CUMBERLAND - Steven Brown firmly believes that without the wartime efforts of Woonsocket and the Blackstone Valley, D-Day never would have happened. But thanks to those working tirelessly in the mill communities that stretched from Providence to Worcester, the Allied Forces were able to gain the upper hand in World War II.
“Because of the Woonsocket 'Ghost Army,’ a lot of resources were diverted away (from Normandy) to get us into France and Germany ” said Brown, a park ranger with the National Park Service. “Without the valley, that wouldn’t have happened.”
The Ghost Army was a tactical deception unit created to deceive the Germans during and after the Allied invasion of Normandy. Items made by the U.S. Rubber Company included top-secret materials such as decoy cannons, tanks, and other military vehicles.
The Blackstone Valley’s efforts during World War II – from those who contributed to the war effort at home or the veterans who fought abroad – were celebrated at the Blackstone Visitors Center on Sunday as part of the state’s overall commemoration of Victory Day. The event was sponsored by the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park.
According to a 1944 magazine article, there were 205 Woonsocket workers in the armed forces and Woonsocket’s rubber workers had a 100 percent participation rate in the sale of war bonds.
“This is a generation that sacrificed a lot to make sure we have what we have here today … We had the Ghost Army move Gen. Patton to England, that technology was classified,” Brown said.
“Look around, you see the Blackstone River being the hardest-working river in America since Samuel Slater. But also during the war, everybody gave up something so we could win that effort,” he continued. “There were guns made, uniforms made, Howitzers made … If it wasn’t for some of the things made, they wouldn’t be home. This is what it’s all about.”
“It’s showing what goes on at the homefront, an effort that went into winning the war in a 45-mile area,” Brown said.
During the 1940s, Woonsocket reached its peak of wartime material production. Manufacturing plants such as the Guerin Mills and French Worsted Company received multi-million-dollar contracts for woolen Army cloth, while companies such as Jacob Finkelstein and Sons pioneered the manufacturing of raincoats from rubberless yet rainproof materials while also making functional Army field jackets. The Taft-Pierce Company also produced casing and handgrips for anti-aircraft machine guns used in the Pacific.
At the Alice Mill in Woonsocket’s Fairmount neighborhood, the mill was reopened in the 1940s to produce barrage balloons to protect convoys and cities, as well as rubber life rafts, attack boats, and life-saving wading suits for the Allied Forces.
It wasn’t just inside the mills of the Blackstone Valley where the efforts on the homefront proved beneficial. All six of Woonsocket’s movie theaters in the 1940s sold bonds and boosted morale by airing wartime movies.
One of the World War II veterans on hand at Sunday’s gathering was Robert Blough of Stonington, Conn. A U.S. Navy veteran, the 92-year-old Blough flew in a gun turret on top of an airplane during his time in the service.
Blough was drafted on his birthday in 1945 and served for five years. He said to be thanked for his service initially came as a surprise to him, but he said to have people “show their appreciation for service members means a lot, to get that recognition. I’ll go to parades, those are special days, all those World War II anniversaries.”
Victory Day is one of the most notable days on his calendar, he said, calling it a “special day, very special.”
“When they surrendered, Germany and Japan, everyone went downtown, there were horns honking, church bells ringing, it was a big, huge celebration all around the country … Those were memorable events, you never forget them,” Blough said.
While the efforts of the Blackstone Valley during World War II are a part of local lore, Brown hoped that Sunday’s event would serve as a way to ensure that the sacrifices of a generation are not forgotten to time and are made more notable across the state and country.
“It’s because of what this generation sacrificed, not just overseas but on the homefront and the Blackstone Valley kind of gets forgotten about. When we think of Rhode Island, we think of John Kennedy and his PT boat or George Bush flying out of (Charlestown), but all the nuts and bolts of that operation were out of the Blackstone Valley,” he said.
The Blackstone River, he said, has transformed from one of industrialization to a river centered around recreation, but his hope is that people will always remember the “amazing history produced here.” He was also hopeful that events such as Sunday’s would provide another way to pay respect to those who sacrificed during the war effort.
“Seventy-five years ago was D-Day. We’re in a war right now but it doesn’t affect us unless you serve or know someone who serves,” he said. “This was the greatest generation. They went from the Depression into the wartime effort, retooling machine shops for guns and uniforms. The veterans we’re honoring today wouldn’t have made it home without the effort on the homefront.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette