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Dec 20

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

Posted on December 20, 2019 at 1:10 PM by County Executive

St. Charles County experienced significant social developments during World War II. More women joined the workforce, secular community organizations increased in popularity, and attitudes toward race and religion began to change. Citizens moved forward while grieving the loss of their family, neighbors and friends in the war. This month in the last of a two-part series, we’ll continue to examine the impact World War II had on our community. 

To fill labor shortages during World War II, many single women also took jobs in defense plants. The Cosmos-Monitor reported in April 1943, “The so-called weaker sex are doing more jobs normally filled by men and about 100 women are employed at various hard jobs at the Weldon Spring TNT plant, G.L. Barnes, general manager for Atlas Powder Company, said yesterday. The women are taking jobs to replace men called for the draft.”1 Darlene Hahn of St. Charles, who worked the second shift as a riveter at the Curtis Wright Aircraft Factory in St. Louis County, remembered, “It was hard work but we all felt like we were doing something for the country.  I can’t remember how much we were paid, but it seemed like big money at the time.”2  Kate L. Gregg, who taught at Lindenwood College during the day, worked the “graveyard shift” at a defense plant in St. Louis. Actually, women’s pay was 51 cents an hour, about one-half the pay of men. Top pay for women was 59 cents an hour and the minimum wage was lowered from 18 to 16 cents an hour in mid-1942. The available work force was further depleted after May 1942, when women were given the opportunity to enlist in the WAAC’s or the WAVE’s.3   

With most single women working, only the married women remained unemployed. While custom and popular sentiment was against the trend, even married women went to work.4 Fred Hollenbeck, who had become superintendent of the Francis Howell school district in 1936, explained, “In those days a married woman didn’t have a chance to teach school. Three questions were often asked: are you married, do you dance, and do you teach evolution. If the answer to any of these was yes, the lady was not hired by the school board.”5 The St. Charles school district still did not hire married women in 1939, and as late as 1942, long time Board of Education member George Null was vehemently opposed to hiring married women. However, with many male teachers drafted into the armed services, and other male teachers taking better-paying jobs in the war-time economy, a shortage of teachers developed. Cordelia Stumberg, whose husband H.K. Stumberg had entered the armed services, was hired to teach in St. Charles.6 C. Fred Hollenbeck later related, “During the war, good teachers were extremely hard to come by. One of the favorite remarks made by superintendents at the time was, ‘if she still has a pulse, she would be hired.’ The school systems simply did not have a choice, as few new teachers were being trained, and many who had the ability to teach had gone to work in the defense plants.”7     

Several men from St. Charles County like Harvey Hollrah, great-grandson of John D. Hollrah, had been drafted in 1940 and were fully trained and ready for action by the fall of 1942. Hollrah landed in North Africa with the Ninth Infantry Division, composed of only men whose ancestors had fought in the Civil War. To keep him and other county servicemen informed of developments on the “home front,” Fred Tainter and several other volunteers had begun publishing the St. Charles Bugle two months earlier. The community read newspaper stories about local boys, some of whom would never come back, including John Coose, the first man from the county killed in action, while serving in the Coast Guard in the North Atlantic in February 1942. The same month, Robert Sandel, who had downed seven Japanese planes, was killed in a plane crash in China. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously, and his parents received a letter from the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs T.V. Soong explaining, “Like Lafayette in America these gallant men will be ever gratefully enshrined in the memory of the Chinese people.”8 The following summer, it was reported that Richard Maxon, who had fought on Corregidor, had died in a Japanese POW camp. As the war progressed, the death notices became more frequent. On March 9, 1944, the Banner-News reported that Lieutenant Ronald Thompson, whose father was editor of the paper, had been killed in action on New Britain in the Southwest Pacific. The same day the paper reported that Lieutenant David Dyer, former prosecuting attorney for St. Charles County, had been killed in action on a destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea.9 Reports of capture, injury or death were especially high during the summer of 1944, with heavy fighting in France, Italy and the Philippines.  St. Charles County supplied 1,487 men and women to the armed services during World War II, 47 of whom were killed.10   

Allied victories that summer led the Chamber of Commerce to adopt a resolution in September asking all stores to close and all residents, upon Germany’s surrender, to attend a thanksgiving service at the church of their choice. While the city had to wait a bit longer than expected, when VE-Day did arrive on May 8, 1945, the Banner News described local reaction as “quiet,” reporting, “thousands of people attended services in their churches…in thanksgiving for victory.” By contrast, when the people heard the news of Japan’s defeat on Aug. 15, 1945, they crowded into the streets and celebrated. Cars, with clanging tubs and tin cans fastened to the bumpers, paraded down the street. The despised Japanese General Hideki Tojo was observed hanging in effigy on at least two trucks, as businesses, offices and factories closed while the city celebrated.11 One local commentator suggests that this disparity suggests the level of racial hatred in St. Charles County directed against the “Japs.” He states, “While editorial cartoons depicted Germans as unfortunate dupes and victims of the Nazi government, they pictured the Japanese as buck teeth barbarians deserving of a rain of American bombs.”12   

The propaganda throughout the war had, indeed, used racial themes against the Japanese and St. Charlesans were no less affected than the nation as a whole. One must also remember that the Germans did not bomb Pearl Harbor, and until Dec. 7, 1941, a majority of Americans were opposed to going to war against them. Americans did not yet know of the horrors of Nazi concentration camps but they did know about the Bataan Death March. VE Day was long anticipated and came at a time when there was much fighting still to do in the Pacific. VJ Day came unexpectedly, after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and marked the end of all hostilities.  

The breakdown of ethnic and religious antagonisms and the growth of secular social organizations spurred by World War I, continued through the 1930s and the Second World War. The German Methodists in St. Charles disbanded their school and congregation in 1932; most of their members joining the First Methodist Church. In 1933, civic-minded citizens formed the Wentzville Community Club, composed of individuals from all ethnic and religious groups. Two years later, it began sponsoring annual homecomings to promote the city.  After the first such homecoming, an editorial appeared:

Even though the celebration had been a financial loss, instead of the great financial as well as social success it proved to be, the very fact that the citizens of Wentzville – men, women and children, without regard to race, creed or personal consideration – flocked together and worked side by side for one common cause – the success of the good old home town – is worth more than all the other considerations. The dawn of a New Wentzville has made its appearance on the horizon. If we can forget past bickering, strife and struggles, and make use of our new-found power to carry out the plans of the Community Club for a Greater Wentzville, nothing can stop us from becoming one of the most popular and prosperous rural towns in the state.13                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Likewise, a booster club in O’Fallon became known as the Civic Club in 1938.14 The popularity of Service Clubs continued to grow, as a Kiwanis Club was established in St. Charles in 1935 to, “promote the adoption and application of higher social, business and professional standards.”15 After a very successful St. Charles Pageant of Progress in 1938, Rev. Lloyd Harmon, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, explained, “One of the greatest values of the production was the fact that so many people of all classes and all religious beliefs were brought together and worked with one common interest as citizens of our community.”16 One author commented that by 1941, “The people (of St. Charles) have become almost completely Americanized, but here and there some folktale or legend, some piece of furniture or bric-a-brac, reveals a French or German heritage.”17 

There was even some slight improvement in racial attitudes. With its roots in New Orleans style jazz, Southern blues, and the Charleston sound of the 1920s, swing music became very popular with young people of St. Charles County in the late 1930s. It became common for local black jazz bands like “Sylvester Dryden’s Virginia Night Hawks” to play at dances attended exclusively by whites. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the exceptional basketball teams at the school attracted large crowds of both races to the Franklin High School gymnasium. After the 300 black soldiers who had been assigned agricultural work left in 1943, the county extension agent reported, “The soldiers were very well pleased and their officers complimented the committee in each area on the splendid reception and entertainment while in the area. Not one complaint of importance was heard by any farmer in either area and many favorable comments were heard from every farmer with which the agent discussed the matter.”18  

Nevertheless, as their sons went off to fight Germany for a second time in 1941, Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles still conducted its early morning Sunday service in German, and the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish, Father Strauss, along with many of his parishioners, were still quite active in the Catholic Central Union  of America. African Americans from the county were drafted into segregated military units while their families were still subject to restrictive covenants back home. In addition to a similar restrictive covenant against blacks, the 1940 deeds for Lake Shore Subdivision, located on Alton Lake, stated, “Neither shall any lot in this subdivision be sold, leased, let or rented to be used by any people of Jewish or Hebrew descent.”19  A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt suggested, “Remember the Nazi technique: ‘Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer!’ We must not let that happen here.”20 Rabbi Julius Gordon from Shaare Emeth Jewish Congregation spoke at the St. Charles High School graduation in June 1943. Pictures of German Concentration Camps were shown at an exhibit in September 1945 at Memorial Hall in Blanchette Park, where a plaque was later placed honoring those who died in the Second World War.21    

The American soldiers of German ancestry from St. Charles County fought well against Nazi Germany and the other Axis Powers. The list of those killed in the Second World War from the county shows 60 percent had German surnames. Those who returned were not only uninterested in, but ashamed of, their German heritage. The war-time experience extinguished the last vestiges of German separatism and guaranteed the final assimilation of German Americans in St. Charles County. Having fought the racist Nazi regime, it became much harder for the returning veterans to justify the racial segregation in their own community. Having fought with men of all religious belief for a common goal, confessional differences were no longer as important. By the end of 1945, the younger generation had made it through the Great Depression and World War II.  While social changes had been few during the Great Depression, World War II had brought significant changes. Further change would take place as the veterans returned to St. Charles County.

1. Ibid. April 14, 1943.

2. Darlene M. Hahn, “A St. Charles WW II, Rosie the Riveter,” St. Charles County Heritage, Vol. 20, No. 2, April 2002, 66.

3. Burnett, St. Louis at War, 43.

4. Evans, Born for Liberty, 221.

5. Agricultural History of St. Charles County, 29.

6. Interview with Cordelia Stumberg. The governor appointed Robert Niedner to replace H.K. Stumberg as prosecuting attorney when Stumberg entered the United States Army. The St. Louis City School Board did not hire married female teachers, and dismissed single teachers that married, up until 1948, when the Missouri Supreme Court, in a case iniated by Anita Weis and Mildred Holmes in 1941, declared it illegal.  See Sharon Pedersen, “Married Women and the Right to Teach in St. Louis, 1941-1948,” MHR, January 1987, 141.

7. Agricultural History of St. Charles County, 29.

8. Cosmos-Monitor, Feb. 26, 1942.

9. Ibid. July 14, 1943; Banner-News, March 9, 1944.

10. Poindexter, “A Right Smart Little Town,” 126-127.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. History of Wentzville and Surrounding Township, 197.

14. The German Methodist Church in New Melle closed in 1959. Schiermeier, Cracker Barrel Country, Vol. III, 24; Wentzville Centennial Program, 1955, 34; O’Fallon Centennial Program, 15.

15. Bicentennial Celebration Program, 49-50.

16. Michelle Kramme, “A Progressive Pageant Like No Other, St. Charles Heritage, Vol. 11, no. 3, 87.

17. WPA Guide to 1930’s Missouri (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1986), 261.

18.  “St. Charles County Annual Report of the Agricultural Extension Service,” 32, St. Charles County Archives.

19. Fr. Strauss was the honorary chair of one session of the convention of the Catholic Central Union, associated with the national Catholic Verein

20. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, 760.

21. Cosmos-Monitor, June 9, 1943; Banner-News, Aug. 8, 1945.