BELFAST, Maine — All across the country, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States found itself in the thick of World War II overnight, communities both large and small began to turn their focus to helping the war effort.
Belfast, which at that time had a population of 5,540 people, was no different. From sardines to shoes, from clothing to marine hardware, all of the small city’s industries that had limped their way through the Great Depression quickly pivoted and began saving and producing goods to support the soldiers overseas.
Traces of the efforts made on the homefront can still be found in photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings and oral histories, but many of the people who packed sardines, sewed boots and uniforms and fabricated navigational tools are gone now.
That’s why it’s all the more important, nearly 80 years after the United States entered the war, to remember the work they did, according to historians and the daughter of one of the homefront workers.
“The men and women, a lot of them women, stepped up to answer the call of duty for the country,” Joy Asuncion, 65, of Belfast said. “They were more than willing to help out. They knew that everybody needed to help win the war because they wanted their husbands and kids to come home. Whatever they were doing: building ships, sewing a uniform, everybody played a part back then. Everybody answered the call.”
Her mother, Alfreda Lewis, graduated from Crosby High School in Belfast in 1943 and went to work. Lewis made military uniforms for the Belfast Manufacturing Co. on Anderson Street, later known as the Slack Factory. She also worked at Maritime Quality Hardware on Church Street, in the wooden building that would later be home to EmBee Cleaners.
Maritime Quality Hardware was founded by Gunther Kleeberg in 1942, who eventually hired 73 people, mostly women, as trained machinists, tool and die makers, draftsmen and designers who built parts for the U.S. Navy. They used delicate instruments such as jeweler’s lathes and big, two-and-a-half ton machines to make parts for radar equipment and navigational instruments and parts for anti-aircraft guns.
“As far as I’m concerned, she was a Rosie the Riveter,” said Asuncion, a U.S. Navy veteran whose father served in the Army in World War II. “These Rosies who stepped up, all the people who stood up to save our country, it’s just unbelievable to think that they did what they did.”
There were a lot of Americans on the homefront, including women of all ages and older men, who helped out. They took wartime jobs, volunteered for the American Red Cross, joined local fire departments, contributed to scrap metal drives, kept up with changing rationing regulations, searched the horizon for enemy planes and U-boats with the civil defense and so much more. People were asked to have two meatless days and two wheatless days every week. They were asked to collect everything from milkweed pods, whose naturally buoyant and water-repellant floss was used to fill life jackets, to used cooking grease for making explosives.
“Everybody was just pushed to the max,” Peggy Konitzky, a historian from Topsham, said. “I don’t know how they did it. I think you just did it.”
For all of the wartime years, the whole country adjusted to changes and privations. People who lived along the coast needed to abide by blackout regulations so that no lights would show from windows to alert an enemy plane.
“When the war first broke out, we were afraid they were going to bomb us,” Konitzky said. “We were afraid the Japanese were going to bomb the west coast and the Germans were going to bomb the east coast. There were all sorts of observation and listening posts put up in pretty much every town.”
Women signed up to keep watch over the coastline, and also applied for jobs in factories which were struggling to keep up with war-related contracts after a large part of their workforce was no longer around. In 1944, the Daly Bros. Shoe Co., Inc., in Belfast, took out an advertisement in the local newspaper asking for very specific help for the production of combat boots and other gear.
“Wanted: Women and Girls for Stitching Room,” it read.
The wartime boom led to a quick turnaround for that company, which, like most in the city, had suffered during the Great Depression.
“There were no orders at places like the shoe factory and the sardine plant,” said Megan Pinette, the president of the Belfast Historical Society and Museum. “The World War II effort really put everybody back in action.”
The shoe factory, which expanded its workforce to 600 people, made it into the local newspaper again in 1944. That’s when a soldier from Belfast received a pair of combat boots made in his hometown while on active duty in Burma. Private First Class James J. Finley had worked at the company prior to joining the military, and his mother, father and brother were still working there.
He wrote to his parents when he received the boots but “gives no hint as to whether the boots may now be treading the streets of picturesque Burmese towns or struggling down muddy jungle trails in pursuit” of enemy soldiers, according to an Oct. 5, 1944 article in the Republican Journal.
“The chance meeting of Belfast boy and Belfast-made combat boots on the other side of the globe must have been to him like a reunion with a friend from home,” the article continued.
Other goods produced in the city traveled long distances, too. Belfast Canning Co. sold 55 percent of its output of canned sardines to the military — nearly 1 million cans. More than 90 percent of the doors and windows manufactured by Mathews Bros. were used by the military for barracks and buildings. And special ski trousers made by the Belfast Manufacturing Co. were sent to soldiers on patrol in northern climes.
The war also revived the locally moribund industry of shipbuilding, she said. The Belfast Shipbuilding Corp. built two wooden barges for the U.S. Merchant Marine, and when the first, “The White Oak,” was launched in 1943 it was the first ship launching in the city in a quarter century.
“Belfast was totally engaged,” Pinette said, adding that the frenzy of wartime activity was repeated everywhere in the country. “The whole United States was totally involved.”
She and others hope that the homefront wartime efforts won’t be forgotten, even though they have not been studied and lauded in the same way that wartime battles traditionally have been.
“What struck me is that it was everybody pulling together,” Konitzky said. “There was just a sense of patriotism in the purest sense of the word.”