Ann Arbor Goes to War

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Bugler, Company K, October 1940

Much has been written about World War II, but this collection of articles from the Ann Arbor News archives does something the general histories can’t: it provides a glimpse of how it would have felt to be living in Ann Arbor during the two years leading up to the war. Old News has culled through the The Ann Arbor News to find the articles from September 1939 to December 1941 that deal with local events related to WWII. The articles start on September 3, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland and end December 12, 1941, five days after Pearl Harbor.

We see how everyone pitched in to help war-struck European countries, how they reacted to the draft, how local industry began gearing up to play their part in the Arsenal for Democracy, and how citizens strived to get educated about the situation. Advertisements for stores and movies add to the feel of what life was like then. People who were in Ann Arbor during those years, or who have family that was, will appreciate that Old News has included the names of people involved, so you can look them up with a simple search.

One of the first articles is an announcement that the Ann Arbor News had printed up 5,900 maps of the European War Zone to give to school age children. The maps, which included naval bases, the British blockade, and the topography of the area, aimed to give “an accurate and comprehensive picture of the war scene.”

When Europe suddenly became a war zone, Ann Arborites’ first concerns were for the safety of friends and relatives who were abroad. In the fall of 1939 the paper was full of stories of narrow escapes that sound like plots for movies. A student traveling home on a Norwegian freighter after bicycling around Europe survived three days on a lifeboat when his ship was sunk by a mine. Another student was briefly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi spy while taking pictures in England. A report that a British boat with three U-M co-eds on it was torpedoed caused a lot of worry, but they were eventually reported to have reached Ireland. A local family visiting in England finally got passage on a mysterious boat that had been painted grey and was accompanied by an airplane escort. The News followed these and other stories until they could report that the people involved were safely home. Reacting to the fear that our country might be attacked, the local National Guard began holding maneuvers. On the state level, discussions began on how to make our highways strong enough for tanks.

 Sewing at Methodist Church, December 1939

War relief work, most of it organized by women, started almost immediately and was constant through all this period. Under the direction of the Red Cross, local women’s groups began making heavy winter clothes for people in the Balkans as well as Britain and France. At the end of November, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, and for the next few months most of the relief work was aimed directly at raising money to help the Finns. The Woman’s Club led by organizing an evening of songs and one-act plays followed by cards and sewing (called a thimble party). University musical organizations gave a concert to raise more money. Finnish dancers from Detroit headlined another fundraiser. Ann Arbor also hosted many refugees from war-torn Europe.

Although the U.S. was technically neutral until Pearl Harbor, it was clear from the beginning that public opinion was largely on the Allied side. However, there were a few dissenters. In December 1939 radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn spoke at Hill advocating isolationism. In April of 1940, after another isolationist spoke at Hill, a Nazi flag, described as “a home-made banner, a painted bed sheet,” appeared on the flag pole by the Natural Science building. A month later the columns of Angell hall were painted with numbers one to four with a three-foot red swastika on the fifth, a reference to the “fifth column,” enemies within a state. Reaction in both cases was for officials to immediately take action to remove them. University officials called the latter action the work of “immature pranksters.”

When Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg in May 1940, attention veered from Finland to those countries. The Red Cross opened a knitting center in a donated office in Nickels Arcade where they distributed yarn, and inspected and packed the returned items. Kline’s Department Store announced that people could drop off “old worn shoes, which still have many days wear in them,” in their shoe department to be sent to Europe. Later a Greek war relief committee was formed, made up of leading members of local Greek community as well as a few other community leaders who leant their names to the cause. Another group of about a hundred met every Tuesday to knit and sew for French children under the age of four.

 Finland Campaign

In the summer of 1940 France fell, leading President Roosevelt to sign a peacetime conscription bill on September 16. The next day an article in the News explained that our county had been assigned to provide 250 or 260 conscripts, half from Ann Arbor and half from rest of county. On Oct. 16, all the men in Washtenaw County between the ages of 21-35 were told to show up at their election precinct to register for the draft. Volunteers were recruited to help with the paper work. On that date there were long lines of men waiting, but as the News reported they were “mostly good-natured.” In the following months names of the 14,586 registrants were drawn on a regular basis and those called were taken by bus or train into Detroit to be inducted into the army. In July a second registration was held for men who had turned 21 since October. In July 1941 the first draft objector mentioned was sent to a camp to perform work connected with the war.

Along with the draftees, there was a steady stream of enlistments, for the regular army, army pilots, navy, National Guard, and nurses. In 1940 Dr. Edgar Kahn, U-M brain surgeon, offered his services to the American Hospital in Paris. In January, 1941, Stanley Waltz, general manager of the Michigan Union, was called up for duty. By September 1941 twenty faculty members had asked for leave.

FDR’s agreement at the end of 1940 to supply Great Britain with war materials soon affected Washtenaw county as we geared up to do our part in the Arsenal for Democracy. Our most famous contribution was the Willow Run Bomber Plant, where the B-24 bombers were made. First mentioned in May of 1941 with two articles about its siting, it was a continuing story. In July 1941 King Seeley was awarded a contract to make 60 mm mortar ammunition shells and the next month American Broach was given a contract to make units used in gun construction. Soon there were articles complaining that there was a labor shortage, something that was not a problem in the Depression.

New war industry necessitated more materials. The month of July 1941 was devoted to a community-wide aluminum drive, starting with an organizational meeting at the Michigan Union at which most of the major service clubs were represented. The plan was to have two days of picking up contributions from neighborhoods and in addition to provide drop off sites. Wire contraptions called cribs built to hold donations were put on the courthouse house lawn and also on the Fifth Avenue side of the armory. On the days the pick-ups were scheduled, 25 trucks provided by local merchants were driven by volunteers, while fifty Boy Scouts went door to door. One volunteer reported that he was surprised when at one of the houses that he stopped at the resident gave him the coffee pot right off the stove, only to have it happen a second time. Another interesting contribution was from Randolph Adams, director of the Clements Library, who donated his World War I canteen. At the end of the drive Ann Arbor had collected 7,500 pounds of aluminum, almost four times over the goal they’d been given of 2,000. Ann Arbor also gave generously that summer to the USO Drive, raising money to build USO Centers across the United States.

War Bond Sale Booth

After the successful aluminum drive, the next big push was to urge citizens to buy Defense Stamps. When the stamps, which were sold for 10 cents each, added up to $18.75, they could be exchanged for a Defense Bond worth $25 at maturity. A huge sign urging people to buy them was erected on courthouse lawn using volunteer labor and materials donated by local merchants. A group of high school girls and college co-eds were organized to pass out the cards that the stamps were affixed to. Store customers could take their change in stamps, while many companies offered to automatically deduct stamp purchases from wages. In Sept. ’41 it was announced that Ann Arbor led the nation in per capita buying of saving stamps at $39.77 per capita.

Relief work continued side by side with the military-based activities. While the projects moved around from country to country depending on which one was in the most trouble, English relief work was a constant. An on-going British war relief knitting group met in members’ homes. At the end of 1940 the Women’s Club planned 40 parties for English war relief to be held in private homes, doing what they did for fun but also for a good cause – suppers or desserts, cards including bridge, musicales. The proceeds from the 1941 Juniors on Parade, a yearly production by the Roy Hoyer Dance Studio to showcase the talents of their students, that year featuring military theme numbers, was used to buy a truck with a mobile kitchen to be sent to England. That May a group of women began making windbreaker jackets for British seaman using scrap leather from the car industry. Individual English children could be adopted by proxy for $30 a year, a project many locals participated in including a class at Angell School.

The local Red Cross was the key to much of this activity. They outgrew the office in Nickel’s’ Arcade, moving to what had been the directors’ office in the old Catherine Street hospital, and expanded from knitting sweaters to other knitted items such as mufflers, and mittens and to sewing clothes and quilts, which could be made right there on sewing machines they had at the headquarters. Surgical dressings were made in the Rackham Building. They commandeered all the help could get, such as people accompanying patients to the hospital. The ever-present Boy Scouts helped with the packing. To encourage more cooperation, garments were displayed at Mack and Co., the city’s biggest department store. July of 1941 they began training people for canteen service, followed a few months later by mechanics courses for women so they could become Red Cross drivers.

To feed the public demand for more information on the situation in Europe in the days when sources of news were more limited, there was a constant stream of public lectures. Early on they were mainly by U-M professors putting events in context vis a vis their specialties or their points of view. U-M President Alexander Ruthven felt called on to make pronouncements now and then. The public library, then on Huron, highlighted their collection of books relating to the subject. The local pundits were supplemented by national speakers, who came more often as the situation worsened. Already in 1939 two famous speakers had come to town, Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt (like all the club ladies she is not identified by her first name) and Leland Stowe, Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent, warning about the situation in Europe. A few isolationists and pacifists also spoke, but by and large, at least those reported, were for helping the Allied side. As the war heated up a steady stream of speakers from Europe also came through including Jan Masaryk, son of the deposed president of Czechoslovakia; Count Sforza, leader of the opposition to fascism in Italy; Sir Robert and Lady Mayer asking for help with British children; Mrs. Robert Fraser, former Labor member of London City Council; Jack Jones, a Welsh miner; and Erika Mann, Thomas Mann’s daughter.

Soon after the military draft began, advertisements referencing the situation began showing up, some clearly fitting in with the war effort, while others were more of a stretch of logic. The News suggested that car buyers use their classified ads to buy used cars since new one would soon be hard to find. Kline’s announced they would continue selling silk hosiery so buyers shouldn’t hoard them. A fur company announced it would cancel the debt if man who bought a fur coat for his wife was drafted in the next three months. A Cunningham’s ad suggested that people might want to send a “welcome package,” to friends in the service. Their ad has a picture of a soldiers saying to his friends “Boy oh boy, look what I got from Cunningham’s.” Movies also started having war themes. Early on there were low budget forgettable ones like “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” or “Women in War,” but as the situation worsened Class A movies such as “Foreign Correspondent” and “The Great Dictator” were shown at local theaters. The Military Club held dances at the Armory featuring both local and touring bands and singers.

In mid-September of 1941 a group of ads that at first glance appear to have no connection to the war – undergarments, electric supplies, stoves, pens, windows, appear under the rubric “Retailers for Defense.” Reading on we find an article explaining that a group of local merchants have agreed to a list of wartime policies including keeping prices low, finding replacements for products no longer available, and discouraging speculation.

Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, the stage moved to the Far East. News articles talked of soldiers being sent to the Pacific, people worried about friends and relatives caught in Hawaii, and merchants debated whether it was alright to sell Japanese products already on their shelves. Meanwhile, a local shoe store suggested that since there was a war going on that people should give practical Christmas gifts such as shoes.