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Article updated: 1/19/2012 12:05 PM

Pillars of Honor lauds actions of Elgin citizens in WWII


The upcoming "Pillars of Honor" program -- set for 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Gail Borden Public Library -- provides an ideal time to reflect on the contributions of Elgin citizens during World War II.

Not only did men and women from the community serve in all major theaters of the war, but the citizens at home supported the troops in a manner unmatched by few communities.

"Nowhere in the state is the spirit of patriotism more resolute than it is right here in Elgin," Illinois Gov. Dwight Green told a group of Elginites in the midst of World War II, a newspaper of the time reported.

Green especially lauded the city of 43,000 for sending more than 3,500 young men and women into military service, its purchasing of defense bonds, and its employment of more than 7,500 in local factories making products to support the troops.

Elgin's involvement in the war, as recorded in the newspaper and company publications of the time, began at the war's onset in 1941 when 20-year-old Richard "Dick" Jacobs perished on the U.S.S. Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The next day Congress declared war on Japan. Within days, the Axis powers of Italy and Germany also declared war on the U.S.

Elgin Mayor Lehmann quickly organized the Elgin Defense Council -- an agency charged with maintaining morale and protecting the community during the war. Among the various civilian positions included auxiliary firemen, feeding and housing workers, messengers, nurses' aides, and drivers.

Within weeks, the city's east and west side draft boards announced a list of those who had signed up for military service. Among the first to enlist was Atadami Miyamoto, an American of Japanese descent who had been a student at the Elgin National Watch Company Watchmakers College.

The community support of the war was stepped up in early 1942 when Elgin's mayor and other community leaders called upon various businesses to encourage payroll deductions to buy Defense Bonds. When a call came for men ages 24 to 44 to register for the draft, there were 75 individuals standing in line when the doors opened.

School officials joined the community in preparing for a possibility of an air attack by locating secure areas in each building. First Aid stations were set up in each of the five fire stations and adults were requested to report to area hospitals for blood typing.

In April 1942, American Legion Post No. 57 took charge of the training of the city's air raid wardens. That same month the Elgin's Men's Garden Club "Victory Gardens" program swung into full gear. Partnering with the local schools, the program was designed to grow food in empty lots to help residents meet their needs during the war.

That spring, news of the first draftee to die in the war reached the area. War efforts ramped up when men ages 45-64 were requested to register for the draft -- an effort that added another 4,500 to the list of eligible men from Elgin.

To raise money for the war effort, "minutemen" canvassed the community to encourage people to buy defense bonds. Elgin earned a bit of distinction when officials announced that the city's per capita share was $55 -- much of it purchased through payroll deduction.

To meet the need for plasma, the Elgin Kiwanis organized a blood and plasma bank in cooperation with Sherman Hospital. Among the first salvage drives occurred when residents took more than 75 tons of rubber to local service stations for collection. Even youths, who were promised theater tickets in return for their contributions of rubber, got into the act.

Other rationing during the war included various foods as well as gasoline and tires. To purchase these commodities residents were issued ration books.

Retailers organized a "Victory Rally" to sell defense bonds and a short time later one of several scrap metal drives got under way. In late June, more than 3,500 residents came to a downtown train station to give a grand send-off to some of the first inductees to leave from Elgin.

Women organized the "Explosive Supply Corps" which allowed for families to donate kitchen grease at local grocery stores. The city also contributed 5,000 books for overseas troops, and a Health for Victory Club showed residents how to get the best nutritional value out of foods available.

In early 1943, Elgin became one of the principal cities in the U.S. earmarked for recruiting women into the new W.A.V.E.S. program -- a Navy service that allowed for women to serve in various roles. That summer the city launched another big bond sale with a din of whistles, bells and horns.

As part of that effort, Elgin's mayor proclaimed a "Heroes Day" and requested citizens to remain at home for "minutemen" to call upon each household. On Flag Day in 1943 a processional more than two miles in length took place -- an event that's still probably the city's greatest patriotic demonstration.

As D-Day, or the invasion of Europe approached, Elginites lined up in large numbers to give blood. The following week the sound of bombs and sirens announced another visit to houses by volunteers to sell defense bonds. One of the most visible tributes to Elgin servicemen and women occurred on Flag Day 1944 when a huge display containing the names of more than 3,500 residents in the military was set up on the lawn of the Elks Club.

Among the most notable contributions of the community to the war effort were the products of its local factories. These included field watches, timing devises and other products made by the Elgin National Watch Company.

Some of the many other products manufactured by Elgin factories included parts for military vehicles by Illinois Tool Works, anti-aircraft projectiles manufactured at McGraw Edison, propeller castings made at Woodruff & Edwards foundry, and various parts for tanks, jeeps and aircraft produced at Elgin Machine. These were recorded in a newspaper column by Edward "Gun" Clifford.

In addition to his regular columns, Clifford wrote a "Dear Bob" story each week in which he highlighted recent events. Designed to make letter writing to overseas troops easier, Clifford chose "Bob" because it was the most common name among the men.

The city's most costly contribution to the war effort came in the loss of more than 100 lives. Many young men who probably had little thought of traveling were sent around the world to fight. Among the places they gave their lives were Tarawa, the Philippians, North Africa, Belgium, France, China, Burma, Italy, New Guinea, Iwo Jima, and at sea.

Some died in accidents training in the states. Others were prisoners in Nazi and Japanese war camps -- some for years. They returned from flight missions in planes riddled with bullets yet volunteered to go again, even though they might be eligible for leave. Others suffered in unimaginable ways during the war. Many, including some Elgin nurses, were decorated for their services.

Following the war in 1945, the city recognized its civilian volunteers at a community luncheon. A huge celebration for service personnel was also held at the Elgin Armory, and the American Legion Post sponsored a celebration for service personnel.

Elgin's World War II veterans have been recognized in various ways over the years, but no large memorial was ever built solely in their honor. The Pillars Of Honor -- albeit temporary -- puts the spotlight squarely on these men and women for their service. Standing nearby will likely be some of those whose home front efforts helped make their accomplishments possible.

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