Remembering Our Vets And A War That Began 75 Years Ago

BobFisher-HughesBy Robert Fisher-Hughes, AAP Columnist and Amateur Historian

2014 has been a year of historic anniversaries, of local and global significance. This year, New Jersey attained the ripe age of 350. Pennsauken’s own “Jersey Joe” Walcott was born 100 years ago. The 50th anniversary of the Pennsauken wedding of Chubby Checker and Dutch beauty Catherina Lodders occurred earlier this year. And it was also a century ago that the world was plunged into the cataclysm of the Great War, which altered human affairs in so many ways.

Each of these anniversaries are milestones where we can pause a moment and look back on the path we traveled to reach today. They remind us that people and decisions shape events and that events have consequences. And historic events have historic consequences.

Consequential events also occurred 75 years ago this year, in August and September 1939, which have special significance as we mark Veterans Day. It was then that Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the world again plunged into the abyss of war.

Unlike World War I, in which events seemed to bring the war of their own impetus and without the intent of its participants, World War II could be seen coming for years in the continuous, aggressive demands and actions of Germany and its axis allies. In America, a sense of dread, denial, and reluctant preparation characterized the response to the approach of war.

Many residents of Pennsauken had served in World War I, including highly decorated vets Leonard Coe, George W. Powell and Joe Angelo. Angelo, living on the home he built for his family on Holman Ave. in Delair, would be turned away due to age when he attempted to re-enlist in a few short years. Local soft drink bottler Stanley Knast, living on Park Ave., was also a combat veteran of the first World War. J. Norman Ludwick, serving as mayor in 1939, was also a veteran. There were active veterans’ organizations, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, with substantial memberships. A number of local streets bore the names of local heroes who sacrificed their lives in the Great War. Memorial Day and Veterans Day were both reverently observed civic events each year. Memories of the costs and consequences of war were ever present.

However, other struggles also occupied the lives of the community. In 1939, Pennsauken and its surrounding communities, like much of America, were realizing that the hard times of the Depression were far from over. Government programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, initiatives from the Democratic administration in Washington, were initially viewed with great suspicion by the local, Republican authorities. Partisan influence was charged in the placement of local workers in the public programs. However, by 1939, Township officers had made peace with these agencies; perhaps they had no other choice. A cursory review of the 1940 census indicates that the W.P.A. and its sister relief agencies may have been the single biggest employer of Township men and women in those years.

Among the many local workers employed by W.P.A. projects were Joe Angelo and truck driver William Dover, the son of the proprietor of the Dover farm in the old Burrough homestead. One local administrator of the W.P.A. projects was Kathryn Corbett of King Ave., whose son Fred would soon enlist and be stationed in the Philippine Islands, where he would be among the lost in the dark days following Pearl Harbor.

Employing young people entering the work force without much experience could be a particular problem. One young man from Delair, John Myers, used an ironic sense of humor to promote his job search when he advertised for employment as “Man, 24, lazy, unreliable, wants work. Short hours.” His creativity got his picture in the Courier Post as well as his paid classified ad.

Another new worker was Wright “Ike” Gerke, a 1938 graduate of Merchantville High School who lived on 47th St. Described as dependable, easy to get along with, and possessing a dry sense of humor, he parlayed experience as ticket manager for the senior play into a position as a clerk. Gerke would enlist in July 1941 and be lost over Germany in 1943 as a Second Lieutenant in a bomber squadron.

As summer came to an end in August 1939, W.P.A.-sponsored playground and recreation programs for young people wound down. Among the events to close the summer season were a puppet show in the outdoor theater in Wellwood Park; and a pet show where the “big” winner was “Pete,” a “genuine 100 percent police dog” who won for biggest and most clever.

Another climax to the summer came when the Central Airport swimming pool held its annual free swimming day for Courier-Post newsboys on August 23.

Despite the summer distractions concluding well before Labor Day, Pennsauken schools in 1939 delayed their openings into September at the request of local health officials due to an outbreak of infantile paralysis or polio.

Other major employers in those days included the Pennsauken plant of the Kieckheffer Container Corporation, R.C.A. and Campbell’s Soup in Camden, the Camden and Philadelphia shipyards, and the Rundle plant in Pennsauken, which counted J. Norman Ludwick among its local employees.

Another local employer was Central Airport. Stewardess Ethel Davis of Union Ave. was one of those who found work at the airport, which marked its 10th anniversary in September, 1939. Increasing size of aircraft and growing scale of operations meant that Central Airport had only months remaining as the principal airport for the Philadelphia area. It would close before long, but would then re-open with a new mission as a locale to train Navy cadets with war nearing American shores.

There were also the movies at the Walt Whitman Theatre, like “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Five Came Back,” both featured in August 1939 along with newsreels describing the approaching crisis.

The impending disaster of war colored much of life. At the annual Labor Day commemoration at the grave of Peter J. McGuire, one speaker suggested the example of McGuire’s brotherly love for his fellow workers as an example for the leaders of European nations. Political charges flung by rivals in the upcoming local elections included accusations of dictatorship and aggressive coercion by incumbents and challengers alike.

As tensions rose and ultimatums were exchanged in Europe, plans were announced to intern the ships of belligerents at local ports upon the outbreak of hostilities. One of several sites suggested to berth the ships during internment was Petty’s Island.

On September 2, 1939, local newspapers carried the dreaded headlines. How awful and widespread the conflict would ultimately be could only be revealed in the months and years ahead, however. Meanwhile, prayers and the fervent hope that America could remain unaffected would have to suffice.

At this Veterans Day seventy five years later, remember to express your gratitude for the men and women who stepped into the breach when those hopes proved vain.

Sources for this column include contemporary newspaper articles, 1940 census records, and the Merchantville Record 1938 yearbook.

Translate »