A World War II Civil Defense
When Papa Was An Air Raid Warden
(Charleston in the War Years)
We all remember the cap Papa wore as if permanently attached to his head.
During World War II, he had another head covering -- a white helmet of the Office of Civil Defense, an agency created by President Roosevelt to mobilize civilians in case of emergencies on the home front.
The helmet -- along with arm bands and whistles and, I believe, special flashlights -- was issued to air raid wardens, whose job was to patrol certain blocks in their neighborhoods to make sure all lights were out (or at least hidden by blackout curtains or shades) after the sounding of the shrill air raid sirens
Fortunately, the sirens had to be sounded only for drills, which were sometimes scheduled and sometimes a surprise. There was a fear (and many rumors) in Charleston that German submarines would make their way into the harbor and fire on the city.
I'm not sure if Popa was recruited or
volunteered to be a warden. I would bet
that he thought the city never would be
attacked. There always seemed to be
good-natured kidding in the store the
morning after a drill.
It was scary though when the siren sounded and Papa left the house to make his rounds, leaving Mom, Mickey, Sidney and me in the dark. Contrasting with the eerie screech of the warning siren was the soothing sound of the all-clear siren, which meant that the lights could come back on, the city was safe and Popa would be home soon.
The war also brought other changes to 743 (or was it 753 then?). George was off with General George Patton's Third Army (they were never close friends) speeding across Europe, so his gap in the store had to be filled by the rest of us -- probably mostly Mama.
Papa even closed the store shortly after noon on Sundays and we could have one of our rare meals together.
Certain products -- especially sugar and coffee -- were rationed and the customers would bring in their government-issued stamps to give Pop when they shopped. We would paste the stamps in books for him to turn over to his wholesalers. I don't think Mama and Papa personally observed the rationing too strictly. There had to be some perks for running the grocery store.
Charleston at the time was full of servicemen from the Army air base, the naval base and the sprawling Stark General Hospital -- all in the North Area. There was even a camp for Italian prisoners of war, which I think was on Highway 17 just over the Ashley River Bridge. The prisoners could be seen around town -- surrounded by guards -- doing road work and other maintenance projects.
The city buses were supplemented by very military-like, gunboat gray vehicles which had a driver's cabin attached to what looked like a big moving van. I disliked riding these (to and from Hebrew school) because they were usually so crowded and dark.
Mickey would take me and Sidney with her when she went to the old train station on Columbus St. where she served at a USO (United Service Organizations) volunteer booth to help arriving servicemen get acquainted with the city. I vaguely recall her in some kind of "uniform." Were Sidney and I for protection?
The night George came home was a joyous occasion, of course. If I'm not mistaken Bertha met him in Fayetteville and then they came to Charleston. I remember all of us being in the living room that night -- George's first night with Barry.
Papa wasn't the only civilian volunteer during the war.
After being declare 4-F (not eligible for service) and getting married, Solly became a private in the Sumter Guards (to protect the home front) and Sara worked at the air tracking Control Center, then located in the old police station on St. Philip St. at Vanderhorst. Mickey also worked at a Control Center as well as helping out at the Red Cross and USO.