Gratiot County’s Finest Hour: June 1944 – “INVASION!”

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Above: Front page June 8, 1944 issue of the Gratiot County Herald; Fifth War Loan announcement for Gratiot County; News about John L. Barden, POW in Germany; Strand Theatre playbill from the week of June 22, 1944.

       It was finally here: the Allies started the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. It was D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, the greatest invasion force ever assembled in world history. So now, Gratiot County played its part in this part of World War II.

D-Day Arrives in Gratiot County

       Actual news of the Invasion hit Gratiot County at ten o’clock in the morning of June 6, 1944. The Gratiot Defense Council, located in Sheriff Nestle’s office in Ithaca, released the news that they received from Lansing. Sirens went off, bells rang, and factory whistles sounded.  Across Gratiot County, people ceased activity for one minute of silence. Factories stopped working, schools stopped, as did all traffic. County newspapers described the event as solemn, serious, and even prayerful. Several churches in Ithaca opened for services at 8:00 PM that evening and these services were more important than anything else taking place. People prayed for divine guidance for the times that were ahead.

        Almost two weeks before D-Day, places like St. Louis had already prepared citizens for the event. City Manager Frank Housel asked people to be prepared to offer a silent prayer and go to church if it was possible. Churches across the county had been asked to open their doors to the public on the day of the invasion.

Our Men on D-Day

      It would be at least one week after D-Day before the first news arrived concerning what Gratiot men were in the Normandy Invasion. For some Gratiot County families, it would be weeks before they heard anything. The first letter to reach the county came from Private Leland Lytle of Alma who wrote to his family just before he took off for France. Lytle, in only two short paragraphs, summarized the angst and challenges ahead for Gratiot’s men, “Today is a day which will go down in history, a day that millions of people have been waiting for.” Another letter came from Dick Fishbeck who made it to the beach and told of how he was dealing with German snipers. “Right now, I am thanking God for pulling me out of some of the jams I got into the first day.”

       Others, like Donald Shurr from Breckenridge, flew beachhead missions with a C-47. Because he dodged enemy fire and was forced to seek cloud cover when he came out of the clouds his paratroopers were dropped well off of their drop zones – something that was a common occurrence on D-Day.

       The saddest and most gripping news of those who died on “the longest day” revolved around Sergeants Archie McFarlane of St. Louis and Marvin Fenner of Alma. What was most startling about them was that two local men ended up on the same B-17, “Pack of Trouble.”  Then came the news:  the plane had been hit over the English Channel on June 12 (“D plus 6”) and had suffered a mid-air breakup, causing it to crash into the Channel. Only one member of the crew survived and made it to shore.  Neither McFarlane or Fenner’s bodies were ever recovered.  Adding to the tragedy of the deaths of the men was the news that McFarlane’s father died only three days before the news arrived about the younger McFarlane’s death.

      As weeks went on, more news arrived concerning Gratiot’s men in France. Private Lyle Remboski (Alma) was seriously wounded and in an English hospital. Sergeant Raymond Grachek (Alma), Private Robert Furtaw (Ithaca),  and Gordon Batchelder (St. Louis) were all wounded. The first MIA on Normandy, Paratrooper Marshall Mockridge of Breckenridge, soon became a prisoner of war. News of more deaths came in weeks later. Killed in action were Private Earl Whittum (who had ties to Alma) and Private David Schaeffer (Ithaca).

       There were those like the family of Miles Arner Douglas from Emerson Township who felt lucky about what news they received. Douglas had been shot down over France and was miraculously rescued and helped by the French Underground. Douglas made it back to England and flew more missions over France until early December 1944 when his P-47, “Miss Isabelle,”  flew into a hill while he was trying to land in the fog. Douglas and his two wingmen all perished.

Others Killed, Wounded, Missing

      Other men died. Lieutenant Kenneth Barton of Breckenridge died over England on May 23. Barton had been a Breckenridge High School graduate, as well as graduating from Central Michigan College. Corporal Ralph Vandemark died from scrub typhus disease while in New Guinea. He had been in an infantry company. Mrs. Herbert Abbey of Ithaca received a letter from her son’s chaplain. Captain Abbey died in an airplane crash in South America. The chaplain wrote a Mothers Day letter to Mrs. Abbey, telling her what the chaplain thought her son would say to her to help cope with her grief. Captain Clay Bullis had been declared MIA since April 18. However, his family was notified that he had been killed while on a mission over Italy.  Another Gratiot man, Lieutenant Russell W. Criswell died in an airplane accident on March 30 in California. A funeral for Private Laurel Evans took place June 10 in Indiana. Evans, whose parents lived in Alma, died in a drowning accident at Camp Campbell, Kentucky.

      The wounded included Private Junior Rockefellow from Perrinton. Rockefellow had been wounded at Anzio. So was Private Alfred Donnly from Riverdale and he was on his way home after being seriously injured.  Kenneth Kirkey of Breckenridge suffered injuries to his hand and arm while in New Guinea. He was in a hospital there. Fireman Frank Chapman from Alma had just returned home from the Philadelphia Naval Hospital after suffering injuries while aboard a ship in the Solomon Islands on July 5, 1943. Chapman’s ship had been torpedoed and then sank.

      Lois Barden of Ithaca received a message through the International Red Cross that her husband, Lieutenant  John Barden, was captured as a prisoner of war by the Germans at Stalag Luft III prison camp. It was Barden’s second mission, and he was only twenty years old.  Sergeant George Mahin of Alma also was a POW in Germany. Mahin had been shot down over France. The family of Sergeant Benny Zamarron of Ashley also received a letter from the Adjutant General in Washington, D.C. about the fate of their son.  Zamarron’s B-17 had gone down over Perleberg, Germany after suffering a mid-air collision. However, names and detailed information about the others on board could not be shared with the Zamarron family. Sergeant John Prout, who had operated the Hi-Speed Gas Station in Ithaca before entering the service, had been missing since May 29 over Austria. Prout had been on a B-24 and was flying missions out of Italy. Staff Sergeant Vernon Bishop of Bannister was announced as missing over France since May 4. He had been in Europe for only a month when it happened. Finally, Lieutenant Tommy Roberts had a brother living in Newark Township. Roberts had been missing over New Guinea since early January. He was serving with the Photo-Reconnaissance Squadron in a P-38.  His last letter to the family described bitter fights with the Japanese. Roberts sent Japanese souvenirs home such as Japanese boots, a silk scarf, and a silk flag.

June Mailbag From Our Men and Women Abroad

       Local newspapers carried the letters of many Gratiot men and women who were fighting and serving abroad. Writing from India, Orval Shaw described how he and others were eating their usual dinner of Spam as there was no beef to eat. The temperature never fell below 75 degrees. While on guard duty one night, Shaw heard a noise and shot at a snake measuring seven feet long. He also wrote that shaves and haircuts were very cheap. Corporal Thomas Horn II also was in the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theater. To see a movie he and the others in his group flew into India once a week. Usually, the men got to see a film two or three times after they arrived. Mail was appreciated, a “haner” swept the living area, made the beds and put down the mosquito nets. Horn’s men were also setting up a softball league.

      In the Pacific, Private Norris Morse wrote that he had first seen combat in the Marshall Islands and he urged readers of the Gratiot County Herald to buy more war bonds. Because of air attacks from “Washington Machine Charlie” (Japanese bombers), Morse could out dig a groundhog by how fast he could dig a trench. He added, “The fear that fills your mind from the first sound of the siren until the all-clear signal is something that I cannot express in words.” Private Kenneth Gross sent a letter indicating that he had been a chauffeur for General Hap Arnold and Admiral King. Gross confessed his nervousness, “Frankly, I was scared to death. When I saw so many stars (on their uniforms), I thought the sky was falling. They’re both good guys too.”

      Private Johnnie Trefil from Fulton Center surprised his mother by having a dozen roses sent to her on Mothers Day. Trefil ordered the flowers by telegraph from somewhere in England.   Private Fred E. Guild sent word home that he was somewhere in England. Guild was a paratrooper. Sergeant Dale Glazier from Middleton was somewhere in Europe with the Manufacturing and Repair Section that worked on planes. His work helped to keep bombers and flyers maintained and up to date. Glazier received a special commendation from General Spaatz for the job done for improving his depot production.  At the Anzio Beachhead in Italy, Private Rollin Adams from Elm Hall wrote from “West Main Street-East Main Street”  which was in a small valley. At that location, the men washed their clothes and took a bath. Private Warren Collison’s family in Ithaca held a 22nd birthday party for him even though Collison was stationed in Italy. Private Leland Perry’s family in Alma received a letter from him. Perry received a package from home and was disappointed that it only consisted of candles. Still, he considered the candles to be useful. Perry had not heard a radio for two months and wanted to take a real bath. He had not washed his head in over one month.

      Margie Street, a Pharmacists Mate, Second Class and stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, detailed her work in the WAVES. While at a Naval Air Station, Street’s task involved working with a Low-Pressure Chamber Technique where up to twenty men entered a chamber and wore oxygen masks. As the controls raised the pressure inside, the effects simulated high altitude flying. Dorothy Doepker, a Pharmacists Mate, Third Class had to come home to Alma due to the death of her sister. Doepker had been a former beauty operator.

      Three Peterson brothers from Newark Township (Ray, Roberts, and Larry) had their pictures in “With the Colors” in the Gratiot County Herald. Ray was with the Marines, Robert was in New Guinea with the Army, and Larry served as an instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  Ray Helman, also from Newark Township, had been home on leave from Italy. Fifty relatives attended a gathering in his parents’ home before Helman left for a camp in North Carolina. Helman had been in North Africa and Italy for sixteen months. David Swigart from Alma continued Marine Corps training. Men in his platoon ranged from the ages of 18 to 30.

     Captain Donald Brice from Alma received a promotion and was home visiting family after spending 21 months in the Aleutian Islands. Sergeant Andrew Gager of Middleton was in England, and his assignment was with a ground crew for planes. His wife was living in Lansing.

The Draft Continues

      On June 8, a group of 31 men left Gratiot County for Fort Sheridan, Illinois to enter the Army. Almost all of them were under the age of 26 unless they volunteered. Also, at least 25 in the group were fathers. Some of these men included Merlyn Lewis of Breckenridge and Harry Penington from Wheeler. One week later, six men left for the Navy. Albert Knapp and Orville Kirkby were among them.  At the end of June, ten more men left for the Army with James Deardorff of Riverdale, Clyde Wiseman of Ithaca, and Floyd Thompson from Alma in that group.

      Over at Alma College, 48 apprenticed seamen completed their work on June 24 for the V-12 Program. Another group of 37 would transfer to other schools to complete the program at those colleges. Lieutenant Julius Scott expected another quota of 205 to enter the program starting July 1.

The Gratiot County Red Cross

       The Red Cross continued to call upon people to help with its work. Mrs. Frank Iseman of Ithaca told readers of the Gratiot County Herald that there was now an urgent need for more surgical dressings. “Every wound must be dressed – not just some wounds, or certain wounds, but all wounds, large or small, must be dressed and dressed often.” In Alma, the maximum number of volunteers working there reached a high of six. More surgical dressings were needed, as were more volunteers. The headquarters opened every Monday evening for two hours, and four days each week with morning and afternoon hours. Ithaca also called for volunteers and opened their room, located over the post office, every afternoon except on weekends.

     The Red Cross also worked in other ways. On June 22, a group of service trainees visited Fort Custer and got an up-close view of the work at the camp. They visited the station hospital where they learned that the cookie baskets for patients there never remained full. The cookies made great prizes for the men who played bingo during their recovery. After lunch at the Service Club, they saw men training on the Infiltration Course, navigating a simulated minefield, and then observed how men reacted in “Hitlerville.” Young officers here prepared for how to enter an enemy village and how to take it house by house. The Gratiot Red Cross group also witnessed men operating K-9 dogs as well as those soldiers training in ju-jitsu.

       An essential function of the Red Cross in Gratiot County continued to be helping prisoner of war families. A select committee made up of members Mrs. Wilbert Hansen, Mrs. M.J. Haley, and Reverend J.C. Thompson helped to prepare articles and communications about Gratiot men who were in enemy territory. The Red Cross remained the place where POW families could turn when asking for help and encouragement during this time.

Loans, Bonds and Doing Your Part in Gratiot County

      Early in June, the start of the Fifth War Loan Campaign began. Michigan moved up the date of this drive to coincide with the D-Day Invasion in France. This loan drive also called a “second front invasion,” told Gratiot County that it needed to raise $1,382,000. On top of this, all of this money was supposed to be raised between June 6-9! Local chairpersons were chosen to lead the drives in their respective communities.  Fred Leiter in Riverdale and Louis Federspiel in Breckenridge took on their duties. Each township had its quota for each type of bonds that were being sold. For example,  Fulton Township had to raise $32,900 worth of E Bonds and $18,700 value of F, G, and other notes.  “Buy Yourself Some Khaki!” was the slogan people heard.

     However, over two weeks later, the county was short $906,000 in sales. The government and press resorted to a tactic used in World War I: publishing facts, and even names, of organizations or people who had given their share.  References to the Normandy Invasion and the plight of men in the invasion force also occurred regularly. Another means of stirring people to buy bonds included printing statistics about how much money each bank in the county had in savings accounts. Since savings accounts had increased substantially since before Pearl Harbor – and the economy allowed more Gratiot people to work – shouldn’t there be more money to invest in the current bond campaign? People were asked to stop farming, working, and traveling to take time and buy bonds.

     To do its part, Michigan Chemical went on the record at the end of the month as saying that the company had taken in half of its $15,000 quota from its workers. Franklin Curtis then stated that Michigan Chemical promised to meet its goal by July 1.

      Even the Strand Theatre urged patrons to buy bonds. “Invest in Invasion- Buy More Bonds Than Before” ran with its movie advertisements.  Movies during the week  where the ad appeared included “Tampico,” “Four Jills in a Jeep,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

Rationing Goes On

      Gratiot County continued to face the issue of rationing and conserving things on behalf of the war effort.  The Office of Price Administration sent out news that Sugar  37 had been canceled as many housewives incorrectly tried to use it to obtain sugar for canning.  However, Sugar Stamp 37 would be good starting June 16 for five pounds of sugar. Best of all, the stamp remained good in the future.  A pound of waste fat also was good for two meat ration points or four cents.

      Victory gardeners received instructions about how to protect their gardens with poison bait for cutworms, white grubs, and crickets – as well as root maggots. Those who planted that spring could expect that two pounds of asparagus could yield one canned quart. One bushel of peas equaled about five canned quarts, but a bushel of tomatoes produced twelve quarts. Fulton Township School offered a community canning project for the summer. It started June 28 and operated five days a week, from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Lillian McKinney conducted the program in the home economics room in Middleton. All of this was done at no cost to the public – if ladies brought their jars. Those who used tin cans for canning paid a small charge. In other news, the War Labor Board had not yet decided what to do about reservations people made for the new Alma Frozen Food Locker. The reservations had been submitted May 31.

      People continued to be asked to take care of their tin. When a collection amounted to a carload, it would be shipped off to a detinning mill. Anyone in Alma could call City Hall for instructions about where to place their tin, or place the tin at a small building which was located near the river on East Superior Street. In St. Louis, the highway barn on Saginaw Street also accepted tin.  When it came to automobiles, the county would issue up to 192 tire and tube permits in mid-July. According to the OPA, the status of used car rationing would be announced once they were placed below price ceilings.

Farming, Farmers and the Upcoming Growing Season

      Farmers who had potatoes for sale were to contact the AAA office in Ithaca. The Lake Shore Sugar Beet  Company could turn the potatoes into animal feed for the war effort. Calls for more egg production went out in the county. The egg quota was raised due to the fear that farmers would butcher their chickens instead of using them to produce eggs. A severe shortage of eggs was feared.

      Certain men worked to place youth farm labor in the county. The upcoming pickle crop and work in the muck fields would need help. However, farmers were reminded that these youth were not skilled workers. L.A.Schroeder of Breckenridge and Graydon Blank from Alma were in charge of organizing farm laborers there.

       On a lighter side, the phrase “Corncobs Help to Win” appeared in the newspapers as they were needed for the war effort. Corncobs helped to keep airplanes free from carbon, and they could also be ground up and used for air blasting equipment. The East Coast and Mississippi Valley areas had high demands for these corncobs. The AAA continued to ask homemakers to use oleomargarine over butter due to the war. Using butter substitutes seemed to be a challenge for families that wanted their butter.

      Another issue dealing with the war that Gratiot County dealt with was migrant field labor.  An estimated 30,000 Mexican workers would be coming into the United States to work in the fields in the summer of 1944.  In early June, a special train with 200 Mexican Nationals arrived in Alma. The workers were spread out around the county, wherever farmers had housing and work for them. Another 60 workers headed for Isabella County. With the influx of migrant workers came the birth of migrant schools. Starting June 26, the East Minister Chapel in Alma opened. In Alma and Breckenridge, centers there offered lunches for the migrants that were furnished by people in the community. A Vacation Bible School took place in Breckenridge. At the Beebe Township Hall, two ladies were in charge and offered craft work and recreation. Daycare was also provided for those migrant women who worked in the fields.  Evening activities for migrants also took place in the evenings at these locations. An estimated $400 was spent in 1943 on summer projects like these in Gratiot County.

And So That We Do Not Forget….

       A war bond display at the First State Bank of Alma showed that your bond purchase went toward the new truck-trailer capable of carrying huge boilers to ships for sailing overseas…Company C  from the Michigan State Troops of Alma prepared to leave for field maneuvers at Church’s ranch one weekend…The Orin Riker American Legion Post in Ithaca raised almost $400 with 2000 poppy sales…Negro singers in Wheeler held the attention of a Wheeler church on one Sunday night, courtesy of Bay City’s Second Baptist Church…Gratiot County farmers learned that they could have dust layer to put in front of their homes. However, they had to spread it themselves…The St. Louis Sugar Beet Factory faced charges from a state official that the factory was killing fish in the Pine River because of discharge from potato processing…Dwellers in Middleton were fascinated by an opossum on Main Street that carried five young…Claude Watson from California and 1944 Nominee for President appeared at Alma College. He was a candidate on the Prohibition ticket. His message was “God’s Program for a Clean Government”…News about the fighting near Rome, Italy appeared on front pages. The breakout from the Anzio Beachhead was taking place…Elmer E.West, a World War I veteran in the county, died from complications of tuberculosis at a sanitarium in Howell, Michigan…Blue Star Mothers in Gratiot County urged people to turn in names of their family members who were serving in the war. The building of a county memorial remained a goal and people would soon be urged to donate to the construction of a memorial with the names of all of Gratiot County’s men and women on it. Pictures of these men and women could be placed in the window of the J.C. Penney Store in  Alma…Leonard Refineries showed free movies at Alma High School about safety and fire prevention. Also, two war films would be shown, including fighting on Guadalcanal…Women’s Land Camps (WLA) would be operating this summer in Michigan. Women who joined up worked to help with the summer fruit harvest. Each worker had to commit to work a minimum of three days in a row and earn their board…The first softball game played under the lights in Ithaca at the fairgrounds took place when Croziers Rascals faced the Newark All-Stars. Newark won by the score of 16-15. The games generated  a lot of community interest…Ordnance plants needed women workers. Interested women needed only to apply at City Hall in Alma. Please bring your birth certificate and statement of when you would be available…”The On Wheels Parade and Free Show” in mid-June in Ithaca drew 250 children on 150 bicycles. Over 1,000 spectators showed up to watch the parade. It was an excellent opportunity to make War Stamp sales…It was already time to start thinking about Christmas mail to men and women abroad. September 15 to October 15 would be the time that the post office accepted packages, but they had to be under five pounds and meet specific size requirements…Finally, farmers on both sides of the Maple River continued to fight over drainage issues. A new drain survey was called for.

       And that was June 1944 in Gratiot County during World War II.

Copyright 2019 James M Goodspeed

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