In World War II, city fretted and built ships MEMORIES FROM THE HOME FRONT

April 17, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Dominic Guzzo spent April 1944 carrying a torch, not a rifle, for his country.

Seven days a week, Mr. Guzzo cut and shaped sheet metal for troop ships being built at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point yard.

During breaks, he read newspapers. Some diversion. Joe Palooka was in uniform, and Popeye was enlisting.

Even The Sun's daily crosswords traced the battle lines: "8 across: Russian city, recently retaken."

"You couldn't escape the war; it was on your mind 24 hours a day," says Mr. Guzzo, now 81, of Highlandtown. "Every day the headlines were as upsetting as if someone today had bombed the World Trade Center."

Home-front Baltimore, 50 years ago this month: Life could be turbulent, scary, weird, heartbreaking. It jolted you like the deafening snarl of a Martin B-26 bomber at treetop height. But ordinary people had the feeling that every job they did -- from constructing warplanes to collecting kitchen grease -- helped the men overseas.

On April 17, 1944, young Marylanders were assaulting Cassino in Italy, training in England for the Normandy invasion, and pursuing the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea and on sandy atolls in the vast Pacific Theater.

Many 50th anniversary remembrances of World War II focus on battles lost and won. But final victory would not have been possible without sweat, tears and sacrifice back home.

Mr. Guzzo says that building ships drew him nearer the troops bound for combat overseas. Never mind that his job did not require a steel helmet.

"I still felt like I was on a battlefield," he says.

So did many other people.

No bombs or shells ever fell here, of course. But the average citizen felt no certainty that they wouldn't.

Though the war was being won, regular air-raid drills included enforced blackouts, which plunged Baltimore into eerie darkness. And local reservoirs were guarded fiercely by rifle-toting old-timers.

It wasn't easy to forget about the Nazis when you could spot German prisoners of war working in farm fields from Carroll County to the Eastern Shore.

A tourist mecca, Maryland was not -- though the German POWs found it a big improvement over North Africa. But citizens still had some fun, or pretended to.

Lionel Hampton and Sarah Vaughan played the Royal Theater; comedian Martha Raye, the Hippodrome.

Marlene Dietrich wowed wounded servicemen at Fort Meade, also "home" to hundreds of Italian prisoners formed into suddenly friendly labor battalions after their country's surrender in 1943.

To entertain them at dances, the U.S. Army recruited dozens of )) single women from Baltimore, provoking one angry GI to write home: "The scum that maybe killed my buddy is back in the States running around free, making eyes at my girl, and riding around in some drip's car, taking in the sights."

Unlikely. Gasoline led a long list of items in short supply. Civilian drives to collect scrap for the Allied cause erupted into furious scavenger hunts. A two-day salvage effort in Baltimore netted 24 million pounds of old metal and rubber. Taneytown officials ripped the iron bars off an old jail; the town of Cumberland donated the metal fence from a park.

In spring 1944, Boy Scouts gathered hundreds of pounds of milkweed pods, for the manufacture of life preservers. In April alone, Maryland housewives contributed nearly 250,000 pounds of kitchen fat, used to make explosives.

Home-front Baltimore, spring of 1944: Respites from the war were rare and cherished.

One warm Sunday found civilians tending victory gardens, Marines photographing their girlfriends in front of the Washington Monument on Charles Street and Coast Guardsmen from Curtis Bay rowing their dates around Druid Hill Lake.

Folks forgot, for one sun-drenched moment, their weariness, meatless dinners and worn automobile tires.

"We felt it was our patriotic duty to act confident, even though we were worried," says Sarah Hawkins, then a nurse at Maryland General Hospital. "We kept telling ourselves we'd never be invaded, but at the same time the Glenn L. Martin Co. was camouflaged to hide it from the air."

Emotionally, the war seemed just next door. You could walk through any Baltimore neighborhood in April 1944 and find stars hung in the windows of tidy row houses. A blue star indicated a serviceman's home; gold meant a battle death.

Ms. Hawkins, of Lochearn, recalls fighting back tears when she saw the gold stars. "You felt so sorry for the family," she says.

People also rallied in support of war-ravaged families abroad. A citywide clothing drive for Russia netted 70 tons of goods, almost including Clyde Smoot's luggage which he'd placed on his porch while hailing a cab. A clothing truck working 33rd Street accidentally picked up Mr. Smoot's bags, which the poor fellow finally recovered six hours later.

By the spring of 1944, Baltimore and Maryland reverberated with productivity and were posting impressive contributions to the national effort. The state put forth 265,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen -- and the same number of Red Cross volunteers.

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