The Vineyard was a frightening place for a young girl to be during World War II, but exciting too. Servicemen were walking the streets before their deployment to Europe. Navy and Army pilots conducting training exercises overhead occasionally came crashing into the ocean. And there were the constant rumors of enemy spies and submarines along the Island’s shores.

Lifelong Chilmarker Jane Slater was just a girl when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, thrusting the U.S. into war and forever changing the world and the lives of so many families — but she can vividly recall those days.

Mrs. Slater remembers the single air raid warning at the Chilmark School, the rationing of everything from food and gasoline, the United Service Organization (USO) dances in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, and combing the beaches with her friends to look for scraps of metal to contribute to the war effort.

She shared her memories during a sometimes emotional talk at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on Saturday, along with fellow Islanders Tom Hale, who served as an ambulance driver during the war for the American Field Service, and Fred (Ted) Morgan, who enlisted in the Army in the days following Pearl Harbor and was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.

The three spoke as part of the ongoing Voices of World War II lecture series, being held in conjunction with an ongoing exhibition, Those Who Serve — Martha’s Vineyard and World War II, which features oral histories, photographs, film footage and artifacts from a number of Vineyarders who experienced World War II at home and abroad.

The second part of the exhibit opens Memorial Day weekend, on May 28. The Gazette will publish excerpts of Vineyarders’ recollections of the war, starting with Mrs. Slater’s recollections of growing up during the war in Chilmark.

“I was nine years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. We were living in Chilmark with my grandparents, my mother and my brother. We lived in an old house with no electricity, no running water, and no plumbing. We supported ourselves by renting five summer camps in what we called the field behind our house.”

“My mother chose to tell us about the bombing of Pearl Harbor that night when she put us to bed. We were somber and somewhat frightened; my brother was seven, I was nine. But my mother insisted that it was all happening very far away, and none of it would affect us.

“The preparations for war were all around us. Volunteer air raid wardens were making nightly house calls to make sure drapes were pulled tight in front of windows, not allowing any lighting from kerosene lamps to escape. It made Chilmark a very dark place at night. We were even required to paint the top of the headlight on our old Model A black so light would not be reflected upward.

“My mother was an air raid warden and U.S.O. hostess, while my grandfather gave up his ball of lead foil from his tobacco pouch that he had been building up for so many years. My grandmother collected bandages, and my brother and I collected metals. I had my picture in the Gazette along with Matt Poole for collecting the most keys, although I had no idea what those keys were used for.

“The military presence started to accumulate very quickly. The Army Signal Corps put up a radar station at Peaked Hill a few miles from our house several months before Pearl Harbor Day. The Coast Guard in the other direction took over a house at Squibnocket to patrol the beaches. All this created a buzz in town which didn’t go away until the war ended.

“Servicemen were seen often and everywhere around town; they gathered every evening at Rex Weeks’ store to collect the mail and wait for the evening papers. It was a fun time to be at the store, with men from both services joining in for a social hour. They developed an interest in the town and the school.

“Groups of them would visit the school in the afternoon, and the teachers — who were, of course, their primary interest — would give up our classes, which was fine with us, and have us all sing popular songs. Then we were all driven home in the jeeps.

“The boys, as everyone referred to them, were very young and homesick. Many of them came from cities around the country, far from the sea. My grandmother volunteered and took on the task of writing to many of the servicemen’s parents, and assuring them that Chilmark was a good place to be stationed. She corresponded with many parents, and then veterans, for the rest of her life.

“Women from around the Island volunteered as hostesses and chaperones and went weekly to Vineyard Haven to hostess the dances. My mother was one of the hostesses, and she transported several of the single girls from Chilmark to the dances. In the end she found she had fostered two Chilmark romances.

“Then came the real war. We knew about the Navy’s air station down on the Edgartown plains. We heard the night flights and heard the sad stories of planes that didn’t come back. We knew when things were bad because at night we would see the flares offshore and drifting towards the Island. Many of us searched often and found the spent flares on the end of the silk parachutes.

“I clearly remember crawling around in the briars and shrubs, untangling the lines and carefully picking the silk off the thorns . . . We would also search the beaches for the practice bombs that often came ashore. For a number of years afterwards you could find a few in every yard, barn and house in Chilmark.

“The day after the Pearl Harbor bombing, there was a warning of enemy aircraft approaching the Island. It was not a drill. The air raid wardens began their duties and came to the schools to evacuate us to safety. It was an exciting and fearful time. I recall that some of us were driven home while others had to wait in the school for hours, as there was just the one Model A.”

“My mother in doing her air raid warden duties fell through the school steps that day, and she became the only casualty of that operation. And we never let her forget it. I remember being very frightened that afternoon, but by the next day it was all a grand adventure. Nobody ever told us why the alarm was sounded. We never did hear.

“For the duration of the war the nights were the dramatic and scary times. The training flights could be heard coming and going. Some nights there were strange, throbbing engine noises heard clearly in our living room. On those nights my grandmother would call the Coast Guard and report it. And they most often could hear it, too, and agreed that it was a submarine surfaced in the lee of Squibnocket charging its batteries.

“This happened often. The submarines were never identified by country of origin to us. This mysterious activity took its toll on the young men assigned to patrol the beaches in the dark of night; some enjoyed the adventure, but some suffered from the fear and dread of meeting the enemy coming ashore in a rubber raft. I did hear this actually happened, and there were constant rumors this had happened. It was pretty much accepted that spies had been put ashore on the Vineyard.

“We heard stories of messages left in mailboxes, mysterious lights flashing toward the sea and rubber rafts found hidden at the base of the cliffs. One night we did see an automobile’s lights sending flashing signals to sea. We never went looking to see what was going on. I don’t remember being particularly frightened by all this. The children certainly discussed it all, and we always kept an eye out for something different during our rambles around town.

“One night my grandmother heard a plane fly low over the house. She rushed to the window in time to see a plane go down in the sound off Dogfish Bar. She immediately called the Coast Guard, and for several days after that we had many military visitors, some Army, asking to be shown exactly what she had seen. It was an exciting time, and it was all very mysterious.

“Another time a plane crashed on Middle Road in a field in what is now called Brookside Farm. On the way home from school the bus driver stopped the bus and let us all out to go take a look at the plane. The pilot had survived and was not there, and the trucks had already arrived to take the plane back to Edgartown.

“I also vividly remember standing at the top of the cliffs on a beautiful sunny day in the early days of the war watching convoys of ships pass the other side of Noman’s going to Europe, silent, dark and foreboding. It seemed like they took all day to pass, and I think they probably did.

“The same years, we would watch and listen to squadrons of aircraft flying overhead Chilmark on their way to Europe. Again it seemed like they were flying hours at a time. The different makes of planes would fly in different formations. You would see the big bombers in sets of four and the lighter planes in sets of eight; they would appear for hours overhead. I can still hear that hum of all those engines. That was creepy; we didn’t like that sound.

“And finally came the end of the hostilities. It happened in August when the summer people were still with us. My mother jumped in the Model A and tried to spread the words of joy to the people in the camps. Soon people were walking down to the town hall to share in the excitement.

“The group at town hall had fast became a party. Of course I was sent home to bed. But the story still lives that Roger Allen, selectman at the time, and of the Allen Farm, went back to his barn and got a bottle of hooch that had come ashore during prohibition. And because he wasn’t a drinking man, he saved it in his barn all those years, just to break it out to entertain during the festivities at the end of the war.”


Jane Slater also is the Chilmark columnist for the Gazette. Those Who Serve — Martha’s Vineyard and World War II will be expanded in May and continue until January 2011. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Entry is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children over six.