|1940: You're in the Army now
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
|He wanted to be a flying hero since the day he graduated from Trenton Central High School. Instead, Robert Losey died on the permafrost ground of Scandinavia, the first American life lost in World War II.
It was April 22, 1940. German air and land forces were blitzkrieging their way across Norway in a war that few Americans understood and most wanted to stay out of.
Losey's mission, as a captain and military attache of the U.S. Army Air Corps, was to be strictly neutral: to observe the German planes in action.
He was observing when he should have been ducking.
A Luftwaffe bomb dropped on the railyard junction of Dombaas blew up in front of him and a piece of shrapnel buried itself in his heart. He was 31.
Seventeen years earlier, Robert Losey, Iowa-born son of a traveling preacher, had come with his widowed mother to live at 275 Bellevue Ave. After graduating Trenton High in 1924, the teen was supposed to attend Princeton and follow his dad into the ministry.
But his dreams of flying were too strong. He earned a commission at West Point and lived an airman's adventurous life.
When his wife in Hollywood, Calif. heard the news of Capt. Losey's death, she collapsed into tears, then tried to brave up. "It's a war," she said, "and I guess you can expect anything."
In 1940, however, America never expected anything like this sobering statistic: that Robert Losey would be merely the first of 407,000 Americans to die in World War II.
Trenton, Losey's one-time hometown, was as reluctant as any other place in America to get mixed up in the strange doings in Europe.
Yet the end of the year 1940 would find young men from all over New Jersey, who'd never fired a shot in anger or been forced to salute a superior, becoming soldiers by the thousands.
Most Trentonians were the sons or grandsons of immigrants who inherited a deep suspicion of standing armies from their Old World experience. And most of them had heard only grim stories about the last time the U.S. joined a foreign war, in 1917.
So, when Adolf Hitler plunged Europe into a second war by invading Poland in 1939, they said with virtually one voice: Stay out!
Joe Czillich was one of the many young men who desired peace. When the European war began, he was 20 and had his own butcher's shop at 404 Federal St.
One of his customers was a World War I vet who had a rattling voice from being gassed in the Argonne Forest. "He told stories about what happened there that made me lose my appetite," Czillich, now 80, recalled.
At Princeton University, where 130 young alumni had been killed in the Great War, the idealism of 20 years before had faded into cynicism. In 1936, with war clouds already clouding Europe, some Princetonians founded a chapter of "Future War Veterans of America" and demanded they get their pensions and bonuses before war broke out.
There was even sympathy with the German cause. In some parts of New Jersey, the pro-Nazi Bund recruited German immigrants and racist crackpots to heil Hitler and scream against the Jews. One Bundist, Waldemar Othmar, tried to stage a Trenton rally in March 1938, while the Germans were goose-stepping into Austria. More than 200 people came to the hall at Whitaker Avenue and Beatty Street to boo him off the stage and scream, "Down with Hitler!" (In 1944, Othmar would be convicted of wartime espionage and go to prison.)
Once war broke out, Princeton's George Gallup found odd results in his polls. Overwhelmingly, Americans wanted to stay out of war. But when asked which side should win, more than 90 percent chose Great Britain and France over Hitler. And a high percentage were willing to offer the Allies "all aid short of war."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed the German blitzkrieg through Europe should serve as a national wake-up call. America had an army of *** — smaller than the pre-war army of Poland, and everyone knew what had happened to Poland. So to beef it up, FDR on Sept. 14 signed into law something unprecedented in American history: a peacetime draft.
Every American, 21 to 35 — short or tall, strong or weak, married or single — was to register. In Trenton, that meant 15,900 men were eligible. Six draft boards, meeting in schools and civic halls all over the city, classified them and assigned them lottery numbers.
The first number drawn in the national draft lottery, on Oct. 29, was 158. In Mercer County, that number was held by men named Reed, Ciazzo, O'Keefe and Yuzwa. Others whose numbers came up that day were a Japanese student at the Princeton Theological Seminary and a 4-foot-6 dwarf, William Giblin of Quintin Avenue, who had played a Munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz."
Not everyone would go into the Army.
If you were 1-A, you were fit for call-up right away; there were six other draft categories, down to 4-F, physically unfit. Men with dependents or jobs vital to national defense could get six-month deferments. Czillich, the South Trenton butcher who didn't believe in war, was one who got a deferment. But once you were in the Army, you were in for 12 months.
To accomodate the thousands of draftees coming from all over the East Coast, the Army had a base left over from the last call to arms — Fort Dix.
Twenty miles southeast of Trenton, Dix remained active even after the frenzied rush to train the dougboys of 1917. During the Depression years, it drilled the boys who dug ditches and planted trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Even before World War II raged in Europe, the Army changed the base's name from Camp Dix to Fort Dix to suggest permanence.
In fall 1940, Dix was literally transforming the face of Burlington County's Pinelands. Its size more than doubled as 35,000 acres of surrounding farms were grabbed and turned into grounds for maneuvers and artillery practice. More than 160 new buildings — barracks, hospitals, PXes — were erected. One tiny Pinelands town, Pointville, literally vanished from the map along with its Methodist church and hotel.
The first of the 4 million armed forces who passed through Dix on their way to World War II were men of the 44th Division.
They were not draftees, but members of a National Guard unit federalized by FDR's orders. Among them was Nicky Pettito of North Clinton Avenue, who had enrolled in New Jersey's 112th Artillery Regiment as a way to get $1 a day during the pits of the Depression. Now, in September 1940, he was suiting up in full dress uniform — peaked hat, tie and riding boots — and taking the train from Trenton to Dix.
"If you can believe it, I was in a horse outfit," said Pettito, now 81. "When we were on maneuvers, we rode around with the cannons on caissons and horses pulling them. They issued us with World War I-era Springfield rifles, only there wasn't enough to go around — so some people got broomsticks for guns and rainspouts for cannon."
If the guardsmen were ill-equipped for war, you should have seen the conscripts!
Skinny, slouch-shouldered, they first began arriving at Dix on Nov. 29. From their hometowns, they were sent off with lofty speeches and trumpets that played, "You're in the Army Now," but once in the hands of drill instructors they were ordered around with shouts and barks.
Norman Klein, Manhattan salesman turned Army draftee, ended up in one of the hundreds of tents being pitched on Dix's green — necessary because not enough wooden barracks had been built. It was January 1941, and he and his fellow shavetail soldiers were shivering in the slushy muck.
"We didn't get orders, uniforms, anything, we were just put in the tents," Klein, now 81 and living in Cherry Hill, recalled. "We had a stove with no coal in it, so we organized a party to requisition some coal for us — in the officer's kitchen."
With time, Fort Dix did its part to forge the civilian army that would win World War II. The Springfields were replaced by the lighter, more rapid-firing M-1 semiautomatics. The conspicuous Sam Browne belts were discarded, and the doughboy-style tin hats gave way to helmets that protected more of the head.
And still, as 1940 gave way to 1941 and America armed itself as what Roosevelt called "the arsenal of democracy," the people were still reluctant to fight.
Allan Herdman, chosen to serve by his draft board in rural Sussex County, went into the Army willingly in November 1941 but opposed the idea of fighting to save Great Britain. "We knew Hitler was an evil person, but we were real innocent in those days," Herdman, now 81, said.
Herdman had never drunk a drop of alcohol or uttered a curse word before he joined the Army. He was shocked at the foul cursing by his sergeant, of whom he wrote in letters home: "What a tough Irishman! He laid down the law and how!"
Herdman was also, however, being treated to meals that made him writing back to his Depression-strapped parents in ecstasy: "Two eggs, bacon, coffee, corn flakes, ½-pint milk, slice of bread ¾-inch thick, grapefruit juice!"
On the whole, Army life was a rather fun adventure for the boy from Branchville which he expected to be over in a year. Then he went on his first furlough for the first weekend of December. And on Sunday, the 7th, he, his family and the rest of America sat down to their radios and puzzled over the crackling voice of an announcer telling them that the Japanese had bombed a place called Pearl Harbor.