70 Years Ago, The World Sank Into Horror Of War



John W. McGrain, former secretary of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Committee and official county historian since 1998, was an 8-year-old living in Ashburton when the world veered toward war in 1939.

Reflecting on those Depression years the other day, McGrain said that by the mid-1930s, "all kids knew about the approaching war."

Bubble gum packages came with "war cards depicting the Japan-China War; families gathered around the Philco in the living room to listen to Hitler's rantings on the radio."

"I didn't understand a word of it," he said.

And then there was the Spanish Civil War and frequent talk of American neutrality if Europe went to war again.

"Most Americans couldn't make sense of the whole business," McGrain, who is also an author, wrote in an unpublished memoir.

"One morning, my mother read in the paper that the Hungarian fascists had outlawed Mickey Mouse - that was alarming. Somewhere we heard the story that Hermann Goering's car had run over a parish priest, another bad sign," he wrote.

The Baltimore Sun reported on Thursday, Aug. 31, 1939, as German and Polish forces gathered near the frontiers, that the "forces of both nations are now so close that the situation is critical."

The newspaper further observed that the "Poles have steadily maintained their willingness to talk directly with Germany, but also have made it clear that they will not negotiate at gun point. They are apparently firmly resolved to become neither a second Austria nor a second Czecho-Slovakia."

All of that misplaced hope vanished in the early hours of Sept. 1, 1939, when the Nazi Army invaded Poland and launched an aerial bombardment of Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice and other important Polish cities.

In Berlin, Hitler declared to the nation before a momentous meeting of the Reichstag that Danzig, on the Baltic, and the Polish Corridor had finally been restored to Germany.

In an impassioned 36-minute speech, Hitler declared, "I am putting on the uniform and I shall take it off only in victory or death," while stating that the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I is "not a law for us Germans."

A dramatic editorial page cartoon, "Blackout," drawn by Edmund Duffy, The Sun's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, seemed to capture the historic significance of what was happening for a second time in the 20th century.

A hooded figure of death hovering over a map of Europe is extinguishing the candle of peace with a bony hand.

The black headlines of Saturday were no less alarming, as they announced that German bombers had killed 118 in 94 raids and that "Allies Are Expected To Declare War Today."

At 9 p.m. Sunday, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was to broadcast a "message of reassurance to the American people," reported The Sun.

In a dispatch from Berlin, Louis P. Lochner, an Associated Press correspondent, reported that "Germany is ready to fight even a ten-year war for its rights and the final peace of Europe."

Sunday morning headlines screamed "ENGLAND GOES TO WAR" in the wake of the expiration of the deadline that England had placed on its "peace-or-war" ultimatum regarding the withdrawal of German forces from Poland.

In a worldwide broadcast that was prefaced with the ominous tolling of Big Ben, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said, "I have to tell you now that this country is at war with Germany."

In Baltimore, McGrain and his family went across town on Sunday afternoon by streetcar to dine with his uncle, Frank Usher, and his family.

When returning later in the day aboard a North Avenue car, they heard newsboys shouting that the Donaldson Line passenger steamer SS Athenia had been torpedoed.

In violation of Hitler's orders that prohibited attacks against passenger liners, Fritz Lemp, commander of the U-30, made the fateful mistake of thinking the Athenia was an armed cruiser and fired two torpedoes into the vessel as it steamed off Ireland.

The ship was bound for Canada with more than 1,000 passengers, including 311 Americans who had fled from Europe; 118 lost their lives in the attack.

However, the attack on the Athenia represented the opening of the Battle of the Atlantic, which would rage nearly unabated until early 1943.

On Labor Day, McGrain recalled meeting Sister Eileen, a member of the Daughters of Charity and a teacher at his parochial school, on the sidewalk.

"She told me she was going to cut the war map out of the paper every day," McGrain wrote in his memoir. "If she persisted, she would have been clipping maps until 1945."

Attending Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, McGrain recalled Father Chestnut in the early days of the war advising his congregants to "Put on the armor of Faith."

Polish-Americans filled Holy Rosary Church on South Chester Street on Sept. 4, praying for Poland and their countrymen.

At the Falcon Club in the 600 block of S. Montford Ave., a radio blared war news.

"The Poles won't give up. Blood will flow, yes, but what of that," a Polish-American told a reporter, while others sang the first line of the Polish anthem: "Poland is not lost."

During the war years that saw McGrain progress from third grade to eighth, he recalled how kids did what they could to aid the war effort.

They collected old keys and pieces of brass, scrap iron, rubber, paper and even old "rubber-based phonograph recordings," he wrote. "Rural kids collected milkweed pods" that were used for stuffing life jackets.

"We bought savings stamps and observed blackouts, built plane models, and watched for alien aircraft," he wrote.

"We used to worry about German planes attacking Baltimore, but the Germans had no aircraft of that range - they would have to land and buy gas if they get that far."

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