Fredericksburg mobilizes for a new war–1941

From John Hennessy:

Caroline Street before WWII. Goolrick's Pharmacy is at right. Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

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.

The most important strategic asset in Fredericksburg--the Route 1 Bridge at Falmouth, under guard by the Virginia Protective Force in December 1941 or early 1942. Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

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. Continue reading

The sad story of Robert Harris–one of the first Americans to die in World War II

From John Hennessy:

Sadness touched Fredericksburg earlier than most communities at the start of World War II–two years before the US was officially involved in the war. It was a fact starkly driven home to me when I stumbled upon the memorial stone to Robert Shenton Harris in the City Cemetery.

Harris's grave in the City Cemetery

Robert Shenton Harris, whose father Robert ran a grocery store on William Street (where the Free Lance-Star now stands) and whose mother Susie Shenton Harris managed a household at 1308 Winchester Street, did what many students do when they graduate from college: he decided to take a trip before enrolling in graduate school at Cornell University.

The Harris family store on William Street before World War II.

The summer of 1939, Harris and his friend Bill Buchannan of Danville set out for Europe–into a region aboil with unrest and talk of war. They started their tour on bikes, eventually switching to trains, taking up with locals, even at one point joining in a salute of Hitler (long before the world recongnized the Hitler we know). But in August, Robert’s grandmother died, and his father cabled him asking him to return early. He did, booking passage on the S.S. Athenia, along with 1,103 other souls, departing Liverpool on September 3, 1939.

Two days before his departure, Germany invaded Poland. And just hours before Athenia pulled out of the docks at Liverpool, Great Britain declared war on Germany. That evening, 60 miles off the Irish coast, a German U-boat spotted Athenia. A single torpedo ripped into the passenger liner, and the doomed ship starting sinking by the stern.

Royal Navy vessels and merchant ships rushed to the scene. Most of the passengers were rescued, including Robert’s companion Bill Buchanan. But what happened to Robert Harris in the minutes and hours to follow is not known. Perhaps he died in the initial blast. More likely he died when one of the lifeboats was crushed in the propeller of one of the rescue ships. In any event, he was one of 117 who did not survive the disaster, one of 28 Americans. Robert Harris was among the first of more than 400,000 Americans who would die in World War II.

From the Free Lance-Star, September 5, 1939.

Robert’s sister, Anne Harris Skinner, told me the family heard on the radio that Athenia had been torpedoed (the ship did not sink until September 4), and they knew Robert was on board. A reporter from the Free Lance-Star visited the house, asking for news, seeking a photo. The family waited for news–hoping that a rescue ship had taken Robert to some as-yet unreported port. A week…two…three…and then it became obvious that he was lost. His body was never recovered.

The family declined offers for any sort of memorial service, though finally Robert’s parents agreed to place a memorial stone in the cemetery. Anne Harris Skinner, 16 at the time of her brother’s death, went on to become a USO girl in Fredericksburg during the war, providing company to visiting soldiers at the USO center on Canal Street–today the Dorothy Hart Community Center. Today she lives in California.

Robert Harris's home on Winchester Street.

The memorial stone for Robert Shenton Harris is located near the front wall of the City Cemetery, about 100 feet to the left of the main gate on Amelia Street.  His parents are buried next to him, and his grandmother–whose death prompted his change of plans–next to them.  The Harris family was the first of dozens of Fredericksburg families that would suffer crushing sadness over the next six years.

My thanks to Anne Harris Skinner for sharing with me her memories and some of her photographs.

A star comes to Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy:

Greer Garson speaking at Maury Field, September 10, 1942. Image courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

Fredericksburg has always been small enough to get excited when someone big comes to town (unless it’s Abraham Lincoln, whose visit here during the Civil War stimulated “no demonstrations of joy… from any of the citizens,” said the local newspaper). Few visits have stimulated more anticipation and excitement–surely a mixture of patriotic fervor and starstruck awe–than British-born actress Greer Garson’s trip to Fredericksburg to sell war bonds on September 10, 1942, at the height of World War II. At the time, Greer Garson was perhaps the most popular actress on earth. Her Oscar-nominated film Random Harvest had just finished its nationwide run; the magnificent Mrs. Miniver (for which she would win an Oscar in 1943) was then in theaters. The Free Lance-Star fairly gushed at the prospect of her coming, tossing away any pretense of gender neutrality—titling an editorial about her appearance “Beauty and the Bonds.”  “It has been a long time since Fredericksburg entertained a movie star of Miss Garson’ stature—not we believe since Gloria Swanson spent some time here in 1926—and it is going to be fun.  But remember, folks, buying War Bonds is the big idea and Miss Garson won’t let you forget it.”

For Garson, Fredericksburg was the second of three rallies she would do on September 10. She arrived from Winchester and crossed the Falmouth Bridge at 12:15–about 45 minutes late—and went straight on to James Monroe High School at what we today know as Maury School. There more than 2,000 people awaited on the football field.   

It cost attendees $200 in bonds to have lunch with Garson at the Princess Anne Hotel. Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

She appeared in “a red fez, with cock feathers of green and red.  Her travelling suit was of aqua,” with a corsage of orange and red gladiolas–a variegated pallet that more than a few noted.  The paper wrote delicately:  “Some people were momentarily shocked by the vivid colors of her ensemble, but when she talked in such a friendly and sincere manner all was forgotten except the compelling charm of her personality.”

She spoke for about ten minutes and then was whisked through town to a luncheon at the Princess Anne Hotel (which today houses offices on Princess Anne Street)–open to anyone willing to buy at least $200 in bonds.  After lunch, she posed for pictures, and then sped up Route 1 to another rally in Alexandria.  Her stop in Fredericksburg helped sell $160,000 in bonds, wiping out the city’s $59,000 shortfall for the year.

The fatigue that would ultimately hospitalize Garson is clearly visible in this image. Does anyone know who the officer is? Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The FLS rejoiced at the visit, but young reporter Charles Rowe offered a sobering assessment of “the Hollywood Queen”—one that surely displeased her publicist.

“Visibly worn and haggard from her exhausting trip on behalf of the Treasury Department, Miss Garson definitely lacked the exquisite beauty movie goers in “Goodbye, Mr Chips…and Mrs. Miniver….  Days of speeches and luncheons have left their mark on the lovely…actress.  The dulcet voice theater goers remember has become worn from countless addresses on the tour…”

In fact, within the week Greer Garson was hospitalized for exhaustion.

Fredericksburg’s experience during World War II has several interesting wrinkles, and we’ll explore of them as we go forward. Next, we’ll look at the single biggest event in Fredericksburg during the war…and it had nothing to do with the war at all.