The Mercersburg Home Front During World War II with Emphasis upon the Women’s Home Defense Unit

The Mercersburg Home Front During World War II with

Emphasis upon the Women’s Home Defense Unit

By Joan C. McCulloh


          From the point of view of the fragmented, discordant early years of the twenty-first century the World War II era from 1941 to l945 seems like a time of unity of purpose, a time of community of spirit.  Everyone knew and understood who the enemies were and agreed that they had to be defeated. In cities, town, villages, and farms across the United States the goals were the same.  Mercersburg with its surrounding area reflected the ideas of the mainstream.  Just as the rest of the country prepared for war, our area mobilized its resources and did its part.   


          Although war was not declared upon Japan until December 8, 1941, one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or upon Germany and Italy after those two countries on December 11 had declared war upon the United States, war had been on the minds of most people, including residents of Mercersburg and the area around it.  For instance, in July 1940 the Mercersburg Journal  reported that beginning on July 1 people would need to pay federal taxes for national defense, that Congress was considering a compulsory  military training bill, and that eight new army flying schools were being established across the nation.  In October 1940 James Curran, track coach at Mercersburg Academy and a native of Galashiels, Scotland,  sponsored a movie, Brigham Young starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, in the Star Theater for the benefit of the Galashiels Soldiers and Sailors Comfort Fund.  Unfortunately, the bank draft for $108 that Mr. Curran sent was on a ship that was sunk in the North Atlantic by the enemy so that he had to send another bank draft that was converted into 25 pounds, 14 shillings, and 2 pence for the fund. In the December 27 issue of the Journal a feature in the center of the first page noted “Happy New Year /We Face the Future with Confidence.  Even though the world is wracked with trouble, we face 1941 with every confidence.  We believe in America and the American people and their future.  We believe that our country and the things it stands for will endure because they are essentially right.  The basic good sense, cooperative spirit, and native determination will carry the American people through even the present difficulties….”  In January 1941 with the sponsorship of the local school district eight young men took a course to prepare applicants for work in the defense industry.  These young men met for eighteen hours each week for eight weeks in Fallon’s Garage with C. E. Fallon as their instructor.  In February of that year the local Red Cross received yarn to be knitted into sweaters to be shipped to Great Britain.  In that same month the film, Land of Liberty, produced for patriotic reasons by the motion picture industry and composed of sequences from one hundred and twelve films, was shown in the Star Theater with the proceeds going for emergency war welfare.   Also in February a newly formed women’s committee held a food sale and white elephant sale in Ott’s Store to aid Bundles for Britain and Greek War Relief.  In April another group of women, representatives of each of the local card clubs with Miss Ellen Curran as chair, held a sale in order to benefit the American Women’s Aid for British Service Women.   In May the government began to sell United States Defense Bonds.  Although they were available in large denominations, the most frequently advertised denomination was $18.75 with the guarantee that in ten years the bond would be worth $25.00, and defense stamps were sold in denominations of 10, 25, and 50 cents and one and five dollars.  In May also another group held a food sale to benefit British hospitals.  In June of that year another film, Reaching for the Sun, was shown in the Star Theater for the benefit of China relief.


           In order to coordinate local emergency efforts in 1941 the Home Defense Council was created. The Mercersburg Branch of the American Red Cross with Mrs. Grey Wyman as chair rented a room in the building at the corner of North Park  and West Seminary Streets directly across from the Presbyterian Church to serve as its headquarters and thus provided a venue for sewing, preparing surgical dressings, and holding classes.  There Dr. Lewis Hitzrot taught  classes in first aid, and Mrs. Agnes Murdaugh, who had been assistant supervisor of nurses at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in the evenings taught courses in home nursing, and Mrs. David Chapman in the afternoons taught the same course.  Miss Kathryn Highlands, who taught the sixth grade in the local public schools, directed the activities of the Junior Red Cross so that the students in the elementary school knitted six-inch woolen squares, ninety-six of which were sewn together to create an afghan, and the resulting afghans were sent through the Red Cross to Great Britain, collected tinfoil, and bought defense stamps.


            After the entry of the United States into the war, of course, efforts locally, like those throughout the nation, intensified.  Under the aegis of the Home Defense Council in 1942 air raid wardens were appointed, the town was divided into sections to be the responsibilities of specific wardens,  what was to become the air raid siren was moved from Fallon’s Garage to the Mercersburg Ice and Cold Storage area, and people were reminded of the necessity of total blackouts and the regulation that all outside lights had to have outside switches.  From February 1940 until August 11, 1944, under the sponsorship of the local  Harry Lackhove Post of the American Legion  two hundred and thirty men and women provided surveillance for enemy airplanes from a small building on the top of the ‘88 dormitory on the Academy campus.  Watching for enemy planes twenty -four  hours a day for seven days a week, these people  checked that the skies were secure.  In March of 1942 all  local people were to feel the effects of war as rationing of gasoline, sugar, coffee, cheese, lard, “edible fats and oils,” processed foods, meat, shoes, fuel oil, and tires began under the direction of a local rationing board.  People were reminded to collect scrap metal, and women were encouraged to collect nylons and silk stockings for the war effort.  On Memorial Day in 1942 an Honor Roll in front of Town Hall noting the names of local servicemen was dedicated. Today this Honor Roll, a project of the local Lions Club with assistance from the Women’s Club, hangs in the corridor of Town Hall. Also beginning in November 1942 the first contingent of Marines arrived for training on the Academy campus. 


           On July 1, 1941, the Women’s Home Defense Unit, which worked tirelessly throughout the war and which focused upon sending what it called kits, packages, to servicemen and women from our area, was formed with Alice Eshelman as chair and the following committee members:  Dorothea Hitzrot, Agnes Hoch, Mildred Witherspoon, Kathryn Hoch, and Helen Fendrick.  In August according to the Mercersburg Journal registration of women who wished to be a part of this effort occurred in Town Hall.  Each woman was required to sign an oath of allegiance and fill out a form telling her name, address, birthplace, race, education, specialized technical training, volunteer technical training, other organizations to which she belonged, and her choice of areas of interest.  At this time forty women signed up with first aid being the first choice, food conservation the second choice, and mass feeding the third choice.  One registrant indicated that she wanted to become an airplane pilot, and another noted that she desired rifle training.  The September 11, 1941, minutes of the Women’s Club of Mercersburg recorded that the club had agreed to permit the Women’s Home Defense Unit to use the local library, founded and operated by the Women’s Club and then located in the large room on the second floor of Town Hall, as a meeting room, that no committees would be appointed from the Women’s Club, but at members should cooperate with the local unit.


          On September 26, 1941, an article in the Mercersburg Journal requested local citizens to give money to the Women’s Home Defense Unit to purchase items to be sent to the thirty-six servicemen from Mercersburg and the surrounding area.  The committee in asking for these contributions of money placed boxes in the following places:  Walker’s Drug Store, McLaughlin’s Drug Store, the shirt factory, Myers and Tritle’s, Shaffer’s Grocery, Paul’s Lunch, Fallon’s Hardware, First National Bank, and the Farmers Bank.  Each  kit to be sent was to include the following:  one tube of toothpaste, medium, three packets of cigarettes, one box of foot powder,  razor blades, one  bottle of shaving lotion, stamps worth twenty-five cents, and one handkerchief.  A possibility of another item to be sent would be a flashlight.   The Journal added, “Put yourself in the position of these boys who have dropped their civilian life [sic] to defend our country.  Uncle Sam takes care of their basic needs….” but spoke of the necessity of local people’s taking care of these young men.


          It is probable, though, that the attention of local people at this time was drawn elsewhere as late that summer and early autumn a severe outbreak of what was then called infantile paralysis occurred in this community.  The public schools opened on September 29, the Academy opened in October, and churches canceled Sunday Schools.  By October of that year thirteen cases of infantile paralysis had been reported in Franklin County.


          In November 1941 the committee sent fifty-four kits each containing candy, cigarettes, razor blades, tooth powder, shaving cream, writing paper, envelopes, and chewing gum.


          In March 1942 the committee made plans to send kits at Easter and asked the women in the community to bring cookies to the Lutheran Church for inclusion in the packages. To pay for the other items the women made seven hundred and fifty blue forget-me-nots and had the Boy Scouts, dressed in their uniforms, sell them on a Saturday morning and high school girls sell them in the afternoon and evening of that day. When the Scouts met at Red Cross headquarters at 9:30 in the morning, two boys were assigned to each street in order to sell these from  house to house.  The success of this project that added $65 to the committee’s treasury enabled the committee to send ninety-seven kits each containing cookies, candy, cigarettes, and chewing gum. 


          Again to fund its activities the committee in August 1942 sponsored Funzapoppin, a musical comedy, to be held in the auditorium of the high school.  Produced by the Empire Producing Company and directed by Miss Helen  Blake Williams of Kansas City, Missouri, the show included tap dancing and singing with The Military, Gingle, Gangle, Beautiful Lady, Farmerettes, Pearl Harbor, Apple Tree, and Firemen as the songs Mrs. Oma Eshleman was general chair with Mrs. Elmer Hawbaker as ticket chair, Miss Helen Fendrick as cast chair, Miss Mildred Witherspoon as feature number chair, Mrs. Arthur Hoch as chorus chair, and Mrs.  Lewis Hitzrot as advertising chair.  The actors and actresses were Tidd Byron, Henry Steiger, Lawrence Zeger, Mrs. James Miller, Mrs. Grey Wyman, Mrs. David Chapman, Mrs. Jack McLaughlin, Mrs. Mildred Rock, Mrs. Glenn Garnes, Mrs. Elmer Hawbaker, and Mrs. Joseph Funk, and children and young people who with their singing and dancing completed the cast.   Admission for the show, which was given on August 6 and 7, was thirty-five cents for a person under fourteen years of age and fifty cents for a person over fourteen and an extra ten cents for a reserved seat. The Journal reported that one hundred people had attended so that with receiving fifty per cent of the admission the committee realized about $150.


          In conjunction with Funzapoppin  the committee held a Victory Lads and Lasses Contest in which a child was to be chosen either little Miss Mercersburg or Little Mr. Mercersburg.  Pictures of the little contestants were placed in the window of Myers and Tritle’s Store, and jars in which people were to place pennies were placed in various stores in town.  The child whose jar received the most pennies was the winner of the contest.  The winner was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Pat Smith, little Jay Smith, now Little Mr. Mercersburg, who received $5 in defense stamps.


          The September 12 issue of the Mercersburg Journal featured in the center of the front page a letter to the servicemen and women from the Women’s Home Defense Unit. 


                   “Greetings from all of your friends and neighbors.  We think of you often and talk about you and read with interest any news of you. When we meet members of your families in town or at church, we hear about your latest letter….

          “Because you are our boys, we are sending you a little something to make you think of us….To raise the money to send these things to you kept a lot of people working hard for two weeks.  We look back on these days with satisfaction because our efforts brought in the necessary greenbacks….

Maybe you have heard about the show, Funzapoppin.  Yes, sir, we took on a fancy lady director and she kept a full hundred of us busy for two solid weeks.  She was just getting over a sprained ankle and could hardly walk but she didn’t let hat stop her.  What she lacked in feet she made up for in brains and she mapped a campaign that kept Mercersburg a whirl for two weeks.  You could use her in the army.  She barked orders at us but she had a pleasant smile and we liked it…. The show was acted by eight women and four men.  It was full of laugh lines and funny situations and we laughed

ourselves sick ….  There were eight song and dance numbers in the show.  Your little sisters and brothers and cousins and nieces and nephews were trained for these numbers by the director - and they were a picture….

Now we are busy again getting ready to get the packages ready to send off to you.  Some of Mercersburg’s best cooks have been engaged to make cookies for two days next week.  The candy and cigarettes and shoe polish kits are being assembled.  Do you know what the biggest job of all will be?  Getting your addresses - all 150 of you.  If your packages are returned to us, we will have the army post office trace you.  We hope to succeed in every case and will do our level best to reach you.

                                      Your hometown is back of you.  Drop us a line.

                                      With best wishes we are



                                                                   Women’s Home Defense Unit


          In September 1942, a month in which three hundred and sixty-nine local area men were drafted into the armed services and the local shirt factory reported that it was making winter army shirts, the Women’s Home Defense Unit sent one hundred and thirty-one kits to local  servicemen and women.  These were filled with candy, cigarettes, cookies, shoe polish and shiner, writing paper, and a copy of the Mercersburg Journal.  To men and women overseas the committee added a one dollar money order.


          Because of the lack of men to pick apples in late summer and early autumn after local orchardists had indicated that they needed help desperately, some of the members of the Women’s Home Defense Unit volunteered to help.  One of the women, who referred to themselves as the Applelettes, later wrote about their experience:  “The last of September found the fruit growers without sufficient help to harvest the crop.  The Women’s Home Defense Unit felt it would be a good thing for those women who could do so to help in the orchards.  So to Mr. Frank Gillan’s orchard we went.  We picked apples 10 hours a day for over a period of six weeks.  Quite a number of local women helped, and the Gillans were very grateful to us for our efforts.  The Lions Club had quite a Halloween parade, and the Applelettes came out as a unit, dressed in their apple picking attire.  We caused quite a bit of comment, and the judges allotted us a special prize of $3.  No need to mention it went into the treasury of the committee.” 


          Before Christmas 1942 those serving the country were much upon the minds of the community.  The Women’s Home Defense Unit sent to each serviceman and woman a special Christmas card  with Greetings Mercersburg - Penna - at the top and photographs of the fountain, Mt. Parnell, the Academy chapel, and the Honor Roll outside Town Hall  that had been dedicated on Memorial Day earlier that year.  In addition, a special edition of the Mercersburg Journal was sent to all who were in the armed services.  In the center at the top was a small cartoon featuring the fountain with a Christmas tree on each side and two small children looking at the star on the top of the fountain and the caption, “Christmas Greetings Till We Meet Again.”  Also this issue under the heading, “Mercersburg’s Roll of Honor,” listed the names on the Honor Roll of the local men with their branch of service.  This issue also contained letters, written at the behest of the Women’s Home Defense Unit, from the following:  Dr. James G. Rose, minister emeritus of the Presbyterian Church, the Reverend James Moyer of Trinity Reformed Church, the Reverend Robert Gibson of the First Methodist Church, the Reverend J D.E. Turner of the Presbyterian Church, Mrs. Grey Wyman, chair of the local Red Cross, and one signed your old Palsy Walsy, who wrote in a humorous vein and gave local news.  All the  letters were thought-provoking, encouraging, kind, and extremely supportive of the work of the servicemen and women.   Also in this issue was a long article entitled “Mercersburg’s War Machine,” which detailed the efforts of the local people in the war effort.   Inside the paper was a long poem, “The Applelettes,” written by Mildred Witherspoon, one of the Applelettes, who wove into her poem the names of her fellow workers:  Alice Eshelman, Cecil LeFevre, Mary Grafton, Dorothea Hitzrot, Mary Hyams, Virginia Rose, Florence Jordan, Katharine Steppe, Helen Kelly, and Louise Varden.


                   Early in the fall of nineteen forty-two

                   The fruit growers called for pickers

                   They wanted many, and

                   Not a few.


                   So off to the Gillians

                   On the Lincoln Highway

                   We work ten hours

                   And get good pay.


                   Appelettes we are called

                   In the Mercersburg Journal

                   Fred better be careful

                   Or we’ll make him our colonel.


                   There is Alice, the languid

                   Has such a distressed look

                   We know she would much rather

                   Be reading a book.


                   And Betty, the belle

                   From down home in Danvelle

                   She talks and talks

                   Until we just say, ”Well. Well.”


                   Lana was with us a very short time

                   While her hubby was in Maryland.

                   Now they are traveling fast

                   Across the Western Praireland.


                   Now Cecil LeFevre

                   Whom we envy a lot

                   Can sleep of both feet

                   And then feel tip-top.


                   Who is that giggling

                   Up in that tree?

                   Why, that’s Mary Grafton

                   Tee-hee tee-hee


                   Dorothea, the demure one,

                   Can skin up a tree

                   Just like a ten-year old

                   Instead of thirty-three.


                   Now Mary, that Hyams girl,

                   Cordially does blather

                   When they say, “Pick up drops.”

                   She yells, “Give me a ladder.”


                   Then there’s old Ginny

                   Whose last name is Rose

                   She works in the packing house

                   And rests her big toes.


                   And Florence and Katharine

                   Who work so darned fast

                   The boss comes around d

                   And says, “Girls, you can’t last.”


                   Now they Helen Kelly

                   She was told she was too old

                   Can you imagine

                   Anyone being so bold?


                   Poor little Louise

                   Isn’t with us anymore

                   Her old man, Jim, said,

                   “Girl, it’s too much of a chore.”


                   There’s Pickles, the little one

                   Who goes out for apples

                   But brings in mint

                   Of all kinds.


                   They call us the Republican Club

                   But we don’t care

                   For Frank is a good egg

                   And treats us all fair.


                   And now to all the Soldier Boys

                   We Applelettes send our greeting.

                   May the time soon come

                   That we will again be greeting.


                   O, for the gift of a book, Girls,

                   To tell you all in rhyme

                   Of our lovely old Parnell,

                   The light of liberty in her time.

                   Of her colors deep mellowed

                   In green and gold

                   Of history, half of which

                   Has never been told.


                   No, writing a verse

                   Has never been my line

                   But gee whiz,

                   Haven’t we had a grand time?


                             Mildred Witherspoon

                             October 29, 1942


                   P. S.  Now Middy forgot when she wrote this rhyme

                   To say that she picked apples part of the time

                   When the boss wasn’t looking

                   Which happens sometimes

                   She sat down on a basket

                   And wrote these rhymes.



          The Women’s Home Defense Unit planned to hold on Saturday, March 13, 1943, another forget-me-not sale and noted in the Journal:

“This to be an annual sale for the duration….”  In the kitchen of the Methodist church the members of the committee baked cookies and packed one hundred and fifty-six kits, each containing three dozen cookies, a box of shoeshine polish, a handkerchief, a wash cloth, and a Journal.


          The response to these packages from servicemen and women was gratitude expressed either in person or by their family members or in letters.  All of the letters, whether long or short or written with ease or with labor, expressed the deepest appreciation of having been remembered.  Many of the writers noted especially the cookies and the Journal, but all spoke of the thoughtfulness of the people in their hometown.  In the approximately one hundred letters the Journal printed not one writer expressed a complaint or dissatisfaction about anything.  Although each letter is unique, the authors of all the letters without exception expressed  their optimism, their belief in the cause for which they were working, and their warm feelings about their hometown and its people.

            Note: The sources of information for this article are copies of the Mercersburg Journal and a scrapbook kept by a member of the Women’s Home Defense Unit that includes the names of the servicemen and women to whom packages were sent, information about fund-raising activities of the committee, a copy of the Christmas greeting sent in 1942, photographs of Funzapoppin, and eighty-three of the approximately one hundred letters printed in the Journal.



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