fighting men and women had first priority, so civilian smokers satisfied their habits with inferior substitute brands like Rameses, Fatimas and Wings. My father would send me to the School Pharmacy to wait in line on the sidewalk whenever there was a rumor that Chesterfields were being sold.  
 
         Elders tried and, in most cases, failed to discourage us smoking  by warning that the habit "will stunt your growth".  Cancer and heart disease were not a factor.  We smoked secretly.  Shirley Dannaker Tompins wore a black, leather glove so that "no one would ever smell the smoke".
 
         Leather for shoes was also scarce during the war.  Shoemakers had a steady line of business putting on half-soles and a composite heel that was glued on instead of nailed.  I will never forget the bawling out I got from my parents when I lost two heels from my “school shoes” while playing in a field one day.  Sneakers, which contained a lot of rubber, were also hard to get.  We wrapped our old Keds with adhesive tape to make them last “the duration”.
 
         Some of the girls in school made their own clothes.  Mary Ferguson Mozzoni recalled using buttons instead of almost non-existent zippers on the clothes she made.
 
         When I asked my 1950 Media High School classmates to recount particular incidents associated with the war years, a surprising number recalled the advent of oleomargarine as a substitute for butter.  “Mushing that horrible yellow tablet in the oleo.  Ugh!” said Nancy Cochran Gill, referring to the lard wrapped in cellophane with a so-called “magic button” that provided coloring when kneaded with the oleo.
 
         By far, the major panacea to the war-time food shortages was the Victory Gardens that sprang up in back yards all across the country.  By 1943, someone had figured that 20.5 million little garden plots produced at least one-third of all the fresh vegetables on American tables.
 
         So valuable were the gardens that someone got the bright idea to protect them --- in Media, at least --- from hordes of rabbits that were decimating them.  Members of the Media Boys Club were recruited to live trap the rabbits in wooden traps.  Then the Pennsylvania Game Commission collected the rabbits and deposited them outside the town limits.  We were paid 75 cents a rabbit, a lot of money in those days.  I know also for a fact that many of those rabbits were trapped in the fields and woods beyond town limits where they were more plentiful, only to be released in the same locales where they originated.  The kids who engaged in the practice became, in effect, pint-sized war profiteers.
 
         Despite the sacrifices and unusual adjustments, it seemed our childhood years were filled with bliss, saddened only by the news of a family losing a son or husband.  The homes where Gold Star flags hung in a front window were revered as much as any house of worship.  Few families could escape the days of bad expectations and for impressionable young children that we were, our fears were sometimes strong and real. 
 
         Basil Bonsall recalled the day his teacher in the two-room school he attended in Aston learned that her son had been shot down and killed over Germany.
 
         Elton Richards remembers with relief that his older brother had survived the devastating Battle of the Bulge.
 
         And for Helen Horn Mosser, "It was not a fun time in my life.”  On two occasions during the war her family received news that her father, Technical Sgt. John Horn of the 33rd Signal Construction Battalion made up mostly of Bell Telephone Co. workers, was missing in action.
 
          “I grew up fast,” said Helen about the months of worry that ended only when “we started getting letters from him.  We found that he wasn't missing at all, even though all his belongings were sent home.  He was in a hospital in Germany.”
 
         Today Helen laughs:  “He came home in one piece!”
 
         Being so young, our worst fears were the imagined ones, conjured up mostly by the war movies.  I remember a movie actor named Conrad Veidt who made a career playing sneering Nazi Army officers.  We learned a new word --- "atrocity" --- and started hearing about the brutalities committed by the Nazis and the Japs.  We became apostles of hatred.  The fear and loathing we had for the enemy was acute in those days.
“If I saw Japanese people in the movies, I was petrified,” said
Betty Lou Cauthorn.
            My own personal brush with the enemy occurred one day on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I spent many weeks in the summer with my mother's relatives.  German prisoners of war were used to pick crops on the vegetable farms there.  I recall vividly running away when a group of them yelled at me from a passing truck.
 
         Though the war was an unnatural preoccupation with everyone, childhood games and sports went on as usual.  Whereas today athletic fields remain virtually unoccupied except for organized events, in our war-time youth there was no Little League and very little recreational guidance by adults.  It is amazing how inventive bored kids can become.  There seemed to be never a daylight hour when a game of some kind was not going on at local ball fields.  Classmate Johnny Scala organized games between "the Catholic kids" of Nativity and the boys from Media Elementary.  We played tackle football, sans pads and uniforms.
 
         We had our own baseball teams and when players were scarce, played “scrub” baseball, a game that required no more than a batter, pitcher, first baseman and one or two fielders, each moving up a position after an out.  Stick ball was popular in confined spaces, like the middle of a street or back alley.  It required a sawed-off broom stick and half a tennis ball.  Over the garage roof was a home run.  We played step ball on the streets in front of our houses and mumblety-peg with pocket knives on the front lawns.  Girls skipped rope and played hop scotch.  After supper, boys and girls alike filled idle moments with games of kick the can, hide and seek and turny tag, waiting for the Jack and Jill ice cream truck to come down the street, and when truly bored, we would take turns closing our eyes and try to identify various makes of autos by the distinctive sounds of their engines as they went by.  They were sweet times. 
 
          In the evenings, the adult baseball leagues took over the ball fields, and in those pre-tv days, they drew large crowds.  An occasional wartime treat was cricket matches played by men from the Caribbean islands who had been brought to the states to work on the railroads.  Our once isolated world began to broaden.  It puzzled us to be hearing Bahamians and Jamaicans speaking a King's English and borrowing books from the Media Free Library, which was located behind the police station and fire house on State Street.  The cultural differences were brought home profoundly one evening when one of the islanders was hit in the face with a line drive from a baseball while sitting behind first base.  Some of the men who helped treat the victim explained to his friends that sitting where they were was dangerous unless they kept their eye on the ball. 
 
         On occasional Saturdays “War Drives” were organized, where we took anything metal --- pieces of iron, copper, aluminum, old pots and pans --- to a lot next to the Media Theater in exchange for free movie passes.  Saturday matinees could last as long as four hours and include a couple of cartoons, a short-reel chapter of Captain Midnight, Captain Marvel or Superman fighting the Japs or Nazis, a “Pete Smith Specialty”, newsreel or “The March of Time”, several trailers or coming attractions, then the “main attractions”, sometimes a double feature with cowboys Hopalong Cassidy, or Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or Bob Steele and comedians Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy.  Quite a fare for 10 cents.
 
         Besides the war drives for metal, we contributed to the effort by saving our pennies and buying war stamps.  There were 10-cent stamps and 25-cent stamps.  The really thrifty could buy a War Bond for $18.75, redeemable in seven years for $25.
We occasionally profited from our war effort by dragging wagon loads of scrap and newspapers to the local junk yard, earning a penny a pound, which we divided up equally among however many kids did the collecting and hauling.
 
         Whenever a group of draftees and enlistees were marched to the train station to go off to basic training, a great parade of people would accompany them, usually led by Crosby Smith, who was a Legionnaire and borough tax collector, highly visible around town because of his many civic endeavours, including playing Santa Claus on occasion at Snowden's Department Store.  Large, heavy-set and bald, with a fat cigar in his lips, his resemblance to Winston Churchill was often noted.
 
         Classmate Bert Horton, a professor of political science at Delaware County Community College and a retired Marine Corps colonel, recalled making small change running errands for the soldiers stationed in the Armory, and remembers forever one particular occasion running as fast as he could away from a local sailor.
 
         "It was Halloween, Mischief Night," said Horton.  Jimmy Raemont, Billy Worrall, Vince Gabany and I attached a bag of garbage, mostly coffee grounds to a clothesline and swung it over a branch of a tree.  Then we hid behind a fence next to the sidewalk, with one of us holding the other end of the rope.  The target, which was totally coincidental, became Jimmy's older sister, Mae, and her boy friend, Pete Boyd, who was home on leave and wearing his "winter blues" Navy uniform.  After the bag dropped, smothering the couple in coffee grinds, orange peels, egg shells and whatever else, Pete discovered the enemy, jumped the fence, chased us through the ball park and halfway around East Media before he finally caught Jimmy.  Say no more!"
 
         The grinding war effort, both at home and in the front lines, exploded in a climactic celebration on VJ-day.  In every town people gathered, yelled their lungs out and danced in the street.
 
          For those of us just entering our teens, the lessons of the war and its victory were of ordinary people working together and achieving a goal.   In 1941, when the war began, the U.S. and allies were in a deep hole, with more than half our Navy destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and in Europe, only Great Britain held the fort against the Nazis just 12 miles away in France.  On VJ-Day, we learned something about beating the odds.  It was an hysterically happy day, filled with the release of pent-up emotions.
 
         But little did we know on that day how much our world was changing.  The habits developed during the war forecast the future, particularly for women.  My mother was one of many World War II women who got jobs outside the home.  She worked in the war bond department at Sun Ship and would remark many times later that they were the happiest, most independent days of her life.  Paul Raudenbush's mother, a college graduate, hit a glass ceiling as assistant sales manager at the Sun Roc Co., which made water coolers.  “She was told that she could only rise so far” because of her gender, said Raudenbush.
 
         We greeted high school in the first peace-time year with a melange of war-time reminders.  Some newly hired teachers discharged from the service, like football coach and guidance counselor Herb Rathey, wore civilian neckties --- sometimes loud pastels --- with Army shirts.  Surplus jeeps were parked street-side next to students' cars, the most popular of which were '41 Fords with souped up V-8 engines.  Boys were eschewing their crew cuts in favor of pompadours and wore white tee shirts with the sleeves rolled up.  Levis were in fashion and turning up the collar of your shirt was very cool, as were argyle socks and penny loafers.  Girls wore pleated skirts, sweaters and saddle shoes.
 
         During the war, it sometimes seemed that sailors and soldiers in uniform outnumbered civilians on the streets.  Now the GIs were in mufti and back to work; some stood idly on street corners as members of the “52-20 Club”, the veterans' benefit program which a lot of working people criticized as harboring the indolent.
 
         A few ex-GIs, such as George Brangan, who had quit school to enlist in the Navy, joined our class.  He was three years older than us and had been in the Class of '47.  There was during the war years such a shortage of men in the town that boys in high school who were volunteer firemen were allowed to run out of class and up the street one block to the fire department whenever the siren blew.  They were the envy of their schoolmates and a consternation to teachers, who abhorred the policy, especially when the siren blew in the middle of a test.  But, the youthful firefighters were caught up in the pride of “doing their duty” in a civilian situation where there weren't enough men available to protect the community.
 
         “It seems to me those of us born in the '30s were programmed differently, very much so, than the kids of today,” said Neil Carney.  Sacrifice was a virtue high on every one's list, along with some other moral codes.
 
         "All of our teachers stressed integrity and honesty" is the way Lew Boughner remembers his school years, and during World War II, "the willing sacrifice of whatever it took to hasten the conclusion of the conflict."
 
         We can't claim that ours was a better generation simply because what we learned from parents, teachers and older neighbors were some traits involving integrity and honesty.  But, we never felt entitled to anything unless we worked for it.  No one got a free ride.  Because we grew up in periods of shortages, and learned to do without, there's a pinch of frugality and narrowness in our backgrounds.
 
         Stan Woerth, a retired engineering professor at Temple University and member of the Class of '51 who provided substantial background for this article, asked me recently if I retained any of those old habits.  We both discovered that we tend to make do with what we have, shunning the newer model, and if it weren't for our wives, our clothing probably would be forever threadbare.
 
         But if nothing else, we were just plain lucky to have been born in the Great Depression and raised in World War II, back-to-back periods of strife and deprivation, tests of the human spirit, and through it all, as noted by classmate Nancy Cochran Gill, it was "such a kind, gentle world."
Nancy was the first girl I ever dated.  Sixth grade.  I had to beg my mother to let me wear long pants instead of my school knickers.  We walked to the movies in the pouring rain.  Nancy's mother lent me an umbrella.  Nancy was a foot taller than I.  By the time we got from Sixth Street to the Media Theater, my arm --- from holding the umbrella so high --- was ready to fall off. 
 
         That was no great test of the human spirit, and naught to do with honesty and integrity.  It was just about growing up in an age with some remnants of chivalry.  Today, Nancy would be the one holding the umbrella.
 

8 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. My dad served in the Army in World War II and worked at Scott Paper in Chester until 1978. We grew up in Upper Providence, in a little 1949 cape cod house, a few doors from the official border of Media.

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  2. My years of life Media.1929 A lot of hard times we thought was just life. Sandy Bank school when war broke out 1941.Did all in your story for the war. Entered the Navy 1945.Returned to Media 1966 .

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  3. A story and time to be cherished. God Bless!

    Today we have a society that isn't sure what bathroom to use and takes a knee for the National Anthem.

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  4. We also have a society where the draft dodging President insults POWS and thinks the Nazis have some fine people.Anon 4:17 is mad about keepers but gives the Klan and neo Nazis a pass because the had a PERMIT..
    Remember the Nazis were the enemy in this story?

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  5. Common values made the U.S. a much better place to live back in the day. Homogenized societies are happier (common values). Leftists intentionally distort this by claiming it means "whites only". Hate has no home here lawn-signers naively and ignorantly believe common values equal racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc......

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    1. I'm curious, can you say how things were "better" "back in the day"? What values did you see people had in common at that time?

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  6. Common values?
    Such as respecting and caring for your neighbors?Yea a terrible value.Not sure what you mean homogenized? Societies that work together for the common good is usually distorted by the right as a leftist or unAmerican plot.But to defend or ignore obvious racism, homophobia and xenophobia is to embrace it as a common value.

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  7. Hello, I was hoping to be able to contact Helen Horn Mosser. Sgt Horn served with my grandfather, and I am researching the 33rd Signal Construction and would love to be able to share information.

    My page can be found here. www.facebook.com/33rdsignal

    My email address is 33rdsignal@gmail.com

    Thank You.

    ReplyDelete