Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Westchester Township goes to war: WWII exhibit open at museum

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

It’s the most documented war in history. You either lived it or learned about it in school, assuming of course you were not one of those students who dozed off during History class.

Either way, to refresh your memory, in 1941 the United States entered the Second World War after the attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor and joined the Allied forces against Axis powers. More than 400,000 U.S. Military men and women gave their lives to the effort in a series of battles in Bataan, Sicily, Normandy, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, to name a few.

Countless books, movies and TV documentaries will tell you their own versions of what went on in those parts of the world, but what about Chesterton? Finally that story is being told and you can discover it at the Westchester Township History Museum now through Nov. 25.

“Westchester at War: WWII” is the first exhibit in what will be an annual series of local tales and exhibit items showing how Duneland was impacted by major U.S. wars.

Museum Curator Serena Sutliff said WWII was her first exhibit choice as the population who lived in that era is getting smaller and they are the ones who will get the biggest kick out of the exhibit’s relics. Included are photos of 40 Dunelanders who served with “The Greatest Generation,” clippings encouraging purchase of war bonds, a WWII scrapbook donated by Elsie Janus, Dune Acres resident Donald D. Gourley’s Air Force jacket, an official WWII Army Uniform with Eisenhower jacket, and letters from the front line.

“My favorite piece is the button bag that was given to all servicemen and women,” said Sutliff. Inside each bag was an assortment of 53 buttons if you should ever a need a button for your overcoat, raincoat, field jackets, shirts, trousers or pajamas.

Westchester Goes to War

Even a year or so before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dunelanders were stationed at the bases to help the U.S. fortify its military presence. Many of them were selected by the first U.S. peacetime draft, from November 1940 to December 1941.

Overall, one out of every five Chesterton residents served directly in the war, Sutliff said. Those at home were active in support of the war effort through rationing, salvaging, buying war bonds or planting victory gardens.

The local Women’s Red Cross, led by Mrs. Roy Sherwood, spent 13,000 hours knitting sweaters, socks, mittens and navy caps.

According to a Chesterton Tribune report, Mrs. Dan McNeil was the “champ knitter” creating 56 garments in a span of 1,066 hours.

The Tribune throughout WWII would regularly include a special section for military personnel – “With the Boys in Uniform” – printing addresses and photographs so folks on the home front could write to them. Sutliff said the title was changed to “With Those in Uniform” in 1943 to acknowledge the growing number of women serving.

The paper would be sent to Chesterton soldiers free of charge. Some servicemen would write letters back to the Tribune telling of their experiences.

Women continued to rally behind their fellows and a short-lived Chesterton group known as the “Forget Me Not Club” rallied support for them. Forget Me Not’s would provide comfort to the Army sweethearts, spouses and moms. Each member had to write at least two letters per week to a Chesterton serviceman.

When President Harry Truman announced on the radio the war was over Aug. 14, 1945, Westchester residents dropped whatever task they were doing at the time and ran into the streets, creating a clamor of car horns, sirens and church bells. The Porter fire truck led a victory parade through Porter into Chesterton carrying a grand American Flag, a of photo of which can be seen in the exhibit.

Rationing and Scrap

The economy became focused on war production, so commercial items were not easy to find.

The U.S. Office of Price Administration imposed a food rationing program. Every citizen young and old, that included infants, was given a ration book. Only babies and small children were qualified to receive canned milk.

Rationing tokens and stamps were issued in 1944 allowing retailers to give change for food products bought with the stamps.

In Chesterton, citizens organized a great scrap drive in 1942 after seeing a metal shortage since steel companies were not able to keep up with demand. The Town of Chesterton was very generous in its drive, scrapping pretty much anything available, even the WWI cannon housed in Chesterton’s Railroad Park.

The Indiana Legislature in 1943 issued only one license plate, instead of two. Citizens were given a metal tab to bolt over their old 1942 plate. The state issued plate is part of the exhibit donated by Museum researcher Eva Hopkins.

Local Heroes

No matter how big or how small the role, every U.S. soldier contributed in some way to protecting our nation.

Americans are familiar with the heroic feats of WWII Generals George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and George S. Patton, but how many Duneland residents know their own members of the “Greatest Generation”?

First there is the story of 1939 Westchester High School graduate Harlan Behrendt who became a “Vulcanaire” and in November 1943 served as navigator for a bomber plane in England conducting submarine patrols.

Then there is Gourley’s tale. Serving as First Lieutenant in the 5th Army Air Force, he flew survivors of the Bataan Death March out of Asia. He was later prepped for a mission to fly into Tokyo, which was canceled as Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb to end the war.

Outside combat zones and back at home, volunteers in Westchester were practicing preparations in case of an air raid or a blackout. Organizing the first “dim-out” on Dec. 21, 1942 were Clarence D. Wood, Chesterton Civil Defense Director, and Hjalmer Lafving, Chief Air Raid Warden.

Other forms of Civil Defense training included firefighting, first aid and decontamination procedures for feared chemical weapon attacks.

Not Just a Guy Thing

Men were the dominant gender on the front lines but the exhibit certainly does not ignore the accomplishments of women in WWII.

The first Women’s branch of the army was formed in May 1942 and became known as the Women’s Army Corps in 1943, whose purpose was “to replace men” according to the WAC Field manual. General MacArthur referred to his female troops as his “best soldiers,” saying they worked harder and nagged less than the men.

A women’s Navy unit was also commissioned called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES. Over 80,000 were enlisted by the end of the war.

According to the exhibit, 21 women from Westchester served or volunteered and their names are featured. One of them, a Red Cross nurse named Elizabeth Gloser, appeared on the front cover of the Red Cross Courier which museum visitors can spot in the exhibit.

Local nurse Magdalene Kubeck was the sole casualty of the 21. Called to service the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Kubeck was killed riding in an ambulance in Guam in February 1945, while fleeing a Japanese air attack. Kubeck’s nurse picture is displayed.

Gold Stars and barbed wire

History buffs are sure to get a kick out of the one-of-a-kind relics contained in the exhibit.

For fans of radio, there is an original script copy for “One-Fifth of a Town” that ran on Chicago’s WGN radio on Aug. 9, 1943. The fifteen-minute program was broadcast from Railroad Park and brought into homes by announcer Dick Enroth.

According to the exhibit, the program came to Chesterton when members of the Forget Me Not Club persuaded musician Sonny Dunham to come to town for a concert dedicated to the wives, mothers and girlfriends of servicemen.

More treasured artifacts include Major John Swarner’s water purification tablet vials, which were brought in courtesy of Swarner’s family. Swarner lived in Liberty Twp. after the war. The army gave purification tablets to soldiers traveling overseas—chlorine tablets to kill dangerous bacteria.

Other pint-sized artifacts include a small prayer book for many various religious beliefs that could be carried and read in battle, WWII Navy and Army flying helmets, and Harlan Behrendt’s aviator license.

Another notable item is real barbed wire from the Battle of Normandy which Germans put up to protect themselves from Allied forces. The piece was given to Museum Registrar Joan Costello by a Frenchman in 1994.

Christmas is Coming

Sutliff said the museum is scheduled to open its next exhibit on Dec. 5 – “A Boomer Christmas: Toys of the 1950s and 1960s.”

Anyone who wishes to contribute a toy to be exhibited can reach the museum at (219)987-9715 during regular hours at the Brown Mansion located at 700 W. Porter Ave. in Chesterton.

 

 

Posted 10/24/2012