Gratiot County’s Finest Hour, Remembering World War II at 75: April 1944 –“Involved in the Heart of the War Effort”


Above: H.B. Thompson and the Bannister ZCBJ follows the call to do all they can in the war effort; Gratiot men like Marshall Lumsden came home on leave after seeing action on the war front; the ominous news of those who would not come back included those like Jim Cermak of Bannister.

      Well into the third full year of the war, more and more men and women left Gratiot County to serve the country during World War II. With these departures came the sad news of those killed, missing, or prisoners of war. Still, the United States continued to call men and women to support the war effort in their neighborhoods, on their farms, and within their towns. The year 1944 would be the biggest challenge yet. How would Gratiot County respond? People seemed to understand that a war was yet to be won and that they had to live up to the responsibilities to help Gratiot County do its part.


News Continues to Arrive Concerning Gratiot’s Servicemen

     Probably the main item of news in April 1944 dealt with Gratiot County’s men in the service, where they were and what they were doing.  Letters from overseas reached families who then shared them with county newspapers. In some cases, men came home on leave and shared their experiences of being in the war.

    Edson Farnsworth of Pleasant Valley came home on furlough after 22 months in Alaska and Kodiak Island. A resident of Bailey Corners, Fred Pietscher, also spent two years in Alaska and had two weeks at home before heading to Fort Sheridan, Illinois for reassignment.  George Fuller, an Alma High School graduate who also attended Alma College, joined the Army Air Force in April 1942 and had flown on three of the first four American daylight bombing raids over Berlin. While at home, Fuller got the news that he had received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

    Staff Sergeant Russell Whitford of Ashley returned to Gratiot County after spending three years in China. He first joined the National Guard in 1939 and entered the Army in April 1941. In March 1942, Whitford headed for India and over four months flew many missions to China as a radio operator on transport planes.  He met General Chenault and remarked that he had lived for over a year on buffalo meat, rice, water, toast, and gravy. According to his mother, eating at the Whitford home was hard for him to get used to again, but he did it.  Another Gratiot Airman, Lieutenant Marshall Lumsden of Ithaca, also was home in Gratiot County after completing 97 missions as a fighter and bomber pilot for the 12th Army Air Force Fighter Group in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Lumsden hoped to return to action in England in anticipation of the impending invasion of Europe.

     Letters and photographs gave glimpses of some of the things that members of the armed forces encountered that spring at various places. Merle Brauher wrote from somewhere in the Pacific that he was only steps from the Pacific Ocean. However, there was not a place he had not been that did not have ants. Lizards varied from a few inches to two feet long and scared him because they lived in coconut trees. He also thought that 1944 would be the year that the war would end. Staff Sergeant Richard Goostrey of Ithaca sent a picture home which showed him cradling a Chinese child. Goostrey served with the Army Air Corps as an aerial photographer and liaison pilot. He had been in both India and China for a year.

     Private Bill Gallagher of Alma told his parents that he had lost all of his personal belongings and pictures while on the move from North Africa to Italy.  He did have time to take a cruise over Italy in a B-24, taking photographs from the waist gunner’s position.  His group purchased a small sheep from natives and had a barbecue, but a bombing alert took place, and they had to head for cover.  After two hours, the men returned and finished their meal.  Gallagher also found Italians to be very friendly, but he wanted his parents to send him basketball trunks and shoes for his spare time. Another Alma boy, Private Leland Perry, told about doing guard duty over a military cemetery in Italy, close to the front. Perry had been behind German lines while on patrol duty. Nolan MacLaren, “somewhere in Italy,” received two Gratiot County newspapers per month and hoped that the others would eventually catch up with him. “It’s nice to have something to read while being in your fox hole,” he stated.  News also came to Ithaca that Miss Georgiana Peet, who served as a WAC in North Africa, had been promoted to corporal.

     Other letters, like the one from Atlantic Seaman Myron Humphrey of Alma, told about his experiences in British territory. While he made $78 a month, Humphrey thought of taking out $37.50 bond each time he was paid. Natives sold wire bracelets, streets were made of brick and were dirty, and palm trees were everywhere. The stores where he was at had doors where only the top half opened. He thought the food to be unsanitary, but he could pay a native to climb up and get a cocoanut for six pennies. Swimming and drinking cocoa became his favorite pastimes.

    Lighter news came when the Isham brothers from Fulton Township, Charles and Gerald, met up in England. They had not seen each other in almost two years. At the age of 19, William Lanshaw of Alma graduated from Turner Field in Albany, Georgia and he received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Force. Lanshaw was a 1942 Alma High School graduate who did one year at Central Michigan College of Education before joining the Air Force.

Then there were the Wounded, KIA, MIA, POW

    The Iler Family in Newark Township received the news that their son, Elton, had been seriously wounded in New Guinea and had to be hospitalized in Australia. The Ilers received a letter from Elton’s superior office telling them of his dedication and courage during battle.

    Tragic stories of young men who died while defending the country came in spurts that April. Two deaths at the start of the month came when Lt. Russell Criswell of North Star died in a plane crash in California. Criswell was aboard a transport plane that started across the ocean and had to return when something went wrong. The plane went down, and seven of the nine crew members perished.  Lieutenant Benjamin Fricke also was killed when he and six other crew members who were aboard a B-24 Liberator crashed into the side of a mountain at El Paso, Texas.

    Other deaths also occurred. Sergeant Carleton Madar, who had been raised by his grandparents in Ithaca, drowned accidentally off of Guadalcanal. Madar had been with the 40th Infantry Division. Floyd Carlson, who had family in St. Louis, also died in a drowning in the Pacific theater.  Private Jim Cermak of Ashley was killed in action in Bougainville in March.  However, the news was just now reaching the Cermak family. The family of D.C.Furgason of Ithaca received their son’s Purple Heart Award. Furgason had been killed in Italy in January.

     Families had to deal with other disheartening news. Sergeant David Somerville, whose grandparents were in Ithaca, had been declared missing in action over Germany. Sommerville served as a machine gunner on a bomber. Lieutenant Dale Beery of Alma also was reported missing as of March 16. His wife, who was living at Sault St. Marie, had just received the news. Beery graduated from St. Louis High School in 1934, was a Michigan State College graduate, and had been a high school coach Swartz Creek and Rockford.  The Alma Record also reported that Staff Sergeant Alfred Grosskopf, a former resident, had been missing in action since December 11. Grosskopf worked for the Alma Trailer Company before enlisting in September 1941.


Men Continually Called to the Draft

     Early that April, 175 Gratiot County men planned to leave for Detroit for their pre-induction physical examinations. A list of 300 men who passed exams in late March appeared later in the newspapers. Among the names included: Emiel Robbe of Ashley, Floyd Conner from Sumner; Robert Riedel of Ithaca; and Keelan Nixon of Bannister.  These departures took place in the wake of a nationwide moratorium on drafting men over 26 years of age, although this age group still had to report for their examinations. Approximately 300 men in Michigan in this group ended up being told to go home and wait, but they were informed that this pause would only last 30 days. Selective Service in Michigan also planned to review the status of 12,000 more deferred men in the state in industry and agriculture. The government also expected a total rejection rate of approximately thirty percent of all younger men who could not pass their physicals.

     Still, Gratiot County moved forward with pre-induction meetings for potential draftees. David Gearhart of Alma acted as county coordinator to set up the program which took place April 19 at the Gratiot County courthouse. Men who passed their pre-induction physicals and who could be called to the service were urged to attend, along with their families. The program answered questions such as what do with insurance policies, what to take after being inducted, the role of the Red Cross, and how to create personal wills. Representatives from the Red Cross, American Legion, Selective Service, area schools, County Board of Supervisors, and the county clerk all attended to help answer inductee’s questions.

     On another note, Selective Service continued to deal with the question of what to do with farm deferments.  The local draft board heard that a plan was coming that scrapped the current way of assigning values to different types of farm work. Now the draft board would have the authority to grant a deferment if a man was “regularly engaged” in essential farm work and if he could not be replaced.  Approximately 1,500 men in Gratiot County had farm deferments in April 1944.  Individual farmers could still appeal to the local draft board if their hired man became reclassified in 1-A and eligible for the draft.

The Work and Role of the Red Cross Continues

     County Chairman Dr. Stanley C. Brown from Ithaca announced that the recent Red Cross countywide fund drive totaled $26,014. In many townships, groups in March and April planned activities to raise funds. The Riverdale Ladies’ Aid Society held a pot luck supper at the high school gymnasium, took up a free will offering, and auctioned off a nice quilt. Their efforts raised $126.19 for the Red Cross.  The commitment of people in the county ultimately showed itself by going over the expected quota by more than $5,500. While Alma led the drive with a total of $7668.03, districts like Breckenridge ($1,293.80), St.Louis ($5,199.51), and Ithaca ($5,059.33) all contributed. A district made up of southern and southeast Gratiot County townships gave $4,055.06 for the drive. Perrinton’s Red Cross drive aimed for $350, but it brought in $416 in funds.  All over Gratiot County, citizens oversubscribed and willingly gave when they were asked to support the Red Cross during a time of war.

     The Gratiot County Red Cross continued to help people in a variety of ways, especially by families informed about the status of mail from overseas. Receiving correspondence from a son or loved one was one of the most important things that families wanted that spring. Not hearing from someone was considered to be “good news” according to the Red Cross. When it came to “bad news,” official notifications of casualties always went to families first via the War or Navy Department. When people asked the Red Cross for help regarding why they had not heard from their loved one, the Red Cross reminded them that war conditions, transfers, special duty, and the lack of facilities to write home could all play a role with the issue of not receiving mail. If a family had not heard from a serviceman after four months, then they were encouraged to contact the local Home Service Officer from the Red Cross. While an investigation would be made into this situation, families would have to wait another sixty days after that before any more would take place as to why they had not heard from their serviceman. Starting in late 1943, the Adjutant General issued a regular report of the status of all MIAs to their families. The issue of POWs became even more relevant in the county as more men slowly were added to the ranks of those captured by the enemy.

Farming for the War Effort – Are You Doing Your Part?

     The need for farm labor remained significant in the spring of 1944. Those men who wanted to be farm registrants (those who were needed to work on the farm) had to attend a series of meetings in April. Initially, the sessions were to be monthly during the war and occurred during the evening at different high schools in the county. These meetings dealt with the issues of drafting farm laborers, ways to improve farm production, and how to fill out agricultural questionnaires. While draft registrants were expected to attend these meetings, the meetings were open to the public, and anyone could attend. One of the essential requirements for any man who wanted deferred draft status was that they had to be “regularly engaged” in farm labor to be classified as A-1 deferred. However, there were individuals in the county who thought that too many farm registrants acted “footloose and fancy-free” the moment that the draft board granted them a deferment. Also, some complained that some of the workers later tried to find jobs away from farms because they did not like the work or they were not committed to working in the first place.

      In other farm news, WKAR radio offered daily instructions about how farmers could keep up with spray practices for fruit farmers for those in the county who grew apples, pears, and plums. The Lake Shore Sugar Company announced that its last beet payment for 1943 would take place on May 1, 1944.  First payment in December had been $9.05 per ton of beets. To encourage Gratiot farmers to grow beets for the upcoming summer, the Farmers and Merchants Beet Sugar Association announced that farmers who contracted for beets would have trucking available at a reasonable price through the use of price controls on trucking costs.

     In addition to price controls and contracts, news came that more farm labor would be available in the upcoming summer. Mexican labor would be possible for blocking and thinning beets, hauling manure, and spring seeding. If farmers contacted local sugar companies, they would locate help.

      Another source of help in 1944 would be the presence of 5,000 German Prisoners of War. Local prison camps would have 300 German POWs, armed guards and workers were available for any farmer who lived within 35 miles of a camp. In early April, an estimated 75,000 German POWs were in the United States. Also, Jamaican workers were present in Gratiot County starting June 1. With only 500 Jamaicans available, any farmer who wanted help on the farm needed to contact William Battan, Assistant Agricultural Agent, at the courthouse. The state expected 7,000 Mexicans from Texas also to be present for working with sugar beets and field work for truck crops.

     With all of this potential help available, the government tried to put patriotic pressure on more farmers to grow sugar beets. A late April notice in the newspapers stated “FOOD IS A WEAPON!” and even though Gratiot County had such rich soil, it had barely contracted half the amount acres the government wanted to grow sugar beets in 1944.  With good prices, trucks and farm labor, farmers were confronted with the question “Are you doing YOUR part?”

Rationing and Bond Sales are a Part of Life in the County

     When it came to rationing, people in Gratiot County could use Stamp 18, good for one pair of shoes during the month of April. If they used Stamp 1 in Book 3 (with an airplane on it), it was suitable for a pair of shoes beyond April. Anyone wanting a stove still had to obtain a certificate from the ration board in order purchase one.

     Waste paper and tin drives took place in different places, usually under the direction of the Boy Scouts. Galo Chew led the Alma group with their pickup of things. Tin, even in short supply, was desperately needed for syrettes, also called “angels of mercy.”  Syrettes contained morphine, and every soldier carried them during combat. Motors, guns, ships, tanks, and planes all needed tin. However, used tin had to be cleaned, or it would be useless. Donors were told to rinse all tin cans, empty all food particles, remove labels and cut the ends off of each one, then flatten them. The call for “Waste to Salvage to War” program went on,  which picked up household fats. Every 40,000 pounds of fat from animals could grease a runway. Donated rags kept the machinery running smoothly in the Army, Navy and war plants.  Collections also took place for burlap bags, roofing felt, old wood-felt hats, or rope and twine, all for the war effort. “Tins – Fats – Rags” was the headline in newspapers that urged Gratiot County residents to make donations.

    The Office of Price Administration dropped tire inspections at the end of the month. The government believed that most drivers understood how to take care of their tires. Still, every owner was expected to keep updated records on their tires, especially if they ever wanted to apply for new ones. During one week in April, permits were issued for 149 tires and tubes in the county. Among the types available included Grade 1, Grade 3, Truck tires, Farm implement tires, and an assortment of tire tubes.

      With all of the rationing going on –and the enforcement that had gone with it up to this point of the war-  leadership in the county changed. Charles L. Hicks resigned his post on the Rationing Board because people with competitive public offices could not serve on the boards. He had been with the Rationing Board since 1942. Often the Saginaw District Office of Price Administration made appointments. Sometimes members of the Gratiot County OPA Board made surprise inspections of stores across the county. On one day, three OPA board members visited fourteen stores to see if stores had corrected prior violations concerning rationing sales. They found that most of the violations dealt with not correctly posting ceiling prices, beef and pork prices, soap lists, and incorrect grading of cut beef and pork. After their inspections, the OPA determined that 23 stores in the county were in complete compliance, and only four were in violation.

     Regarding bond sales, the Ithaca seventh grade class purchased $146.90 worth of defense bonds and stamps in one week. Every single student in the room contributed to the purchase. The government announced that the Fifth War Bond Loan would start June 12. The United States Treasury planned to raise sixteen million dollars for the war effort with this drive.

 Then There was Life in Gratiot County –  Unless We Forget:

Nearly 300 Alma children were immunized against diphtheria at the junior high, Republic and Hillcrest schools…the Gratiot Conservation League discussed improving the park entrance on Ely Highway south of Alma as a memorial for the men at war… Gratiot County Democrats met at the Ithaca courthouse to choose delegates for the state convention. They strongly supported the idea of a fourth term for FDR…J.L. Barden in Ithaca asked owners of World War I pictures, relics, and souvenirs to come to the store and pick them up. They had been on display in Barden’s window…”With the Colors” ran weekly front page pictures in the Gratiot County Herald of Gratiot County men and women who were either at war or who were going off to war…the Sowers WSCS group met at the Sowers Church to view an exhibit about China and India. Richard Goostrey’s mother-in-law attended the church. Goostrey had been stationed in India and China as an aerial photographer…the Strand Theatre in Alma ran the headline “BUY MORE WAR BONDS”. “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” was one of the key movie features…One of the debates in the county was “Should Gratiot Pay a Bounty on Fox?”…Among marriage licenses in early April was that of Maurice Judd Paine, 19, of Fulton Township and Lucille Marion Abbot, 20, of Maple Rapids…Professor Richter of Alma College gave a talk to the Ithaca Rotary Club about his escape from Nazi Germany in 1938…Fulton High School held a community athletic banquet to honor its championship basketball team in the school gymnasium. The featured speaker was Dr. E.C. Beck from Central Michigan College of Education. Beck taught in the English Department…Alva Cook, a World War I hero and disabled veteran, received the Silver Star for Gallantry in Action. Cook had been seriously wounded on the fields of France…A crowd estimated between 400 and 500 parents and teachers head Donald W. Hunter speak at Alma High School auditorium on the topic of “American Youth at the Crossroads.” Hunter warned listeners about the rising tide of juvenile delinquency…the Maple Grove school in North Star burned to the ground. It was insured for $2,000 and the contents for $300. All 22 children went to Ashley for the remainder of their school year…plans for a new Food Locker Plant in Alma were announced…on Saturday, April 15, Middleton lost all power due to an ice storm. Telephone lines were down in several places…talk of a cross channel invasion of Europe started to circulate in the press. Possibly the invasion would take place between April and June as air attacks alone would not defeat Nazi Germany…Mrs. Walter Dietrich was collecting names of service men and women for the Honor Roll in Ithaca…William Troub of Middleton said he would look after the names of those who served in the Army and Navy. Parents needed only mail him the names…the Emmanuel Episcopal Diocese officially deeded the Episcopal Church of St. Louis to the city…the Gratiot Red Cross Chapter received a certificate signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt “for distinguished achievement in the 1944 war fund.”…a rehabilitation program in Alma for returning war veterans was in the news…finally, businessmen in Bannister placed a notice in the post office requesting the names of all its men and women who were in the war… and that was April 1944 in Gratiot County.

Copyright 2019 James M Goodspeed






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