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Friday, January 7, 2011

Send Out the Alarm!

Newbury Spared, Royalton Burned, In October 1780, a "Great Alarm" warned area
frontier communities of a threatened invasion by 300 natives and Tories from Canada. Warned that Newbury was on alert, the invaders veered west and attacked Royalton and Tunbridge. This engraving is from Gathering Sketches from the Early History of Vermont by Frances
Chase (1856) (Courtesy of John Dumville)
Bradford on Guard In January 1932, armed sentries were guarding Main Street in Bradford in the wake of anonymous threats to burn the area. This photograph appeared on the front page of The United Opinion and was taken by Clarence Finn of the Boston Post, one of three Boston newspaper that covered the threats. (Courtesy of the Bradford Public Library)
Topsham on Watch. During World War II, area citizens held air raid drills and manned obervation posts watching for invading airplanes. The lower photo show Gertrude Cilley and Hazel Colby manning the Waits River spotting post. These photos are taken from Topsham Sketches, courtesy of the Town of Topsham.

Vida Metcalf Perry-Munson displays the "Certificate of Honorable Service" presented to her in May, 1944 by the Army Air Force Fighter Command for her service as a volunteer in the Aircraft Warning Service. As a teenager, she was a spotter at the Erwin Worthley Farm on Taplin Hill in Corinth. Spotters such as Vida and her sister Eris Metcalf Eastman called in reports of airplanes during the early years of World War II.

As published in the Journal-Opinion, January 5, 2011

“War-Like Scene,” “Bradford, Vt., Armed Against Terrorist, Armed Camp” were the headlines in New England newspapers in the days following January 15, 1932. On that day, two Bradford businessmen had received anonymous letters revealing a plot to burn buildings on the east side of Main Street. The alleged motive was to collect insurance and clear land for a movie theatre. The wooden buildings in that section contained 17 businesses including the post office and were so tightly packed that a fire would endanger them all.

While some felt it was a hoax, the actions of a crank, many took it seriously and took preventive measures. This terror was heightened by reports that similar letters had been received in Haverhill, Orford, Lebanon and White River Junction and that fires had actually been reported in some of those towns.

The local American Legion provided uniformed armed sentries who, according to one newspaper, were under orders to fire at trespassers. The downtown block was illuminated with searchlights, front and back. Federal, state and local authorities were involved in the search for the writer of the letters that had been posted in Concord, NH.

The name of the local individual named in the letters as threatening to cause the havoc was not released. However, it was reported that “he” had met with Village Trustees and offered to both cancel the fire insurance on his downtown property and offer a $200 reward for the letter writer’s identity.

For several weeks the town’s residents were on edge. It was later revealed that an arrest was made, and that the motive was a personal grudge against the individual named in the letters. Neither the name of that individual nor the accuser were revealed in local newspaper reports. Dr. James Barton states that he is “100% sure” the businessman was his immigrant father, Charles Barton, and that the motive was to discredit him.

This was neither the first time nor the last that the residents of our area experienced the terror coming from the threat of attack. In some cases, the threat of local attacks was real and in others only precautionary. Rumors and misinformation inflated actual dangers, increasing the perceived threats of attack. These threats would stretch from the earliest days of settlement through the years of the Cold War and include the danger from tomahawks and muskets to bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As some area towns celebrate the 250th anniversary of their chartering this year, it is well to remember that the earliest settlers lived on a dangerous frontier. They were familiar with the terror of earlier attacks by the French and their native allies. The outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 brought a succession of alarms for area residents.

During the earliest years of the Revolution, residents believed they were on the invasion route from Canada to Massachusetts. In Orford, a guardhouse was built behind the present Masonic Hall for scouts on guard for an enemy invasion. Haverhill built four stockades to provide a secure place for citizens in case of attack. With many men leaving to join the revolutionary army, the area felt increased vulnerable. The fall of Fort Ticonderoga to the British in 1777, “caused great consternation” in surrounding communities. Colonel Israel Morey of Orford summed up that fear in a July, 1777 letter: “Our Frontier Towns are really in a dangerous and critical situation. We are entirely laid open to the sudden attack…” The American victories that summer reduced immediate fears.

While a major invasion did not take place, the fears never really went away. In October, 1780 there was a “Great Alarm” as 300 natives and Tories made plans to attack Newbury in retaliation for the death of a British general. Wells’ Newbury history states, “Terror magnified the invading force into an army.” Being warned that Newbury was anticipating an attack, the force veered west and attacked Royalton and Tunbridge instead. While the war subsided elsewhere after 1781, this area experienced a succession of alarms over the final two years of the war. Actions by Tories kept the nerves of the residents on edge.

In the 19th century, area residents experienced alarm both individually and as communities. The proximity of the British during the War of 1812, the frequency of major unexplained epidemics and the episodes of barn-burning, created alarm. Then Civil War brought with it fears for both the future of the nation and the safety of the men who joined the service. The attack on St. Albans in October, 1864 caused rumors that Confederates lurked over the border intent on invading Vermont. Additionally, there were the cycles of economic panic and fears some residents experienced as new immigrants moved to the area, endangering established ways.

The wars of the 20th century brought new threats to the area. When America joined the war against Germany in 1917, there were fears of sabotage throughout the nation. Locally, the most vulnerable strategic target was the Valley’s railroad. It carried the troop trains filled with members of the American Expeditionary Force on their way to Quebec where they would embark for Europe over the shortest ocean route. Detachments of troops were posted to guard bridges in Bradford and Wells River. Bradford historian Harold Haskins, himself a soldier in the war, wrote of fear that these bridges, “might fall victim of German saboteurs eager to slow up our country’s preparation for war by crippling our transportation lines.” They did not.

Protected by two oceans, the fighting of World War I seemed safely far away. That feeling was shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. As our region is less than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, area residents joined national defense preparations. A Civilian Air Raid Warning Defense system was organized. In this area, civilian volunteers manned observation posts and trained as civilian defense wardens. Reports in The United Opinion told of state-wide preparation for the dangers of air raids. It quoted one state official: “The front lines in a modern war can be our own back yard.”

Towns in the area held trial blackouts. It was felt that village lights along the Connecticut River might guide invading planes toward possible targets. Woodsville held one in December, 1941. In early April, 1942 Bradford held its first blackout. There were warning blasts from the whistles at the Vaneer mill and the Vermont Dairy Co. along with the continuous ringing of one of the church bells. In August, both Vermont and New Hampshire held state-wide drills, with area towns participating in both. In November, Bradford had its first day-time mock raid with three planes buzzing the village creating simulated casualties and damage.

While few really expected such an attack, they were determined to be prepared for “whatever may come.” That preparation also helped to create a sense of participation by the civilian population in this total war. The paper encouraged volunteers to be trained and ready in the case of emergency. “America is calling! Take your place in the local defense effort” read one front-page article. Additional articles gave details for blackouts. They encouraged residents to know the rules, take simple precautions for the safety of family and property, and, above all, in the case of an actual attack, “Don’t lose your head. Panic hurts more people than bombs.”

Like the scouts of earliest days, observers watched for the enemy. They were trained to identify different aircraft and report the direction of their flight. In Topsham, the posts were at the Kenneth Batten farm and on the current Welch Road; in Haverhill one was near the County Road; in Newbury on Leighton Hill. Most were manned in shifts 24-hours a day even before it was announced that Germany was producing bombers capable of crossing the Atlantic to drop a 7000 pound bomb load. These watches were taken seriously.

Wallace Ragan of Lyme recently told me he was only 8 years old when he became an observer at the post on the hill east of the Lyme Common. Officials apparently want “young ears that might hear better.” Corinth also used young spotters at the Taplin Hill post. Ragan said the observation post had an old crank phone for reporting sightings. The older men whiled away the time with cribbage and checkers. He felt that the officer training facility at Dartmouth College and the tool industry in Windsor and Springfield were possible targets. By late 1943, the danger of attack by air was lessened and the shifts were cut back. While the anxiety over attack subsided, fears for the safety of hundreds of area residents in the service did not.

When World War II ended with the defeat of Germany and Japan, America enjoyed a brief respite from alarm. Then the Soviet Union “got the bomb,” bringing with it new fears. The Cold War’s arms race between the two nations meant the menace of nuclear weapons and mass casualties and destruction. The threat of atomic weapons being delivered by intercontinental bombers was eventually replaced by missiles with nuclear warheads. With the attitude that nuclear war was inevitable if not imminent, Civil Defense officials took actions to prepare the civilian population.

In 1950, a pamphlet entitled “Survival Under Atomic Attack” was sent to millions of homes, including those in our area. Individuals were encouraged to build air raid shelters and stockpile emergency provisions. Fairlee Civil Defense leader Lee Chapman notified residents of a program to secure dog tags to help identify victims in case of an attack.

As an elementary student at the Orfordville School, I recall being led through “duck and cover” drills. This was part of a national program that was supposed to protect school children in the event of an unexpected nuclear attack. At first, we were instructed to duck under our desks. Later, we were told that sitting on the floor in the hallway offered a better protection. Avoid under all circumstances looking at the “flash” created by a nuclear explosion.

The McCarthy era brought with it the prospect of communist spies and sympathizers in our midst. An April, 1949 political cartoon in the Opinion showed Uncle Sam rooting out communist spy rings. I recall suspicions being raised against those with a foreign accent, especially if they drew their shades at night! The authors of Freedom and Unity report that there were some who felt that Vermont had “been chosen as a testing ground for communist infiltration” and called for investigations of suspects. Others disagreed and resisted “threats to individual liberties and communal trust.”

In August 1950, the police were called to the Bradford Inn to investigate a stranger with a foreign-sounding name, “who was overheard to mention Communism in his talk.” A tongue-in-cheek article in the Opinion entitled “SSSHHH! Spies At Work” assured readers that not only was the stranger not a spy but that Bradford was probably not “Joe Stalin’s prime objective if the cold war gets hot.” Frank Bryan wrote that one Vermont editor reacted to any Communist threat to take over Vermont with the statement “Anyone who tries to bore from within in Vermont is going to strike granite.”

It is important to recall that the national witch hunt that destroyed the reputation of numerous citizens was condemned early by Senators George Aiken and Ralph Flanders of Vermont.

In 1953, the Ground Observation Corps reestablished the sky observation posts in several area towns. Meetings were held with Air Force technicians training local observers from Bradford, Fairlee, Wells River and East Topsham, “together with other patriotic citizens who wish to aid.” An appeal for volunteers read: “We are in a dangerous position. In a period of international strife and lawlessness, we stand as the bulwark of freedom. The next time an aggressor strikes, he will strike at us to try and eliminate us so that he can go on to conquer the world.”

In June 1954, there was a 48-hour test of these local defenses against enemy attack. This was part of a nationwide Operation Sky Scan to determine the capabilities of the observers in detecting invading planes. Bombers from Grenier AFB in Manchester took the part of enemy planes, flying low over the area. This test was followed by a more wide-ranging exercise a week later with local police and firemen stopping traffic, getting people off the streets and dealing with “simulated casualties.”

As each nation stockpiled its nuclear arms the policy of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) meant that a nuclear war would be one without winners. Apocalyptic novels and films such as Tomorrow (1954), On the Beach (1957) and Alas, Babylon (1959) brought home the fears of nuclear annihilation. Children who grew up in that period reported recurring nightmares of invasion and war. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 heightened the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. There was a run on local stores as residents’ stockpiled necessities. Members of my college fraternity went home, saying that if war was imminent, they wanted to be with their families.

This was an era that more than half of us know only as history. However, on September 11, 2001, the feelings of alarm were again brought home. The nation was under attack and for a time, we did not know the extent of those attacks. Since then, national security, code alerts, and terrorist plots have increased latent fears for our personal and national safety.

Do these fears replicate for local citizens the fears felt by earlier residents who knew danger lurked in the forests surrounding their small settlements, or the fears from German bombers in 1942 or the nightmares of nuclear annihilation? That is a question each individual must answer. And it is not a question that will go away any time soon.

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