Gratiot’s Finest Hour – “Retrospect: Looking Back at Gratiot County during World War II”

Front page of Gratiot County Herald, dated August 16, 1945.
Alma Record dated August 9, 1945.

In January 2019, I started a journey of writing about Gratiot County during its watershed moment of the Twentieth Century, which was (and is) World War II.

Before starting this project in 2017-2019, I was completing a history of Gratiot County during World War I, as that war was commemorating its centennial. It was challenging to finish that project and shift gears, but I needed to do so. Technically the 75th anniversary of World War II had been underway, and the two wars overlapped with their respective anniversaries. Still, I wondered, who was paying attention to America’s involvement in these world wars and who cared?

Because the 75th anniversary of World War II was well underway, I decided to pick up Gratiot County’s involvement beginning in January 1944, leaving me with the task of covering the last twenty months of the war. Most of the writing you find here on the blog was based on our history, as seen from our county archives and newspapers such as the Gratiot County Herald, Alma Record, and St. Louis Leader-Press.

As time went on, it turned out that it took me 3 ½ years of my own life to cover 20 months of Gratiot County’s history during that time of war. Although I did not anticipate it, the world of COVID threw up roadblocks and challenges that none of us anticipated. Archives and libraries closed, which hampered this project while we dealt with the first pandemic to hit Gratiot County since 1918. With these shutdowns, I quickly fell behind my goal of finishing the history on time; hence here I am in the summer of 2022. The last six months of the war proved very taxing as more war coverage expanded in 1945. Still, I attempted to try and write about some of the events, issues, and people tied to Gratiot County during World War II.

And so, the project expanded as time went on. After writing a total of 96,111 words about Gratiot County  during World War II (or an average of 4,805 words per chapter), there were some things that I wanted to highlight to readers:

-I hoped this project would be a start in preparing for the time when Gratiot County looks back at the centennial of World War II when the county gets to the 2040s. I hope I am here at that time,  but right now, I have only had the grit and energy to cover the last two years of the war (1944-1945).

-What I wrote about here on the blog was a chronicle, drawing from what I believed to be the most important topics and themes during the war. Things like rationing, farming, the draft, who served and where they were stationed, and those who were wounded, killed, or missing in action – all of these were key to the war here on the home front in Gratiot County.

-No matter what events, places, and names were covered, there were more that should be mentioned. Similarly, no matter what letters of service members were published or stories of where our men and women were during the war, there were more. It became impossible to write about them all – and sometimes, I was asked why I missed a reader’s father or grandfather. I probably missed stories of those wounded in action, although I tried to recognize those we lost as killed in action.  

-Looking back, Gratiot County pulled together and overcame the crisis we know today as World War II. However, it came with a high cost. A total of 116 men lost their lives defending Gratiot County and the nation, and their names appear on the All Wars Memorial in Ithaca. The war also did not ultimately end for some men who did come home. Veterans struggled to find work and how to support themselves and their families, even as economic problems came with inflation and the adjustment to a “peacetime economy.” Some of these men struggled in their marriages and with what we today know as a post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, these men went on and helped build the postwar county many of us inherited. The return home of these servicemen also triggered what became known as the “baby boom,” which affected schools and school enrollment for several decades.

-Probably the most important question from this look at Gratiot County during World War II remains this one: if a national emergency such as another world war took place, could Gratiot County (and America) come together as it did in the early 1940s? Members of that generation asked that question as we passed through the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam, economic recessions, political scandals, good times, and bad. Could we, as residents of Gratiot County, come even close to what “The Greatest Generation” pulled off? I seriously wonder about trying to answer that question.

That generation and events made up “Gratiot’s Finest Hour.”

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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