Gratiot’s Finest Hour – February 1945: “The Cost of War, The Cost of Life”

Above (clockwise from left): shoe rationing in St. Louis; Red Cross advertisement from February, 1945; Private Ed Kalinowski of North Star was one of several men whose deaths were announced that month; hardware advertisement from Alma; Professor Hans Richter’s death took many in Alma and at Alma College by surprise.

Gratiot’s Finest Hour, February 1945: “The Costs of War”

As Gratiot County continued into the fifth year of the war, the costs continued to mount. More Gratiot County men continued to die in service to the county and nation. The results of the previous December’s fighting in the Ardennes in France and places in the Pacific, like the Philippines, illustrated the price paid to end the war. 

There would be no end of rationing soon. Farmers needed to grow more crops in 1945, even though they risked losing farm help due to the draft. As more and more young men left the county, letters home to wives, parents, and family members described the loneliness and dedication needed to win the war.

It was February 1945 in Gratiot County.

Rationing Goes On

As the War Production Board demanded that towns comply with energy conservation, Gratiot County tried to follow suit. On February 1, the St. Louis City Council ordered all display lights turned off. Theaters like the GEM in St. Louis were allowed to light up as long as they only used 60-watt bulbs. The single biggest issue dealing with energy conservation in February dealt with “brownout enforcement.” Consumers Power Company officials revealed that 22 businesses in the county were slow to enforce “brownout.”  However, the officials reported that Gratiot business owners usually did not understand the provisions of the brownout order instead of being openly disobedient. The Alma Chamber of Commerce worked diligently to inform business owners of the goal of one hundred percent compliance. Shop windows could not be lit; neither could honor rolls, church lights, clocks, or gasoline pumps.

Ration calendars with county office hours in Ithaca and point values appeared in the newspapers. The county rationing office in Ithaca operated six days a week with reduced hours on Saturday. Anyone turning in waste fats could earn up to two meat ration points and four cents per contribution. While inspections on tires were no longer compulsory, they were required if a person wanted new tires. Commercial vehicles were supposed to be inspected every six months or 5,000 miles, depending on which occurred first. In one week in early February, the rationing board issued 87 grade one tire certificates. At the end of the month, the board gave 145 more. Rationing continued  even as the government limited passenger tire quotas due to “military necessity.”

Various other things continued to be rationed  as ways to support the war effort through conservation. Ration free shoes were available for three weeks at Strouse’s Shoe Store in St. Louis. People in the county needed to enjoy their current meat supply as they may disappear by midsummer. The St. Louis  Boy Scouts went and collected almost five tons of waste paper during their wastepaper drive. The Michigan Office of Civilian Defense set a goal of one million Victory Gardens in Michigan for 1945.

Then there were some unpleasant things about rationing. Gratiot County, along with the rest of the nation, entered a midnight curfew starting February 26. To comply with the “brownout order,” theatres, dance halls, saloons, and sports arenas all had to close by midnight.  Many people debated the current status of Eastern War Tie versus Central Standard Time in Michigan. Which was better? Detroit wanted Eastern, but Gratiot farmers wanted “Sun time,” a half-hour faster than central time. The debate went on. Finally, Morris Goldfelder of North Star changed his plea in Bay City Federal Court. Goldfelder admitted that he had diverted 40,000 pounds of cheese and sold it to civilians, rather than keep it for the Armed Forces.  It was unclear what Goldfelder’s penalty ended up being.

Farming in Gratiot County

Gratiot Farmers needed to raise beets for the 1945 farming season to help with the war effort. All county farmers heard that the War Food Administration made growing beets the highest goal in Michigan for that summer because of low sugar stocks. Even if the United States liberated the Philippines in 1945, it would send little sugar to the United States. Cuba also anticipated a short supply of sugar in 1945.

The St. Louis Beet Growers Association held its 14th annual reorganization meeting at St. Louis High School. It re-elected Frank Oberst of Breckenridge as president. Almost 600 farmers came and received a complimentary meal and heard that there were “patriotic reasons” to grow more sugar beets in the county. Three local churches –the Methodist, Lutheran, and Christian churches in St. Louis – fed the crowds.  Beet farmers heard that if they paid cash and purchased fertilizer, it meant saving between three and six dollars per ton. At this meeting, a total of 3200 acres in Gratiot County were under contract to grow beets. Also, farmers heard that Texas and Mexican Nationals would be available to work in the fields. So would German prisoners of war.

In another instance, 400 farmers and their families met at the thirtieth annual St. Louis Co-Operative Creamery Company meeting. This group also met in the St. Louis High School auditorium.

The Gratiot County Farm Bureau held a Victory Meeting at Muscott’s Hall in Ithaca. A total of 578 Farm Bureau families had paid memberships in this organization.

The main concern for county farmers was the news that 175 farmers faced military examinations in January for induction.  Even more, recently went in February. Farmers left behind worried about the effect of the loss of these men for the upcoming farming season.

In other news, one hundred county farmers met at the Gratiot County Conservation League’s park cabin. They heard  Gratiot County conservation officer Harold Barrow report that hunters took approximately fifty foxes since the five-dollar bounty started. Parks Allen analyzed nine of the animals to determine what the fox had been eating. Allen said the county’s fox diet appeared to consist of rabbits, pheasants, mice, and domestic fowl. Fox hunting during the winter of 1943-1944 became the county’s number one outdoor sport and earned the nickname “the sport of kings.” As a result, hunters from outside Gratiot County poured in from places as far away as Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor to hunt fox, especially Sundays.

The Work of the Gratiot County Red Cross

As news proclaimed that over 10,000 trained men and women served overseas in the American Red Cross, local Red Cross efforts continued. In Ithaca, the Red Cross Service Window displayed souvenirs from places like India, Turkey, Iran, the Pacific, and France. The Klein Brothers from Ithaca sent several items to their parents, and these things, in turn, appeared on display. Anyone in the county who wanted to display war souvenirs only had to call Telephone 158 in Ithaca and leave word they had items to share. Several Red Cross meetings in the county during February took place to anticipate the upcoming March Red Cross Fund Drive.

The Draft in Gratiot County

The Gratiot County draft board continued to struggle with the issue of Gratiot County farm youth and the war. The board had to decide which young men, ages 18 to 26, went into the Army or the Navy. The board, in turn, considered the extent to which these young men were irreplaceable. Were they essential to the war effort, and did their absence from a farm affect food production? By February 12, the board had to send another contingent of men to Detroit for their inductions. If they could not fill the quota, the board had to consider farm youths classified as 2A and under the ages of 26 to 30. The next step would be to take men who were 2A over the age of 30.

Some state politicians reacted strongly to the enforcement of the Tydings Amendment. This legislation urged draft boards to do everything necessary to take all physically fit farmers into the armed forces. One legislator cried out in the press, “Those boys were just shanghaied into the military. Some day the draft board may wake up and find out they want something to eat for breakfast, and at noon, and night.”

The Gratiot County Herald ran a column entitled “The Draft and Farmers Rights.” The editors informed readers that farm youth had certain rights after complying with registration with the board. Deferments took place in three ways: first, if the youth had continuous farm history; second, if he could not be replaced on the farm; third, if he was needed on the farm that due to anticipated production would be average or above average. However, the paper informed readers in bold print, “EACH FARMER MUST PRESENT HIS OWN CASE before the draft board.”

In another column, the Herald also urged readers to remember that those Gratiot County men and women who served on the draft and ration boards were “unsung heroes.” These men also deserved a pat on the back for carrying out their duties during times of controversy.

  Gratiot residents learned the names of the 45 men who left the county in January. Thirty-four went to Fort Sheridan to join the Army; eight went to the Navy, and three to the Marines. Among those sent to the Army included Dionicio Perez Sanchez and Edward Ralph Goggin of Alma. Duane Ruehle of Ithaca entered the Navy, and Clare R.V. Craig of Perrinton went into the Marines.

Letters Home to Gratiot County

Private Charles Starry, Jr. wrote home he had walked 500 miles in India just before Christmas. Also, he stated that planes in his area dropped turkeys in boxes for Christmas and that the natives suffered from different diseases. Starry’s mother believed her son had walked the Burma Road and probably made it to China. His diet at that time mainly consisted of rice, bananas, and cocoanuts. Corporal Donald Wright of St. Louis came home after two years in the Pacific. He had lost all of his personal effects in the Philippines. A newspaper reported that Lieutenant Colonel William Kyes of Elwell had just completed eleven months the India – Burma Theater. In all, Kyes completed 91 missions and 766 flying hours. He flew with the 7th Bombardment Group of the 10th Air Force.

  Jerry Carlson also wrote to his parents from somewhere in the Pacific that he missed pumpkin pie and fresh milk, having long since grown tired of powdered milk. Upon crossing the equator, Carlson joked that he received a close haircut, a paddling, and a bath in salt water. All of this was a ritual for those at sea. Chief Petty Officer Robert Ode could not write in detail about being in the Philippines. Ode saw General MacArthur come ashore and stood next to MacArthur’s jeep, onshore when movies were taken of the General’s arrival. Ode urged his family to look in the background of any footage they saw as he wrote his name on the front of his helmet. A photograph of Marine Private Wayne Sowers of St. Louis appeared on the front page of the St. Louis Leader-Press. Sowers had been wounded at Guam and received the Purple Heart. Cardwell Hoard of Pompeii wrote home from aboard the USS Bunker Hill. He saw action at Ellice Island and Saipan. Hoard enlisted in the Navy on March 1, 1944, but later would be killed in action in 1945 aboard this ship.

The news came in about the three Wright Brothers from St. Louis, Max, Dan, and Gordon, each of whom was in different war areas. Max had been in Marseille, France; Dan served in the Fiji Islands and was now discharged, and Gordon served in New Caledonia. Another brother, Lawrence, awaited training at an airbase in Iowa.

Private Don Randall returned to Lafayette Township from Luxembourg, France, after being away for three years. Sergeant Charles Brennan wrote to his sister about the snow in France, making him homesick for Gratiot County. Brennan noted that the snow in France was the most the country had received since 1907. While he had seen Paris, Randall still longed to see Wheeler, Michigan. Corporal Archie Houden of Breckenridge wrote home from Belgium that his unit rebuilt ten large railroad bridges in one month, a record for his company. Houden arrived in England in 1942, cleared mine patches and booby traps at Normandy, and now cleared the rubble in French cities as the Germans retreated. Another letter from Private Howard Comstock of St. Louis arrived at the Comstock home in St. Louis. In it, Private Comstock enclosed a clipping written by Buck Dawson. The latter moved along with the 82nd Airborne along the Dutch-German border. The clipping warned that the Germans still had plenty of fight left in them and that the war was far from over in Europe. Staff Sergeant Willard Haag of Sumner arrived home on leave. Haag received his orders to come home while in a foxhole along the German front. He started for the coast within 15 minutes of being notified. Haag served with Patton’s Third Army and enlisted in 1940, having been overseas three years and wounded three times. Haag was one of a group of 835 men sent home on the Army’s recuperative plan.

Sergeant Robert Hamilton wrote to his wife in Alma about being a chief cook with a B-24 Liberator group in Southern Italy. Air raids took off from this location into places like the Ploesti Oil Fields, as well as cities like Munich and Regensberg, Germany, and Vienna, Austria. Sergeant Donald Breidinger of Alma served as an aircraft loader at Gazes Air Base in North Africa. Breidinger said he had visited cities like Rabat, Dakar, Marrakech, Atar, and Agadir. Staff Sergeant Max Turner of North Star came home on a thirty-day furlough. Turner served 34 months in North Africa and saw action at 609 Hill, Bizerte, and Tunis. Turner also saw action in Italy, which culminated in fighting at the Anzio Beachhead.

  Private Doyle Plank of Alma sent home a program from the “Spaghetti Bowl” football game recently played in Italy on New Year’s Day. Plank was a radio gunner with the 12th Air Force.

Those Dreaded Initials:  WIA, KIA, MIA, and POW

The cost and results of  Gratiot County’s men at war continued in February 1945. Most of the news dealt with the Battle of the Bulge results, which took place in Europe during December.

In Ithaca, the parents of Private Neil Litwiller learned that he had been wounded in Luxembourg on January 12. Several other Gratiot men also suffered wounds while in Belgium. These included Private Philip Fockler, Captain Robert Greenhoe, and Private Melvin Lutz, all of Alma. Still others among the wounded from Alma were Lieutenant Norman Northrup and Lieutenant Eldon Adams. Northrup suffered back injuries and damaged vertebrae when his jeep was blown up while dodging German mines and maneuvering while under fire. Private Stanley Worden of Alma sustained wounds to his right arm, had one operation, and probably would have another. Worden expected to be moved to a hospital in England. Private Mercer Cook of Alma also was wounded in Luxembourg. Still, he had been sent to a Paris hospital due to having frozen feet. Private Alfred Ueberroth of Alma, who served with the combat engineers, injured his left arm. Private Webster Mayle of Ithaca faced a slow recovery in a French hospital due to serious abdominal wounds he suffered back in early November. It was not known where Mayle was recovering.

  Merton Peacock of St. Louis, and one of five Peacock brothers in the war, had been seriously wounded in Belgium and was in a hospital there. It proved to be Peacock’s second time in a hospital with combat wounds. On Christmas Day, Sergeant Daniel Dafoe of Alma suffered an injury to his upper right arm from a shell fragment. Now in an English hospital, it was thought that Dafoe would make a normal recovery.  Elmo Badder’s wife of North Shade Township received the Purple Heart in the mail that her husband was given for being wounded on December 16 in France. Harold Huntoon of Breckenridge sent word to his father that the younger Huntoon had been injured in the hand while fighting in France.

Lieutenant Norman Keon came home to St. Louis on a 21-day service leave pass. Keon had just been released from an Indiana hospital where he had been since August. Keon suffered a serious jeep accident in New Guinea in April 1944. Private Eugene Jellison of Alma came home on sick leave from a U.S. Naval Hospital in North Carolina. Jellison wore two gold stars from being in major battles that included Bougainville and Guam. Jellison had been stationed in New Zealand before this, and he received the Purple Heart.

Private Kenneth Cole of Bethany Township also was in the news. Cole was wounded in November, and he sent a letter home in January that his leg still bothered him. Cole got married in February 1944,  went to training camp in May, and made it to France by late September. Upon landing, Cole was hit by a German .88, causing him to be placed in three different English hospitals.

In February, the hardest news to reach Gratiot County dealt with those men who paid the ultimate price for the county and the nation. Private Henry Iler was killed in France on January 3 and was buried in a cemetery in eastern France. Iler’s brother also suffered wounds while in the Pacific in 1943. Sergeant John Townsend of Ashley died in Northern Luxembourg a week later while trying to attack a house in a small town that held 50 Germans. Some tough news came to Ithaca with the death of Private Volney Loomis. Loomis was a paratrooper who died of his wounds in Belgium on January 4. Loomis’ wife died six weeks after he was inducted into the Army, and the paratrooper’s death left behind his small son. Private Edward Kalinowski of North Star, also a paratrooper, died in Belgium on January 20. Kalinowski received citations for gallantry in action when he served in Italy. Corporal Gordon Willoughby of Elba Township was also killed in action on January 19 in Belgium. Private Howard Joley lost his life in France on January 25. Joley was from Ashley.  The news came to St. Louis that Private Robert Lucas, a member of the 298th Engineers Battalion, died in Belgium in late December. Lucas’ jeep approached an enemy roadblock in Belgium and then tried to turn around when the enemy fired upon him. He was laid to rest in a Belgian cemetery.

Those who died in other instances of service also made the news. Private Clarence Orr, formerly of Alma, died when his C-47 transport plane crashed due to catching fire while in midair in Robinson, Illinois. A funeral for Private Howard Berry, originally from North Shade Township and a student in Ashley and Alma, took place through a “solemn and impressive service” in Carson City. Berry died in late November in France. The wife of Captain Arner Douglas, who was killed on June 2, 1944, over France, received three more letters explaining how her husband died in service to the country. One letter explained how Douglas had just been promoted to Captain before his death. 

Newspapers also mentioned those who were missing in action or were held as prisoners of war. Private Arthur Wilson of Breckenridge had been missing since December 28. Sergeant John Parrish of Alma went missing on January 9 while serving as a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber in England. Technician Walter Moore of Alma was also missing in action. Mrs. Paul Paulson of New Haven Township told the newspaper that her husband was missing in Belgium with the 9th Armored Division.

One Prisoner of War now included Howard Baker of Ashley, who had been missing since October 6, 1944. He was now in a German POW camp. Good news came to the family of Private Bruce Meade of Riverdale. Meade had been repatriated and would soon be coming home from Germany. Meade had been a prisoner of war since February 18, 1943. The War Department encouraged the family to send a message to him in 25 words or less. Meade had written home in November that he got the box from the family, which contained maple sugar.

The family of Sergeant Benny Zamarron of Ashley traveled to Selfridge Field to receive his decoration medals. Sergeant Zamarron received recognition for meritorious achievement, even though he too was a prisoner of war somewhere in Germany. 

And So We Do Not Forget

The Gratiot County Ministerial Association held its February meeting at the Seventh Day Advent Church in Ithaca…Leonard Refineries opened its new administration building on East Superior Street. It measured 188 feet by 45 feet, with a terrace and broad walkway…The two-story school in Maple Rapids was entirely destroyed by fire on February 1. Total losses amounted to $50,000…State Street Residents in Alma saw their first Robin on February 18…the Gratiot County Courthouse would be closed two days, February 12 and 22, for Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays…Ten marriage licenses had been issued in Gratiot County as of February 15. One license belonged to Frank Mikus, age 23 of North Star Township, and Thelma Chmiko, 21 of Elba Township….A memorial service for Professor Hans Richter took place at Alma College. Richter, a German-born native who fled Nazi Germany, took his own life. His disappearance had caused a stir in Alma until his body was found. Richter was well liked by the student body at Alma College…Swift & Company of Alma gave praise to workers who helped the company set new records in 1944 for distributing food and other products. The company had forty employees join the armed forces since Pearl Harbor…”Arsenic and Old Lace,” starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Jack Carson played for three nights at Alma’s Strand Theatre.

The Alma Record ran a column about marriage and divorce in Gratiot County. Factors in the number of increasing divorces included hasty marriages between servicemen and women before going off to war, as well as liquor problems…The St. Louis Community Center opened to young people in town. Table tennis and dancing were two features for the young crowd. Strict supervision was expected of youth…Only slight repairs in St. Louis could occur for the city’s lighting system. The problem centered around shortages of materials…A total of 35 students from Gratiot County enrolled at Central Michigan College for the winter semester. Edward Lawson entered the V-12 Program…Clayton Sias, age 55, a World War I veteran, a barber for 25 years, and teller at the bank died suddenly of a heart attack.  Sias had been a charter member of the American Legion Post…A pair of Native American girls, Elizabeth and Ina Miron, were arrested in Perrinton for disorderly conduct. The two told the judge that they had been working in defense plants in Detroit and Muskegon. They served 30 days and paid a fine of $19.10 each…Several Gratiot County men in the Fifth Infantry were given top priority for a thirty-day furlough, starting February 7…The Gratiot County Polio Fund hoped to raise money through several social events such as a Silver Tea, a card party, and a cafeteria-style supper…L.D.Whittier, former Alma shoe merchant and former member of the Gratiot County Draft Board, started work with the United States Employment Service in Alma…Correspondent Edmund Stevens spoke at the Inter-City Town Hall Library lyceum in Breckenridge. Stevens had just published a new book on Russia after his travels there with Wendell Wilkie.

An explosion at the Alma Piston plant on February 12 brought out the Alma fire department. While the fire was hard to put out, some employees only suffered minor burns…A fox hunt took place on February 25 in South Fulton Township. Anyone who shot a fox had to turn the bounty over to the club. Hunters were to meet up at Guernsey’s garage in Perrinton to start the hunt…The annual meeting of the St. Louis Cooperative Creamery was planned for the St. Louis high school gymnasium. A crowd of 600 was anticipated…March 15 is the due date for filing income taxes with the IRS…Robert Bellaire, a former United Press correspondent in Tokyo, told 600 people in St. Louis, and later in Alma, about his experiences as a POW under the Japanese. Bellaire was captured and spent seven months as a POW…Central War Time becomes official in Gratiot County starting March 17. However, Ithaca, Alma, and St. Louis already switched to CST in November…Former St. Louis teacher Barker Brown, his wife and three children were all thought to be freed from Santo Tomas concentration camp in Manilla. Brown’s parents anxiously awaited word of their freedom.

And that was Gratiot County’s finest hour in February 1945.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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