September 22, 2014
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Then and Now
The impact of World War II on the city
Don D'Amato

In addition to the school crisis came the impact of the war in Europe and the threat to the United States. Early in 1941, city officials were called upon to preside at a very emotional program when in January 1941 the first 35 draftees were inducted from Warwick and ordered to report to Fort Devens, Mass.

The city was also faced with unprecedented pressures to prepare for any emergencies in the event of an enemy attack. Because the State Airport at Hillsgrove had become an Army airfield, and because of the close proximity of Quonset Air Base, Warwick felt especially threatened. Within a short time, 600 air raid wardens were appointed and special classes were held for auxiliary police.

Life in Warwick was altered abruptly when it was shocked by the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. On the following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare was on Japan. A dazed Warwick, preparing for war but not really believing it would happen, was now faced with a new set of problems, as the outside world became important to the town. Warwick’s young men and women, many of whom had never left the city, were now serving their country in Europe, Asia and Africa. A new sense of awareness affected those both abroad and at home.

It was necessary to take a different view of the world and the city. An entire lexicon of new words came into everyone’s vocabulary: Iwo Jima, OPA, Blitzkrieg, lend-lease, Axis Powers, gas rationing, victory gardens, C.D., blackouts, war bonds and, unfortunately, “gold star” mothers.

Some workers who had been long unemployed now found jobs plentiful. They pooled resources and gas rationing stamps to find transportation to work in the defense plants that quickly came to the area. A large number of Warwick residents found employment building “Liberty Ships” for Rheem’s shipyard at Field Point, which alter became Walsh-Kaiser, while others worked at Quonset or Davisville.

The economic prosperity brought on by the war was often overshadowed by emotional pain and tragedy as Warwick’s young men and women volunteered or were drafted for military duty. Nearly every family was affected, as over 4,000 men and women from the city served in the armed forces and were in every theatre of the war.

The focus on helping with the war effort meant that Warwick would have to curtail many “normal” activities and abandon others. Building activity in the city slumped with the freezing of building supplies and the relatively high cost of construction. Warwick’s free monthly rubbish collection system was also curtailed to save gasoline and manpower.

One of the projects abandoned completely concerned Warwick’s Tercentenary Celebration. Plans included a number of gala events for 1942 and concentrated on the publication of a history of Warwick to be written by William Greene Roelker, president of the Rhode Island Historical Society. All plans were suspended, and the history was never written.

While Warwick’ main interest from 1941-45 was in the progress of eh war and of the men and women in the armed forces, a great deal of time and energy had to be used in fighting adverse weather conditions. One of the major concerns was the limited supply of fuel and gasoline. Snowstorms in February of 1943 brought additional problems and, by the middle of the month, bitter cold and a shortage of fuel caused the closing of the city’s schools. Warwick physicians reported treating 24 cases of frostbite during that cold spell.

The perennial problems concerning increases in salaries for police, teachers and city employees continued unabated and intensified as inflation quickly made fixed salaries inadequate. In addition, Warwick was faced with a new dilemma concerning the City Poor Farm at Buttonwoods. The problem took on new aspects when the State of Rhode Island passed a new public assistance law. By 1942, the old “poor farm” had but 15 inmates, with 10 of them eligible for old age pension.

Editorials in 1942 termed the city farm “ a costly and unsavory relic of an era that has passed.” It was hoped that the farm, along with “victory gardens,” could be used as a means of alleviating food shortages resulting from the war. In at least one instance, city workers left their regular jobs to help harvest the crops when farm machinery broke down. By 1944, the city disposed of all livestock and equipment at the farm after it was learned that the farm showed a net loss of $2,053.96 for the year.


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