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75 years ago, the shadow of war loomed over Lodi

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Posted: Monday, February 26, 2018 5:30 pm

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on Lodi’s history.

“U.S. TROOPS HALT ROMMEL,” a headline at the top of the News-Sentinel’s front page blared on Feb. 24, 1943 — 75 years ago today.

The United States was entering its second year of war, and like most towns of the time, Lodi’s news was dominated by articles about progress overseas. On Feb. 24, front page stories shared that the three sons of Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Miller of Acampo and Lodi’s Arthur Hooper had joined the military. A meeting about food rationing was to be held that day, and farmers were already moving to secure farm laborers to harvest local crops — a challenge that would only become harder as the year went on.

In some ways, that newspaper set the stage for the rest of the year.

It wasn’t until Oct. 16 that the main headline on the front page would be about something other than the war and related labor shortages and strikes. On that day, reports of a train colliding with a bus in Tracy — killing six and injuring more than 30 — dominated the page.

By the next edition on Oct. 18, the top spot on the page had returned to war news: “Reds make new advances,” the paper reported. “Germans losing many positions.”

On Feb. 24, the “Women’s Feature Section” still centered mainly around club meetings, dances and card parties.

By the fall, a regular slot in that section was devoted to updates on the troops — who was stationed where and what they were up to, when wartime censors allowed that information to be shared. Most of the wedding announcements were for hurried nuptials before one or both members of the happy couple shipped out to a military posting.

But while war dominated every front page, by the end of the year, Lodians were hopeful the war would soon end — and enthusiastic about doing what they could to help victory come faster.

The USS Gantner

On March 8, a photo of Mrs. Janie Gantner looked out at readers from the front page. Gantner was the widow of Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Merritt Gantner of the U.S. Navy, a Lodi man who was killed while manning an anti-aircraft gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Mrs. Gantner was invited by the U.S. Navy to christen a new ship, the USS Gantner, a destroyer named in honor of her husband.

On April 17, she was in Hingham, Mass. as the ship slid into the water. Gantner was joined by her brother-in-law, Robert Gantner, who would be stationed on the USS Gantner when it was commissioned.

“Honor was thus symbolically paid by the United States Navy to an American who had died for his country,” the News-Sentinel wrote two days later.

The ship was commissioned on July 23 at the Boston Navy Yard, and manned by 15 officers and 198 enlisted men. It was first assigned to the European Theater, escorting convoys back and forth across the Atlantic. In late 1944, the Gantner was converted to a high-speed transport and headed to the Pacific with the 5th Amphibious Force.

Not much information is available about the ship’s activities during the war, but by Sept. 4, 1945, it was in Tokyo Bay, just two days after the Japanese surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri.

It was decommissioned in 1949, and sold to Taiwan in 1966.

The Lodi District Avenger and Lodi’s Lamoine Yager

Teams throughout the city held bond drive after bond drive throughout 1943. One was unique: On March 24, the Northern San Joaquin War Savings Committee announced that the local area — like cities all over the country — would be able to join in the “Buy a Bomber” campaign.

If Lodi residents purchased $175,000 in war savings bonds by the end of April, the committee said, they would be able to sponsor a medium-sized warplane, which would be named the Lodi District Avenger in the city’s honor.

The campaign kicked off on April 1.

“We know it can be done, but it is going to take the united effort of each in the district,” committee chairman J.K. Newfield said. “Other communities where bomber campaigns have been staged have achieved surprising results.”

A 10-foot tall thermometer with a scale model of a Flying Fortress was unveiled at the Victory War Bond booth to monitor the city’s progress, built by vocational students Joe Orcutt, Dick Devonshire, Donald Kahl, Cleighton Knittel and Walter Scheufler at Lodi Union High School.

By May 1, Lodi had raised $281,229.95 — enough to buy not one but two planes. The second plane, a pursuit fighter, would be named Lodi’s Lamoine Yager, after a Lodi airman who had fallen in battle over Europe on March 30, two days before the campaign began.

The “Buy a Bomber” campaign was one of several successful fundraising efforts in 1943. A war loan drive running at the same time as the bond campaign had raised more than $1 million by May 1.

Another war loan drive that ended on Oct. 2 raised $2.8 million, far beyond the $2 million goal set by the Treasury Department.

Groups like Omega Nu, the Moose Lodge and the White Apron Club helped lead the drives, setting up booths around town to sell savings bonds. Other groups, like the Camp and Hospital Council and the Lodi Salvage Committee, hosted scrap drives, prepared surgical dressings and put together Christmas ditty bags for the troops.

Labor shortages

As more and more Lodi boys headed off to do their part in the war — and the Draft Board began weighing drafting older men and fathers — farmers scrambled to find labor to harvest their crops.

By mid-March, community leaders were exploring solutions. A panel gathered with school administrators to discuss using students as a source of labor.

“(The farmer) resents being expected to solve ‘somehow’ those very problems which the government has helped industry to solve,” the News-Sentinel wrote of a survey conducted by the San Francisco News. Newspaper editors around the state urged their readers to help farmers develop a solution for the labor shortages.

Part of the problem came from price and wage caps that the U.S. government put in place to prevent rampant inflation crippling the economy. The caps, put into place after local farmers had signed a contract with Filipino farmworkers, would have cut their wages. The farmworkers pushed for the wages they had agreed upon with growers, but the government wouldn’t budge.

Instead, nearly 1,000 laborers were invited to visit from Mexico to help with the harvest — including 130 to cut asparagus — and Filipino soldiers were brought in to help.

“More workers for both asparagus and sugar beets are expected later as the need develops and the men are available,” the News-Sentinel wrote on April 1.

In July, the Mexican workers returned to help harvest tomatoes. In both cases, the workers were housed at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, in the buildings previously used by Japanese-American citizens removed from their homes before they were shipped to internment camps.

In August, women were urged to join the Women’s Land Army and help with the grape harvest. Boy Scouts from Oakland and local teens did their part as well, creating a battalion of farm workers so large that on Sept. 15, the News-Sentinel reported that local restaurants couldn’t put together the rations to feed them all. High school didn’t start until Oct. 4, so students could help with the farm work.

It paid off. Lodi men stationed in India and Hawaii wrote home about seeing local cherries and Tokay grapes.

But on Aug. 26, the United Press reported that the coming year could be even more difficult, as the U.S. would not be able to import as much food.

Women in the war effort

Lodi women stepped up to work as nurses, truck drivers, welders and farm laborers

On May 17, the Lodi News-Sentinel appealed to women living in the district.

“Lack of welders is the big bottleneck in ship production,” the paper wrote. “There is a great and terrible shortage of welders, especially in West Coast shipyards.”

The U.S. Employment Service needed women to volunteer to learn how to weld.

“This is not an appeal to your neighbor or friend, but an appeal to you — the average American housewife,” it said.

Mrs. Leona Boyd, an employee of the Stockton Ordnance Depot, taught local women how to drive trucks so that they could help haul produce and other products, freeing up male drivers for other work.

Other women became nurses, or joined the Women’s Ambulance and Defense Corps, which met weekly at the Lodi Armory.

Lodi’s women didn’t stop there. A number of local women joined the Army, Navy and Marines as well.

The state leader of the Navy’s WAVES visited Lodi on March 9 to encourage women to join, and over the course of the year, several did.

Pvt. Juanita Campbell became the first Lodi woman to join the Marines on May 30, where she was expected to take over a base job within the U.S. so that another man could head overseas. Women who joined the Marines were required to be in good shape and have no children under 18.

On July 7, a group of Lodi women began taking nursing courses so that they could help at local hospitals.

“Why can’t a few of the other women, who are not already engaged in some vital volunteer work, sacrifice some of their time?” the News-Sentinel wrote.

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