Believe it or not, citizens of White Bear Lake thought the city was vulnerable to German and Japanese invasion in WWII. As a precaution, an anti-aircraft National Guard unit was activated and moved to the Armory on Third Street.
“It was an active military post with 75 officers and men sleeping on cots on the first floor,” according to author Peter Reis, who shared childhood memories during a special event at the White Bear Lake library. That lasted about a month before the soldiers were shipped out on troop trains to Camp Haan, California.
In his book “Homefront: A Small Town in WWII,” Reis recollects life in White Bear Lake when Adolf Hitler was conquering Europe and the Japanese provoked America to war.
“WWII was like no other war before or after. It touched everyone in the United States. Every man, woman and child,” Reis pointed out. “There were two realties. First is most people in White Bear Lake thought it likely that the city would be invaded and second was the incredible challenge of America transforming into a war-time nation.”
That transformation started post-Pearl Harbor when automobile production came to an immediate halt.
Appliances and tires were next. “Then there was a quick realization that we would start running out of other stuff and rationing started,” he said.
“By the time the war ended, some 17 million men and women were serving in the Armed Forces. They had to fed and clothed.”
Yes, White Bear Lake was a long way from Nazi Germany but people were still nervous. “It sounds bizarre,” Reis said. “and started a national movement to provide protection to towns when the National Guard left. Militia units formed and were called the State Guard. Locally, they were called the Home Guard. White Bear had about 50 guys who were too old for the draft. Their intent was to protect White Bear Lake when the Germans and Japanese came marching down Fourth Street.”
He remembers it well, Reis said, even at the young age of 7.
The Home Guard company commander was C.H. Christianson who was superintendent of schools. “He was an officer in WWI and an example of their devotion. He had an existing heart condition and would drop dead of a heart attack in 1945 before the war ended,” Reis said.
The guard included school teachers, saloon keepers, a barber, a grocer, and head of the local utility company. “They were determined to stand behind telephone poles and shoot at the German tanks as they rolled into town,” Reis said.
Beyond the Home Guard were the rest of White Bear's citizens who wanted and needed to help in the war effort. Some were appointed as air raid wardens. Reis' dad Clem, a banker, had this job in his Lake Avenue neighborhood.
“When the enemy came to drop bombs, a cadre of people would help. Their uniform was a little arm band tied over their clothing with a civil defense logo. They held weekly meetings at the Armory to learn what to do in case of attack.
“The only piece of equipment he was issued was a little pump painted olive green with two hoses. It looked like a bicycle pump. One hose went into a pail of water and one hose had a nozzle. When the air attack came, my dad would give first aid and then look for incendiary bombs dropped on neighbor's houses. He would put it out with the hand pump. It was ludicrous,” Reis said.
Residents felt the city was a target because of nearby defense plants. There was the huge Arden Hills arsenal that turned out billions of rounds of 30 and 45 caliber ammunition. It had 8,000 employees and a 2-square-mile footprint, Reis pointed out.
There was also the Northport airport on the corner of Highway 96 and Jamaca Avenue in Grant. Reis explained that the government contracted with small dirt airfields around the country to train desperately needed pilots. People felt that was a potential target, as well.
As the government built primary training fields in the south, Northport began to be phased out. It was still used to train glider pilots, however, in preparation for the invasion of Normandy.
Someone in the audience told Reis that President George H.W. Bush learned to fly at Northport, something he didn't know.
Life in war time was hard for the average citizen. Commodities like sugar, coffee, and meat were rationed first. Then gasoline and canned goods. There was no frozen food back then. Freezer compartments in refrigerators were only big enough for ice cube trays.
Reis showed an actual ration book owned by a White Bear woman named Alice Thompson. She was 17. Every family member received a ration book.
“Rationing was at its worst in 1944,” Reis continued. “Gas was down to 2 gallons per week. People were outraged over gasoline rationing. We do love our cars.”
The solution to food shortages were backyard gardens, Reis said. The White Bear Press had a weekly gardening and canning column. “In spring of '44, the Press talked about the 20 million Victory gardens in the U.S. My dad was an avid gardener so he went hell bent with his garden. Everything he produced, my mother canned in an enormous pressure cooker. It hissed steam. It was terrifying.”
As the war neared its end, people realized the enemy wouldn't be marching down Fourth Street and air raid wardens were no longer needed.
Reis' last slide during the presentation, sponsored by the White Bear Area Historical Society, showed a picture of his older sister Barbara with her high school boyfriend. She graduated from White Bear, Class of '44, and started at the University of Minnesota that fall. “One day at a family dinner my dad asked her, 'how is it going your first week?'” We assumed she would say lectures were difficult to understand or textbooks are hard. She said, 'daddy, there aren't any boys there.' We laughed about that for years. All the boys had gone to uniform. If you saw young men on the street, they were in high school or working a defense job.”