On Sunday, December 7, 1941, like many Americans, my grandfather Bill Wendling was sitting in the living room listening to the radio when the broadcast was interrupted. The radio broadcaster announced that a navy post in Hawaii called Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. My grandfather went to find his parents, and they sat together and listened as more details followed. The next day, the U.S. entered World War II, the most destructive war in history.
Before Pearl Harbor, most Americans knew they would eventually enter the war. On September 16, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which established the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. All men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register with a local draft board. In 1940, 2640 Effingham County men registered. In October, Kenneth Ray Dugan and Maurice Rickelman were the first Effingham County residents to be drafted. William Edwin Fischer was the first person drafted from Altamont.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, (which some Effingham County residents witnessed first hand) patriotism swept across America. Thousands of men enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted. Many Americans preferred the enlistment process because it gave them a wider choice of branches to serve. By 1942, the government made men between 18 and 45 eligible for the draft.
During the war, a rationing system was established to preserve goods for the war effort. Life during this time was dictated by the rationing system. Each family in America was issued a war ration book and tokens, which controlled the number of goods a family could purchase. The purchase of items including meat, sugar, milk, butter, silk, nylon, shoes, and more was limited by local ration boards. Cigarettes were a commodity, with 30 percent of cigarette production dedicated to military production. Alcohol production had similar limits.
Transportation was also limited. Most residents were restricted to three to five gallons of gasoline each week, so residents often hitchhiked to preserve their rations. Tire sales were restricted, so customers had to get their tires capped. Drivers were often told to drive under 35mph. Meanwhile, new auto purchases were banned after 1942, because car manufacturers were focused on producing military vehicles.
Farmers had a higher gasoline allowance. But farm machinery was rationed, and farmers were forced to use worn-out equipment.
Altamont residents lived a self-sufficient lifestyle. My great-grandparents, who lived on the corner of Division and Fourth Street, had a victory garden. (A victory garden was a garden planted to supplement the limited food supply during the war.) They raised chickens and ducks in the backyard, and sometimes my grandfather shot pigeons, rabbits, and squirrels for meat. When short on supplies, they traded vegetables and other goods with the neighbors. Local residents planted peach trees. My great-great grandfather produced his own wine using five, 50-gallon barrels and shared with neighbors in the Blue Point area. Home beer brewing operations were also popular. Clothing materials were rationed, so clothing choices were limited or expensive. Farmers sometimes cut holes in feed sacks for their children to wear as pants, and shoes were often patched up.
According to an angry letter published in the Sunday, June 4, 1944, Decatur Herald, Altamont during the war, resembled a farm. “My work takes me around a lot. Noticed quite an unpleasant smell in Altamont. Soon located its source. A hog lot with 50 or 75 hogs therein, and this within three blocks from the main part of town.” The author also described town lots with dozens of victory gardens and cow pastures.
Assisting the war effort
Residents saved tin cans, used paper, food, and more for the war effort. While some residents took down their iron fences for scrap metal. The Triangle had a wire crate for aluminum collections later sent to factories for raw material. Blood drives, with people waiting in line for hours, were prevalent. Locals went to the First National Bank on the southwest corner of Second and Washington Street to purchase war bonds. Local schools had War Stamp pie suppers. Churches had special prayer services for the soldiers fighting overseas. Congregations wrote letters to members fighting overseas, and neighbors comforted the families of soldiers.
Eight million women in America joined the workforce. Many of them, including women from Altamont, worked in ammunition or military vehicle factories in cities like St. Louis and Chicago. Women also made up the majority of workers at the Pant and Glove factory located on the corner of Division and Third Street. Other local women joined the Women’s Army Corps.
Farms also had labor shortages. Farmers and farm hands went off to war, while elderly men, wives, and children were responsible for running the farms. Later, some men of draft age were able to receive farm-related draft deferments.
After Pearl Harbor, Altamont created a defense council headed by Mayor Klitzing, which made defense preparations in case of an invasion. The defense council duties included blackout tests. Altamont’s first blackout test occurred in February of 1942. (Blackouts were a tactic used to prevent the enemy from bombing cities at night. This was achieved by shutting off all lights so the bombers couldn’t see the city below.) According to the February 13, 1942, Decatur Herald, The blackout test was enforced by air raid wardens with the help of the local boy scout troop, while drivers were stopped and told to shut off their headlights. “The fire alarm siren sounded the alert at 7:37 PM and the all clear at 8:13 PM.”
News from the War
Every week, the people of Altamont flocked to the Main Theater located at the present site of Kull’s Funeral Home. Newsreels played before the feature films, showing our troops fighting in the Pacific and European theaters.
Altamont residents also sat around the radio to hear updates about the war, while families waited patiently for letters from their grandsons, sons, or brothers.
In 1944, word reached Altamont that local man, Sgt. James Greene had been rescued from the Japanese. In 1942, after the U.S. surrendered to the Japanese forces in the Philippines, Sgt. Greene was taken prisoner. He was forced to join the Bataan Death March, a 65-mile prisoner march between two P.O.W. camps. 75,000 Filipino and American P.O.W.s including Greene were forced to take the arduous journey. Soldiers starved and often had to eat live snakes that crawled across the road. Fatigued soldiers were bayoneted or ran over by Japanese trucks. Later, when the Americans invaded the Philippines, the Japanese transported the P.O.W.s out of the Philippines. In 1944, Sgt. Greene’s transport ship was sunk by an American submarine. He was rescued and taken to Australia. On December 4, 1944, by the request of the Secretary of War, Altamont welcomed Greene home with a celebration.
Unfortunately, news from the war wasn’t always positive. A year earlier in 1943, the parents of Sgt. Paul L. Fischer were told their son was killed in the Pacific theater. Sgt. Fischer was the first Altamont resident to die in World War II. (Altamont’s American Legion Post is named after Fischer and Frank Grobengieser, who was the only Altamont resident to die in World War I).
Altamont residents, deployed around the globe, fought bravely against the Axis Powers. Many of them were awarded medals for their bravery, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. 17 Altamont residents were killed in the war: Sgt. Paul L. Fischer, William Tappendorf, Stevenson Jenkins, Merle Gieseking, Sherborne Austin, Reuben Wade, Forrest Morr, Arnold Mueller, Cecil Dammerman, Walter Schwerdtfeger, Rudolph Siebert, Owen Cox, Harold Oliver, Seth McCoy, Hugo Voelker, Glenn Loar, and Granville H. Walling. Other Altamont soldiers, like my grandfather, returned home with injuries.
The soldiers’ return from war led to a period of economic prosperity in America. After years of warfare and rationing, people were ready to spend money, settle down, and raise families. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill gave thousands of Americans the opportunity to attend college.
The war dictated almost every aspect of life in America. But without the sacrifices made on the battlefield and the homefront, our country would be a very different place today.
February 13, 1942, Decatur Herald
Sunday, June 4, 1944, Decatur Herald
Altamont Diamond Jubilee Book
Effingham County Past and Present 1968
Various Personal Interviews.