A Window into the War
World War II brought a multitude of changes to homes and communities across the nation. Students will listen to how these changes impacted the residents of the Delmarva peninsula—an area comprised of Delaware and the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia. During the war, the region was subject to broader flows of migration and labor. The demand for munitions and agricultural resources, combined with the outflow of enlisted men and women, necessitated the rise of local industries drawing migrant workers from across the nation and world. Residents discussed the war in barbershops, churches, and homes, reinforcing existing social networks during times of uncertainty and crisis.
Insular communities connected to a national spirit of patriotism by way of radio and film, but were also attuned to wartime fears particular to the region, watching the skies and the seas anxiously for threat of European invasion. The war also brought foreigners to the doorstep of local farmers who employed and fed German prisoners of war in an effort to combat the labor shortage. Fear of the unknown and comfort in the familiar coexisted during the wartime years, challenging and reaffirming ties that made up the fabric of these Delmarva communities.
Both homes and businesses adapted to wartime responsibilities while continuing to serve as places of community gathering. These sites of gathering reflected the importance of small-town social connections, evidenced by the clientele of James Mears’ family barbershop—who accepted haircuts from a 9-year-old standing on a box of shotgun shells—and the lively celebrations at the Deaton’s […]
Communities on the Eastern Shore saw the construction of new munitions plants in places like Elkton, Maryland, and the DuPont plant in Seaford, Delaware. This construction fueled the demand for migrant workers, who rented rooms from local families. The rise of these defense industries allowed communities to contribute to the national war effort, but not […]
Mediums of popular culture like music, dance, film reels, and the radio promoted national unity and encouraged patriotism. Karl Brown, Jr. sang patriotic anthems in the school choir, Virginia Babbitt danced to her heart’s delight with soldiers at the USO, and Fenton Martin’s high school stage was graced by the presence of metropolitan musical personalities— […]
Some residents of the Eastern Shore met Germans face-to-face without leaving their homes. When able-bodied men like Allen Capel went off to war, their family farms faced a labor shortage alleviated in part by the nearby German prisoner of war camps. His sister Virginia describes how the prisoners were bussed in daily, labored by day, […]
Female Defense Workers—Douglass Gates
Probably the most influential thing that I can remember is that we had a fairly large house, and we took in defense workers—females. I think one male we had at one time, but they were generally females. They worked in ship building in Wilmington. They had small plants, and they had other things too, I guess. I can’t remember. But the thing that is most memorable for me is that in the evening (you know, no television in those days), we’d get down in the living room, and we had a piano. And the girls—there was always a piano player, there seemed to be. The girls would get down there and gather around the piano with me because I always stuck my nose in there and sing songs. As a result of that, you know, my head right now continues to be full of nineteen twenties, thirties, forties songs. That’s what we sang, and that’s what I memorized with those gals, and it was wonderful. You know, this little twerp standing there and they’re having a grand time, and I’m having a grand time too. I loved it [laughs]. And they’d pat me on the head, “Oh, Dougie, you’re such a cute little kid,” [laughs] and I knew I was, of course [laughs].
Volunteering for Airplane Spotting—Rene Coxon
[When the war started], I lived in there for four years. From ’41 until ’45. And that’s when our defense plant came to do the ammunition for war effort and some of us volunteered too. I happened to be one that volunteered for spotting airplanes. You all don’t know it but we didn’t have radar, right? So we spotted airplanes. We went to school, classes, and then I spotted airplanes under the big tree right at the end here. Our high school was right over here where your building is, your new building. On Washington Avenue was our high school. So, you learn what your enemy’s airplanes were, you picked up the phone when you saw one, you described it, which direction it was going, and somebody else picked it up on the other line. We only lived, maybe, is it two hours from Washington, to drive. But not according to how the crow flies, therefore, we were fairly close to Washington. And of course you had radar then, but not around like that.
Wartime Entertainment—Fenton Martin
I was on the stage crew at school. This was before electric stages at least down in little Portsmouth, Virginia. We had scenery that you had to take out of the storage room and hand carry it down a staircase and over to the stage. We had about a 500 person auditorium; it was the only one in town. [It was] one of the things that I did occasionally. Recording artists and other notables from as far away as New York would come down to Portsmouth and do their thing as a form of war time entertainment for service men and natives, whoever came to fill the auditorium. It’s ridiculous, but the only name I can remember is Richard Tucker who was an opera star in the Met at the time. But you got to know whoever they were because they would hire you to come in the night and do the necessary preparation and curtain work while they were going from the wings out and back, so on and so forth. So the point of that is the high school did offer its facilities to public events that would not have been there if it had not had been for the war.
Working Alongside POWs—Howard Cook
Yuh! My God! We had a POW—I’m glad you asked that question. We had a POW building up here as you go on Route 213 up here by Church Hill. They had prisoners there. We was husking corn, and my father [would] go up there, and we’d get four German prisoners. My father would go up there and pick them up, and they’d bring them back, and they’d husk corn for my father. So anyway, we’d go up there, and my father would get four of them, and I felt sorry for them. They come here, and they was well educated people. One of them was a doctor, and one, I don’t remember, but they was Germans. And I don’t think sometimes the people up there treated them right, but they was prisoners; they was killing our men. So they come here one day and my mother looked and see what they had—for bag for dinner. It wasn’t much. So my mother said, ‘You come on in the house,’ and my mother fed ’em everyday until [unintelligible], and they was so appreciative. I can’t find the letter. When they got out—one of them was a doctor—he wrote my mother a letter thanking her for the kindness she give him. But that’s what they was, prisoners of war. They were good people, but they couldn’t control their lives because of Hitler getting in.