Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

War stories.

Before epic movies and documentaries changed its connotations, the phrase once implied a personal exchange, the kind that took place in barber shops, on porches, or in front of the court house on hot summer afternoons when the fish weren’t biting. They were the kind of stories that grew better in the telling, each time preserving another aspect, perhaps, of a day in a soldier’s life – a moment of greatness in the trenches, cramped in the cockpits of fighter planes, or huddled on the bridges of warships.

Not all war stories are memories of the battlefront, however. War stories also recall the valiant contributions of those who served on the home front growing food, operating trains, working as Red Cross volunteers, or cheering on the soldiers, sailors, and airmen on their way to the front.

Unfortunately, stories of the home front are not told as often, presumably because they are considered to be less compel­ling than accounts of hand-to-hand combat or close cans with the enemy. And yet, as oraJ history, such stories typically reveal aspects of the war that are not generally found in history books or scholarly studies. Indeed, personal accounts of the home front are likely to become the focal point of research projects conducted by historical organizations and cultural institutions throughout the country, particularly since the Department of Defense has designated the years 1991 to 1995 as the official commemo­rative years of the fiftieth anniversary of World War II.

One major project under­way at the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester is specifically geared toward collecting and preserv­ing war stories from the home front. These stories will serve to document life in Chester County and southeastern Pennsylvania during World War II as it is recalled by residents and veterans. The results will be part of an exhibition the society will mount in 1994.

The stories piece together a portrait of a home front that was, in many respects, unique to Pennsylvania. Chester County was one of William Penn’s three original Pennsylvania counties where his great “Holy Experiment” in social harmony and justice for his fellow Quakers took place. That legacy, and the sense of security felt by residents who, in many cases, had carried on the same occupations and lived in the same houses for generations, created an unusually strong sense of identity and a cohesive home front.

According to the 1940 census, 135,626 residents lived in Chester County. It was a substantial increase from the previous decade, but social change was a slow, evolving process.

Aside from their Quaker heritage, many residents were farmers, which exempted them from military service. Conceiv­ably, the residents of Chester County could have lived out the war years in relative security, without needing to take a stand about the war. According to one long-time Quaker resident, Esther C. Pratt, “It wasn’t as though we were going to rebel against war. We only believed that war served no purpose.”

Chester County’s proximity to Washington, D.C., to the shipyards in Wilmington, Delaware, and to military bases and ports in Baltimore and points along the New Jersey shore enabled many on the home front to serve their country without traveling overseas. Despite these regional distinctions, however, Chester County in the 1940s was representative of the outlook and changes that took place across the nation. County residents faced the same wartime shortages, family separations, and daily hardships as did most Americans. Indeed, their ability to put aside their individual concerns is testa­ment to the strength of the home front workers and the ways in which, for the first time, a national consciousness and a feeling of solidarity helped unite the country and transform it from a place of small-town partiality into an industrial power. And this national unity was severely tested.

Sunday, December 7, 1941. For those on the home front, the day marked a change when the words, “We interrupt this program,” blaring from the radio, would never again be taken lightly. Among Chester County residents, the typical reaction was one of shock and disbelief. Few ever forgot the exact time and place they first learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mrs. Ellis E. Stem of Coatesville, now ninety-five years old, was on her way to church with her family when she learned of the assault. “When we heard the news, we couldn’t believe that such a thing had happened. No one said anything …. In those days, you kept quiet about certain things. You didn’t get carried away until you knew all the facts. We just looked at each other. We just couldn’t believe that such a thing had happened.”

Helen Rothrock of West Chester was a twenty-one year old nursing student at the Chester County hospital in West Chester. “I remembered the day very, very well. I had been off duty for four hours, and when I went back, which was on the maternity ward, there was a hush about the place. We knew something was wrong, but [nurses] weren’t allowed to have radios in our rooms.” Later, she said, “I heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and that we were probably going to war. It was a devastating experience …. We bad a lot of young anxious moth­ers. A lot of women worried that their husbands would be going off to war. It was a very serious time.”

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, many residents of Chester County felt far removed from the battle scene. War was “over there,” it was happening to someone else. Even in communities with a large European or German population, a general feeling of detachment prevailed. That was the case with George Howard’s hometown of Phoenixville, an old industrial center located near Valley Forge, on the Schuylkill River, that had been long noted for its iron mills and pork packing plants.

“Up until the war, this was a one-track town,” Howard said. “Everyone grew up here, lived their life, and that was it…. We had a lot of [residents] who came here in U,e 1920s from Eastern Europe to work in the steel mills. They pretty much lived here in their own cultures, but they still had strong ties over in Europe. But there was very little communication. A lot of things hap­pened before we knew it.”

Esther Pratt attributed the county’s insularity to its rural character and the fact that many residents were not accustomed to looking beyond their own communities. “In Chester County, you just had a radio and people didn’t travel as much. You really didn’t know what was happening in other parts of the country, let alone Europe. Everyone was just trying to get by. They were just busy with their own things on the farm.” Anne P. Strode, who was married one month before the Pearl Harbor tragedy, recalled a wartime paradox: news reports were delayed – usually because of military censorship – but blackouts and air-raid drills gave the war a sense of immediacy. “I think people were scared,” she recalled. “We talked about what was happening [and] sometimes you would get a letter, but you were never sure. The news was never up to date.

“We were told to put blankets over our windows,” she continued, recalling the nightly rounds of the warden, a Civil Defense volunteer whose job was to conduct air-rail drills and to ensure that residents followed defense regulations. “If you had a curtain up and there was a little bit of light shining through,” she said, “the warden would rap on your door … there wasn’t any monkey business. We were frightened because the Japanese took us by surprise.”

George Miller of Spring City worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. For him, news of the Pearl Harbor attack set in motion an endless cycle of anticipation and delay. “I wasn’t told what to do or what to expect,” Miller said of his job preparing railroad cars for the military. “No one was told what the damage was to Pearl Harbor till months afterwards. You just didn’t know. I always thought – Japan, they can’t do anything to us.”

George Howard was exempted from service during the war and worked at a local meat company. He is able to recall the typical reaction among the residents of Phoenixville. “We weren’t fearful of immediate attack, but you were always thinking in terms of what could happen …. We were close to Philadelphia, so we had a lot of patrols looking for anyone coming over. They had little towers they sat in so they could see over the trees. They had towers built between [the towns of] Phoenixville and Davault.

“Everyone stepped up surveillance, even in their own factories,” he continued. The rubber works, now Goodyear, went on full schedule, he said, “and women worked right along with the men for the full shift…

“There were two National Guard Units in the area … one was originally a horse-drawn heavy artillery outfit from World War I. Those men were drafted as soon as the war broke out….”

In another time – and another war – the draft card came to symbolize division in the country. It meant the difference between going to war and staying behind. Bad luck and good. During World War II, however, those who served on the home front and those who served overseas constituted opposite sides of the same coin. “In Chester County, everyone was ready for war,” Helen Rothrock remembered, “there was an overall feeling of patriotism and loyalty and wanting to do this. People were proud and were ready to defend their country.”

For many residents, especially women, the draft marked a change in family status as brothers and hus­bands went off to war, and responsibilities shifted. In many cases, the demand for local housing for military personnel made it necessary for young single women and soldiers’ wives to return home. Katheryn Abernathy remem­bered feeling torn between family obligations and her desire to take part in the war effort. She spent the war years working as a bookkeeper in Philadelphia and caring for her ailing mother and younger brother on the family farm. “I couldn’t go into any form of service or even what they call war work because the doctor that we had wouldn’t okay the papers that I needed. We got by. We always had a garden and we had chickens and a couple of times … we had a pig that had been given to us …. When mother was able, we always preserved. At that time you didn’t freeze because there was no such thing [as a freezer], but canned a lot of stuff. We made our own bread.”

The draft board, Abernathy recalled, “took my brother right out of high school, two weeks after his eighteenth birthday …. I remembered that he went down to the school and asked the principal if he could take his exams to get his diploma, and they told him no, that he’d have to finish at a later time. Well, that ‘later’ time was nearly three years after the war.”

Other residents remembered the war years as a time when home life became community-centered, and small towns as­sumed the appearance of bustling metropolises. Indeed, shift-work, Civil Defense operations, and war effort activities probably did more to change the routine of small-town life than any changes in population. Even though Chester County had experienced a significant increase in the number of residents – in 1930 there were 126,629 residents, and by 1946, 141,268 – many on the home front perceived the changes differently. To some, the county seat of West Chester seemed to be a “Saturday night town,” where farmers came to market and local residents celebrated the end of a six day work week by cashing their paycheck. “There was soldiers coming to town, and big band dances, and roller skating. Entertainment seven days a week,” Beulah Spriggs recalled.

“My husband was in the army,” Spriggs resumed. “My mother worked in an ammunition factory in Elkton, Maryland. A whole lot of women from West Chester would go down there and the bus would bring them back. There was a good deal of money flowing through then. A lot of the black women had more money than they ever had before …. A lot of men worked in the shipyards in Wilmington. And a lot of them joined the service because they couldn’t find work. I knew them from West Chester. Quite a few didn’t come back.

“We had dance drives to raise money for the war …. In the 1940s, the place to go was up on Market Street. They had star socials and restaurants that served blacks …. I remembered men in the barber shops would talk about the war. But of course, as soon as the women came in with their kids, all the talk would cease. I guess they didn’t want us to know …. The women talked at church, or at the beauty parlor. Sometimes they met at the community center. They had their meeting places too.”

For Helen Rothrock, life before the war was spent on country estates where her father, a horse trainer, shared the local landed gentry’s passion for fox hunting. During the war the family stayed in West Chester while her father worked in a Wilmington shipyard. “Movies were the chief entertainment,” she recalled. “I think they cost something like forty-five cents. And of course, servicemen were free …. West Chester [alone] had three movie houses. There was the Warren on High Street. And the Realto, which only had westerns, and the Garden Theatre on Gay Street.

“All the social clubs of West Chester – the Knights of Colum­bus, the Elks, the Rotary – would have social events and dances for the [service] men. And all the girls were invited. My mother would usually invite two men to Sunday dinner. That was mother’s doing her bit for the boys in the service. She had no sons, she helped other women’s sons.”

Gertrude Ferguson, who grew up in a family of fifteen in West Chester, said, “I had some girlfriends and we had formed a club called the Army Cadets. There were about ten of us. Local girls. All teenagers. We just made up the name …. We’d do things. Dances and parties. We were always sending things-cookies and things to the servicemen. Whatever we made from our little dances and parties, we buy cookies for the service­men. We had a list of aU the servicemen in our area. We sent them to everyone we knew too … just to boost the morale.”

Among the county’s many Quakers, the question of whether or not to support the war effort was a major concern. David Swift of Kennett Square chose to become a conscientious objector (CO), a status for nonmilitary duty that was recognized for the first time during World War II. Swift was sent to several public-service camps; at one, in West Virginia, he helped a poor coal mining community establish a communal garden. “We had three different positions taken in relation to the war in my own family. My older brother was a marine, my younger brother went to prison, and myself. I signed up for civilian public service. That was something that was open for conscientious objectors, and somewhat useful, more useful, I fell than going to prison. I think Twas also scared of going to prison. I saw my brother and my [college] roommate go to prison. It was not a place I wanted to be.”

“No one thought they were trying to get out of anything,” Esther Pratt said of conscientious objectors in her community of Kennett Square. In the same way, when Pratt’s nephew joined the military, it was accepted among her fellow Quakers. “Everyone understood how the other felt,” she said, “We did not fight each other. If someone wanted to go, they went. There was no partial­ity. You would always have neighbors over there. So you were concerned about them. You sent care packages. You wrote them.”

Margaret Perry of West Chester, a self-described birthright Quaker, left her job as a case worker in a public assistance office to join the WAVES (Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service) of the United States Navy. She became a chaplain’s assistant. “When the war began, several of my co-workers, young men whom we were very fond of, were either drafted or volun­teered into the service. That brought the war suddenly very close to me …. We had always been Quakers – and not for the war. But this war seemed to be la case) where each person had to decide whether to back the war effort rather than to go by some former creed or belief.

“We went to the train station to see them off … I remember one of them was trying to joke about it. He said, ‘We’ll be in the trenches by Christmas.’ I’ll never forget him saying that. He’s the one that didn’t come back.”

For many residents, life during the war years became a time for looking beyond one’s own troubles and seeing what could be done for a neighbor’s son or brother. Rothrock remembered the flags that West Chester families hung from their windows to indicate family members in the service. “You would have one star for each member …. We had one four-star mother on North Darlington Street. Then we had the gold-star mothers. That meant that your son had been killed,” she said. “I remember that there used to be that special column in the paper for our young men and women in the armed forces. They would write home and their mothers would give the news and it would be pub­lished in the paper. Every time the paper announced a death, every time you read of a soldier being wounded, you thought, ‘I know this person,’ ‘I know his mother.'”

Anne Strode recalled that friends and neighbors would trade letters and try to help one another alleviate their fears and feelings of loneliness. “I belonged to a bridge club of high school girls and all of their husbands were in the war. One was a Navy pilot, another was in the Army. Anyway, they all saw action. Well, we would get together every couple of weeks with the idea that we could play bridge. Well, we really wanted to just talk about the war, to be with one another, because sometimes we didn’t hear [news from overseas] for weeks.”

Gertrude Ferguson, an African American, remembered West Chester’s community billboard, which residents erected in the center of town to list “all the names of servicemen, black and white.” Five of her nine brothers were in the service, but for Ferguson, the billboard was just one element of a changing attitude toward racial relations. “During the war things were different. Everyone would try to be in unity …. There used to be truckloads of soldiers or servicemen going through the town in convoys. Everyone would get ready for them. They’d have refreshments, cakes, or what have you. There was a grocery store on the corner. They would go in and get big bags of food and stuff to the guys as they passed through.

“When we knew the train was going out, all the people would go down to the station and would be giving the fellas gifts and foods, and whatever or anything sentimental to those that were leaving . … Because of the war, you would ride on the bus or whatever, they wouldn’t care where you sat. Those things weren’t like that before the war or after the war …. It was a whole attitude change. It was like, ‘We’re in this together.'”

“Lady, there’s a war going on, remember?” That slogan, used in advertisements during the war, pointedly spoke to the women on the home front who, it was assumed, would be the first to complain of wartime shortages. On the contrary, women through­out the country joined in the war effort with great enthusiasm. And the women of Chester County were no exception.

Mrs. Ellis Stem, the only daughter of a prominent Coatesville businessman went to work as a volunteer for the Red Cross. It was her second war; she had also served in the Red Cross during World War I. During World War I, she had survived the flu epidemic of 1918 and had all five of her brothers join the mili­tary; in this war, her only son served as a paratrooper.

“The women were always in uniform. We were all volunteers. We were married, and some of us had children. We weren’t trained in a lot of jobs. We couldn’t type …. So you see, the Red Cross enabled us to do our part. We transported supplies and soldiers. Lukens Steel [in Coatesville] gave us a station wagon, and we would take men back and forth from our veterans hospital to Philadelphia. We had a canteen service too ….

“I had enlisted as a Red Cross nurse’s aide and because I was older than the other girls, we wondered if I would last. But 1 want you to know, it was one of the most thrilling things that I had ever done. I wanted to be a registered nurse, and the nurses in our [Red Cross] hospital were very understanding of my ambitions to be a good Red Cross nurse’s aide. And, I say with pardonable pride, I think I was.

“The hardest part was to go into a home and deliver the news that their son was possibly killed or hurt …. Yet people didn’t care who you were. I just represented the Red Cross. That’s the way I wanted it to be. I wanted to say, ‘I’m from the Red Cross.’ Your name meant nothing.”

Strode, who grew up in a banker’s family and was married to a farmer during the war, recollected that there was plenty of farm work to keep her occupied. But unlike many farmers’ wives, Strode became a volunteer Civil Defense telephone operator. She worked, as she described it, in offices beneath West Chester’s city hall that resembled “catacombs,” with thick stone walls and long, narrow passageways. In the subterranean chambers, surrounded by lighted plywood maps, Strode was trained to dispatch and direct emergency vehicles in case of attack.

“During the war, it was an entirely different thing [for women to work]. With all the young men away, giving up their jobs or forcing them to go away, the women had to step in and do the job. There wasn’t any feeling about it. If you were needed, you stepped up and learned … You couldn’t live with yourself if you said ‘no.’ You did it and were glad to be available. I found my job very exciting. I was working with top-notch people … I was just a low man on the totem pole, but I was willing to do whatever they needed me to do. It felt good to be available and dependable.”

Doris Fryer of West Chester worked as a brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the time her husband was in the service, and Fryer was living with her young son on the family farm, along with her widowed mother, grandmother, and two aunts. According to Fryer, her home situation could have easily granted her an exemption status. But she wanted to do her part, so she applied for what she thought would be the only job on the railroad available to women: selling tickets at the depot.

“I’m a very patriotic person. I just felt that we had to fight for our country. That’s why I left my office job … we were all looking for adventure …. On the railroad, it was big money [$7.63 an hour]. That was a lot compared to what I was making [as a secretary]. I got twelve dollars a week. It was good money, but most of us thought that we were doing something for the war effort.

“We were welders, conduc­tors. We proved that anything you could do, we could do better. We worked long hours. Sometimes, we worked two shifts – we would finish at four [in the afternoon] and then we’d go in at ten. We really had to do everything. If the train broke down, I had go back with my lantern and see the flagman in case another train came. We were always there, in all kinds of weather. We used to have to haul the mail bags. I had to throw switches. All things that the men would do.

“Some of the older men resented us,” Fryer continued, “but then there were some who couldn’t do enough for us …. We had a woman in charge of the bunk room. We could take naps there, or write letters to our husbands. Sometimes if we had a lay-over between trains, we sunbathed on top of the Suburban Station [in Philadelphia].”

For residents who grew up at a time when grocers made house calls and living through hard times was simply known as “making do,” the wartime shortages were a matter of sacrifice and accommodation.

“Everyone was counting their stamps and pooling their ration stamps,” Anne Strode recalled. “People did without coffee. We did without sugar and you just did without. If you had a car, you had to consider how you would use it.

“Doctors and nurses were given just enough gas to get back and forth to the hospital. But the ordinary person, maybe they would go and shop once a week rather U,an every day …. You counted your blessings and thought, ‘Well, I’m glad I have it this week, but next week, I may not.”‘

Helen Rothrock agreed. “You didn’t throw anything out – fat drippings, tin cans, Coke [bottle] caps. We saved a lot of things, almost like we save for recycling now. We learned to adapt. We used margarine instead of butter. Sugar was rationed, so we learned to use substitutes. We used saccharin … everyone did their part.”

As the war dragged on, the everyday symbols of the home front – the ration book, the war bond, or the Victory garden­ – were seen as opportunities to participate, albeit vicariously, in the bitter battle being waged overseas. Indeed, because of the overwhelming need to keep the nation’s war machine fueled with supplies and provisions, staying behind was rarely an issue. Marshal Jones, a potato grower during the war, succinctly summarized the farmer’s status at the time. “[We] were exempt because they figured a man with a tractor was worth a lot more than a man with a rifle, and food was scarce.”

Robert Baldertson, who still operates an orchard business in Glenn Mills, remembered having to “apply for every­thing you needed,” such as tractors and essential equip­ment, which meant taking an entire day from farming to travel to a ration office in Marcus Hook, New Jersey. Nevertheless, Baldertson believed that farmers had an easier time than most.

“One of the good things of the war period was that the government was able to regulate prices so that the things we brought didn’t get sky high, and yet you had a good market for what you produced,” he said. “There was no problem selling what you could grow. People oftentimes would be standing in line, waiting for fruit while we picked it.

“People were canning in those days. Everyone was scared if they didn’t can, they wouldn’t have anything to eat during the winter …. They were busy years. You were working just as hard as you could to keep things moving.”

George Howard recounted his experience selling an even scarcer commodity: meat.

“[The meat companies] were all on quota of what you could produce. There were price controls … and they could examine your invoices at any time. It was quite a change. It wasn’t a question of selling. You were bombarded by owners of stores you didn’t even know existed before. They had to collect ration stamps from their customers. It was like a bank account, and they had to have stamps to prove what they needed. I knew a couple of stores that always had meat. It came out later that they were convicted [of being involved] in the black market. There were a couple of cases where a fella driving a [delivery] truck would stop at a diner just for a cup of coffee. And when he was in there, the tractor part would mysteriously disappear … but those were isolated cases.”

For George Miller, who frequently worked only four days a week on the railroad during the Great Depression, the wartime boom years seemed almost overwhelming. Based in Philadelphia, Miller worked long hours on lines that took him to Harrisburg, Altoona, and Pittsburgh, as well as to New York and locations along the New Jersey coast, known as the “shore line,” which stopped at several military bases. Today, Miller attributes the current decline in railway use to the poor infrastructure, which took “a severe beating” during the war. Most lines were run at little or no profit, and to meet the demands of military transport, coach lines, old locomotives, even antique steam engines, were pulled out of railroad yards and placed back on the track. Miller’s job was to crew and outfit the cars with food and supplies, a task not made any easier by the federal government’s policy of keeping troop movements secret.

“Lots of times at night, I would get a call from the railroad that the military were moving so many men out of Philadelphia at ten in the morning. After they told me that, 1 would have to order a car, crew it, and find a train that could make the move. There was no fear of sabotage. The yards were pretty well policed. But all the employees had to be fingerprinted and photographed, and lots of time you were challenged if you hadn’t been seen around the place before ….

“It was a very trying time. You’d go out to the yard to see if everything was being done to get these cars ready. I didn’t have the help. New York sent me supervisors, but they didn’t know the office. The best thing they could do was answer the phone. I used to grab cooks and use them as laborers. They pay them at their rate instead of a laborer’s rate, so that was a step down for them …. I wouldn’t take a chef. Maybe a waiter. I’d go to work at six o’clock, and boy I wouldn’t get home til ten at night. Thanksgiving and snow days were even worse … you always had to figure two hours different in your time.”

Marshal Jones recalled one major problem for farmers at the time. “There was no local help – period,” he said. But he was fortunate. The government found him help for raising potatoes, a labor-intensive crop. In 1944, the government sent him workers from Jamaica and, the following year, German prisoners of war (POWs).

Twelve German POWs worked on Jones’ farm from September through October. A translator accompanied the group. “They came out here from their barracks in Media. They came out here in school buses. They sent them out here with a few sandwiches each. Well, picking potatoes is hard work. They just couldn’t work with that small amount of food …. We had a lot of meat here [on the farm] so my wife, she’d cook them a hot meal, with lots of meat in it.

“They weren’t allowed to have cigarettes,” Jones resumed. “But I got them .. . I’ll tell you, they just do anything for cigarettes. They weren’t allowed to have beer either, but I got them beer. I just made sure they were pretty much sobered up before they went back to the barracks because I didn’t want the sergeant to know about it. He never did.

“They were the best bunch we ever had. They were excellent workers. In civilian life, they were engineers, doctors, dentists­ – all professional people. There was only one farmer in the whole group …. They were friendly with everybody. When it was raining and they couldn’t work in the fields, I brought them up to work around the barn. Everything you put them to do, they were good. Very good. They were the best workers we ever had.”

Balderston also had German POWs. They worked in the fall picking and packing fruit for local markets. “I didn’t have any problems at all,” he recalled, “They did a good job – we didn’t think much about them being German. We didn’t think they would try to escape. “This is a Quaker area, all through Chester County, down to Springfield [Delaware]. So I think we were pretty compassionate about things. Besides, I think [the POWs] were glad to be here. Many of them, I know, came back here to stay after the war.”

World War II ended as it had begun, swiftly and unexpect­edly. News of the surrender came as a shock and, accord­ing to Anne Strode, was not quite accepted. “There was a false armistice [report] about a home from the hospital with my first son, and we heard all this commotion outside and here were all these people in their bedclothes! With mops Then they found out it wasn’t true, so it put a damper on things. A week later, when the real thing came along, every­one just celebrated again. It was an impromptu, out of the house, let’s shoal off all the guns kind of affair …. It was just like Fourth of July. A happy, happy time.” The ensuing excitement eventually mellowed to a rather sober, sometimes surreal, sense of reflection.

“Most of the men came home quietly,” Rothrock recalled, “Men didn’t talk about their experiences after the war. And the women, too. Our nurses came back home and just took their old jobs …. The doctors came back and took up their practices. It was like it was all a dream, a bad dream. Life just went on.”

Doris Fryer gave up her job as a brakeman and returned to her secretarial job – with no regrets. “It was a different time of life. That was how most people saw it. The war was another time, and then it was all over. All we could do was to be thankful and think, ‘we survived.’ When we were furloughed [from the railroad], that was all right with me. The war was over, and I didn’t want a man’s job.”

Beulah Spriggs remembered the transition as being especially trying for the African American women of West Chester, many of whom returned to their former jobs as maids or as cooks. “I was very glad it was over,” she said. “My brother came home, and my husband. I was very glad and thankful. I remembered there was one parade. The American Legion and the Salvation Army put Hon, but anyone could join and trail behind it.

“After the war, a lot of the men stayed on in the shipyard. The women, of course, got laid off at the ammunition plant. There wasn’t much to do in West Chester after that. The cannery closed. Of course, we had always been hired as cooks, [but] they weren’t like the war jobs. Once you get used to making good money, it was hard going back to old times.”

Gertrude Ferguson also described the end of the war as the beginning of a new and different era. “The day the war was over, there was dancing in the streets … [later] we got Herman Ray and his band to march down Market to High street. Those were different times all right. You knew everyone. And you didn’t have to lock yoUI door at night.”

George Howard kept his wartime job with the meat packing plant until 1962, but he, too, found things changed after the war. His description of the post-war decline of Phoenixville could easily apply to countless hometowns – and home fronts – throughout the country. “Many of the people who came here as part of the [Army] installation or as patients [at the Valley Forge hospital] stayed here. So, the people were here, but things changed. Even the big industries passed out of existence …. People moved here, but they took jobs out of town. It became what you could call a bedroom community. It just never seemed the same. The town lost its personal touch.”

War stories. Although towns across America had given up their young a half century ago, they have not-as long as they preserve their war stories – given up their personal touch. The spirit of the brave volunteers who worked tirelessly into the deep, dark night, the nightmare known as World War II, remains alive as long as these stories are told and re-told. For these are not simply stories of war on the home front; they are sagas of valor and love.


For Further Reading

Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during W. W. II. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Casdorph, Paul D. Let the Good Times Roll: Life at Home in America During World War II. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984.

Harris, Mark Johnathan, Franklin Mitchell, and Steven Schechter, eds. The Home Front: America During World War II. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984.

Hoehling, A. A. Home Front, U.S.A. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1966.

Hoopes, Roy. Americans Remember the Home Front: An Oral Narrative. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1977.

Lingeman, Richard R. Don’t you know there’s a war on? The American Home Front, 1941-1945. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.

____. Small Town America: A Narrative History, 1620 to the Present. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980.


The interviews in this article, which originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, were conducted last spring by students of West Chester University, Chester County. The students were enrolled in an oral history class taught by professor Charles Hardy, who worked directly with the Chester County Historical Society in the early stages of its World War II project. Historical society staff members and volunteers are continuing to research, and to compile inter­views and compile memorabilia from the war years. Although the society’s forthcoming exhibition deals primarily with the home front, local residents who served overseas or were stationed in the states are also being interviewed.


The author wishes to thank Roland Woodward, president of the Chester County Historical Society, and Beverly Sheppard, director of the society’s educational programming for their support in granting access to the taped interviews and transcripts used in this article. The author gives special thanks to the participants in the oral history project for granting permission to use their personal accounts in this article.


Catherine Quillman is an arts and history writer for the “Neighbors” section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is the author of two limited-­edition history books, History of the Conestoga Turnpike (1987) and The Story of Milford Mills and the Marsh Creek Valley (1989). She received her bachelor of arts degree in English from Washington College, Chester­town, Maryland, and recently completed her masters at Temple University in Philadelphia.