BELFAST, Maine – Across the country, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States found itself overnight in the midst of World War II, communities large and small began to concentrate on the war effort.
Belfast, which at the time had a population of 5,540, was no different. From sardines to shoes, clothing to marine gear, every industry in the small town that had limped through the Great Depression quickly pivoted and began to save and produce goods to support soldiers overseas.
Traces of efforts on the home front can still be found in photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings and oral accounts, but many of the people who packed sardines, sewed boots and uniforms, and made navigation tools have now gone.
That is why it is all the more important, almost 80 years after the United States entered the war, to remember the work they did, according to historians and the daughter of one of the workers of the United States. forehead.
“Men and women, many of them women, have come together to answer the call of duty for the country,” said Joy Asuncion, 65, of Belfast. “They were more than willing to help. They knew that everyone had to help win the war because they wanted their husbands and children to come home. Whatever they did: build ships, sew a uniform, everyone played a role back then. Everyone answered the call.
Her mother, Alfreda Lewis, graduated from Crosby High School in Belfast in 1943 and went to work. Lewis made military uniforms for the Belfast Manufacturing Co. on Anderson Street, later known as Slack Factory. She also worked at Maritime Quality Hardware on Church Street, in the timber building that would later house EmBee Cleaners.
Maritime Quality Hardware was founded by Gunther Kleeberg in 1942, who eventually hired 73 people, mostly women, as machinists, tool and die makers, draftsmen and designers who built parts for the US Navy. They used delicate instruments such as jewelry towers and large two-and-a-half-ton machines to make parts for radar equipment and navigation instruments and parts for anti-aircraft guns.
“As far as I was concerned, it was a Rosie the Riveter,” said Asuncion, a US Navy veteran whose father served in the military during World War II. “These Rosies who came together, all the people who stood up to save our country, it’s just amazing to think they did what they did.”
There were plenty of Americans on the home front, including women of all ages and older men, helping out. They took wartime jobs, volunteered for the American Red Cross, joined local fire departments, helped with scrap metal pickups, kept abreast of changing regulations. rationing, searched the horizon for enemy planes and submarines with civil defense and much more. People were asked to have two days without meat and two days without wheat every week. They were asked to collect everything from milkweed pods, whose natural buoyancy and water repellent wire was used to fill life jackets, to use cooking grease to make explosives.
“Everyone was pushed to the limit,” said Peggy Konitzky, a Topsham historian. “I don’t know how they did it. I think you just did.
During all the years of war, the whole country has adapted to change and deprivation. People who lived along the coast had to adhere to the prohibition rules so that no lights would come on through the windows to alert an enemy aircraft.
“When the war first broke out, we were afraid they would bomb us,” Konitzky said. “We were afraid that the Japanese would bomb the west coast and the Germans would bomb the east coast. There were all kinds of observation and listening posts set up in just about every town.
Women signed up to watch the coastline and also applied for jobs at factories that struggled to cope with war-related contracts after much of their workforce was gone. . In 1944, the Daly Bros. Shoe Co., Inc. in Belfast ran an ad in the local newspaper asking for very specific help with the production of combat boots and other equipment.
“Wanted: women and girls for the sewing room,” one reads.
The wartime boom brought about a rapid turnaround for this business which, like most townspeople, had suffered during the Great Depression.
“There haven’t been any orders from places like the shoe factory and the sardine factory,” said Megan Pinette, president of the Belfast Historical Society and Museum. “The WWII effort really put everyone back in action.”
The shoe factory, which increased its workforce to 600, made local headlines again in 1944. It was then that a soldier from Belfast received a pair of combat boots made in his hometown. while on active duty in Burma. Private First Class James J. Finley had worked in the company before joining the military, and his mother, father and brother still worked there.
He wrote to his parents when he received the boots, but “gives no indication as to whether the boots could now tread the streets of quaint Burmese towns or struggle through the muddy jungle trails in pursuit” of the enemy soldiers, according to an October 5. 1944 article in the Republican Journal.
“The chance meeting of a boy from Belfast and combat boots made in Belfast on the other side of the globe must have been like a reunion with a friend from home to him,” the article continues.
Other goods produced in the city also traveled long distances. Belfast Canning Co. has sold 55% of its canned sardine production to the military, or nearly a million cans. Over 90 percent of doors and windows manufactured by Mathews Bros. were used by the army for barracks and buildings. And special ski pants made by the Belfast Manufacturing Co. were sent to soldiers on patrol in northern climates.
The war also revived the locally moribund shipbuilding industry, she said. The Belfast Shipbuilding Corp. built two wooden barges for the US Merchant Navy, and when the first, “The White Oak,” was launched in 1943, it was the first ship launched in the city in a quarter of a century.
“Belfast was fully engaged,” said Pinette, adding that the frenzy of wartime activity was repeated across the country. “All of the United States was fully involved. ”
She and others hope that war efforts on the home front will not be forgotten, even if they have not been studied and praised in the same way that war battles have traditionally been.
“What struck me was that everyone was pulling themselves together,” Konitzky said. “There was just a feeling of patriotism in the purest sense of the word. ”