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My Granddaddy, An Air Raid Warden During World War II

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I continue to be surprised by my family’s history. Looking through another family envelope the other day. I found a certified picture ID for my  granddaddy, John Alexander Cox, known as Alec,who was an air raid warden in Charleston, SC, during World War II. He never talked about it.

He was too old to serve as a soldier, but I never knew he held this civilian job.

As war spread across the globe, cities and states were responsible for coordinating preparations for war-related emergencies.

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The civilian defense program against air attacks began with pilots who flew along the coastlines and plane spotters who manned towers to watch for approaching enemy planes. There were also blackout drills that forced people to practice their response to the air-raid alarm signal—a series of intermittent siren blasts.

Air-raid wardens supervised the blackout drills, cruising up and down neighborhood streets to make sure no light escaped the houses. By early 1943, there were about 6 million volunteers in public protection roles such as air-raid warden.

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Blackout drills were planned in advance and advertised. Street lights were turned off at the scheduled time. Anyone outside was to take cover inside. Those in their homes were instructed to pull down the blinds on their windows and keep the light inside to a minimum. People in cars were to pull over and find shelter in the nearest building. The idea was that enemy planes couldn’t target what they couldn’t see, and that any light visible from above could attract bombs and gunfire.

Charleston, being a prime military target, citizens lived in expectation of being bombed at any moment by enemy planes and that their attack would come under the cover of darkness. Sirens sounded all over the city to signal the start of the drill. Air raid wardens and their assistants walked up and down the streets of their assigned blocks and looked for signs of light emanating from houses. If they saw any, they blew their whistles, shouted, banged on the house, rang its doorbell, whatever it took, to alert the residents of the light.

Teenagers often served as messengers and wore a Civil Defense armband with a lightning bolt superimposed on a triangle within a circle on it.

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One young messenger told this story.

As an air raid messenger, I had to carry messages through the dark streets from one air raid warden to another. During one drill, a warden handed me a message and told me to deliver it to a warden two blocks away—PRONTO! I took off into pitch-black darkness on my bike as if the lightning bolt on my armband had come alive. I had gone half a block when I suddenly became airborne upon running into the back of a parked black coupe automobile. I skidded across its roof and down onto its hood, rolled down onto the ground, got up, shook off my daze, ran to the back of the auto, picked up my bike, pushed its front wheel back in line, took off again, and delivered the message.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was accurate when he described our country. “I thought of a remark . . . that the United States is like a ‘gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.’ Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

Posters about the importance of secrecy were everywhere, and everyone took them seriously. It wasn’t too far-fetched to suspect that the guy standing next to you on a street corner or sitting at the next table in a restaurant or bar might be an enemy spy.

Security was a matter of great concern, especially in a city as heavily military as Charleston. In addition to posters on the subject everywhere, large signs with strong warnings that no photos were to be taken were posted all along the waterfront. Security was so intense that radio stations could play only songs approved by the Federal Government for fear that the broadcasting of certain selections could be used to transmit information to the enemy. The few approved songs included the works of Stephen Foster. “Old Folks at Home” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”

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There were drives every week to collect scrap paper and metal to help in the war effort. Trucks picked up bundles of newspapers and boxes of tin cans from in front of doorways where they had been put for us.

WWII Civil Defense Poster

A small red bordered flag with a blue star in its middle hung in the window of each home having someone in the military.

Posters were everywhere. One flyer pictured the emergency supplies every household was supposed to keep: 50 feet of garden hose with a spray nozzle, 100 pounds of sand divvied into four containers, three three-gallon metal buckets (one filled with sand and two with water), a long-handled shovel with a square edge, a hoe or rake, an ax or hatchet, a ladder, leather gloves, and dark glasses.

Air raid protection was one of the top concerns for civil defense organizations. To assist them, the OCD published a booklet called “What to Do in an Air Raid.” OCD printed some fifty-seven million copies. Newspapers published the information as well. The booklet advised Americans to identify a central refuge room in their homes and to have stout tables on hand that they could crawl under if air raids occurred.

“An air raid warden is not a Doctor, or a Policeman, or a Fireman, but he may be called on to perform the duties of any of these,” a training paper says. “He has a position of leadership and trust that demands his best.”

So grateful for Granddaddy’s service, as well as so many unknown others who stepped up to fight for our country during World War II. Those on the home front were heroes, too. Thank you for your service!

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“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”

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There was always food-a-plenty on my mother’s table on Thanksgiving. Traditional dishes and family favorites vied for the attention of the hungry troop that went through her buffet line. Our grandparents were there, as well as Aunt Mamie. Daddy’s blessing was much longer than his daily one, and the “good” china and silver graced the dining room table.

All day we focused on each other and spending time together. Family stories were shared again, and each one of us had our own spot at the table. Mine was to Daddy’s right. I can picture that table and my family; it is a good, good memory.

For a couple of weeks before this holiday, we sang Thanksgiving hymns that were all about gratitude for what God had blessed us with. One of my favorites was “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God our Maker doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come,
Raise the song of harvest home.

All the world is God’s own field,
Fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown,
Unto joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade, and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear:
Lord of harvest, grant that we
Wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come,
And shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day
All offenses purge away;
Give His angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store
In His garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come,
Bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in,
Free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified,
In Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come,
Raise the glorious harvest home. 

During the month of September in England, English churches celebrated the Harvest Home. There would be a thanksgiving service held in the church when parishioners would bring the bounty of their harvests. A display of pumpkins, autumn leaves, and the food be the decoration, and then the bounty was given to the needy. It was all about the gratitude for the provision of God, just like the Pilgrims celebrated in 1621.

Henry Alford and George J. Elvey wrote this hymn wa in rural England in the mid-nineteenth century, when the life of the village during the winter depended on the bounty of the autumn harvest. While the first stanza of this hymn rejoices over the harvest, the last three stanzas expound on the reminder this image gives of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds in Matthew 13. The hymn concludes with a prayer that the final harvest at His Second Coming would happen soon.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt described this truly American holiday.

“Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will.”

Listen to the majesty and gratitude of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing this hymn.

Victory Gardens During World War II

“Food will win the war and write the peace,” announced Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard in a statement to the press in early 1943. Even before the United States entered the war in 1941, U.S. farmers were producing at record levels to supply the food needs of the Allies. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, getting food and equipment to our troops strained production and distribution systems to their limits. Farm labor was in short supply as men left for military service.

Patriotic fervor was contagious and victory gardens sprang up everywhere.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1943,

I hope every American who possibly can will grow a victory garden this year. We found out last year that even the small gardens helped.

The total harvest from victory gardens was tremendous. It made the difference between scarcity and abundance. The Department of Agriculture surveys show that 42 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in 1943 came from victory gardens. This should clearly emphasize the far-reaching importance of the victory garden program.

Because of the greatly increased demands in 1944, we will need all the food we can grow. Food still remains a first essential to winning the war. Victory gardens are of direct benefit in helping relieve manpower, transportation, and living costs as well as the food problem.”

In 1943, Americans planted over 20 million Victory Gardens, and the harvest accounted for nearly a third of all the vegetables consumed in the country that year. Emphasis was placed on making gardening a family or community effort — not a drudgery, but a pastime, and a national duty.

Victory Gardens helped prevent a food shortage. Planting Victory Gardens helped make sure that there was enough food for our soldiers fighting around the world. Because canned vegetables were rationed, Victory Gardens also helped people stretch their ration coupons.

No one could just walk into a shop and buy as much sugar, butter, meat as you wanted, nor could you fill up your car with gasoline whenever you liked. All these things were rationed, which meant you were only allowed to buy a small amount (even if you could afford more). The government introduced rationing because certain things were in short supply during the war, and rationing was the only way to make sure everyone got their fair share.

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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically ended the debate over America’s entrance into the war that raged around the world.  As eager volunteers flooded local draft board offices, ordinary citizens soon felt the impact of the war. Almost overnight the economy shifted to war production. Consumer goods now took a back seat to military production as nationwide rationing began almost immediately.  In May of 1942, the U.S. Office of Price Administration (OPA) froze prices on practically all everyday goods, starting with sugar and coffee.
Then war ration books were issued to each American family, dictating how much gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, silk, shoes, and other items one person could buy. Even children received their own books.

In Ingle Holler, outside Union, SC, these gardens were dubbed vegetable gardens, because they were a way of life for this clan. Every year, a garden was planted by each family; World War II did not change their way of being self-suficient.

John’s grandfather, Make Ingle, bought fifty acres of land from Excelsior Mill (later Milliken Mill), during the Depression in 1937. His children then bought acreage from their father, built homes, and lived their lives similar to their Appalachian ancestors.

The third generation, which included my husband,  always had playmates, as well as working partners. Growing up solely around extended family isolated the children in some ways, but also instilled in them a sense of place and acceptance. All looked out for everyone else; the doors were always open in each home, and no one had to knock to be admitted.

Gardens were a family affair. John’s dad Oliver dug the garden with a hand plow. It had several ploughshares for breaking up the dirt, for cultivating and breaking up the clods, and a v-shaped one that laid off the rows. Then his mother Lois supervised her sons planting the seeds. Using broken sticks off nearby trees, the two boys poked holes in the rows and dropped the seeds. Oliver then came back with the v-shaped ploughshare and covered up the seeds.

Weeding was a daily job for the boys, and water was free from the nearby creek.

Because trains and trucks had to be used to transport soldiers, vehicles, and weapons, most Americans ate local produce grown in their own communities. More than one million tons of vegetables were grown in Victory Gardens during the war.

People with no yards planted small Victory Gardens in window boxes and watered them through their windows. Some city dwellers who lived in tall apartment buildings planted rooftop gardens, and the whole building pitched in and helped.

Many schools across the country planted Victory Gardens on their school grounds and used their produce in their school lunches. The U.S. government printed recipe books describing how to prepare home grown vegetables to make nutritional and tasty meals. Agricultural companies gave tips on how to make seedlings flourish in different climates.

My dad, Sam Collins, along with his brother Wallace, fought in the Army during World War II, in the European theater. Growing up during the Great Depression and on a farm in Kentucky, he knew the importance of providing for his family. His job was to milk the cows in the dairy; this meant waking up to go to the barn at 5:00 a.m. for this chore before he walked to school. Daddy had a strong sense of the importance of hard work and taking care of his family. Though he was not one who enjoyed the outdoors, for forty years he planted a garden in our back yard. As the years went by, it grew smaller and was finally only tomato plants for our summer eating.

I can see him now with the old hat he wore in the garden pinching the suckers off, so the tomatoes would grow. He would smile with glee when he brought tomatoes into the house. For some, this was a piddling and unremarkable task, but it was more. This farmer turned banker never got over the realization that the earth was created for our bounty and benefit. By example, he taught us that a victory/vegetable garden is for each generation

As James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

By the way, my husband John picked his first tomato yesterday from our backyard.