History & Nostalgia

Photos courtesy of Northwestern University

Hardy on History: World War II on the High Country Homefront

By Michael C. Hardy

Scrap drives, air raid wardens, observation towers, rationing. When we think of World War II, we often think of D-Day, the battle of the Bulge, or Iwo Jima, places far away from the mountains of western North Carolina. Yet World War II unfolded and was supported in our own backyards and streets.

With memories of the last world war fresh in the minds of many, people did not want to see their country entangled in another conflict. Yet they watched, through their various local newspapers, as the world came unhinged. Many realized that United States involvement was inevitable, and some preliminary steps were taken to prepare. In May 1941, the Office of Civilian Defense was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Each state governor was responsible for implementing the president’s directive. In turn, the governor appointed a chairman for each county. Wade Brown was chairman in Watauga, Ira T. Johnston for Ashe, and E.C. Guy in Avery. Each chairman named a committee that included the newspaper editor, chairman of the American Legion post, Rotary club, Odd Fellows and Masonic orders, sheriff, county school board member, agricultural extension agent, local banker, Works Progress Administration member, and woman’s club member.

There were numerous departments under Civilian Defense, all volunteers. These included Air Raid Wardens, Auxiliary Police, Auxiliary Firemen, Fire Watchers, Nurses Aids, Messengers, and others. Also under Civilian Defense, but somewhat separate from the local office, were the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and the Aircraft Warning Service.

The Civil Air Patrol spent part of 1942 and 1943 patrolling the coast of North Carolina, looking for German submarines. While there have been CAP personnel recorded from neighbors Caldwell and Wilkes counites, none have yet been identified from Ashe, Watauga, and Avery counties. There were several Aircraft Warning Service posts in those three counties. The Aircraft Warning Service was also created in May 1941. Its purpose was to look for any aircraft that could be seen or heard, and to report that aircraft to a filter center. To do this, the spotter picked up the phone and told the operator, “Army Flash.” This connected the spotter to the filter center. The observer then related how many aircraft, number of engines, high or low, and which direction they were flying. If the military office at the filter center, also staffed by volunteers, knew of the flight, then all was good. If not, then fighters, usually from Morris Field in Charlotte, were dispatched to intercept the aircraft. These aircraft spotters, located all over the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and Pacific Coast, were an early form of human radar. There were five posts in Avery County: Crossnore, Newland, Banner Elk, Linville Falls, and Plumtree. Watauga County had two posts: Boone and Blowing Rock. In Ashe County, posts were located in Jefferson, West Jefferson, and Glendale Springs.

Many people will ask why we were watching for aircraft in western North Carolina. Was there really a threat of enemy bombers? The idea was that an enemy operative could rent a plane and survey the area for targets of opportunity. There were many vital war industries in the area, like the numerous mica mines in the Toe River Valley. Just across the mountain into Tennessee were numerous dams powering various war-related ventures, like ALCOA in Blount County, Rohm and Naas in Knoxville, Tennessee Eastman Company in Kingsport, Holston Ordnance Works in Knoxville, and the mysterious Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge. The Aircraft Warning Service was deactivated in July 1944.

Numerous scrap drives were held in the area, beginning as early as October 1941. Both Ashe and Watauga reported collecting 850 pounds of aluminum for the war effort that month. The Appalachian Theatre in Boone even offered a special “aluminum matinee.” In Ashe County, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) provided two trucks to haul scrap metal and rubber, asking that scrap be delivered to the nearest school, gas station, store, or garage for pickup. The October 1941 drive in Ashe netted some 500,000 pounds of scrap.

The trucks were limited in where they could go because of rationing. Tires, gasoline, shoes, sugar, butter, meat, and coffee were all rationed. Each county set up a rationing board that determined who received what. For example, there were several types of gasoline rationing cards. Most people received the basic A card, limited to just six gallons a week. Type B cards were for those who drove six to ten miles daily. C cards allowed the drivers access to an unlimited amount of gasoline and were issued to critical workers, such as doctors, nurses, and defense employees.

Despite the distance from the coast, there were even air raid drills. A drill in Ashe County was held on April 24, 1942. Telephones, whistles, school bells, and sirens were used to alert the citizens in each county. Most participated, and those who did not take part did not seem to know about the drill. A drill was held in Boone in August 1942, then a state-wide blackout drill in September. In February, Watauga County held a surprise drill. In Boone, all the citizens doused their lights, but the lit neon signs in closed stores presented a problem. A blackout in Blowing Rock in March 1943 met with at least one hold-out. Local Air Raid Warden N.C. Greene reported that Louise Wheelwright refused to cooperate, telling a police deputy that the blackouts were “entirely too often and stay on too long. We have a young baby here.” When confronted the next day, she told the Chief of Police that the blackout drills were “all tom foolery and nothing but a play game.” She did not think it was necessary and she “was not going to comply with any signals.”

Unlike Mrs. Wheelwright, most citizens were willing to assist on the homefront. There were seemingly countless ways that local people and businesses contributed to the war effort. Students at Crossnore High School in Avery County made wooden airplanes for training pilots. Numerous farms produced food, snap beans, cabbage, soy beans, and other crops that helped feed people in other places. Purchasing War Bonds was a way in which every person helped buy the necessary materials to fabricate war munitions, and numerous war bond rallies prompted citizens to often purchase bonds beyond the prescribed local quotas. The Banner Elk Chapter of the Red Cross knitted clothing. Books of all types to be sent to soldiers were collected for the Victory Book Campaign. In Watauga County, collection points were at Greene’s Music Room, the Parkway Company, the office of the Watauga Democrat, the county library, the college library, the sewing room in Blowing Rock, and the Cove Creek High School. Families grew food in the Victory Gardens, and high school students joined the Victory Corps.

In 1944, Grace Hospital School of Nursing in Banner Elk became one of the schools that accepted students as part of the United States Nurse Corps. This program was open to all women between the ages of 17 and 35 who had graduated from high school and were in good health. So many enrolled that the school was forced to hire more staff.

While most supported the war effort in many different forms, not everyone was behind the steps that were being taken to make sure of an Allied victory. Louise Wheelwright’s refusal to comply with the blackout is just one such story. According to the Avery County jail register, there were fifty-nine soldiers arrested between January 1942 and August 1945 for being absent without leave or deserters. These men were held in the jail until someone from the military came and picked them up. World War II was the most costly, in both the lives of soldiers and civilians as well as monetarily, of all wars. There were thousands of men and women from the High Country who served in just about every aspect of that war. The men and women left behind on the homefront are not as well remembered as those who served overseas. Yet they provided vital services, and many were fully committed to do what they could to help the war effort.

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