From John Hennessy:
Seventy years ago this month, Fredericksburg, like the rest of America, was mobilizing for war. There was little in Fredericksburg’s experience to distinguish it from thousands of other towns across America, but still the rather frantic arousal that followed Pearl Harbor offers up some interesting tidbits about how World War II would reverberate across the American landscape.
On the evening of December 12, 1941, the military call—666—sounded on the city’s fire alarm system, summoning the Virginia Protective Force. The Fredericksburg battalion of the VPF, commanded by former WWI pilot Captain Josiah P. Rowe, had been mustered in March 1941. It numbered sixty men, and since March had been drilling weekly for precisely a moment like this–when they would “provide a force of trained men to render protective service in an emergency during absence of the National Guard on active duty.” That December evening they hurried from across the city, assembled, and received orders to protect Fredericksburg’s strategically important landmarks: the Embrey Dam above Falmouth, the Chatham Bridge, and, most importantly, the Route 1 bridge over the Rappahannock at Falmouth.
Of those landmarks, the only one that would receive extended attention was the Falmouth Bridge, which would be guarded 24/7 for many weeks. The VPF strung lights beneath the bridge to illuminate the work of any would-be saboteurs. One man constantly patrolled the span, while two kept watch from below. For a time, the soldiers stopped and inspected every car that crossed the bridge (traffic would be backed up for 20 miles if that happened today), but even in 1941 and 1942 that proved impractical.
Still, the soldiers stood vigil through snow and cold. Residents of Falmouth turned out to feed them and give them coffee. Indeed, support of the VPF at the Falmouth Bridge became something of a community effort. Eschewing any concerns about intelligence and security, the Free Lance-Star freely published the sites in town being guarded, the names of the men on duty, and even their schedules. Would-be saboteurs would have been interested….but of course there were no saboteurs in the neighborhood.
Edgar Pritchard was a special operations trainee sent to Fredericksburg in 1942 with several others to surreptitiously probe the city’s security as a training exercise. They forged documents and posed as Free-French patriots. Three of the men “went to visit the City Manager and came away with complete information on Fredericksburg, the water supply, the electric supply, the telephone system, the labor force and all of the factories then in Fredericksburg.” Meanwhile, Pritchard remembered:
Scotty Lockwood and I posed as fishermen. We bought fishing gear and sought out the reservoir. We pretended to fish but we never caught anything. We discovered that there was a small hydroelectric plant there on top of the dam. We found a way to enter the power plant from below, by crawling through the inside of the dam. We located the generators. As I recall there were only two or three. We put chalk marks on them. We figured how we would blow up the power station and the dams. Others went around to the telephone central office and some of the other firms in town. There wasn’t much we didn’t know about Fredericksburg by the end of the day.
The same day the Virginia Protective Force mustered to protect Fredericksburg’s strategic assets, a call went out for volunteers to mobilize in the name of civil defense. (America had the advantage of Britain’s experience with Civil Defense, and so went into war with a pretty strong vision for how civil defense should be exercised.) The local defense council sought volunteers for the bomb squad, auxiliary police and firemen, fire watchers (to put out incendiaries), medical corps, messengers, drivers, food and housing corps, a decontamination corps, demolition and clearance crews, radio operators, orderlies, and speakers and trainers.
But by far the aspect of civil defense that received the most attention was the threat from the air. In January 1942, the city installed an air raid siren on the Mary Washington College campus, and then elsewhere, looking for a site from which it could be heard throughout the city. The city was divided into 20 civil defense districts, each with about 500 residents each, and each with its own air raid warden. The control center for civil defense was in the firehouse on Princess Anne Street. It was staffed 24 hours a day.
Unlike coastal towns, Fredericksburg did not have to live in perpetual blackout. The law required that people extinguish lights when ordered to do so. Throughout early 1942, the city ran trial blackouts, with varying results. It turned out that the biggest violators were soldiers in town, who took such things casually. In fact, the USO center on Canal Street (today’s Dorothy Hart Community Center) was singled out more than once for failing to comply. (We’ll have much more to say about Fredericksburg’s USO center in a future post).
Probably the ultimate job related to civil defense was as an airplane spotter. We’ll post specifically about that down the road, but suffice to say here that Fredericksburg did not get aircraft spotting program together until September 1942–located on the roof of Maury School. The Free Lance-Star reported on September 11, 1942, “At 2:30 o’clock in the morning the roar of a plane overhead brought the first report from the new station….made by Adjutant Glen Barton of the Salvation Army…. The first women to spot a plane and report its flight are Mrs. L.C. Garrett and Mrs. Clinton Tasker at 7:50 a.m.”
In most American communities, the tremendous organizational efforts in the name of Civil Defense in the end had few practical benefits. Not so in Fredericksburg. In the fall of 1942, the town was struck by a natural disaster that caused its civil defense mechanisms to swing into practical action, to the everlasting benefit of the community. We’ll post specifically on the event and the mobilization in the near future.