Gratiot County’s Finest Hour – December 1944, “The Fuhrer Strikes Back”

 Above: Maps illustrated that the Nazis threatened the Western Front in France; Bond cartoon and headlines told that the Sixth War Loan was in trouble in the county; The only way to see Bing Crosby’s newest movie was to buy a bond; Santa made his annual visit to Gratiot County during December 1944.

        In December 1944, many Americans thought that the German surrender was near and that the war in Europe would be over. Local clergymen in both Ithaca and Alma started to make plans to celebrate the end of the war. Zeal and commitment to buy war bonds and loans waned in Gratiot County. Some called this inability to raise money “war fatigue,” others saw this problem as a lack of commitment to the country.

        And then in mid-December – the Fuhrer struck back. The German Army opened a surprise attack in Belgium, which the Nazis called the Ardennes Offensive. Americans came to know it as “The Battle of the Bulge.” This battle would determine if the Allied progress across Western Europe in the second half of 1944 would be halted, split into pieces, or even turned back. The Nazis caught Americans by surprise, and it made residents in Gratiot County realize that this war could still have a different ending.

        As the holiday season came to Gratiot County, the shocking news about the Nazi enemy, who many thought was nearly defeated, threatened to take the war in a new direction. It was December 1944.

Rationing in Gratiot County

        The long arm of the law caught up with Richard Snyder and Charles Herman, both 17 and from Breckenridge. The boys broke into the Everett McLean gas station in the village, stole gasoline rationing stamps, and then tried to sell them in East Tawas. They got caught when they tried to sell the stamps to deer hunters who were headed north. Warrants were issued for the two. In other rationing news, gasoline stamp A-13 was good for 4 gallons of gas through December 21. More stamps were good for 5 gallons. However, all stamp books had to have the owner’s state and license number written on the front. Homemakers were also told to destroy all invalid stamps that they had in their possession.

         A “paper holiday” was declared in many Gratiot County towns and villages as people were asked to conserve all waste paper, especially in the form of Christmas wrapping paper. The War Production Board issued warnings that the nation suffered from a critical shortage of paper due to the war effort. To deal with this, Ithaca held its Friday morning wastepaper and rag pick up, courtesy of the Ithaca Boy Scouts. Village employees showed up at the drive and helped the Ithaca Scouts. A total of 255 tire certificates were issued on December 14. Most were for grade one tires. In 1945, it was announced that civilians in the United States would get 200,000 fewer passenger tires to provide more tires for the war in Europe.  A carload of tin was scheduled to leave Alma on January 15, 1945. The city of Alma started the process of applying for a new hose for the fire department and for flushing streets. Rubber hose was restricted due to rationing laws, and Alma had to apply for a new one.

        By the end of December, canned vegetables, butter, and sugar were all items that came under tighter rationing regulations. By December 31, 85 percent of all meats needed ration points for a purchase.  Even though civilian supplies were at the lowest level since Pearl Harbor, the OPA declared that no food crisis existed. Restrictions now meant that everyone would have a fair share of food. Still, restaurants and hotels that did their baking now faced a 15% cut in sugar starting January 1.

The Work of the Gratiot County Red Cross

       The service window of the Ithaca Red Cross had decorations done by Mrs. Rolland Crawford. In a picture, Crawford drew a scene with troopships in the Atlantic and landing barges arriving at islands in the Pacific. A Red Cross tent and insignia sat in the combat zone, the area overrun by tanks, planes, and guns. Above the drawing was writing that read “Red Cross Brings Christmas Everywhere.”

       The Alma Red Cross responded quickly to a call for Red Cross kit bags. Volunteers went to work on constructing the bags, but another call for kit bags seemed to be on the horizon in January. Volunteer surgical dressing workers that left dresses behind needed to pick them up as the headquarters would be cleaned. The ladies wore these while working on quotas.

Bond Drive

       It appeared that a combination of “bond fatigue” and “war weariness” accounted for the struggles that Gratiot County had in meeting its goal for the Sixth War Loan Drive. Early in the month on Pearl Harbor Day, Alma barely exceeded its goal of $61,700 in bonds. The rest of the county total was at only 16 percent of its $1,103,000 goal. One way the city of Alma tried to encourage people to buy bonds was to sponsor a one-night showing of “Going My Way” at the Strand Theatre. Over 700 people purchased bonds to get a ticket for the Bing Crosby movie, and bond sales amounted to over $20,000 that night’s movie. The Fleming Store displayed a rubber boat that carried five men, a Merchant Marine life-saving suit, and different types of boots that the Army and Navy used – all from rubber products. The display tried to promote the bond drive. It would be corporations and places like Alma College, who kept buying bonds to keep Gratiot County on track of its goal. At one point, Alma College purchased $112,794 worth of bonds; another $398, 610 came from corporations. The American Legion, its Auxillary, and the Gratiot Conservation League pitched in with $7,500 for bonds.

        Headlines screamed at mid-month “Gratiot Is Failing to Do Her Part in War Bonds.” Corporations in the county used payroll deductions to sell bonds; in many cases, they were successful. Some people claimed that they had not been visited at their homes to buy their bonds. However, newspapers printed, “The responsibility is yours and no one else’s…What are YOU going to do about it?” When the drive ended on December 21, the county was over $189,000 short of the goal. Corporation sales did well, but individual sales did not do well. In the end, the United States as a whole met its goal, but individual subscriptions of E Bonds fell short.

         On a lighter side, the Gratiot County Herald offered a $25 War Bond to the first baby born in the county in 1945. The parents of the baby had to live in Gratiot County at the time of the child’s birth. Also,  the birth of the child had to be promptly announced to the Herald. This contest was the fifteenth time that the Herald held its “baby derby.”


        Farmers also were expected to buy bonds during the drive, and they were asked to invest more and more. With more money in the bank with war bonds, farmers in the 1940s would have more money in the bank to better able to stay out of debt – or so they were told. With the end of the year in sight, Gratiot farmers faced a deadline with submitting proof of their hayseed weights. December 31 also meant it was the last day to receive dairy feed payments.

       On December 15, farmers that grew sugar beets received a total of $10.65 a ton for 1944 contracts – the highest ever in the ten-year existence of sugar beet contracts. An early projection for 1945 was that farmers might see $14 per ton, another high.  When slicing at the Alma sugar plant ended in early December, one of the reasons that the company got its work done was due to German Prisoners of War. Early in the season, the plant almost shut down due to lack of help, however, the POWs made the difference in keeping it running.

        A survey of 275 Gratiot County farm families found that 165 of them believed that their family members worked together better since the war started. General cooperation, more frequent meetings among farmers, and social get-togethers, were positive results from the survey. An estimated 95 percent of these families collected scrap materials and fats for the war; 75 percent used smaller amounts of rationed and unrationed goods, and 45 percent of the families gave at least 10 percent of their income to purchase war bonds.

        Other news was not so good for some farmers. Wilfred Erickson had to sell his farm southeast of Pompeii because his son entered the armed services. Erickson had no help to run his farm. Still, those farmers who wanted winter work could find it. The Novo Engine Company in Lansing ran advertisements and asked for farmers to come work in its factory by saying, “IN SUMMER RUN FARMS – IN WINTER MAKE ARMS.”

The Draft Goes On

        On December 6, a group of 30 men left Gratiot County as a result of the draft. A total of 18 went to the Army, 10 to the Navy, and 2 to the Marines. They all left by train for Chicago and had Don Breckenridge in charge of the group. Some of the men in the included Charles Marrin, Jr. from Alma, Harold Helman of Ithaca, and Asher Birmingham of Alma. Lists of names for each group appeared in the newspaper, and about one week later, the Gratiot County Draft Board called another 36 men.

        Selective Service announced that all men under the age of 30 that had been rejected since early February 1944 would now be recalled for re-examination. This did not count those who had been excluded due to physical defects. Recruitment for WACs in Gratiot County also continued to take place. Sergeant Walter Harris visited Ithaca to recruit women who were interested in joining the WACs as medical technicians and who could help fill the need to rehabilitate injured soldiers. Anyone interested in becoming a WAC  needed to contact Verna Ranger at the Ithaca Village Hall.

Letters Home to Gratiot County

       More mail found its way home and was published in the county’s newspapers in December. Wayne Clack of Alma wrote from New Guinea, where he worked as a volunteer in a Red Cross canteen while awaiting assignment to a ship. The canteen just could not locate ice, and when a docked ship donated some, it was a special time. Clack referred to his area in New Guinea as “Purple Heart country,” however, he soon was stationed aboard a new ship, a Landing Craft. It had a washing machine, and Clack had cleaned everything he owned except his mattress, hammock, and raincoat. At the end of 1944, he made it to the Philippines.

         Virgil Daniels was in the Navy somewhere and wrote home to his siblings. He got nine letters one day, had just finished eating toast with peanut butter, and he wished the family would send him some more peanut butter. Cigarettes were a nickel a pack; his group had a toaster, coffee maker, and a record player. Laundry cost fifty cents a month, and he could take a shower bath every night. He was paid $11 week, but Daniels said he had his feet on the ground only twice since joining up in August.

         Private Stanley Nesen of  St. Louis wrote to his mother. The letters told something about where Nesen had been in the fall of 1944 in England. In October, he described life in London during “the blitz.” Lights were out at night, and Londoners suffered, but persisted, during the bombings. While in England, Nesen had seen Shakespeare’s home, saw Oxford University, and he had witnessed a football game between men from his depot and another squad. After moving to the continent in November, living in tents was good, as was the food (C&K rations, Spam and crackers). Although he had not had his clothes off or changed them for some time, he and his fellow soldiers had access to hot water. At one point, Nesen had a good Thanksgiving meal and even had his picture taken with Marlene Dietrich while attending a USO show.

        Private Ceo Bauer of Ithaca, wounded at Metz and in an English hospital, wrote home in late November to his parents.  Two weeks after being injured at Metz, his wounds around his temple had closed; those on his upper torso, chest, left forearm and left side had been sewn, closed, and were starting to heal. The one on the back of his one knee and back calf was the worst. Bauer described them – “It’s the same as if a dog bit a chunk out of it.” He hated writing, but Bauer described listening to the radio all day on the American Expeditionary Station of the BBC. Bauer gave his rations to another wounded soldier in the bed next to him (a razor, candy bars, and soap). All Bauer had when he arrived at the hospital was his ring and a pocketbook with 1500 Francs inside.  But, he concluded his letter that “Food is good!”

        Lieutenant Larry Sherwood told his parents in Ithaca about fighting in Germany, where his outfit had seen action for 147 straight days in the field. “I’d like to see some of those strikers (back home) in the line for just one hour,” Sherwood said.  For him, time on the line was not dollars or cents or overtime, but how long one could stay alive. For Sherwood, the Army, or “doughs” as he called them, were the real heroes of the war, much like the guards on a football team.

         Over in Italy, Miss Virginia Smith, a civilian working with the military there, wrote about how it was fur coat weather at her location. While Smith left her coat at Casablanca, a young pilot shipped it to her in time for winter. She also met several Canadian soldiers and other English speaking women – all of whom sounded so “un-British” in their accents.

Many Served from Gratiot County

       The news of those serving Gratiot County reminded readers about men and women who were gone abroad.  Sergeant Grant Marr from Breckenridge had his picture in the paper, along with news of the citation he received as an aircraft mechanic of the 95th Bombardment Group in England. Private Jack Ecklebarger of Ithaca served in the mess at a US Army general hospital in England. Eckelbarger sent food to wards of bedridden patients. Private John Kmotorka from Bannister had his picture in the news. He was attached to a mechanized cavalry reconnaissance squad somewhere in Germany. Private Donald Bush of St. Louis served with the 320th Regiment of the 35th Division in General Patton’s Third Army in Germany. Private Bernard Marrin of Alma was with the US Paratroopers stationed in France. Marrin graduated from Alma High School. Russell Whitford returned to duties overseas. He had already done 24 months in the CBI Theater.

       In Italy, Sergeant Edward Krenz of Breckenridge earned an air medal for meritorious service as a radio gunner on a B-24 Liberator. He flew missions in southern Europe and the Balkans. Private Francis Lott wrote to his wife in Alma that he had arrived safely in Italy.

        Three Ithaca boys, Virgil and Ora Wymer, along with Cleo Riddle, all met up in New Guinea. The two brothers had Thanksgiving Dinner together. Three brothers, Earl, Oliver, and Harold Smith, all from Bannister, were in the South Pacific. All three were Elsie High School graduates. Storeman 3/c Donald Tedhams of Alma was in the South Pacific and had been in the Navy for two years. Tedhams managed the JC Penney Store in Alma before entering the service.

       At home, Corporal Quentin Greening of Breckenridge trained on a B-24 Liberator in Walla Walla Army Air Field. Private John Bell of Alma gained his “Wings and Boots” with the United States Paratroopers by completing his training. Oran Sebring of St. Louis went back to Fort Benning, Georgia. He had already earned his badge and was now ready to serve with the 82nd Airborne. A/C Frank Marecek of Middleton completed training with the 2548th AAR Base Unit at Curtis Field in Brady, Texas. Fireman 1/c Gerald Glinke from Breckenridge finished his schooling at submarine school in New London, Connecticut. 

      Also, Dorothy Hall of Elwell became a 2nd Lieutenant appointed to the Army Nurse Corps. Hall was a graduate of the University of Michigan and had been a nurse at Highland Park General Hospital. Her new assignment took her to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin.

Those Gratiot County Men Who Became KIA, WIA, MIA, POW

       More and more stories appeared of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend Gratiot County and America during December. Sergeant Carl Ronk of Alma, previously listed as missing in action since November 8 in France, was now classified as killed in action. Private Howard Berry of North Shade Township was killed in Europe on November 23. He was previously wounded in action and hospitalized in France on July 14. Private William Crum, Jr., who formerly lived in Alma and St. Louis, was only 19 years old when he was killed in action in France on November 17. 

      A memorial service took place in Butternut, just outside of Gratiot County for Private Donald Oyler, who died in the Southwest Pacific. Japanese soldiers ambushed him.

       A long list of men wounded in action could be found in the newspapers. Robert Wolfgang of St. Louis was seriously injured in France on December 6. It was also the date of Wolfgang’s 19th birthday. Seaman Lansing Cook of Alma was wounded as a result of his ship’s sinking in the Pacific. Cook’s ship, the USS Abner Reed went down in Philippine waters. Cook suffered from shrapnel wounds and burns. Fireman 2/c George Shaw of Ashley came home after seeing two significant battles in the South Pacific. He received the Purple Heart from shrapnel wounds. Shaw left Ashley High School before completing graduation to serve in the Navy. Private Charles Bennett of Alma was wounded in Germany on November 23. News arrived that Private Richard Fishbeck of Alma, who landed at Normandy within 30 minutes of H-Hour and who had fought as far as St. Lo, was wounded from shrapnel from an 88-millimeter shell. He was in an American hospital in England. Private Cloyd Heath of Ithaca was reported wounded in action. Private Stanley Skrzypek of Alma was recovering in the US Army 250th station hospital in England after being wounded in his right foot at Chen du Pont, Normandy. Skrzypek served with the 82nd Airborne.  Sergeant George Backes and Lieutenant Robert Riester, both of Alma, were now listed as wounded in action. However, no other details were known. Fred Biddlecomb, a former St. Louis rural mail carrier, was in a hospital in Belgium due to shrapnel. He had been with the fourth Division of the First Army. Other county men who also were listed as WIA in December included Sergeant Warren Larry (Ithaca), Private Charles Bennett (Alma), and Private Rosilyn Schafenberg (North Star).

       The designation Missing In Action represented the struggle of families in Gratiot County who had to deal with the unknown fate of several men. Private James Campbell of Alma had been missing since November 24. He was the second Campbell grandson to be listed as MIA during the war. Lieutenant Arner Miles Douglas of Ithaca was again listed as MIA – the second time that his plane had been shot down in Europe. Private Claude Murdock of Pompeii was missing. Staff Sergeant Vernon Bishop of Bannister was missing in Europe. Private Richard Shoemaker of Alma was thought to be missing since November 14 in France; however, the word now came to Alma that he was considered to be safe.

        Still, other men were now listed as Prisoners of War. The wife of Floyd Bishop received a letter from a crewman of her son’s plane that Floyd was alive and most likely a POW in Germany. Berlin short wave radio sent a message that was received concerning George Jenkins, who was formerly from Breckenridge. Jenkins was captured in Western Europe and now was a German POW. He had been missing since November 10 and was in the Medical Detachment when attacked while trying to evacuate wounded soldiers from the combat area. Jenkins had been with the Third US Army at Metz. Floyd Peterson of Bannister became a POW, and the War Department confirmed this in a letter to his parents.

And So We Do Not Forget

        Santa arrived in Ithaca on the first Saturday of December, headed by the Ithaca High School band and firetrucks. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts followed Santa, all in costume for Christmas. The parade started at the Ithaca school house…1945 full year license plates would be available starting January 2. Only one plate would be used in 1945 due to restrictions on steel…Hunters from Gratiot County joined together with hunters from Clinton, Ionia, and Montcalm counties to develop plans to rid Gratiot County of the dreaded Red Fox, which had been killing poultry, young lambs, and pheasants…Superintendent Tom Nurnberger of St. Louis Schools opposed any compulsory military program until after the war ended and servicemen returned home…Tuberculosis Christmas Seals went out in the mail in early December. Sales for TB Seals would run until Christmas…The Michigan Education Study Commission recommended fourteen years of free schooling for all Michigan students. The plan also called for the consolidation of some school districts in order to carry out this plan…The city of Alma planned to place moderate-sized Christmas trees on the curbs in the business section. Christmas lighting was not done due to wartime restrictions, so the city purchased 100 trees…Two deer, a buck and a doe, wandered into downtown Alma along Prospect Avenue late on the night of December 5…Consumers Power Company complied with the order to cut service bills by 75 percent for December…Inspections at Alma’s four elementary schools turned up no cases of ringworm of the scalp…The Leslie McLean VFW Post in Alma rented the Danceland Hall above JC Penneys.  A benefit dance was scheduled for December 8 as a kickoff for creating a place for returning war veterans to visit. It was supervised by veterans and the auxiliary. No drinking or bad order was allowed…A Japanese American, Miss Katherine Tanaka, met with the Ithaca Women’s Club at the Thompson Home Library. Tanaka worked as a secretary for the YMCA in Detroit. She, along with her family, had been interred at the Gila Relocation Project in Rivers, Arizona…Mrs. Madeline Allen, along with Mrs. C.W. Dietrich ad Mrs. William Baxter, helped to spearhead a drive in Perrinton to create 56 Christmas boxes for service members.  Over two months starting in September, boxes were first sent to places like the South Pacific, Africa, Australia, and Italy. In October, another batch went to England and the Canal Zone. The last group went to men who were located stateside…The Ithaca Blue Star Mothers Number 111 met at the Thompson Home Library and voted to give ten Christmas boxes to the American Legion. Three members of the Gratiot County supervisors met with Blue Star Mothers Presidents from Ithaca and Alma to inspect ideas about an honor roll. The group examined other honor rolls in places like Lansing, Grand Ledge, Mason, Marshall, and Charlotte…Company C of the Gratiot County State Troops had an impromptu boxing match after their monthly meeting. After two men tried out new sets of boxing gloves for two rounds, four men were blindfolded, given only one glove and had the other arm behind their backs. Private Lippert got in the most blows – no one was injured…The Alma Strand Theatre put on its annual kiddies Christmas matinee movie. Anyone who donated canned goods, clothing, or a toy got in free to see Laurel and Hardy in “Jitter Bug”….The GEM Theatre in St. Louis also had a similar program under the direction of GE Marr and the St. Louis Lions Club. Santa was to appear, and he would have sacks of treats for children.

       The city of Alma would not provide supervision of newly built skating rinks for any skating above the dam. A cable was stretched across the river to warn skaters of dangerous ice. However, no supervision would be provided. The city manager ordered gravel to create dikes around a skating rink near the college campus…The Gratiot County Farm Bureau set a goal of enrolling 951 farm families in Gratiot County in 1945…Sylvia Williams, Alma’s teacher and director of the newly formed Adult Education program asked Alma residents to fill out and return questionnaires to help set up new classes for adult education in Alma in 1945…The Alma Record reported a sizeable increase in divorces in Gratiot County over the past months. Many of these involved servicemen who had returned home. Divorce cases averaged about eight per month in the county…The Ithaca Post Office would be on Eastern War Time starting January 1, 1945. The post office would now close at 5 p.m. each day. Mail continued to be dispatched in Ithaca at 12:20 and 1:02 by train, as well as 5:45 by Star Route…Ithaca had a community ice skating pond located at the Ithaca fairgrounds. Village employees constructed a pond that measured 100 by 250 feet…Naturalization examiners would be in Ithaca for two days in early January. They came to help people prepare their final petitions for naturalization and to help answer questions…The first Christmas party at the Alma Community Center had 182 people attend. The center had a snack bar, pool, billiards, and a ping pong table…Leonard Refineries planned on moving into its new headquarters building on East Superior Street in early February. Wartime conditions put restraints on materials and so construction was taking longer…The Sunday and Monday after Christmas proved to be very quiet in downtown Alma as businesses remained closed. Some complained that they could not get even a cup of coffee in downtown Alma…Alma city commission members now thought bicycle traffic in the downtown business district could not be regulated as they wished. Instead, a program about “the dangers of irresponsible driving” would be enacted.

And that was Gratiot County’s Finest Hour during December 1944.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed







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