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Sixty-eight years after Pearl Harbor, WWII echoes through Pepperell

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PEPPERELL — December 7 marked the 68th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to one of the largest, if not the largest, outpourings of volunteers for military service in American history.

As had their forbears in 1775 who force marched behind Col. William Prescott toward Cambridge chasing retreating British soldiers, men and women of Pepperell in 1941 answered the call to arms in proportionately large numbers.

The town’s population in 1940 was 2,700, according to online sources. After Pearl Harbor, 385 men and women signed up for military service, this at a time when the main industry — the paper mill — was pressed into 24-hour, seven-day war effort, according to some residents who remember that time.

At Bunker Hill, 11 of the militiamen were killed. Their names are memorialized on a marble monument close to the flagpole on town common.

During World War II, 16 of Pepperell’s 385 enlistees were killed in action, according to records kept by the town’s large Home Town Committee formed in February 1942. Four Army men died on the same day, June 6, 1942, possibly during the Bataan Death March, but certainly during the time of the Battle of Midway (June 4 to 7, 1942). Five sailors lost their lives and one merchant marine serviceman died on Oct. 9, 1942 when his vessel was sunk.

The Home Town Committee’s record (a copy of which is kept at McNabb’s General Store) lists the names of everyone who served in the military, at home, and of all the organizations and their contributions to the war effort. The names of the 236 who served in the Army, the 124 in the Navy, seven Marines and two Coast Guardsmen, as well as the in memoriam are listed.

Some can still be seen around town but the majority have passed away although their families and surnames are part of the community fabric.

A large blown-up photograph hanging on the second floor of VFW Post 3291, taken Sept. 7, 1946, shows a Town Hall crowded with returned veterans at a noontime dinner hosted by a Welcome Home Committee who organized daylong events.

The program included children’s sports, a doll carriage parade, soap box derby, bicycle parade, children’s circus and a band concert. There were prayers, community sings, a street parade from Railroad Square to the playground, and a drum corps competition.

There was also a 4 p.m. ball game featuring the Pepperell Town Team versus the Milford, N.H. VFW team (no score given), vaudeville acts and outdoor dancing until midnight as well as a midway, Ferris wheel and merry-go-round from 9:30 p.m. to midnight at town field.

The Home Town Committee kept a complete record of each serviceman and woman throughout the war. Letters were written, birthday cards, gifts, and Christmas gifts were sent to all. This newspaper was mailed to each service member until 1946. Particularly with help from small change saved by Groton Street School children, kits and letters were sent “to the boys,” according to the record.

World War II, by all accounts, was tough on those at home. Throughout the five-year conflict, the effort took a toll on every citizen. Gasoline, tires and food were strictly rationed. Driving privileges were allowed only for those whose job was deemed critical to the war effort. Residents who lived through that time remember 35 mph speed limits and darkened vehicle headlights particular in seacoast areas, so as to minimize potential enemy observation.

War bond drives raised money, and metal collections provided material for weapons and equipment.

On April 20, 1942, committee records state that Irene S. Leary, chaired a Salvage Day Committee that eventually collected 75 tons of junk brought by trucks manned by Boy Scouts, high school boys and adult volunteers to her own yard. The growing pile included everything from silver coffin plates to loving cups, automobiles and cook stoves.

Leary and Theodore Day ran an aluminum collection drive and a paper drive that continued until March 1946. Worn-out automobile tires were collected or deposited at the Railway Express office, labeled and 6,000 were shipped to designated warehouses. In another collection of salvageable tires, jar rings and hot water bottles done by local garages, 150 tons of rubber was amassed and shipped.

There was a key collection, then tin can drive and more tons were shipped to tin dumps in Fitchburg and Leominster. Mrs. Leary was aided by school children throughout.

During the war years, books were sent to Fort Devens, Ayer and the Shirley U.S.O. (United Service Organization), the American Legion, spearheaded by then selectman Paul R. Taylor.

Pepperell established the first U.S.O. “field” unit in New England on Aug. 24, 1941 after Taylor received word of the approach of troops from Fort Devens.

Plans were made to provide recreation for the soldiers and in less than a half day, Town Hall was made ready for 750 Signal Corps troops who had moved to the outskirts of town and pitched camp.

Town Hall was equipped by volunteers with furniture, musical instruments, ping pong tables and other games, reading and writing materials and a snack bar. Flowers, fruit, smokes and sweets and other touches lent a “homey look.” Mrs. Leary chaired the women’s USO Committee.

Leary acted as head chaperone for five years to a group of young ladies at the Shirley and Ayer USO, the Devens Hospital, Service Clubs one and three, and the Robbins Pond Hostess House. Young ladies of the town volunteered their time as partners for soldiers at dances, card games, and ping pong.

Sunday evening vesper services in Town Hall were well attended. The second floor of Prescott (Grange) hall was the scene of dances, movies and other entertainment.

Pepperell’s Roger S. Robbins chaired the local Massachusetts War Finance Committee branch which sold a total of $634,223 in E Bonds and $63,440 in other government offerings during the war.

This is at a time when the average wage was 84 cents per hour ($34 per week), yearly wages averaged $1,750 and the average house rent was $32 per month, according to online sources. Gasoline, if available, cost 12 cents per gallon, the average new car price (when available just prior and after the war) was $850, and a Beautyrest mattress cost $39.50.

As were all towns, Pepperell was asked to prepare for any potential wartime emergency, including mutual help should it be bombed and a well-known aircraft observation schedule. George Howe was defense chairman.

A 24-member auxiliary police force under Capt. Thomas E. Halley was developed for activation during trial black-outs and any other emergency. A formal auxiliary continues today. The regular Fire Department under chief Waldo F. Parker was aided during the war by an auxiliary firemen’s unit of 30 members.

A medical center was set up in the high school (the brick section of the current Peter Fitzpatrick Elementary School) with a staff of eight nurses and two aides. Fifty air-raid wardens were appointed, including four women, working with Herbert Thompson. Other volunteers worked under titles such as demolition squad, rescue squad, road repair crew, industrial protectors, black-out officers, and ambulance drivers.

Each volunteer was identified with a card that included date and birthplace, a picture, personal description and more, issued under strict government mandate that included a sworn pledge of allegiance to the federal and state government.

The aircraft warning service was developed whose observers worked around the clock shifts searching the skies to identify all aircraft, friendly or potential enemy. The first chief observers were Irene Leary at the Groton Street School and Carlton Burney at the Paul Maxwell farm on Breakneck Hill (Healed Street).

Town Hall’s tower was eventually selected as the best site. The first winter observers who watched around the clock in two-hour shifts worked without heat and lights. Burney was the first chief observer, later turning the work over to Frank West Post, American Legion commander Conrad Primus and later taken over by selectmen.

Leary reorganized the tower service after it was painted, insulated, carpeted and made quite comfortable into a 250-person effort. She alone amassed more than 1,600 hours, working mostly midnight to 6 a.m. shifts.

According to the U.S. Army Air Forces Ground Observer Corps of Boston, Pepperell officially had 90 male observers, 79 female, four boy and six girl observers.

Other Pepperell wartime organizations included Company 8, 29th Infantry Massachusetts State Guard inaugurated in September 1941, the Junior Red Cross, and Motor Corps.