Gratiot County’s Finest Hour, Remembering World War II at 75: February 1944 – “Drives, Drives, Drives”

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Above: Advertisements from the Alma Record-Alma Journal and Gratiot County Herald during February 1944; “The Spirit of Gratiot County,” the result of successful war bond drives in the county in 1943.

     It was February 1944, and if you had lived in Gratiot County at the time, it was late winter. People were speculating on who would be the next President of the United States. Wendell Willkie, a Republican candidate, boasted that he was best able to lead the country during the war. It was now the Republicans time to lead the country. After all, FDR had served an unprecedented three terms as President – he was done, or was he?

     War news continued to focus on places like the invasion in Italy near the Anzio Beach Head, as well as places like New Guinea and Guadalcanal.   Gratiot County continued to hear that…

It Was About Paper, Blood, and Bonds

     “Are you ready for the pickup?” That was the question that residents in Gratiot County faced in early February 1944. In St. Louis, Breckenridge, Ithaca and Alma, Boy Scouts prepared to canvass the communities to pick up paper for their second wastepaper drive of 1944. The need for paper containers for overseas shipments of supplies made paper drives an essential part of the war effort in Gratiot County. Every type of paper, including envelopes, tissue, corrugated paper, and cardboard, were among the targets of the drive. Gratiot residents were asked to wrap their bundles and place them near the street. People were urged to perform a patriotic duty by carrying large packages and not asking for paper sacks. Paper bags in the county became harder to locate as supplies had been cut by one third. In some places, the youngest Gratiot County residents helped to do their part.

      One story from Middleton told how two small girls walked out into the country before school started in order pick up papers from a farm home. When asked why they wanted  paper, a little boy stated, “To smash the Axis.”  Still, in other places like Alma, school children caused problems because they opened bundles of waste paper that residents set out by the curb. Why? The children were looking for “colored comics” (comic books), and then the wind scattered papers along many streets. The Boy Scouts still managed to pick up an estimated 8 tons of salvage with help from drivers and trucks from the Little Rock Lumber and Coal Company, the Home Lumber& Fuel Company and the Masonic Home.

     Another call went out in Gratiot County for people to volunteer and donate blood. The Red Cross called for a total of 360 people to give blood at the Presbyterian Church, where a doctor and four nurses waited. People were urged to donate a pint of blood as stocks of blood plasma were very low at hospitals, such as those in Lansing, had been depleted.  For county needs, a portion of the donations would be sent back to Gratiot County for its standing supply.  “Your blood may save the life of your neighbor” was a motto used by the Red Cross to encourage Gratiot residents to donate blood.

     When it came to their money, Gratiot County residents heard the call to support the Fourth War Loan. The county had only about two weeks to reach its goal. To motivate people to buy more bonds, a picture of a B17 Bomber appeared in the Gratiot County Herald to show bond subscribers where their money was going. The “Spirit of Gratiot” came off the line in January and was on its way to the front to fight the enemy.  While it was not clear which plant the plane came from (either Seattle or Renton, Washington; Wichita, Kansas; or Vancouver, British Columbia), the image of the aircraft demonstrated what Gratiot County could contribute if it continued to buy war bonds.

        St. Louis quickly raised $42,000 worth of bonds with Michigan Chemical raising $15,075. Both Ernest Ode and Percy Medd purchased $500 worth of bonds to get the company over its goal of raising $15,000. Within a short time, 44 workers at the St. Louis Cooperative Creamery raised $1023.25, which was over its $1000 goal. To celebrate their giving, the workers and their families then held a progressive Pedro party, with the help of Mayor Schnepp.  Schnepp gave away two $25 war bonds in a raffle to the workers.  The St. Louis school system also pitched in to help. During the previous semester, students raised $3933.70 worth of bonds, half of it purchased by the grade school alone. Also, the sophomore class raised $387.45 by itself, the most of any grade.

     Over at Alma, the city was barely halfway toward its goal with less than five days left to its deadline. However, reports of sales from the countryside around Alma had not yet been tallied. Canvassers sought to cover every mile around Alma to get the sales going. Once Alma’s corporations announced their sales, the county raised another $83, 851.75, well over its goal of 1.173 million dollars. Among the most significant purchases came from industrial plants, the public schools, Rotary Club, Lions Club, Odd Fellows, Masons, and the Elks. Still, sales of E Bonds lagged, and the Gratiot County Herald published a notice with the headline, “HAVE YOU DONE YOUR SHARE?”

Rationing – We Have to Do It

     A monthly “Ration Calendar” reminded everyone in Gratiot County about the need to ration items such as processed fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, sugar, shoes, gasoline, tires, fuel oil, and even stoves. Green stamps G, H, and J were good through late February, but green stamps K, L, and M would be good throughout the month. Stamps 10 in A book were good for three gallons of gasoline over the next six weeks. However, those buying gas had to have their state and license numbers written on the face or top of each coupon upon receiving the ration book. A new food rationing system using tokens went into effect in late March. No one could use more than nine tokens at a time on any one purchase. Anyone with a question or problem could visit the ration office in Ithaca, which was open each weekday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

     The government anticipated that the supply of canned foods would be smaller in 1944 than the previous two years of the war, which meant that victory gardening remained an essential job in Gratiot County. O.I. Gregg, state extension officer, came to the county and gave lectures at Breckenridge High School, Alma High School, and the Gratiot County Court House. Basil McKenzie, Breckenridge  Schools Superintendent, invited the Breckenridge public to come to the high school to hear Gregg’s presentation. The overall goal was to get people in Gratiot County to increase the sizes of their victory gardens, as well as how to get their plots started earlier. Although 720,000 Victory Gardens existed in Michigan in 1943, a goal of 792,000 gardens had bee set in 1944.

Life on Gratiot’s Farms

     Gratiot County’s farmers continued to support the war effort.  Even though it was only February, farmers were encouraged to sign beet contracts for 1944. They would receive $12.50 per ton of sugar beets and meetings in St. Louis and Alma urged farmers to sign up to grow bigger crops. The Office of War Information told farmers that losses that they suffered while operating their farms were deductible on their income tax.

    The County AAA met to try and find ways to grow more food in 1944. Farmers heard that they would receive more gas to grow more crops. A setback occurred when the Chairman of the AAA in Gratiot County, Harold Mouser, suddenly and tragically died from a heart attack while attending a basketball game at Alma High School. Mouser had several duties in the county, and he had served four terms as chairman.

The Draft – Gratiot Men Go to War

     One of the most significant issues with the draft in Gratiot County in February 1944 concerning the status of men who were supposed to be involved in agricultural work. These men carried what was called 2C and 3C classifications. However, they could be called into meetings to fill out agricultural questionnaires. Some of the questions that these men had to answer involved how many acres and types of crops that they planned to be working on, and how much livestock they produced. The Gratiot County USDA war board and country draft board then looked over the questionnaires.

     Some people in Gratiot County questioned why some men held 2C and 3C status. If they left their occupation or changed their address, even for a temporary time without telling the draft board, these men could be immediately eligible for the draft. They also had to notify authorities if they looked for winter work and other jobs. Warnings went out that they would keep their status only as long as replacements in Gratiot County could be found for them regarding the draft.

      However, some citizens questioned the 2C and 3C status because their sons served in the war. “A Disgusted Farmer,” wrote a letter to the Gratiot County Herald that explained their view of things: “It is not right to take fathers when many single men are left, and many of them are playing or pretending to work…(There is) Also the milk racket. A farmer buys a milk truck, usually a worn out affair at a high price, and then proceeds to get son deferred. There are too many on the road, driving unnecessary miles. You can count from three to five going past many a corner. One way to stop this is to draft some of the drivers.”

     In the midst of this issue men still went off to war. The draft took twelve Gratiot County registrants in February. Six went to the Army and six to the Navy. Paul J. Hrncharik of Bannister was one of those entering the Army; Maynard D. Peacock from St.Louis entered the Navy. Over at Alma College, 75 apprentice seamen in the V-12 Program left the program for other assignments. A farewell for the group took place in the college chapel. Alma College did not give out diplomas because those engaged in civilian programs would return in June for the regular commencement services. The Navy and Alma College both wanted the V-12 Program to continue in March.

    For others, the third Army-Navy College Qualifying Test for the Army Specialized Training Program and the Navy’s V-12 Program took place at Fulton Township Schools.  Students between the ages 17 and 21 received the tests at the Perrinton school building. They either were graduates or would graduate from high school by July 1, 1944. Similar examinations were scheduled for March at St. Louis High School.

Letters to Home

     Letters from members of the armed forces that February described life in their respective theatres of the war. Brothers Raymond and Lyle Meyers made it to England. Lyle Meyers enjoyed the warmer weather there, and he was appreciative of the five letters he received the day before. Meyers received nineteen on mail call on that day. During his trip to England, Meyers wrote a letter home on his birthday, although he did not think it was terrific because he was seasick. At his current location, his unit was able to get passes to visit a nearby town, but regarding the use of English money, he said that “I have a feeling I am going to get all mixed up on this English money. Guess  I’ll just give them what they want of it. Ha.” Lyle had already been to the local Red Cross station to ask for help in finding his brother.

     Richard Fishbeck had also found a Red Cross Canteen. It had great sandwiches and occasionally a bottled Coke. He also discovered what the English called the “Pub,” which is “more like pleasant meeting places where men can drink and talk over the events of the day.”  The two essential beverages served there were beer and cider. Russell Howe wrote that there were no buildings higher than 100 feet tall in the area he was stationed in England. Also, the mud was terrible, and people rode bicycles everywhere they went.

     Howard Comstock of St. Louis wrote from Italy. Just before New Years, he had his picture taken, and he hoped to mail one home. He commented that “you will probably agree that whatever else, I’m not exactly anemic.” Comstock was also looking for news about where his brother. He joked that while he had been in the hospital, he was in good shape.  “When you are in the hospital you get A BATH,” Comstock laughed.  Soon, he would be near Mt. Vesuvius, although it was frigid there. Buildings were damp and most had no heat. He told his parents that “You would not believe the way these people live. They are a thousand years behind the times. We found a great many people living in caves in Sicily. However, I guess a good cave is as good as most of their houses.” Toward the end of January, he still had not received any Christmas packages.

      Captain John C. Baxter from Breckenridge also shared similar feelings about what he saw in North Africa. At Djelfa, 200 miles south of Algiers, the oddities of the new cultures that he encountered amused him. An Arab in full sheik dress ran toward him while Baxter was trekking through some dunes. Baxter and friends discovered what a curiosity he was to the twenty-five year old North African. Cigarettes were excellent trading items while he encountered different tribes. Camel caravans moved along the roads that Baxter traveled. However, many Arabs disliked having their pictures taken. Women were especially reluctant to speak to Americans and avoided them.  Commenting about what he witnessed, Baxter wrote that “Civilization in this area, I would say, has not advanced any during the last 1000 years and the methods used were as primitive as those mentioned in the Bible.”

     Seaman Duane Sartor of Alma wrote that he had been a part of the force that took the Marshall Islands. He was very close and saw the heaving bombings. “The islands are low and covered with palm trees. We saw pictures of them after the bombardment, and they were covered with bomb pits.” At that point of the war, he stated that the operation was the largest in Naval history. Sartor lamented that he would be glad to get back home and again attend church regularly. He had not been in church since he was in Alma. Sartor missed church services that were held on his ship for Christmas because he had to do fire watch.

Men and Women in the Service

     Pictures and news articles reminded Gratiot County of the many young men and women who served the county. Austin E. Brenneman was at a Naval air station at Pensacola, Florida and he had just completed flight training in the Marine Corps Reserve. Brenneman would yearn to fight for the United States during the war, but he would not see as much action as he wanted. Brenneman would be among the first men to die for Gratiot County during the Korean War. Corporal Carl E. Bard of Emerson Township was recovering from wounds suffered in Italy when a German airplane strafed his position.  A bomb missed him by twenty feet, covering  Bard in nearly three feet of dirt and rocks. The news reached Gratiot County that this had happened on December 11, 1943 – exactly one year after Bard joined the service. Sergeant Paul Hanning was home from Alaska on furlough, and he was visiting his family in Alma. After a year in Alaska, Hanning was on his way to California.

     The Hospodar Family who resided in North Shade Township was featured on WJR Radio in Detroit during the 4th War Loan Drive. The Hospodars received a $50 war bond from the USDA War Board. They had six sons and one daughter, and four of the boys were in the service. The youngest of the four just returned from North Africa where he guarded German Prisoners of War. The Hospodars continued to operate their 420-acre farm even though they were without help from several of their sons.

     Swift & Company of Alma reported that it was honored to say that 27 of its men were workers and now served to defend the United States.  Among some of these names of employees who served the country included Corporal Earl Oberst of Breckenridge, Corporal Marvin Fenner of Alma, and Private Bernard Marrin of Alma. Fenner would die in a bombing attack over Germany. Marrin had joined the 82nd Airborne, and he would be captured and became a prisoner of war in Germany. Another news item reported that Wayne Garrett of Breckenridge was in the Navy and he had received a Purple Heart for battle wounds incurred while fighting against both the Germans and the Japanese.

     Women from Gratiot County also served and were in the news. Mrs. Roberta Joslen, from Pompeii, served as a WAC since entering the service in May 1943. She was driving jeeps for the Army. Her husband, Gerald, was serving somewhere in New Guinea. Miss Hazel Dill, from Breckenridge, was now a Captain and served with the nurses’ corps overseas. Dill had graduated from nurses training school from the Ford Hospital in Detroit. A V-Mail from Private Melvin Thursh of Ithaca announced that he had married Joan Hanley, who was from Australia. Their wedding reception featured both American and Australian flags. Thrush was serving in the Army “down under.”

Those Who Paid the Ultimate Price

      More names and stories reached Gratiot County of those men who died defending the nation.  Seaman Gaylord Hanley,  a former St. Louis boy who was not yet eighteen years old, died on January 26 from injuries suffered from a fall while on duty. He had been on duty aboard the SS Hutchins. Staff Sergeant Carlton Madar, formerly of Alma, drowned off Guadalcanal. Madar had lived with and was raised by his grandparents in Ithaca before joining the Army. Madar had quickly become a Staff Sergeant.   More information trickled in about the death of Donald Curtis of Alma. He died in late November during a bombing mission over Germany.

     The list of Gratiot men who became prisoners of war also slowly continued to grow. Staff Sergeant J. Alfred Grosskopf, formerly of Alma, was captured after his B-17 went down during a raid over Emden, Germany. The family received a telegram that read, “Report just received that your son, Staff Sgt. James A. Grosskopf is a prisoner of war of the German government. Letter of information from Provost Marshal General follows.”

And Unless We Forget….

       Ira Wood and Clark Howland received national attention for their turkey farms that they operated in Newark Township…St. Louis High School had a meeting on “Post War Trends and Control for Agriculture”…The St. Louis Park Hotel showed motion pictures from the United States Navy to a group of 100 persons for a Ladies Night Party. The scenes taken at Pearl Harbor were especially moving….The IRS was coming to Breckenridge and was at the Farmers State Bank if anyone needed help…Swift & Company needed 50 women at once to help with egg candling and egg breaking – no experience was necessary…North Star Chapter No. 108 of the Blue Star Mothers had an all-day meeting at the home of Mabel Ecklebarger…another Blue Stars Chapter met in St. Louis… the Ithaca Blue Star Mothers continued to push for a countywide public memorial for all of Gratiot County’s men and women who were serving in the war. This same group asked people to bring pictures of every member of the armed forces to Beebe Furniture Store in Ithaca for display while the Blue Stars started to raise money for this project…

     February 29 was the last day that automobile license plates could be used from 1943. It was also the last day to pay dog taxes without a penalty. After this, the cost would be an additional $2 per dog…It was thought that upward of 20 people would appear February 16 to become naturalized citizens at the Gratiot County  Clerk’s Office. In the end, 18 of them did – each with their witnesses. Among the new citizens were: Anna Chapko, Middleton; Joseph Sourek and Frank Hanus of Ashley; Kate Hospodar of Perrinton…the American Legion in Alma offered to help veterans with their mustering out pay, as long as they had an honorable discharge since December 6, 1941…Boy Scout Troop No. 109 had a nice display in the window of the Community Hardware in St.Louis. The William Fields Post sponsored them…In St. Louis, City Manager Frank Housel reminded the St. Louis City Council that “Eastern War Time” would soon be resuming. Housel hoped that more communities would also move to adhere to it…the Gratiot County Herald joined in with the call for the creation of a county airport…and a March of Dimes card party at St. Louis High School on one Wednesday night raised over $150 for infantile paralysis…

And that was Gratiot County at war during February 1944.

Copyright 2019 James M Goodspeed

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