Marconi Presentation Highlights Chatham's Key Role In World War II

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Topics: Local History

During WWII, today’s Chatham Marconi STEM Education Center served as housing, offices, and workshop space for naval personnel.

World War II in Chatham was reimagined last Thursday night in photos, videos, memories and songs as Dick Kraycir, director emeritus and past president of the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center (CMMC), hosted the last in the Center's virtual Summer Speaker Series.

The program, which was Zoomed online to more than 100 participants, began with an evening flag ceremony in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the end of that war. Seven Scouts from Chatham Troop 71, socially distanced and wearing masks, lowered the flags (including the Navy battalion flag flown at the station during World War II) on the campus of the CMMC Education Center overlooking Ryders Cove.

With 600 military personnel stationed in town, there was no question that there was a war going on if you lived in Chatham in 1942. Popular songs of the day like "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "This is the Army Mr. Jones," and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" brought the audience back to those days as Kraycir took the group on a historical retrospective.

Several years before the actual declaration of war, starting in 1939, the Battle of the Atlantic was underway in the seas of the North Atlantic. As German submarines tried to starve Britain by cutting off food supplies coming from North America, nearly 3,000 Liberty Ships loaded with food and supplies were eventually cobbled together to help break the blockade.

On Dec. 7, 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, four Naval officers arrived and shut down what was the RCA wireless station in town. The next day, the Navy was in place and the station began its life as a critical war resource. The Navy chose Chatham as a major intercept station, Kraycir noted, to pick up messages from the German submarine Wolf Packs, as they were known, targeting the Liberty Ships and allied forces. As a result of these intercepted transmissions, Kraycir said, nearly a quarter of German submarines were sunk, greatly reducing their effectiveness.

News of the attack at Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt's subsequent declaration of war was featured at the Chatham Theater downtown (now the Orpheum Theater), in one of the popular newsreels of the day.

In addition to Navy members including WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) now stationed at the former RCA station, the Army was staffing a radar installation located where the water towers are now situated. They also occupied a guard station nearby, where the bike trail crosses Stepping Stones Road. Chatham was also the first LORAN Coast Guard station 100 percent crewed by SPARS, female Coast Guard volunteers. It was serious work, Kraycir stressed. "They were all armed and trained," Kraycir said, "and any intruder was to be neutralized."

Whereas other parts of the country required blackouts only rarely, in Chatham blackouts were in force every day, Kraycir said. Using blackout curtains on windows and blacking out car lights was essential to ensuring that the shoreline stayed dark at night to foil German attempts to get a fix on passing ships.

The hundreds of military members needed places to stay and hotels like Rose Acres, the Hawthorne Inn and the Wayside Inn were repurposed for military requirements. Kraycir noted that the Way Side Inn (as it was known then) was the home of the USO in town, where military members could go to write letters home and read books while off duty.

Life changed for local residents as well. Fishermen were issued two-way radios so they could report submarines if spotted, but none were recorded. Tourism continued during the war, but shortages were common, and local residents used coupon books for rationed items like meat, fuel, canned goods, tires, sugar and more. The First National Stores, located where the Yellow Umbrella is now, frequently saw lines as shoppers waited for the opportunity to buy their supplies. Victory Gardens were common and by 1944 the Chatham census included 312 chickens, Kraycir said.

The question of whether there were spies in Chatham is interesting, Kraycir said. He cited two possible incidents, starting with "two well-dressed men at Mrs Smith's Inn on Kent Place." They went fishing every day, he noted, and when they departed the guest register page with their names was missing. "They were believed to be German spies," he added, noting they were thought to be checking out local marine facilities and resources.

The second incident involved young Ned Collins, who would go on to become a well-known local architect with projects like the Atwood Museum and the new Orpheum theater to his credit. As a teenager, he and his cousin Grant Howes were exploring the beach when they came across a hidden cache of netting, a radio and antenna wire. They ran to an initially skeptical Coast Guard to report their find and ultimately they were credited with uncovering a German agent, a feat recognized in an Aug. 17, 1942 issue of Time magazine.

Kristen Clothier, executive director, thanked everyone who joined in the programs remotely this season and expressed appreciation for all the behind-the-scenes efforts of volunteers to adapt planned programs to engaging virtual presentations. Based on the high level of participation and interest in the Virtual Summer Speaker Series, Chatham Marconi Maritime Center plans to offer additional virtual programs throughout this fall and winter; more information will be available at www.chathammarconi.org.