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Fire department takes on civil defense role during WWII PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Thursday, 02 December 2010 19:41

By Tina Kitt

The Wauneta Breeze


Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States’ into World War II, ramped up military recruitment efforts had seen dozens of Wauneta’s young men departing the area to answer the nation’s call as international tensions mounted abroad.

Once war was officially declared in 1941, following the Japanese attack on the United States, the number of enlistments jumped exponentially as the U.S. plunged headlong into years of war overseas as well as defending the home front.

Most farm families were encouraged to keep at least one son at home to help increase food production for the war effort, and the young men who remained in this area tackled several jobs on and off the farm to fill void created when well over 100 Wauneta-area men and women entered the Armed Forces by the fall of 1942, less than a year after the U.S. entered the war.

News stories in 1942 issues of the Breeze lament the growing dearth of mechanics, farm workers and firefighters.

Scrap drives were launched immediately, seeking rubber and metal for the war effort. Americans were urged to conserve almost everything, but especially fuel and agricultural products to be sent to the troops.

In 1941 the first mention was made in the Wauneta Breeze of the formation of rural fire protection districts across Nebraska. It was noted that action by the State Legislature in 1939 paved the way for these newly designated rural fire protection districts.

With farm products considered crucial to the war effort, Wauneta-area farmers now had extra help in fighting wheat field and pasture fires. Instead of only combatting the fires with the help of bucket brigades of neighbors, fire fighters from Wauneta also responded, adding extra manpower and firefighting equipment.

Prior to 1941, WVFD fire statistic log books show sparse mention of rural fire calls. The few that were responded to by the department usually end noting “total loss, nothing we could do.”

According to a July 1942 account in the Breeze, fully equipped firefighters from Wauneta responded to a fire call at the Guy West farm. In all, 50 acres of wheat were lost before firefighters got the blaze under control. Several other wheat field fires were seen that year, the cause of most attributed to trucks used in the fields.

In an effort to encourage better fire prevention efforts, an advertisement in the Breeze noted that “Today Every Fire Helps Hitler.”

That year the Wauneta Village Board of Trustees budgeted $300 for the fire department in its $10,550 annual budget, one of the first mentions in Village minutes of municipal funding for the local fire department.

With the need for additional troops growing daily, most of Nebraska found itself lacking the manpower to staff fire departments and the call went out to form auxiliary departments, complete with rescue crews and civil defense personnel, during the interim.

“Those war years were really tough on these small fire departments,” says 92-year-old Leland DeHart of Wauneta.

As a 24-year-old he shipped out to serve in WWII as a ball turret gunner with the 450th Bomb Group, 751st Squadron. He returned to Wauneta after the end of the war and became one of the Wauneta Fire Department’s longest serving members and as well as fire chief.

While DeHart and dozens upon dozens of other young men from the Wauneta area were fighting overseas, community members back home in Wauneta were told they needed to be prepared to defend their own homes and towns from foreign enemies as well as from natural disasters. Instructions were printed in the Breeze advising the citizens of Wauneta how to combat a fire bombing.

“Bring your fire fighting equipment to the scene at once,” urges the state’s Civilian Defense Coordinator. “The need for speed is emphasized in attacking the bomb with a jet of water as soon as it falls rather than waiting for the thermite reaction to be completed or for a buster charge to odd.”

In the winter of 1942 members of the Wauneta Fire Department were helping implement plans for a nine-state regional blackout drill. WFD Fire Chief Nelson Burham was one of the primary organizers in southwest Nebraska.

The blackout called for everyone in the nine-state region to turn out the lights in their homes and park and cut the lights on their vehicles at 9 p.m. on Dec. 14, 1942, to practice for future unannounced blackouts. During wartime blackouts could be ordered to deprive the enemy of a well-lit target when attacking. Even in the heart of the Great Plains, U.S. citizens prepared for air raid attacks by Axis forces during WWII.

Fire trucks, which might have been called to respond to an unfortunately timed fire during the blackout drill, were ordered to have their headlights and taillights painted black, except for a narrow stripe down the center to light the pathway. WFD members were posted at the fire hall adjacent to the Village Office during this blackout drill to assist in an emergency.

According to reports published in the Breeze the drill went perfectly across the nine-state region, and was singled out as an example of marshalling citizen cooperation on the home front.