"The War" Hits Home - Yesterday and Today
What War May Bring, No One Can Tell …
by Ned Benton
(September 26, 2007) Have you been watching The War, the 15-hour Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary airing this week on PBS? As you saw the battles of World War II unfold across Europe and the Pacific, and viewed closer-to-home scenes like the U-boats attacking merchant vessels on the Atlantic Coast and Americans gathering scrap metal and preparing for air raids, you may have wondered what was happening in Larchmont during the war.
How did residents react? What emergency preparations were made? What about local service members? And what did adults tell the children, when they didn't know "what war may bring?"
The Larchmont Historical Society's Larchmont War Memorials site and the Gazette's Larchmont 1942 Year in Review provide glimpses of Larchmont during World War II through news articles, photos and essays. Below are just a few snap shots, starting with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war. Local World War II veterans, now in their 80s, offer their own recollections.
Pearl Harbor Explained at Chatsworth
Paul Andersen, who grew up to serve as a Larchmont fire chief and Village trustee, was only in second grade at Chatsworth School when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. Years later he wrote a personal essay, recalling his reaction:
“On Monday, December 8, 1941 on the school playground before class, some of the kids were talking about the Japanese attacking American ships in a place called Pearl Harbor. We had no idea of where Pearl Harbor was and could not wait to get into Miss Harrison's class so she could tell us about Pearl Harbor. After doing the Pledge Of Allegiance to the flag, which was shortly changed from taking your hand off your heart after saying "to the flag" and extending your arm to the flag (because it so closely resembled the Nazi Salute), Miss Harrison showed us on the map where Pearl Harbor was, and spent the better part of the morning trying to explain to us the world situation and the circumstances which brought about the attack. At that time we did not have any idea as to what the effect the war would have on us or on Chatsworth School or the Village of Larchmont.”
Parents Join the Effort
The poem below, an Evacuation Meeting Announcement written for Murray Avenue School parents on October 20, 1942, reflected the view that war might come to Larchmont at any time. It was up to residents, their schools and their government to be ready for whatever came their way - including an aerial attack on a school.
Larchmont Declared a Priority Target
On March 19, 1942, a Larchmont Times article explained that Major General L. D. Gasser, a member of the War Department's Board for Civilian Defense, had notified Larchmont Mayor Harry E. Goeckler that Larchmont was designated as one of nine Westchester's communities "most threatened by enemy attack." Larchmont needed to prepare for the worst.
Earlier that year, Fire Chief Alexis Cuneen had begun conducting a home defense course to enlist support from residents in the event of enemy bombing raids on the community. The large number of fires likely to results from such raids would have been impossible for the fire department to handle without public cooperation. "Members of each household must do all they can to control incendiary bombs," said the chief. He suggested use of such items as a stirrup pump, a long-handled shovel, and a garden hose long enough to reach an attic.
By spring of 1942, almost 300 Mamaroneck junior and senior high school students were being trained as air raid messengers. In the event of an air attack, they would run messages to and from the neighborhood air raid wardens. The students had to memorize their routes and practice them in the dark, while also preparing alternate routes in case bridges were destroyed.
Scrap Metal: Trolley Lines & Canons
Also in the spring of 1942, the Larchmont Village Board voted to scrap the old trolley tracks on Chatsworth Avenue between Palmer and the Post Road so the metal could be used by the military. They were responding to entreaties from the War Production Board, which described a severe steel shortage. Village Engineer Arthur Richards also observed that the trolley tracks had become a "traffic hazard."
The Larchmont Yacht Club aided the war effort in October of 1942 by donating its old civil war cannons that had faced the harbor since the turn of the century. The cannons were formally presented to the Larchmont War Council in a ceremony, complete with music by the W.P.A. Orchestra of White Plains.
Navy Undersecretary James Forrestal recognized the sacrifice in letter: "I know that these historic pieces have come to be an integral part of the club and a reduction of them to scrap represents a genuine sense of sacrifice on the part of your members. I am sure that you share with me the thought that these old cannons, converted into material from modern use, will be rededicated to the purpose which they have long symbolized, the preservation of the basic principles on which our country is founded."
Rationing Hits Home
In addition to gathering up steel and tin cans, the government initiated food rationing in late 1942. The rules for rationing were often complicated.
The chairman of the Harrison-Mamaroneck War Price and Rationing Board explained that residents would be issued coupon booklets good for groups of commodities.
Paul Anderson explained what this meant to a second-grader. "The items that children missed the most during the war era were: ice cream, candy and bubble gum, primarily because of the scarcity of sugar and chicle for the gum. Again, our mothers gave us fruits, which were available, and probably were better for us. Once in a while, The Larchmont Sweet Shop would be able to make ice cream when its allotment of sugar was available. I don't know how we knew this was happening, but there would be lines outside waiting for their one scoop cone limit, and it was only a nickel."
Larchmonters Go to War - Many Do Not Return
In April of 1942 came word of the first Larchmont casualty: John R. "Bobbie" Bishop was aboard a U.S. Merchant vessel torpedoed off of the eastern seaboard, near Georgia. There were 23 survivors of the 36-man crew, but Bobbie Bishop was not among them. He was a graduate of Chatsworth School and had quit Mamaroneck High School to join the Merchant Marine. His family lived in an apartment on the Post Road. His sister was a junior at MHS.
By August of 1942, The Larchmont Times noted in an editorial: "If we required anything special to make us realize, how real this war is and how definitely we are allied with it, we would merely have to look around us and count the young men we know who are missing from their old familiar haunts and who are absent in answer to the call of their country. ... More than 900 men from this area are now at various points, engaged in the service of their country. More are to be inducted on August 17. The figures issued by the Board show that it has inducted 387 men, that 329 have enlisted and that 202 were in the service when they registered under the Selective Service Act."
In February of 1945, Larchmont learned that one of their earliest inductees, Charles J. Boyle, who had served as a flight officer in the Army Air Force, had been lost in combat. He was later buried in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, Belgium.
Ultimately, more than 100 individuals connected to Larchmont and Mamaroneck died in the war and were later listed on our local World War II memorials.
Surviving to Watch "The War"
Now 62 years after the end of World War II, there are few left in Larchmont or Mamaroneck who recall what it was like - "over there" and "over here."
One who remembers is WIlliam G. Capodanno, 87, who was drafted into the Army in 1941 and sent to the Pacific.
"New Guinea was one hell of a hole," he recalled. "When we got there it was strictly jungle - had never been explored by man. What you were getting into - it was dark and treacherous. The heavy rains were something you never dreamed you would go through as a young man," he told the Gazette.
"The film has brought back combat memories - what we went through," said Mr. Capodanno, who has served multiple stints as commander of Mamaroneck's VFW David Potts Jr. Post 1156. "It's something you don't forget," he said.
Also watching the PBS show this week was Tony Marsella, who for most of his 82 years has lived at 111 Grand Street in Mamaroneck Village. Tony and his two brothers, John and Guy, were among those drafted into the Army. Tony and Guy returned; John was in a tank blown up in a battle labeled by the filmmakers as "Hell at Anzio Beach Head."
"I was watching [the film] in hopes of getting a glimpse of my brother with all those tanks and artillery but I did not see him." said Mr. Marsella. "What was bothering me any time a tank was hit with all that black smoke I was picturing my brother."
According to Mr. Marsella, Gloria Pritts, who became Mamaroneck Village historian, was a block and a half away when she heard John's mother scream. The telegram had arrived at 111 Grand Street informing her that her son had died.
"If you are watching now, you know how it ended, but anybody in the fighting didn't know how it would turn out," said Mr. Marsella. "It makes me remember that those boys had such courage."