Monday, April 12, 2010

"Germans" Bomb South Middleborough, 1942

Or so the headlines would have read had the civil defense air raid drills of 1942 which targeted South Middleborough had been an actual event. Fortunately they weren’t, but they did help prepare local residents for a feared enemy attack on American shores during World War II.

Even prior to America's declaration of war in December, 1941, South Middleborough had been exposed to wartime preparedness procedures. In June, soldiers from Camp Edwards on Cape Cod had engaged in maneuvers in the vicinity. The following month, Lucy Braley was appointed captain to solicit funds for the U. S. O. at South Middleborough. A number of South Middleborough residents enlisted in the armed forces prior to the declaration of war including Russell Tripp and Everett W. Collins.

The community, itself, began preparations by naming Everett Buckman as air raid warden for South Middleborough with Harold Williams as his assistant in late summer, 1941. The Junior Red Cross at the South Middleborough School engaged in war relief efforts, establishing a contribution box to raise money for the purchase of books for U. S. O. camps in January, 1941.

Route 28, as one of the principal highways to Cape Cod where Camp Edwards was located, saw convoys pass through, as well as consequent accidents. On February 1, 1942, a cab operated by the Checker Taxicab Company of Boston carrying seven or eight soldiers back to Camp Edwards skidded, struck a tree and flipped over before burning a mile north of the Middleborough-Rochester town line. Both Engine 1 from Middleborough and the Wareham engine responded to the call shortly before midnight.

The community was included in the distribution of so-called “bomb sand” on March 14, 1942. Middleborough Highway Department trucks distributed sand to congested areas where homes were clustered closely together. Sand was to be kept easily available in metal buckets “for use in extinguishing and disposing of incendiary bombs.” It is not clear how readily South Middleborough residents participated. The Gazette reported that only thirty percent of householders outside the center had put out pails to be filled while the percentage for the center (fifty percent) was not much better. Some residents may have recognized the futility of effectively dousing an incendiary with a single bucket of sand and so felt disinclined to participate.

The relative lack of willingness to participate in the sand distribution fueled concerns about Middleborough’s overall preparedness in the event of an air raid, particularly since the town had held only one blackout drill in May, 1941 prior to the start of the war. Accordingly, both air raid defense tests and test blackouts began being scheduled with regularity throughout Middleborough. Initially, the bell of the South Middleborough church was to be used to supplement the town’s two existing fire alarm sirens located at Middleborough center to signal an air raid. Additionally, air raid wardens were provided with police whistles to be used to signal for a final blackout. In June, 1942, an electric air raid whistle manufactured by the Westinghouse Air Brake Company was installed in Sisson’s Garage at the intersection of Wareham and Locust Streets, operated by the same compressed air system which Sisson used to inflate tires.

The first civilian air raid defense test on Sunday, March 29, 1942, played havoc with Cape traffic on Route 28. Over 225 northbound cars were halted at the Middleborough line in Rochester while “some 56 additional that had passed the town line before the start of the blackout were stopped in lower South Middleboro.” Despite the inconvenience, “the drivers cooperated without protest.” Additional town blackouts were conducted April 7, 1942; August, 1942; and June 23-24, 1943; along with two state-wide blackouts held on December 15, 1942, and February 28, 1943.

On Monday, May 11, 1942, the evening before registration for gasoline rationing was to commence, Middleborough’s defense organizations participated in a rehearsal mobilization, though without a blackout, in which South Middleborough was actively engaged. The first warning was given at 7 p. m., the second at 7: 15, and the final warning at 7:29 at which point a blackout would have been complete. “The first call for help came a minute before the final warning, at 7:29 p.m. from the Esso station in South Middleboro reporting an accident on the old road [Spruce Street] at the first house on the left. Serious injuries required the services of doctors and an ambulance.” Richmond Matthews’ auxiliary ambulance was dispatched to the scene along with the Egger ambulance accompanied by a first aid assistant. The “injured” were transported to St. Luke’s Hospital at Middleborough where Doctor James M. Bonnar, Jr., judged the bandaging done by first aid corps members.

A second surprise test was conducted late Sunday afternoon, June 21, during which an enemy bomber was shot down by an interceptor plane at 5:10 p.m., crashing some 500 yards north of the South Middleborough railroad station east of the tracks to Cape Cod. Three men were “seen” parachuting from the plane and “have landed near Wareham street nearly opposite the burning plane.” The State Guard was dispatched to capture the men. During this raid the recently-installed electric air raid siren installed at Sisson’s gas station was employed for the first time.

South Middleborough’s situation was regarded as particularly perilous at the time, isolated as it was by thick woods and swamps which provided extensive concealment for any possible invaders as manhunts for lost and fugitive individuals during the 1950s would so well demonstrate. Because of this, the area became the scene of an extensive search following the actual loss of an Army fighter plane which disappeared following take off from its base at Hillsgrove, Rhode Island on December 22, 1942, the wreckage of which was thought to be hidden beneath the tree cover near South Middleborough. Members of Middleborough’s Company 4 of the Massachusetts State Guard as well as troops from several Massachusetts and Connecticut camps searched the thickly-forested area southwest of South Middleborough during the last week of December, while a blimp searched from the air. The area immediately west of South Middleborough bounded by Spruce, Benson and Highland Streets and the railroad tracks were searched as well. “The local men came out of the woods well scratched up.” It was not until late March, 1943, that the plane and the body of its pilot were located in a heavily wooded portion of Cape Cod ironically near Camp Edwards.

A second plane from the Hillsboro base, a P-47, caught fire and crashed just over the South Middleborough line in Rochester in early March, 1943, with the pilot parachuting to safety.

Civilian air raid preparedness drills became increasingly infrequent as the likelihood of invasion diminished throughout late 1943 and 1944. In fact, South Middleborough experienced its only true bomb scare in November, 1944, when blasting associated with the construction of a cranberry bog west of the railroad tracks by Harrison Peppin shook windows at Sisson’s Garage, Sisson’s Diner, Lucy Braley’s Candy Kitchen and homes in the neighborhood, prompting residents to fear a “robot bomb”. Following an investigation by Chief of Police Alden C. Sisson, local fears were allayed.


Chris Sullivan said...

I read with interest your article your article on South Middleboro's role in World War II and of the massive convoys that would travel from Camp Edwards through town on Route 28. I was reminded of a story concerning my family and the convoys that would travel by my grandfather's house at the intersection of Grove Street and South Main St. For a brief period of time, my father was stationed at Camp Edwards prior to going overseas. He knew that his unit would be leaving Camp Edwards via convoy and would be passing his home. He bribed the Sergeant in charge of the convoy with a bottle of whiskey to allow him to ride in the lead vehicle of the convoy. When they got to Middleboro, he was able to hop out of the first vehicle and to visit with his parents and my mother for about an hour and a half before the last truck of the convoy passed by, which he flagged down and continued his trip! I don't know how many jeeps and trucks made up that convoy, but the number must have been considerable.

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