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WORLD WAR II IN MID-AMERICAEXPERIENCES FROM RURAL MID-AMERICA DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Robert C. Daniels
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Robert C. Daniels
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDifficult Yet Peaceful Times
Nazi Germany's 1 September 1939 invasion of Poland signaled the beginning of war in Europe, a war that would eventually engulf all of Europe, North Africa, and a good portion of the Middle-East. Although this act plunged Europe into war, the United States, under the tutelage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, maintained its strict policy of isolationism and neutrality. This same timeframe saw the Western Pacific, specifically China, also in turmoil. Even before the 1 July 1937 'China Incident,' in which Japanese soldiers of the Kwantung Army opened fire on Chinese National troops, the Japanese had been encroaching into the Asian mainland, not hesitating to use military force when the need arose. On 12 December of the same year as the China Incident, the USS Panay, an American naval gunboat flying an oversized American flag, was bombed by Japanese Imperial Navy bombers on China's Yangtze River, killing an Italian journalist and two American sailors. Within a year, most of the fertile portions of China had fallen to Japan. As a result, although maintaining its isolationism and neutrality in the European war and overlooking the Panay incident, by the end of the 1930's, with Japan's push for their Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in nearly full swing, diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan were increasingly deteriorating to the extent that if things did not change, and soon, war in the Pacific might very well be imminent.
Throughout the 1930's, cities and villages in the United States had been reeling from the 29 October 1929 stock market crash, commonly referred to as Black Tuesday, which touched off the Great Depression, nearly devastating the country. Not only the United States was affected by this crash, but nearly the entire world had been suffering as well. People, hard working people, were out of work, some having been so for years. It was estimated that in the United States alone, nearly one in four adults of working age—twenty-five percent of the working population—were out of work at the height of the Depression. The respective governments tried to help, but with limited success. Only Germany, under their Nazi Dictator, Adolf Hitler, of all of the free-market societies, seemed to be showing any type of real signs of progress.
The mid-western American town of Waupun, Wisconsin, was no exception. By 1938, Waupun, situated in the southern-mid-eastern portion of the state along the headwaters of the Rock River, was a relatively small farming community typical of many other small, mid-western American farming communities. The three real main differences offsetting it from the other communities of its size was the fact that the State's maximum security prison, the State's Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and the National Rivet and Manufacturing Company were all three situated within the town's small city limits. Even with these three institutions, however, the Waupun area was still suffering from the Depression. Jobs were hard to find and money was scarce to purchase even the needed goods, much less any luxuries. Children of the era were growing up poor, yet many never realized it at the time since it was all they had really known, it was all they had been used to.
Due to the Depression and lack of work, Joseph "Joe" and Linda (Paskey) Bohnert and their four children were forced to move from time to time throughout the decade following the stock market crash. But somehow, with the exception of a short move to South Dakota, they always managed to remain within a ten mile radius of Waupun. Linda had been born in the town in 1896 to German immigrants. Joe, twelve years older than Linda, had, himself, emigrated from Switzerland in 1914. With Joe being forced to regularly seek new employment upon the termination of numerous short-lived jobs, and since new jobs became more and more scarce as the decade progressed, the family was forced to move even more oft en than before due to the lack of availability of work within walking distance—cars were a luxury the family could ill afford.
Prior to the market crash, Joe had worked for the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, commonly known simply as the Central State Hospital or Central State, located on the outskirts of Waupun. He had also worked for his father-in-law at the family owned tavern in town. But during the Depression jobs just became too scarce. He was eventually able to get assistance from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was established in 1935 by presidential order and funded by Congress through 1943, when it was disbanded due to the World War II war boom. The organization provided jobs and income for many of the unemployed during the Great Depression, and built roads and parks, as well as art, literary, and drama projects. Like many areas around the country, local projects were constructed by the WPA in the Waupun area as well. Two of these are still visible at the Fond du Lac County Park, just outside of the town. Both the park's band shell and the lining on the Rock River, where it flows through the park, were constructed by WPA workers.
The organization required that individuals work for assistance, and, as one of Joe's daughters was to remember, "Many of the people refused to work, but dad did, and got on with the [Waupun] City Parks Department." This job required Joe to get up before the sun every school-day morning and roll the tennis courts at the high school with a heavy roller to maintain the courts' flat, smooth playing surfaces. He was also a caretaker of the city's flower gardens.
To help the family, his wife Linda also worked for awhile at the local five and dime store. When Joe and Linda's children were old enough, they too pitched in to help. They would babysit and do other odd jobs; nearly anything for a little money. "I would babysit for Uncle Walter and Aunt Louise [Paskey]," reported Joe and Linda's oldest daughter, Doris, "and on the way home, I would stop off at the butcher's and buy 15 cents worth of cold cuts. That would be enough for each of us to have one or two slices of meat with our potatoes for supper." Like many of her generation, Doris was born not in a hospital, but at home in the family dwelling—in Waupun on 22 July 1923.
Even with Joe working through the WPA and his other odd jobs, Linda working at the Five and Dime, and their children helping when they could, times were financially rough on the family. Money was scarce, and hand-me-down clothes were the sign of the times in the Bohnert household. Linda would use her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine to alter these hand-me-downs, as well as make clothes from scratch to fit her children. "Most of the girls had pretty dresses in high school. We didn't," recalled Doris. "I had one dress for Sunday and a couple for school. Everyone else had several skirts and dresses to wear."
Lois, Joseph and Linda's youngest child, born in the family home in Waupun in 1925, recalled that "We didn't have a lot, but I think we had a lot more fun in our life, I think, in those days.... We went swimming, like I went swimming in the river [ Rock River]." " China Hole," she called it. "I think everybody was in the same boat, kinda, except for like doctors or lawyers or someone. Other than that we were all in the same boat, we didn't have a lot. But what we had we shared and had a good time."
In emphasizing how they would share, Lois went on to tell a story of how, when one of them would get a nickel, she and her brothers and sister would gather the neighborhood kids and they would all go to a nearby small neighborhood store where they would "see what we could get the most for our penny. You know, two for a penny, always something like that.... And then we go home and spread it out on the blanket, and then we'd divide it up."
Although very little money was available, the family of six, which also included Ralph, born in South Dakota on 6 September 1924, and the oldest, Alfred "Al," who was born in the family home in Waupun on 11 December 1921, nonetheless, always seemed to have had enough food, never having had to go hungry. According to Doris, the local butchers would give away beef bones for soup, and "We always had a big garden, and we ate a lot of vegetables. Mother cooked bread, and because there wasn't such a thing as a freezer back then, she canned a lot of vegetables." The family also received a monthly stipend of oatmeal, cornbread, sugar, flour, and one pound of butter from the government. In addition, for a period, the farmer from whom they were renting a home from would give them a gallon of milk every day.
Like many of her fellow school age friends, including her good friend Lois Bohnert, thirteen year old Dorothy Bal and her family were also having a rough time. Dorothy was born on 25 November 1925 in St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the county seat about eighteen miles north-east of Waupun, to Martin and Bessie Bal. As she was to state, "[W]e didn't have a lot of material things, but what we had we appreciated.... [I]n winter time we ice-skated on the [Rock] river and went sledding and skiing and ..., I mean, we had good times." She also recalled walking home with her father from his place of work each day. He would give her a penny, which she would take to the corner drug store where, she stated, "there was a big table there, and boy, there was really a decision to make up your mind what you are gonna buy for that penny, because it was twenty-five or fifty different candies.... So, every day it was a decision what you were gonna get for that penny."
Like her schoolmates Lois and Dorothy, in 1938 thirteen year old Joan Laandal was living in Waupun and attending the town's large Lincoln Elementary School. Having been born the youngest of four children to Melvin and Mae Laandal on 19 July 1925 in the family home in Merrill, Wisconsin, about 100 miles northwest of Waupun, the family had moved to Waupun where they opened and ran a restaurant and tavern called Laandal's Lunch. "It was a combination restaurant-tavern. A kind of a family place, you know," Joan recalled. "We lived in the west side of it. It was next to the Catholic Church, but it's been torn down now, so that area is [now] all parking lot."
Young six year old Shirley Karmann was also attending Lincoln School in Waupun; however, her family, like the Laandals, was not as bad off as the Bohnerts or the Bal's. Born in Milwaukee on 17 November 1930, her father, John, had been a successful bookkeeper and accountant there, but due to the Depression had lost his job. So John, after being hired on at the Maximum Security Prison in Waupun as a guard, had somewhat recently moved his wife, Clara (Igowski), and their family to Waupun. As Shirley recalled about her father getting the job at the prison and the family moving to Waupun, "I remember him saying there were over a thousand taking the test, and fortunately he passed the test and was hired, they only hired ten new men to work there. He started the job, and when he found a rental for Mom and I, we moved there too."
In moving to Waupun, however, the family left behind all of their extended family and relatives, who still lived in Milwaukee, including both her paternal and maternal grandparents who "were born in Germany, Poland, and Luxembourg." In contrast to their conditions in Milwaukee, times in Waupun for the Karmann family were rather good, even during the Depression. After his salary from the State had increased from $90.00 a month to $100.00 each month, which, during the Depression was rather good money, her father had been able to have a home built in town for $3,700.00. Shirley did state, however, that with the family that would grow to include a total of six children, money was still in short supply.
Other children living in Waupun at the time were to attend Waupun's second elementary school, the South Ward School. Among these were Josephine Aarts, who grew up poor as well. But, as she recalled, we "probably didn't know any better, I suppose. But we were satisfied." Like many others of her generation, she had been born in the family home—in Waupun on 28 March 1927. The second oldest child of Joseph and Ella Aarts, Josephine would attend school only up through the eighth grade, which would be the highest her education reached. Her father, Joseph, worked at the nearby Libby plant in Waupun making tin cans.
By that same year, 1938, fourteen year old Emil Hopp was already done with his schooling, having completed only the sixth grade at Lincoln School. Born on 24 August 1924, he was one of three children of Manus and Hattie Hopp. His father was a painter by trade, and the family lived in town on West Jefferson Street. Done with his schooling, Emil would work for local farmers in the area until he was able to get on with Shaler's National Rivet and Manufacturing Company. Next to the state prison and state hospital, Shaler's factory was the small city's biggest industry and employer.
Others lived in the surrounding rural areas on farms. Although many of these farm children would attend Waupun High School upon coming of age, through the eighth grade they would attend one-room country schools, which, prior to today's school bus era, they would be required to walk to and from in all forms of weather, even the harsh Wisconsin winters. Edward Theodore Uecker was one of these. One of four siblings, Edward was born in the family farmhouse in the township of Alto, Wisconsin, just three miles west of Waupun, on 29 December 1927 to Fred and Gladys Uecker. His mother, as he was to state, was assisted in Edward's birth by a midwife who "was a full blooded Oneida Indian.... And she walked ... a mile and a half on the prairie to be there. And she stayed there at the house until I came into the world. Yeah. Her name was Leona, Leona Tetzloff. She's gone many years [now]. Her maiden name was Dakota." Edward fondly spoke of Leona, stating that she would always say, "'Yeah, yeah, you were worth that half of pig that we got.' My dad had a lot of pigs, and that's what he paid for the delivery, half a dressed pork."
In 1938 Edward was attending a one-room country school about a mile and a half from his home. As he recalled, it was "Named after a President Harrison [either William Henry Harrison or William's grandson Benjamin Harrison]. There was ... most times about thirty-four of us in the one-room schoolhouse." In relating what it was like having to walk to and from his school, Edward was to state:
We'd get in some snow storms coming home sometimes. One time we got lost, big bunch of little kids following us. We walked right through the fields. St. Valentine's Day.... And the fences were covered, you know, and it was one of these whiteouts, you know what I'm talking about? Well, of course, we were the older boys, and the little kids were crying and all.... We come and walking in this field, and Milt Kastien had a big oak tree in the middle of the field for shade for the [cows]. I says, "I know where we are." He [Milt] had a stone pile on the south side. We made a beeline, headed for the school fence, and we caught to the second to the last post of that schoolyard fence. If we had missed that we would have walked right into an eighty acre field into a woods. But we got there, yup. But that's.... It wasn't easy, it wasn't easy. But we made it.
When not in school, Edward worked on the family farm. As he recalled:
I'm gonna tell you right out it was hard. Born and raised out in the prairie. We walked to school; rain, snow, shine, anything, we walked to school and back. And we lived in a house, no furnace, just heat your own, you know, with coal ... we always were cold.
We had enough to eat. My dad, you know, being a farmer we had chickens, eggs, and all. We always had enough to eat. That's the only time that city relatives would come and see us is time when they're butchering and all like that. But it wasn't easy.
Getting to and from these country schools were not just difficult at times for the students, but also for the teachers. In 1938 Nova Wagner was teaching school at one of the many one-room country schools not far from Waupun. As she recalled, she would get help at times from the local farmers:
In the winter times, sometimes the roads wouldn't be cleared for me to get through. And I can remember getting the chains out of my car and lying on the ground putting the chains on ... so I could get through the snow. And one time I had to walk the rest of the way, and by the end of the day my car was there. I left the keys in it and one of the good people along the road brought it up to me. They were wonderful people, all of them.
Nova was no novice, however, when it came to country one-room schoolhouses. She attended one herself when she was young. Born on 19 August 1920 on a farm in Green Lake County, Wisconsin, approximately twenty miles northwest of Waupun, she recalled that "We always walked to country [elementary] school.... My mother was so much for education that she wanted her girls to all get an education, and my dad saw to it.... I walked to high school too.... We walked to school on the snow banks in the winter." Like many of Nova's neighbors, her walk to the schoolhouse encompassed between two and three miles each way. However, although her experiences in grade school were quite similar to other farm children living in the country, unlike many of her neighbors, her father's heart was not really into farming. As she related, "I had a good family, but we were very poor. My dad farmed only because that's what my mother wanted him to do. That 'The only place to raise a family was on a farm,'" her mother would say.
Upon her mother's death when Nova was sixteen years old, her father gave up farming and moved the family to the small Wisconsin farming community of Brandon, which is located about ten miles northwest of Waupun, and became an insurance agent. In Brandon, Nova would attend and graduate from Brandon High School. She then attended the Green Lake County Normal School to become a grade-school teacher.
Normal schools, based on and named after the French concept of École Normale (normal school), which in turn was based upon German teacher schools, were first created in the United States during the nineteenth century. They were designed to train teachers to teach in the primary, or elementary schools (first through eighth grade), and, as such, were normally only two-year schools, as was Nova's. Some normal schools, most all of which were located in rural areas, would eventually go on to evolve into four-year teacher colleges, some even eventually evolving into full universities.
After graduating from the normal school, Nova continued to live with and keep house for her father in Brandon as well as began teaching grade school at Monroe Country School, a one-room schoolhouse outside of Alto. As a teacher, she would receive $90 a month. According to Nova, "[T]o me it was a lot of money, because we grew up without money, and then to think you could earn your own."
Excerpted from WORLD WAR II IN MID-AMERICA by Robert C. Daniels Copyright © 2012 by Robert C. Daniels. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Difficult Yet Peaceful Times....................1
The Day of Infamy....................31
Picking up the Pieces....................209
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