Wold War II; Rhode Island

The authors of this book champion the importance of Rhode Island’s contribution to the war effort. Narragansett Bay with its watery byways was an important supplier of materiel for our naval warfare, though never in any immediate danger from German attack. Hence impressive industrial plants were constructed or revamped to meet the needs of Rhode Island’s war industries. By 1944, 13,000 workers had been assembled in the Bay area to work in these war plants.

Rhode Island’s contributions to the war effort were considerable given its size and population. The Quonset “hut,” a prefabricated metal structure that could be assembled quickly, had multiple uses during the island warfare in the Pacific Theater. It was named after Quonset, Rhode Island. Many were quickly constructed in forward bases along the US East Coast and used as barracks for soldiers that would defend our shores should German U-Boats attack via the North Atlantic.

Both liberty ships and commercial cargo ships were built in the Providence Ship Yard. The navy’s PT (Patrol Torpedo) Boats were tested in the Bay and eventually manufactured at Newport. PTs were a well-armed, fast-attack craft used mostly in the Pacific.

Future Presidents Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush were stationed at the New Port Naval Air Station at different times. The facilities were also used to train navy pilots and other crew members. Many Seabees (Construction Battalions) were trained at the Davisville facility in the Bay area.

With so many men on active duty in the area, there needed to be some entertainment and activities for off-duty hours. One of the first USO (United Service Organization) Centers was located in Newport, Rhode Island.

As the war in Europe came to an end in late 1944, some of the housing at various facilities was used as Prisoner of War camps. We had the idea that German prisoners could be re-educated. Most of them had grown up believing the National Socialist propaganda. Could that process be reversed? There were 380,000 German POWs to be Denazified, some more easily than others. And three POW camps were adapted for that purpose. German soldiers settled into bunks that American GIs had bedded down in just months previously while being trained.

Camp Blanding, east of Stark, Florida, was a POW camp after it had served as a training camp. Most German Prisoners of War were happy to be bunked down in Florida, rather than trudging through snow and mud on the Russian Front. Or awaiting rescue after their ship had been sent to the bottom. The Rhode Island camps were, however, not as peaceful as those in Starke. In fact there was considerable tension amongst the prisoners held in the Narragansett Bay area, with death threats and other unpleasantries. A German language newspaper Der Ruf  “The Call” was published by German POWs in Rhode Island. It became the voice for the not-so-contented.

Back in 1960, just as I was graduating from Iowa State University – with a job – I got an opportunity to take a cheap flight to Amsterdam. Traveling through Germany by myself on a motor bike, I met up with Germans who had been Prisoners of War in the US.  With no exception, they said that they enjoyed their stay and were grateful for the way they had been treated.

At the end of the War there was a famous photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a sailor grabbing what appears to have been a nurse in the midst of New York’s Times Square. He was landing an impromptu kiss on her lips. Many sailors have come forth as that young sailor; the authors of World War II; Rhode Island claim him to have been a Rhode Islander.

By the end of the War, I was a six-year-old kid, growing up in Iowa, a state that is half a continent away from Narragansett Bay. Many Iowans served on both fronts, but more of them in the European front; a first cousin died in a field in Alsace. Iowa was, like Rhode Island, an active part of the home front. Its industries, like Rhode Island’s, quickly converted to the production of war materiel. Many farm boys received exemptions from the draft because they were needed to keep Iowa producing food. We were far from carrier-based German bombers. We nevertheless had air-raid drills right up to the end of the War.

Our community was heavily German-American. However, it seemed not to have mattered when it came to fighting the Nazis.

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