Baltimore's Pace Was To Quicken Bombers were being built, but the war remained far away


December 01, 1991|By James Bock

Distant battles had changed the face of Baltimore, but not yet transformed the minds of Marylanders. We were on a war footing, but not at war. We had sent our sons to the draft, but not into combat. We were in "the emergency," but it was someone else's emergency.

More than at any time since, Baltimore was Maryland. Its port, railroads and factories were the throbbing heart of the state's economy. It was a compact city of row-house dwellers who traveled by streetcar, bought groceries at neighborhood markets, did Christmas shopping on Howard Street and lived in rigid racial segregation. A woman wouldn't be caught dead walking down Charles Street without hat and gloves. A black person probably wouldn't walk down Charles Street at all.

Nearly half of all Marylanders lived in Baltimore (859,000 in 1940). Even the suburbanites of the day -- residents of neighborhoods like Govans, Homeland and Forest Park -- barely strayed from the city core. Everything else in Maryland was town and country. Town life centered on Main Street and the county courthouse. Farm families grew truck crops, raised dairy cattle, chickens and hogs, and harvested Chesapeake Bay seafood as they had for generations.

By December 1941, the Baltimore area was in full boom. Defense plants worked around the clock building bombers for the British and Liberty ships to haul wartime cargoes across the Atlantic. Workers poured out of Pennsylvania towns and Appalachian hollows to make "good money" in Baltimore's "arsenal of democracy."

City fathers worried about teeming trailer camps, overcrowded row houses and clogged downtown streets. But they gloried in the sudden blossoming of cash. War industries were hoisting Baltimore out of the Depression. Shoppers with money to burn would make December 1941 the most prosperous holiday season in more than a decade.

Radio and newsreel reports told Marylanders of Adolf Hitler, desert warfare, the valiant British, and the Russian winter. Some Baltimoreans recognized the tragedy befalling European Jewry. People were also warned that war with Japan -- considered a mere tool of Hitler -- was nearly inevitable. Trouble brewed in the Philippines or Thailand. No one watched Pearl Harbor. Many had no idea where it was.

FROM THEIR HUB at Sun Square, Baltimore and Charles streetsthe Sunpapers filled their front pages with news of faraway wars. The new Trans-Lux electric news board, installed on the building's facade that November, flashed bulletins to the pedestrians and streetcar riders.

News of Baltimore and Maryland was relegated, by tradition, to the back page. An ocean of department store ads separated distant wars from local concerns.

Baltimoreans were certainly more aware of the war than many Americans -- or even many Marylanders -- but they were still spectators, not full-fledged participants. They gladly built bombers or knitted sweaters for the British, but they were slow to enlist in the armed forces or volunteer to be neighborhood air raid wardens. Any threat seemed remote.

BALTIMORE'S COMFORTABLE classes, the heart of Sunpaperreadership, began the first week of December in the afterglow of Navy's 14-6 football victory over Army the previous Saturday in Philadelphia and in anticipation of the Bachelors Cotillon, Maryland's most exclusive social event, that night at the Lyric Theater.

Thousands of midshipmen and Annapolitans had greeted the Navy football team as its train pulled into the station near the State House late Sunday afternoon. An illuminated sign on the rear gate of the governor's mansion, home to first-term Democratic Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor, welcomed the heroes: "Maryland Hails Navy, Victor Again." Team captain Bob Froude invoked the era's most popular S-word: "The way you were all behind us was swell," he said. He rang the traditional Japanese ** bell -- a six-century-old relic brought back from Matthew Perry's mid-19th century voyage to Tokyo Bay -- 14 times, once for each point scored against Army.

Maryland's most thoroughly bred young women, 73 of them, converged on the elegant Lyric late Monday evening to make their debut. Hundreds of bouquets decorated the front of the Lyric's boxes, and the theater was converted into a ballroom. The Bachelors Cotillon's Monday German, so named for the elaborate social dance once done at the affair, was like a family reunion, but a highly exclusive one. Girls who weren't invited often regretted it deeply.

The debs were mini-celebrities of the time and objects of some curiosity by the working classes, but the Sunpapers treated the young women with discreet formality, as it did the senators and bankers and landed gentry who were their escorts. The grand march, the annual swishing of 18-year-olds in white gowns and their partners through a simple figure, began at 11:30 that night. A buffet supper and champagne were served on the Lyric stage at midnight, and bleary-eyed blue bloods quietly resumed their duties in Baltimore's business and political world later that morning.

READING THE ADS (culled from The Baltimore Sun and otheMaryland newspapers):

Help Wanted -- Female. GIRLS (white) over 18, for hospital work.

Situations Wanted -- Female. VIRGINIA GIRL (col.), day's work, good refs.

If you smoke Philip Morris -- you have proved protection -- even when you inhale!

Suburban Apts. Northwood. 1525 Lockwood Rd. 3 rooms, private bath. Gentiles.

Don't let things worry you -- natural or unnatural. See Doc Prince, 1811 N. Mount St.

U.S. SEN. Millard E. Tydings, a patrician Havre de GracDemocrat with a cleareyed view of German and Japanese aggression, warned that Monday that American-Japanese negotiations were "well-nigh doomed to failure. . . . Japan's war of conquest has carried her so far that, even if she wished it, retreat would be most difficult." He predicted Japan's "complete defeat" in a war with the United States.

The Evening Sun editorialized: "What Japan will do is the issue of the moment."

And so it was.

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