Internal Defense of the Home Front

by Charles McGrath


While we hear many stories about WW II and view many excellent pictures like "Saving Private Ryan " I never heard much about the internal defense of the home front. These are some of my recollections:

During the war years, 1941-45, we all feared for our safety. I am sure it was proportional to one's age. The youngest fearing the least as would be expected. As a little boy remembering attending Lincoln School we were given special attention. We were all given body tags to wear around our necks. It was a piece of hard asbestos (similar to a Saint Christopher's Medal), we had our name written on it with indelible ink (today's magic marker). Asbestos, as you know, is heat resistant and it would be somewhat impervious to flames associated with bombing. We hung this around our neck with string (maybe it was metal wire) and were expected to wear this 24/7.

Periodically, during class, we would have air raid drills not unlike fire drills of today. The main difference with the air raid drill was that we did not leave the building. Initially we would get under our desks until the all clear bell was rung. At a later date it evolved and we were told to go into the hallway and sit on the floor. This was thought to be safer since there was no exterior glazing to cause injury. In the early years of the war we would salute the flag in school by extending our left arm forward with the palm upward. As the War went on it was felt that this salute was too similar to the Nazi salute. The Nazi salute was with the right arm extended and the palm turned down. We changed our salute to what it is today; that is, with our right hand over our heart.

At home we also had air raid drills. The closest air raid siren to our house on Mead Street was on top of the Police and Fire Academy on 18th Avenue. Up until recent years it would be tested every Saturday at 12 noon. These drills were usually done after dark. When the siren went off we were obliged to draw all the shades in our house. Every block had a air raid warden. It was his responsibility to make sure that all shades were lowered and most of those shades were blackened. If they weren't he would knock on your door and make you conform.

These were the years before radar. Lights from a city could be used for navigation and identification by enemy aircraft. The street lights were painted black with a small peephole in the bottom to emit a minimal amount of light. The headlights of cars were also painted half black. The top portion (like half a pie) was painted to minimize the beam from diverging upward. If you were driving a car during an air raid drill you had to park and shut both the lights and engine off. My father had a gas mask as did all the police in that time frame.

Every year our family spent the first two weeks of August in Belmar. Seaside Heights was out of the question. The old cars would never make it. All the lights on the boardwalks were subdued.

Several times we were not able to go swimming in the ocean or Shark River because of crude oil. Our ships were being sunk by German submarines out in the ocean as they left or entered the New York area. The crude oil from the sinking tankers would wash up on our shores. I remember as a kid hearing about a German submarine being sunk off Asbury Park near the end of the war. This sub was recently discovered (6 years ago). No one knew were it came from. It amazing how quickly people forget events of the past.

My mother had a job with Celanese who were the inventors of cellophane in the Ironbound section of Newark. Talk about how far we came in communications. She was working for Celanese making small celluloid capsules (plastic was not invented yet) to attach to the leg of a passenger pigeon. Paper messages were placed in these capsules and flown through enemy lines to supply information and give orders to our military.

That was just a thumbnail of the internal defense of the home front.


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