WINCHESTER – At the end of 1940, President Roosevelt announced that plans were underway for a home defense program. A Gallup Poll published in January showed that 54 million Americans were willing to take part in part-time defense work, at least one hour a day, to strengthen the country. Winchester had hundreds of such citizens.
Though Americans may have been hoping to live in peace, they had before them the example of England, whose efforts to maintain peace with Germany had failed and which was being brutally attacked by air. They also had examples from Britain of what its civilians were doing, including home-guard training, small-plot farming, first-aid, fire-fighting training, ambulance driving, and nursing.
In April 1941, it was announced that the Governor’s Committee on Public Safety had appointed Harold Fuller to be chairman of a Civilian Defense Organization for Winchester. His task was to direct the work necessary for proper planning and preparation for civilian defense in case of war or the threat or war.
Within a week a committee had been formed, and the group began planning under eight main divisions: public relations, planning, protection, medical aid, health, social service, public services, and supplies.
Registration for voluntary, non-military home defense service opened on April 12. Men filled out questionnaires listing their availability for such services as radio operations, ambulance drivers, mechanics, cooks, machinists, electricians, gunsmiths, lawyers, map makers, motorcycle operators, photographers, physicians, plumbers, printers, and more.
Women indicated their availability for such services as amateur radio operators, ambulance drivers, cooks, dieticians, sewing, knitting, home hygiene, nurses, photographers, X-ray work, and other work.
Volunteer fire and police groups were appointed and trained. The town was divided into 35 districts, and a group of men learned the duties of air raid wardens.
In July, a chart of the personnel of the Civilian Defense Organization was published. It was headed by a list of the “Local Committee of One Hundred.” In addition, it was reported that over 400 persons had registered for service in time of emergency.
That fall, the Board of Selectmen created a Committee of Public Safety to coordinate the work of the Civilian Defense Organization and town departments. Though the members of the former were also on the latter, this step was taken to give the defense group authority to go beyond enrolling and training volunteers and put into effect any pre-arranged plan in an emergency.
On Sept. 16, a public meeting to review the organization’s plans and stir public interest in home defense was held. Not only well publicized, it was heralded by the ringing of all the church bells in the town at 6:45. This resulted in a flood of calls to the telephone office, which had been forewarned so that extra girls would be available at the switchboard to answer the curiosity calls.
A thousand people jammed the Town Hall auditorium to capacity. Each division director gave a report. An unexpected speaker was Mrs. Hebert de Roth, an air raid warden from the borough of Chelsea, London. “Her warden’s uniform and her simple story of her duties under English air raid conditions won the audience immediately.”
The principal speaker was John W. Farley, executive director of the State Committee on Public Safety. “Many people feel that there is plenty of time to consider these dangers when they arrive, but even if we put our full effort now behind the civilian defense program, we have started none too early,” the Winchester Star reported him saying.
Also in September, Winchester opened its own Air Raid Precaution School (eliminating the need to go to Cambridge to attend such a school), whose opening session was attended by more than 500 men and women.
That same fall, a Report Center was established on the second floor of Police Headquarters. In October, a rehearsal was staged for defense heads under the direction of Chief Air Raid Warden Franklin J. Lane. With him were the heads of the Auxiliary Fire and Police Departments and representatives of local utility companies and Town departments.
Lane sat at the head of table with a telephone on either side, one for general use and the other connected with Winchester’s warning center at Malden. Neighborhood wardens called in reports of incendiary fires, trouble with gas or water mains, wires down, civilian casualties, and other problems. Two operators received the calls in the telephone room. Their reports, on duplicate forms, were rushed by Boy Scout couriers to the report center and given to the Air Raid Warden who read his copy aloud and to the Chief Plotter who marked locations on a wall map.
Each division head had a telephone to call his home station, which would have dispatched the necessary equipment or service had there been an actual disaster.
The Report Center also had a system of electrically controlled lights mounted upon a board. A yellow light would mean enemy aircraft had been sighted. A blue light meant the planes were nearing, and a red light that they were at hand. Air raid wardens would be notified and respond appropriately.
Giving teeth to defense
The organization did more than prepare for an attack on the town (or area) which never came. That summer, for example, the town responded to a national appeal for aluminum ware. “America needs aluminum NOW for Defense Equipment,” the organization declared.
A public aluminum bin was set up on Mt Vernon Street opposite the Police Station, to which residents brought aluminum items over the course of 10 days at the end of July. The most unusual contribution spotted in the bin was the upper plate of a set of false teeth, the roof of which was aluminum.
July 29 was clean-up day for the Aluminum for Defense Campaign. Boy and Girl Scouts went out with trucks furnished by Bonnell Motors and a number of automobiles to canvas house to house for old aluminum not yet deposited in the bin – pots, pans, cutlery, bottle tops, curlers, combs, brushes, ice trays, toys, etc. They netted six large truckloads.
The collection day was a success, a presage of times to come when townspeople would be called on to contribute more and more and would respond every time.