War pervaded daily civilian life in the '40s

Scrap parade
Scrap parade
Forest Park Elementary School children supported the war effort with a scrap parade on Oct. 6, 1942, along the streets near their school.

Residents pledged their support to the war effort.

By CAROL TANNEHILL of The News-Sentinel

The small red-and-white flags hung in nearly every family's window. The blue stars on the flags stood for the boys who were somewhere "over there," in the war.

The flag in Ilan Landis' front window wore three stars.

One star was for her husband, James, stationed stateside at Great Lakes Naval Academy near Chicago. The other two were for the Fort Wayne homemaker's older sons, Olen Mitchell and Earl Landis, who had shipped out to war zones in Europe and the South Pacific, respectively.

Like hundreds of other families, Landis and her eight other children were left behind in Fort Wayne to wait and worry and wonder. They had no idea — no one did — that World War II would drag on for four years, or that 612 people from Allen County would die in it. They could only pledge to hold down the Fort, to remain busy and brave here at home for the sake of American troops on faraway fronts.

Fort Wayne hadn't always been so solid in its support of the war effort. In October 1941, just two months before the United States declared war on Japan, wild applause had welcomed Charles A. Lindbergh to an anti-war rally here, sponsored by the Anthony Wayne chapter of the America First Committee.

"Lucky Lindy" — the first aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and an outspoken "non-interventionist" — addressed 10,000 avid listeners, half of whom spilled onto the sidewalks outside the jam-packed Gospel Temple on Rudisill Boulevard. America, Lindbergh warned, was being pulled into a foreign war by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "a man who is drawing more and more dictatorial powers into his hands. . . . Those of us who oppose the war do not know what censorship (we) will be subjected to next."

But it was a different story after Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing thousands of American servicemen stationed at the naval base. An editorial on The News-Sentinel's front page the next day summed up the city's retaliatory fervor: "There is no longer a division between `interventionists' and `isolationists,' " it read. "Japan has done the intervening here."

Fort Wayne hungered for news. One-paragraph war bulletins with exotic datelines peppered the pages of The News-Sentinel's blue streak edition. WOWO, 1190-AM, promised broadcasts 24 hours a day "as long as the news warrants."

Ralph Merkel remembers scooting closer to his father's tall Zenith and wiggling the green "Magic Eye." He listened, wide-eyed, for news flashes from London, Tokyo, Berlin and Manila, and to fiery speeches by FDR and Winston Churchill.

"It was exciting because I was a kid, but also scary. The radio was going bananas with news reports, and it scared us," says Merkel, now a Fort Wayne dentist. "We thought maybe Hitler and Hirohito were going to come over here and get us."

The grown-ups were scared, too, and civil defense was a major concern. Citizens were on the lookout for enemies everywhere — kamikaze pilots in the air, and spies and saboteurs living next door.

Families stocked their basement bomb shelters with water and groceries. Spotters on top of the Lincoln Tower scanned the skies for bandits and bogeys. And volunteer wardens orchestrated massive trial blackouts, until residents could plunge the city into darkness with "master-switch precision" in the event of attack. The city's Civilian Defense Control Center even staged "Bombs Over Fort Wayne," a realistic demonstration of an air raid complete with explosive sound effects provided by WOWO and WGL.

"You knew when the practices were coming," says Merkel, whose father was a neighborhood block warden. "You pulled all your blinds and turned off your lights. We listened to the radio . . . spooky shows like `Inner Sanctum' and `The Hermit's Cave.' Or we told ghost stories and scared the daylights out of each other."

The paranoia that infiltrated Fort Wayne was more insidious. Posters on every streetcar warned, "Loose lips sink ships" and "Enemies may be listening."

"We did have bad feelings over Pearl Harbor," says Margaret McClure, the second-youngest child of Ilan and James Landis. "The Germans didn't seem against us in particular, but Japan attacked us — that made a difference."

Merkel's parents, George and Anna Merkel, who emigrated from Chemnitz, Germany, during the Depression, began to feel like strangers in their own neighborhood after the homeowner next door complained to authorities that he'd heard Teutonic opera music — George's passion — wafting through the windows of the Merkels' home on Miner Street.

"In those days, Germany was a dirty word. Everyone with a German background was a Nazi," Merkel recalls. "One Sunday night, two men from the FBI walked through our front door and destroyed our living room looking for `evidence.' They smashed the back of my father's radio . . . He'd just managed to pay the damn thing off."

For the most part, however, Fort Wayne residents were allies in their determination to support the troops. Like the rest of the nation, the city had been making defense preparations months before the declaration of war.

Local folks seemed willing to ration, recycle and do without so that soldiers and sailors would have what they needed.

"We didn't really call it hardship. A lot of people didn't have things either," McClure says. "We had our house — and that was more than some people had."

Homemakers handled the ration books, carefully doling out coupons for shoes and food and gasoline. Hoarding, trading and scalping became tricks of the rationer's trade.

Shoes — two pairs per person a year — had to last through multiple seasons and childhood growth spurts. "You could get cheap huarache sandals without ration coupons, so we wore those," recalls Fort Wayne resident Catherine Kruckeberg. "In the summers, the kids all went barefoot."

You needed coupons, too, to get certain foods, such as sugar, coffee and meat. So inventive cooks made do with lesser cuts, canned beans, fried mush and victory-garden harvests. Chocolate bars and cigarettes — by the pack, not the carton — were universal currency.

"A truck would come in each week, and we'd sell the Hershey Bars and cigarettes to our best customers," says Merkel, who had an after-school job at the Kroger grocery on Broadway, where Zoli's restaurant is now.

Nylon stockings were just as hard to come by, so Eulalia Jaques, then a secretary at WOWO, and her two sisters used liquid leg makeup instead. "In the summer, we used darker shades to imitate a suntan. I cringe now as I think of the below-zero mornings when we wore leg makeup, high heels and dresses and coats that barely covered our knees," she remembers.

The gas and tire shortages meant the family Hudson usually stayed in the garage. McClure and her older sisters walked or roller-skated or bicycled to wherever they needed to go, unless their mother treated them to streetcar fare.

"Sometimes we walked anyway, so we could spend our trolley money on goodies," McClure says.

Every little bit counted in those days, yet people were willing to give. Schoolchildren spent their pennies on 10-cent war stamps. Their parents bought bonds.

Young and old collected tin cans, aluminum pans and angle iron — anything that could be turned into bullets, bombs and bayonets. Men contributed old phonograph records and damaged inner tubes. Women dropped off used books and nylon stockings at the Grand Leader department store on Calhoun Street.

Some families made even greater sacrifices. Ilan Landis' family returned, but her sons were wounded. The eldest, Olen Mitchell, received a Purple Heart.

Jaques considers herself lucky: Only two of her acquaintances — an Army nurse and a soldier — were killed in the war.

"Things in Fort Wayne got better and they got worse," Merkel says. "There were friends and neighbors whose sons, daughters, fathers and grandfathers didn't come back."

But life on the home front wasn't all grim. Fort Wayne folks found ways to take their minds off Midway Island and Normandy Beach, if only for a little while.

Beta Sigma Phi sorority's holiday dinner dances went on as usual. The Elmhurst Garden Club continued to meet. And members of the St. Joe Polar Bears didn't miss their annual New Year's Day dips in the icy St. Joseph River.

When victory in Europe was declared May 7, 1945, war-weary residents were guardedly optimistic. They knew fighting in the Pacific could rage on for months. Then, in early August, U.S. planes dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was over.

The good news rained down on Fort Wayne — literally — like manna from heaven: Because employees of the newspapers were on strike, airplanes sprinkled leaflets over the city on Aug. 14. "Japan Surrenders!" they read. "Tune into WGL for news."

On Bowser Avenue, the Landis kids scrambled to pick up the happy litter. Then the children paraded up and down the block, banging pots and pans and any other impromptu cymbals they could get their hands on.

Jaques and a carload of friends joined the party that was erupting on Calhoun Street downtown. Church bells rang. Horns honked. Jubilant people danced and kissed and embraced.

A few also "tipped the whiskey bottle," Jaques says.

Merkel and his family were on their way to California that day, extra tires strapped to the roof of their 1931 Oldsmobile. They heard the wonderful news in Burlington, Iowa.

"I've never seen so many people. Happy people, just going ballistic," he remembers.

And why not? "We all came together, and we survived."

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