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1941 – Minden is war ready

Recently I had an online chat with Minden native Hooker Campbell. He mentioned an interesting story about his grandmother, Minden historian Thomas Campbell, and her service as an air raid watcher locally during World War II.

The story involved Mrs. Campbell using the walkway around the cupola of the old 1905 Webster Parish Courthouse in her duties to look out for enemy planes. Now to some that might seem silly, right out of Steven Spielberg’s movie 1941, with west coast residents fearful of a Japanese invasion. However, the fear was real in our area, heightened by the nearby Barksdale Field of the Army Air Corps. My mother and grandmother lived on First Street, directly behind the old Ferguson Memorial Tabernacle of the First Baptist Church. Momma spent much of the war fearing that the hangar-like structure would draw an attack from enemy planes. The conversation with Hooker got me thinking about how Minden placed itself on war footing in the days after Pearl Harbor, so today’s Echo will be a look at how local residents prepared for war in the days of December 1941.

Even though the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise, the sense of a looming war had long been in the air.

The draft had begun at the start of 1941 and many local men had already been summoned for service. My father had been inducted on March 17, 1941. In addition, our city had spent the summer and early fall in the midst of the battles between the Red and the Blue Armies as the United States conducted war games in the area. Those conflicts brought General Patton to Minden and thousands of soldiers. Many spent recreation time at the Minden High School gymnasium and at parties and programs held locally to entertain the troops. Even more significant was the newly opened Louisiana Ordnance Plant, after the awarding of the contract for construction in June 1941, the plant had been under construction and heading toward its eventual May 1942 opening. The coming of the LOP had necessitated the creation of the Webster Council, headed by former Louisiana Tech president, E. S. Richardson. It would be Richardson’s job to oversee the logistics of coordinating local government and business for the arrival of the plant and the huge impact it would have on local life. Once war came, Richardson’s duties would expand into working with civil defense authorities to coordinate their activities. So, it seemed in some ways the city knew war was coming and sprang to duty.

The first local newspaper to be published after the attack was the Webster Review of Tuesday, December 9, 1941, and it reflects the rapid steps to action taking place in Minden. The banner headline stated, “U. S. At War With Japan,” and many articles on page one were war related. The Hands Drive-In Theater at McIntyre was showing President Roosevelt’s address to the nation at 9:00 p.m. that night. The paper had a local personal news semi-gossip column called “Pick-Ups” in that article it was reported that the Women’s Department Club encouraged everyone to decorate their homes and business houses for Christmas as usual, to keep up the spirit of Christmas for the children. Mayor Floyd Culbertson called for a meeting of the City Defense Council to make plans for civilian defense work. While the Mayor said drastic black-outs or air raid warnings will not begin immediately, air raid wardens, volunteer firemen, peace officers and ordinary citizens were requested to hold themselves in readiness for any action. Police Juror J. M. Pearce, head of the Parish Defense Council planned to meet with the City group and being plans for similar actions by the parish group. A war-related announcement was the inception of the Minden Shell Plant Bus Line which would offer six busses a day between Minden and the LOP site for construction workers and stated “Watch for the Blue Busses” as they ran between Wilson’s Care on the Shreveport Road and the construction site.

Editor Kathleen Cox of the Review penned a call to arms to local residents opining that “the United States has been caught napping at her post of duty” but stated that “Minden citizens, like the people throughout the nation, have received the news with outward calm, but a certain grimness indicated by a firmer set of the lips, bodes no good for the perfidious Japanese whose peace envoys were in Washington smirking and bowing while making pretended peace talks, which proved to be nothing more than efforts to lull our suspicions to enable them to stab us in the back.” In those years, the Minden High School student newspaper, the Minden High Monitor was published inside the local newspaper and its issue also touched on the war.

The editor of the Monitor included an editorial called How Youth Can Defend America. He rhetorically asked, “What can I do?” and answered with three suggested actions. First, faithfulness and reverence toward religion. Second, conserve materials which the country needs for its armed services. Third, use your valuable time in your education to prepare yourself to be a producing member of our nation. The author seemed to take that message to heart. He would go on to attend the United States Military Academy where he would serve as First Captain of the Corps of Cadets and receive a commission as a 2nd Lt. in the newly created United States Air Force. His service to our country would continue until October 1983, when he retired as Lieutenant General Arnold W. Braswell. Gen. Braswell is 93 and resides today in Virginia.

By the time the Review came out on December 16, local activity was moving into high gear. Working together the city and parish Defense Councils had set up Civilian Defense Registration for December 19 and 20. Local residents were asked to go to their regular polling places on those days where Clerk of Court Tom Campbell would have registrars present. Citizens were needed to fill roles as air raid wardens, auxiliary police and firemen, nurses and first aid workers, truck drivers, clerks, cooks and housewives. It was stated that “in a few days practice alerts and blackouts will be held and we must be ready.”

Another expressed need was cooperation by local physicians as the Selective Service Board expected the rush of inductees would tax the doctors presently working in the program, Dr. S. F. Martin, Dr. C. M. Baker, Dr. J. B. Benton and Dr. R. E. Smith. At the same time, it was announced that the enlistment standards for the U.S. Navy had been relaxed and those turned down for many different problems, among them varicose veins, missing teeth, hay fever, or hernias, would now be accepted, so long as they demonstrated an IQ above 75.

The LSU Extension service pitched in with suggestions; encouraging farmers to do several things to help the war effort: 1) extend the life of farm machinery by maintenance and repair, order parts now if needed as they will be scarce soon; 2) save mature seeds from frost. Editor Braswell of the Monitor called on all students and local residents to unite and pull together as Americans to support our war effort. Still some signs of peacetime life remained. The newly opened Minden Bowling Center, located in the Drake Building downtown invited residents to try bowling and experience mild exercise conveniently located right on Main Street.

The registration for civilian workers got off to a big start with over 6500 residents of Webster Parish signing up.

Interestingly, while Minden registered about 1800 volunteers we were topped by Springhill where 2100 agreed to help.

With registration complete committees were working to classify and assign the volunteers to various jobs. It was also announced that a new plant for refining octane gasoline would be established at Cotton Valley. Residents were asked to join in the Red Cross War Relief Drive by pledging half-a-day’s pay toward the parish goal of $5000. Additionally, the management of Southern Bell requested phone customers to refrain as far as possible from using long distance calling on Christmas and New Year’s Day to keep the phone lines open for government emergency use. Silas Mason Company, building the LOP announced that to support the war effort, construction workers on the plan would no longer be granted deferments from military service, the company felt it could build the plan with workers ineligible for service and the US needed the capable men in uniform today.

By the end of December, as the first month of war came to an end, the newspaper was dominated by stories related to the war effort. The Women’s Department Club and the Junior Service League were launching a door-to-door canvass to raise funds for the Red Cross. Minden businessman C. O. Holland was named head of the parish War Savings Committee to supervise the sale of war bonds in the parish. Two defense housing projects were announced for Minden. The first was a planned installation of 210 prefabricated houses on land owned by Mrs. L. K. Watkins in the area that is today Bymo Drive and Drew Lane. The plans never came to fruition, but were touted as needed for defense and ammunition plant workers. The second was a trailer housing project specifically for shell plant workers to be created at the former site of Camp Myer, the local CCC camp. Today that site is occupied by the Christian Church at Minden in the old Louisiana Technical College buildings. It appears that camp did come into use as after May 1942 when the LOP began full operation Minden was swarmed with workers and tent cities and new housing areas did proliferate in our area. The need for housing in Minden placed the community on the list of key defense cities in which the WPA was monitoring changes in occupancy and rental rates along with a check for price gouging.

In a political story, Mayor Floyd Culbertson turned down Governor Sam Jones’ offer to appoint him District Attorney of the 26th Judicial District to fill the vacancy to be left when DA Robert F. Kennon was called to active duty on January 1. Culbertson cited the need for him to continue to prepare the city of Minden for war efforts and also that at age 33, he was subject to induction into the military. Surprisingly, after declining the appointment and winning reelection as Mayor in April 1942, Culbertson later ran for the vacant D. A. job but was defeated by A. M. Wallace of Bossier. Following his loss in the D. A. election, Culbertson resigned as Mayor to enlist in the U. S. Army as a Lieutenant.

Another sign of the coming war changes to Minden was the announcement by Parish Council head J. M. Pearce of the coming appointment of a Tire Rationing Board for the parish. Members to be announced by Pearce would supervise the implementation of the national regulations in the parish. Minden Cotton Oil and Ice called on its customers to save burlap feed bags as the new regulations by the Office of Price Management prohibited the mutilation, slashing or damaging of burlap bags. The company would pay for all bags returned in good condition.

Thus as 1942 dawned, Webster Parish had answered the call to arms and many local residents were doing their part to help our nation. From perches on the roof of the courthouse to keeping your burlap feed bags, Minden settled in for the long nearly four years of war yet to come. That reaction is another Echo of our Past.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.