World War II in Baltimore
by E. L. Maugans
       Eighteen days before Christmas, at 7:55 a.m., the late-sleeping men and officers of the U.S. Army and Navy were awakened by the thunder of an unimaginable sneak attack orchestrated by a brilliant tactician, Tojo, of Imperial Japan. Our soldiers and sailors were caught with their pants down—literally—on Oahu, in Honolulu, and at the pride of the Navy, Pearl Harbor, where the loss of life and ships was very severe. There was no consolation in learning the Japanese had set the whole Pacific basin afire.

       Due to overloaded mainland telephone switchboards, reports of a stunning debacle in Honolulu did not reach Baltimore until after mid-day. They were received in a general attitude of disbelief at first, with some quarters treating the reports as nothing more than a trial run by our own armed forces. Others regarded it as another hoax dreamed up by Orson Wells, author of The War of the Worlds in the 1930s. These escapism voices perpetrated a kind of wishful thinking that was unable to confront grim realities.

       The December sneak attack on Honolulu accelerated the defense programs in metropolitan Baltimore, including the production of medium bombers at Glen L. Martin and the Liberty, Victory and LST (landing ships, tanks) at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, where I toiled for four years as an expediter. “Gimme time,” I pled repeatedly.

       When shifts changed, thousands of production and administrative employees flooded the nearby bistros and saloons to relax before heading home. Many frequented Captain Harvey’s bar above the repair yards on Key Highway. Others boarded a ferry that carried them to the foot of Broadway, where saloons abounded in all directions. Those who could not wait to disembark drank Free State beer on the passage. The beer was noteworthy for its watery content.

       White-collar workers were more likely to frequent the owl bar in the Belvedere Hotel and other wells of alcoholic satiety on downtown Charles Street. Other beer dens attracted locals and former coal miners from the coal mines of Pennsylvania or Tarheels from the Carolinas. The more irresistible attractions were the strip joints of Baltimore Street.

       There were annoying inconveniences at home, but none measured up to the hardships in theaters of war. For instance, at home citizens needed government priorities to purchase a new car or a raft of hard goods.

       The home front held its breath when reversals were reported overseas. Time seemed to drip day by day into every niche and cranny until victory was assured in Europe, and Japan was nuclearized into submission.

       Church bells tolled, whistles shrilled, spontaneous parades marched in cities and burgs as parents waited for their heroes to come home. They came in boatloads, ultimately. Happy survivors partied, of course, but there was something missing in the celebrations, I noticed. It was Joe Hess, who never left Africa. Mason Chronister, the great mile runner from the University of Maryland who joined the U.S. Marines, survived the battle in the Philippines and endured the Bataan Death March, only to later perish in a Japanese POW camp due to a severe beating at the hands of his captors. Eddie Rockstraw, killed in a plane crash. Walter Bateman, who was shot down over the Mediterranean Sea, and Woody Swartzback, whose submarine never returned from a sortie into Tokyo Bay.

       This is my overdue dirge of remembrance for them and all the dogfaces who never made it back.


Mr. Maugans, now in his 80s, writes from his home in Charles Village.


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This story was published on May 30, 2001.

This story was updated on March 27, 2011 with information about Mason Chronister that was provided by S.A. Byrd of Vienna, Va.