View All Posts

Nov 20

A Look Back with the County Executive: World War II in St. Charles County, Part 1

Posted on November 20, 2019 at 10:19 AM by County Executive

St. Charles County was no different than every other part of America during World War II. The draft and concerns over air raids after Pearl Harbor weighed on the minds of every family. Citizens also pulled together during this difficult time to support the troops and work to keep farms and companies in business. This month in the first of a two-part series, we’ll look at the impact this war had on our community. 

When registration for the country’s first peace-time draft began in October 1940, the county clerk estimated that 3,587 men would register in St. Charles County. As during World War I, local draft boards were established to create the feeling of local control and to reflect local values in the selection process. After the first draft lottery, the local papers contained the names of the 150 men with the lowest numbers. After these men were informed of their draft numbers, those with children were allowed to appeal to the local draft board for a deferment. For the next year, even though the United States was not yet at war, draft notices appeared in the county newspapers. Before the country entered the war, a total of 241 single men under 26 years-of-age where drafted from the county.1  Some local boys did not wait for America to go to war or to be drafted. Robert Sandell became a volunteer pilot with the “Flying Tigers” in China, while Richard Maxon joined the armed services and was stationed in the Philippines. Approximately 250 men from the county were in the armed services before the draft, or enlisted after it was instituted.2   

Following Pearl Harbor, the Banner News reported, “Mayor (Adolph) Thro said today every precaution would be taken to guard against sabotage since this country is actively involved in war. While no statements were forthcoming from officials of American Car and Foundry, it was expected to be only a question of time until troops are brought here to guard the plant where small twelve t (ton) tanks were being manufactured. It was anticipated that guards would be placed on the Lewis and Clark, Weldon Spring, and Highway bridges across the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in this county.”3 Within a few days, Governor Forrest Donnell announced that the only bridge that the army would be able to guard in the St. Louis area was the Daniel Boone Bridge. Although soldiers would later also guard the Lewis and Clark bridges, St. Charles County took out one of the first sabotage insurance policies in the Midwest to cover those bridges. By the end of December, members of the American Legion were taking turns guarding the Wabash and Highway 40 bridges in St. Charles. The United States Coast Guard had taken over the Palisades Yacht Club in Portage des Sioux as a repair base and a barracks earlier in 1941.4 

The concern over possible air attack prompted O’Fallon to become the first town in Missouri to stage a blackout just one week after Pearl Harbor. The Office of Civil Defense had been created in May 1941 to instruct Americans on what to do in the event of an air raid or enemy attack. The 1942 Rose Bowl was canceled in Pasadena, California and moved to Durham, North Carolina because of fear of air attack by the Japanese.5 A week later, when the St. Charles County Civilian Defense Committee called for volunteers to help with the war effort, one thousand registered within a week, including one-half the residents of St. Peters. Jobs, for which anyone over fifteen year of age could volunteer, included air raid warden, auxiliary fireman, fire watchers, nurse’s aide, and auxiliary policeman. There was also a bomb squad, medical squad, and rescue squad seeking volunteers. The committee explained, “This war we are in is an ‘all out’ war.  It is not a drama but a reality, in which we must all do our part.”6 Meanwhile, Lindenwood College held its first air raid drill in January, the same month Robert Langenbacker, speaking before an audience at the Lutheran Hall in St. Charles, warned that there was danger of an air attack.7   

The Aircraft Warning Corps of St. Charles County staged its first practice alert in March 1942.  Organized by Dr. Lloyd Harmon, the corps included 340 men, mostly veterans of World War I. During the alert, they manned their post for one-half hour shifts between three and nine p.m. Announcing the alert, the Banner-News explained, “Observers at posts in the environs of St. Charles will make reports to a central station by telephone when aircraft is spotted. Men at posts in rural areas, because of the expense of long distance telephone tolls, will be required to make reports by letter after the test drill is completed.”The following month, Secretary of War Henry Stimson exhorted all Americans to be ready because an attack on the continental United States was “inevitable.”9 The Aircraft Warning Corps trained volunteers to alert the population in the event of an attack. Three hundred people attended a program at St. Charles High School in December 1942, at which certificates were handed out to those who had completed civil defense courses. Elmer “Jocko” Bruns, master of ceremonies, pointed out, “the efficiency of the trainees was measured by the success of the blackout in St. Charles last Monday night.”10 The most likely target for an air attack in the county was the ordnance plant at Weldon Spring. Pilots, in unidentified aircraft, reported being fired upon by overanxious gunners at the plant.11 

As the Allies gained the upper hand and the Axis went on the defensive, concern about civil defense waned, but sabotage remained a concern throughout the war. Although the number of Germans was a fraction of what it had been in 1917, the issue came up as it had in the First World War. A significant number of immigrants were German Jews who had fled Germany and other areas under German control. Only a small number of German-Americans sympathized with the Nazi regime. While members of the German-American Bund distributed Nazi propaganda in the St. Louis area and collected information on local war plants for German authorities from 1937 until 1940, membership in the organization had peaked at 200 in 1939, and there was no evidence that they even attempted sabotage. Nevertheless, after Pearl Harbor, immigrants were again required to register, and this time they were ordered to turn in any radios in their possession that could have enabled them to communicate with the enemy. However, as of Jan. 14, 1942, not one radio in St. Charles County had been turned in by any of the 135 immigrants, most of them German, who had registered. German prisoners of war worked as farm laborers in Chesterfield, across the river from the ordnance plant. One night in 1945, Walter Winchell mentioned in his radio broadcast that, “nothing is to prevent them from blowing up the Weldon Spring plant.” Plant officials reassured everyone that the area was secure.12  

Pearl Harbor created such outrage against the Japanese that many St. Charles men volunteered for the armed services, including Prosecuting Attorney David Dyer, son of Bernard Dyer. After requesting a transfer to combat duty, Lieutenant Dyer wrote his mother:

I feel very, very strongly that an obligation rests upon me and the many other men who have enjoyed the advantages of life to place themselves in the most active positions.  To endeavor to do anything less is a denial of all we have enjoyed and an admission we were not entitled to it. One of the things I find admirable in the British people is the eagerness with which their most fortunate sons seek out the dangerous positions in time of war. Certainly, we love our country as much as they.13                                                                                                                               
Civil War veteran George Washington Tainter wrote in February 1942, “It is a proud day for me.  I accompanied my grandson George Tainter III when he enlisted in the Navy as a hospital apprentice first class.  He is the son of Dr. and Mrs. George W. Tainter of 130 McDonough Street, St. Charles. I am one hundred years old and I wore my original ensign uniform. True it is faded and worn but I wore it to St. Louis where George enlisted. I told the recruiting officer, ‘We licked them once we can do it again.’”14 When the Selective Service registration age was lowered to 18, many more men volunteered before they were drafted.  

Others volunteered to work at the U.S.O. at the St. Charles Hotel, or for the Red Cross which, in addition to again preparing kits for departing soldiers, conducted Blood Banks and instructed Nurses Aids. As during the First World War, rallies to support the war effort drew large crowds. Almost 12,000 people attended a “Hero’s Day” celebration at Blanchette Park in August 1942. After a parade, dignitaries, including the Mayor of St. Louis and Congressman Cannon, made speeches designed to boost the morale of the people at a time when most of the news from the battlefronts was not encouraging.15

After Pearl Harbor, the number of draftees from St. Charles County increased sharply, and decisions by the local draft board became more important. All concerned trusted to the local board to treat everyone fairly, while meeting the induction goals established for the county. In January 1942, the board recalled 21 county men, released from the armed services in the previous three months because they were over 28 years-of-age. By the summer of 1942, large numbers of single local men were being processed into the armed forces. The Selective Service Board of St. Charles County reported in July 1943 that 4,205 men between the ages of 18 and 37 from the county had registered for the draft. Of these, 14.2 percent were given deferments for “physical, mental, educational or moral reasons,” while another 23.2 percent were deferred because they had a family to support. Neither figure was out of line with national averages. However, it was reported, “The local selective service board has depended upon the Extension Agent for information relative to essential farm workers. Several times each month the agent has been in conference with these officials and as a member of the county war board has assisted in investigation that has saved many workers on the farm.”16 At the beginning of the war, farmers’ sons got deferments based on a point system that used acreage and number of livestock to determine eligibility. The St. Charles County board deferred 13.7 percent of local registrants as necessary for agriculture, with another 4.7 percent deferred for a combination of dependency and agricultural necessity. This local percentage of men on agricultural deferments in the county was more than twice the national average.17 The inequity disappeared when the selective service began deferring only one son in each family. By 1944, deferments were given only if the son was the sole support of the family.18

With most of the single men already drafted by February 1943, a local newspaper announced, “Childless married men face induction.”19 There were 1,414 men available in July 1943 to be drafted in St. Charles County, 34.4 percent of those who had registered. Men continued to receive their notices of induction from the local draft board, including Ken Heintzelmann, who was pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates. When instructed to draft married men with children, while other single men were deferred because their jobs were essential to the war effort, three local draft board members, Irvin Weber, Hugh Holmes and Milton Meyer, resigned in September 1943. Holmes explained, “Ours is a small community and we get reports almost daily outlining the idleness in war production plants particularly close to us. Under the recent order, many of these subjects will never experience the call of the armed forces. Denying these men the right to serve their country before taking the fathers is, we believe, an injustice to both and we cannot subscribe to it.”20 The first pre-Pearl Harbor fathers joined a group of 18-year-olds and men recently re-classified 1-A for induction in January 1944. On one occasion the Cosmos-Monitor alleged “Leniency to Businessmen by Draft Board,” when they were given time to wrap up certain business affairs before reporting for induction. Nevertheless, the public criticism of the draft board seems to have been minimal.  

As fewer farm boys received deferments, a serious manpower shortage developed in agriculture, especially after the flood of 1943, the worst since 1903, did serious damage to levees and fields in the floodplain. To meet the need, Judge Theodore Bruere Jr., son of Theodore C. Bruere, informed Sheriff Omar Schnatmeier:

In keeping with my recent letter to the sheriff of Lincoln county, I urge you to do all you possibly can towards getting the loafers of your county off the streets and working for the farmers of St. Charles county.  With the shortage of help that the farmers are having, every able-bodied man not engaged in a gainful occupation should offer his services to the farmers, and therefore show his desire to help win the war.  If you have any difficulty in persuading these able-bodied men, who have no visible means of support, to go to work, I suggest you arrest them under the charge of vagrancy, and if they are found guilty, this court will see that they go to work on a rock pile for St. Charles County.21

The Army ordered a contingent of 300 black soldiers to rebuild the levees. Half of them set up camp at Blanchette Park, while the rest camped in Augusta. When they arrived in July 1943, more than 50 area farmers had already applied for assistance. 

Only three percent of the non-farm workers in St. Charles County were deferred because their job was critical for war production. The resulting labor shortage meant that some African-Americans were hired in the defense industries. By the end of 1942, St. Louis area defense firms had hired 8,000 black workers, although five times that many African Americans remained unemployed. African Americans hired at the Weldon Spring ordnance plant worked in segregated production units, just as black GI’s fought in segregated units during the war. To relieve the labor shortage, seven men from the county over 38 years-of-age were discharged to work in defense industries in February 1943. With the labor shortage, it was harder to find workers willing to collect garbage in St. Charles, where numerous private companies contracted with individual property owners. As a result, the City Council contracted with a single hauler in September 1942, and the city provided garbage pick-up as a municipal service for the first time.23

1. Cosmos-Monitor, Oct, 16, 1940, and Oct. 30, 1940.

2. Ibid. Feb. 26, 1942, July 14, 1943, and Jan. 12, 1944.

3. Poindexter, “A Right Smart Little Town,” 121.

4. Cosmos-Monitor, June 25, 1941 and Dec. 24, 1941; Betty Burnett, St. Louis at War, The Story of a City 1941-1945, (St. Louis: The Patrice Press, 1987), 2; Mincke, History of Portage des Sioux, 139.

5. Heide, Home Front America, 44. 

6. Banner-News, Jan. 8, 1942.  The committee was composed of Stephen Blackhurst, chair, B.H. Jolly, vice-chair, Rev. B.H. Behrmann, Rev. Theo Gerken, Helmuth Dallmeyer, C. Fred Hollenbeck, John Pitts, Earl Garland, Edward Ell, and Edward A. Eno.  Ibid.

7. Cosmos-Monitor, Jan. 21, 1942, and Banner News, Jan. 8,10 and 16, 1942, quoted in Poindexter, “A Right Smart Little Town,” 122.  

8. Banner-News, March 26, 1942.

9. Burnett, St. Louis at War, 9.

10. Banner-News, Dec. 18, 1942.

11. Burnett, St. Louis at War, 15.

12. Ibid. 134. Plant officials explained that TNT was shipped as fast as possible. Two climb-proof fences and an armed patrol protected the buildings that had been arranged so that extensive damage would be impossible in the unlikely event of sabotage. Ibid. John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory, Politics and American Culture During World War II, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 172.  Ibid.  Banner-News, January 26, 1942; 1941 Charlemo.

13. County Court Correspondence, file 12-2569, St. Charles County Archives.

14. Edna McElhiney Olson, Historical Articles, Vol. III, 415.

15. Banner-News, Aug. 31, 1942, quoted in Poindexter, “A Right Smart Little Town,” 124.  

 16. “Annual Report of the County Extension Service for 1942,” 36, St. Charles County Archives.

17. Banner-News, July 22, 1943, for discussion of deferments. Nationwide, three percent were deferred specifically by law, four percent were deferred as dependency hardship cases, and five percent were deferred as “necessary in civilian activity.” Ibid.

18. Agricultural History of St. Charles County, 126.

19. Cosmos-Monitor, Feb. 17, 1943.

20. Ibid. Sept. 29, 1943. The remaining draft board members were Henry Ohlms and John Richterkessing. Ibid. The St. Charles Chamber of Commerce honored Hugh Holmes as Citizen of the Years in 1964.

21. Ibid. April 28, 1943.

22. Burnett, St. Louis at War, 43.

23. Cosmos-Monitor, Feb. 24, 1943, and Sept. 9, 1942.