By Terry Rogers
Before World War I was officially declared, the United States attempted to remain neutral. President Woodrow Wilson warned Germany that submarine warfare against American ships would mean war, however. In Milford, people listened to and read news reports, but even the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, which many believe was the catalyst for war, gained little interest. As the war continued in Europe through 1915 and 1916, it became apparent that the United States may be unable to remain neutral and, when German U-Boats attacked ships, the government was stirred into action.
School children began saving 25 cent war stamps to paste on cards that could be exchanged for bonds. Schools stopped teaching the German language and books that promoted German culture were stored away. A platform was erected in The Plaza where rallies that included Mr. Charles Varney, President of what was then Milford Fire Company, Miss Gertrude Atkins and others led citizens in patriotic songs that were popular, including “Tipperary,” “Over There” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
At the start of the war, the shipyard business was waning as wooden ships were being phased out by steel. The Vinyard Shipyard, however, obtained a contract with the United States Government to build sub-chasers and tugs. Land was purchased in 1917 from David L. Shockley and Mark H. Shockley six miles east of Milford just west of the drawbridge over Cedar Creek Canal to build a fort whose mission was to defend against attacks by sea. This became Fort Saulsbury, named for Willard Saulsbury, Sr., a State Senator, a man who was considered “Lincoln’s most bitter foe in the Senate” during the Civil War.
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Early in the war, a spy was discovered living in a small shack near Big Stone Beach. When he was arrested, he was found to have maps and soundings of the bay in his possession. Milford, like many small towns throughout the country, were very patriotic. Every man felt obligated to serve and never hesitated to answer the call during World War I. Drs. William and Samuel Marshall left a lucrative medical practice in Milford and were in the service from 1916 until 1920. In 1918, Milford troops were federalized and sent to France to fight. Company B was led by Major James W. Cannon who served a year overseas.
The war came home to Milford in 1918 when word arrived that Paris T. Carlisle, a young man whose family was well-known in Milford and a long-standing member of the fire company had been killed in the Battle of Argonne Forest near the Meuse River in France. In November 1918, the fire company officially became Carlisle Fire Company in his honor.
World War I came to an end on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. The people of Milford celebrated with a parade and speeches. Although it is not credited to one particular speaker, one quote appears in “Milford Through the Years: A Pictorial History of Milford, Delaware” compiled by the Milford Historical Society. It reads: “The Kaiser and his hellish brood have fled to Holland.”
After the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I, the people of Milford believed that such a war could never occur. The automobile arrived in Milford and duPont Highway was completed in 1924. Things grew less positive in the 1930s when the Great Depression settled in the town. Milford was more fortunate than other areas of the state as no banks failed and the town’s conservative business habits kept most of the companies operational. There was a lack of employment, however, and some did have a reversal of fortune.
As the 1930s came to an end, it became apparent that the German government was once again a problem. Germany was invading small country after small country, setting its sights on France and Britain. The United States knew that if those two countries fell, Germany’s immense air power would make us vulnerable to attack. Yet, it was not Germany who attacked initially.
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese and the United States entered the war. Four Milford men were on US Navy ships, giving Milford residents firsthand reports of the casualties. This time, civilians were required to assist with the war effort much more than they had in World War I. Plane spotting stations were set up, all manned by volunteers. A Civil Defense Corps was created and anyone who lived along the coast grew accustomed to what were known as “black-outs.” During these periods, residents were required to cover their windows and leave all lights off so the shoreline could not be seen by enemy ships.
Every able-bodied man between 18 and 35 was drafted for military service while many women in the town volunteered in the women’s services.
There was a constant fear of air attacks and citizens were trained in rendering first aid. Fuel and food were rationed with everyone required to carry small ration books whenever they shopped. Without your ration book, you were unable to make any purchases. One older Milford resident commented that when the war was over, she hoped to never hear the word “category” again.
In the Plaza, scrap iron was collected and it eventually grew to be the largest in Kent and Sussex County. There were frequent bond drives and business grew rapidly as the war pushed the economy. The war created the Sussex Poultry Company, founded in Milford in 1941. During the war, the plant produced as many as 100,000 chickens, many used to feed soldiers as the prepared for the war. The Vinyard Shipyard again built sub-chasers and ship-to-shore boats. The Sussex Ordinance Plant was established about a half-mile from the Rehoboth Highway in an area that was labeled “Powder Mill Knoll.” The plant manufactured 40-mm artillery shells. On March 16, 1943, a serious explosion rocked the plant, killing three women and severely injuring many more. The accident was blamed on the inexperienced and quickly-trained staff as well as the lack of a safety engineer.
The casualty list grew as the war continued. On May 5, 1941, word arrived that Edwin R. Smith, who had just been married while home on leave on December 14, 1940, had been killed. C. Donnan Holzmueller, Jr. died when his ship was struck by a torpedo on May 5, 1942. Donnie was a star athlete and thecaptain of the high school football and basketball teams. Before enlisting for active duty, he was a student at the Naval Academy. Leroy Wilkins, Jr. died in a plane crash on July 9, 1942 while Thomas W. Davis died in North Africa on April 8, 1943. Willard R. Pierce Jr. was killed when his bomber crashed on April 27, 1943 and Francis C. Dill was killed by shrapnel in Italy on August 3, 1943. John G. Cannon, Jr. died in France on June 12, 1944 and Howard C. Wilkins died in a plane crash on July 3, 1944, the first aviator from Milford to die in combat. Only the tailgunner in his plane survived by parachuting out of the stricken plane. By the end of the war, 13 more Milford men were lost in the war.
Germany surrendered on May 6, 1945 and the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, bringing the war to an abrupt end. Just as they did on Armistice Day, Milford celebrated in grand style. Newspaper reports said that the Plaza “resembled a little Times Square.”