Chesterfield’s Unique Role
When World War II broke out, it affected people and towns across the globe. Suddenly the entire world had a different outlook on everyday life and the future of the world. Like many towns across the country, Chesterfield and its families had a role to play.
Of course, one of the first noticeable effects of the war was young men enlisting or being drafted. My uncle, Alfred Pellet, joined the military. He could have obtained a farmer’s deferment, which allowed any member of a farm family who might normally be drafted to remain at home working on the farm– food production for the Allied troops would also be a necessity.
“I could have got out on a farm deferment but I thought, ‘All of my friends are going in, why would I want to stay out?’ I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror,” Uncle Alfred said.
When he went to the draft office, they asked him in which branch he would like to serve and he told them the Army. The man said, “Well, you’re in the Navy!” So he spent the war serving as a torpedo technician on Kaneohe Air Base in Hawaii. I can remember my dad telling me that watching his brother leave for war was difficult for the entire family. “You said ‘Goodbye’ without knowing when you’d see them again… or if you would,” Dad said.
When I asked my great-aunt, Lois Bulan, if she had friends in the war, her response was, “So many… too many to fully elaborate here.” She recalled Chesterfield men who were shot down and taken prisoner, soldiers who were wounded, friends who were in major battles like Iwo Jima, some who narrowly escaped death and others who didn’t.
As many young men left for duty, the community was left behind to face the war in their own ways. Some men stayed home. Men who had families and/or were engaged in a business that aided the war effort on the Homefront were often called up later. My grandfather and his brother owned a grocery store in Creve Coeur, but this didn’t mean that they were untouched by the war. Working hours became longer as younger staff enlisted and were drafted; those at home worked overtime to compensate.
My mom remembers that rationing and ration books became a major part of the brothers owning the grocery store. While rationing was not as severe as in many places in Europe, many things were still rationed. Every citizen, including each child, was given a booklet of stamps that could be exchanged for specific goods—and, yes, you still had to pay for the item! My great-aunt explained, “We were all very disciplined. Everything was rationed. We didn’t have any belly-aching. It was just part of life and we all participated. We all did without. Nylons, sugar, butter, meat, shoes… all of that was rationed. I can remember one thing we would faithfully do; we were conserving metal, so when you got a can of peas you would take the paper label off, remove both ends and mash it flat and it would be recycled. You just did not waste.”
Like many families of the early 20th century, my grandparents had my mom’s first pair of shoes bronzed. However, hers are a bit different because they have a small hole cut out near the big toe. Shoes were too precious to repurchase for children just because they got a little tight.
Women were a part of the war effort also. Like many women across the country, they went to work in occupations never before considered suitable for women to fill the labor gap created by men leaving for deployment abroad or elsewhere in the United States. My great-aunt, Lois, kept the books for her and her husband’s newly obtained Pontiac dealership. However, during WWII there were no new cars for purchase and car dealerships were mostly for used sales, repairs and parts–even though the latter was also rationed. As she told me, “General Motors and all of the manufacturers went to making guns and tanks. One’s ration of gas depended on your occupation.” In order to get a new tire, you had to have the old one to prove that you really needed one and this would all be documented by dealers for frequent government inspections.
Some women, like my paternal grandmother,
Louise Pellet, went to work for other reasons. She got a job downtown at Famous Barr, taking a bus and then a trolley car the long distance, to take her mind off the fact that two of her sons were serving in the war.
I can remember being fascinated as a young girl, with stories of my grandmother’s victory garden. No longer living on the farm in Chesterfield, but in the suburban area of Creve Coeur, residents were encouraged to grow their own gardens so that commercially grown produce could be spared for the troops.
The Chesterfield area played a role in the war in several unique ways. A somewhat forgotten piece of history, Babler State Park west of Chesterfield, became a first-of-its-kind convalescent camp for soldiers. The hospital at Jefferson Barracks housed many of the patients with serious illnesses. However, when a pneumonia epidemic broke out, there was a severe shortage of space. Soldiers who were well enough not to need the care of a hospital, but who were not yet well enough to be able to return to full active duty, were sent to the Babler Convalescent Camp to recuperate and prepare for a return to the war.
Also, not well known, is the fact that Chesterfield housed a POW camp, located near Chesterfield Airport Road and Long Road. William Helwig, a local farmer, faced labor shortages as his workers enlisted. His solution was to offer his farm to the federal government to house POWs in exchange for the labor—a great solution for the government, which was eager to place POWs in America’s heartland where escape would be more geographically difficult. This labor force contributed to the production of much-needed food supplies for the local community. Beginning in 1943, Camp Chesterfield first housed interned Japanese-Americans, followed later by Italian, German and Austrian prisoners of war until it was disbanded in 1946.
I’ve done many oral history interviews with veterans and the one thing I have learned is that everyone has a story. If you have relatives who were alive during WWII (or more current periods of service), take the time to ask them what they were doing. It will certainly be an interesting story.
Source: For more information on the Babler Convalescent Camp or the POW camp, please see Chesterfield, Missouri: From Untamed Wilderness to Thriving Municipality by the Chesterfield Historical Commission.