Camden at War: 1941-1945
The Camden Archives & Museum's exhibit Camden at War: 1941-1945 is on exhibit in the Whiteley Room through August 14, 2017. This exhibit explores the events before and during World War II from a Camden perspective.
For decades, the railroad’s promise of “Carolina in the morning” lured visitors to South Carolina and to Camden. Beginning in the 1880s, the city thrived as a winter resort with grand hotels and wealthy northern and mid-western visitors who brought with them money, energy, and a deep enjoyment of our very special outdoor lifestyle. Many of the visitors purchased homes and became either winter or year-round residents. Members of the Winter Colony joined with long-time Camden residents to bring polo matches, the Camden Hunt, horse shows, golf, and the Carolina Cup to our community. Newspapers from the period are filled with articles about the comings and goings of people to Camden and about all of the activities taking place throughout the year.
Along with the tourist industry, Camden was home to many companies and factories. Once again, the railroad provided a lifeline between Camden and the world. Seaboard Railroad built a new passenger station in 1937 and both Seaboard and Southern served as freight carriers for business and agriculture.
In the 1930s, with news of fighting in Europe and Asia, Americans feared that soon they would be drawn into the conflict. Long before Pearl Harbor, the country prepared for war. In 1940, a corporation under contract with the federal government established the Southern Aviation School at Woodward Field to train pilots for the Army Air Corps. Also in 1940, the federal government began registering all military aged men and many Camden residents were called to active service.
In October and November of 1941, rather than welcoming tourists to Camden, the Kirkwood Hotel welcomed the United States Army when it became the headquarters of the Public Relations Division, First Army. The First Army Maneuvers, 1941 took place in sixteen counties in North and South Carolina. Landowners gave permission to the army to crisscross their property and bivouac in their fields. For more than two months, the 400,000 soldiers of the First Army “fought” across the Carolinas. In his welcoming address, Lieutenant General Hugh A. Drum, Commanding General, thanked the citizens for their cooperation and assistance. He further remarked, “We Americans are faced with war under circumstances predicting the severest war test the Nation has ever faced. Whether we shall be forced into war and what the outcome will be will depend, in my humble opinion, on the spirit, the unity and the determination of our people to understand and to meet this crisis before an avalanche of hostile military might moves to overwhelm us.”
Camden’s people showered the First Army with hospitality. They welcomed them into their homes, socialized with them, and marveled at the tons of equipment rumbling through their quiet streets. One woman wrote, “We heard the convoys going by and we said, “How wonderful to hear them – and to know that they are ours – and are only in fun.” General Drum commended “the people of both states for their work, their co-operation and their loyalty, which have made possible this, the greatest undertaking of the army in 75 years on United States soil.”
Less than a week after the end of these maneuvers, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war. Over the next few months, life for everyone became consumed by the war effort. According to author John H. Daniels, the spring of 1942 saw the end of “Polo, foxhunting, steeplechasing and horseshows… for the duration.” Restrictions on leisure travel and the rationing of gasoline devastated Camden’s tourist industry and much of the winter season closed for the duration of the war. During World War II, Camden’s citizens joined all branches of the armed forces, worked in factories now turning out war material, and supported the war effort in every way possible.
With the establishment of Fort Jackson as a permanent training facility, of Southern Aviation in Camden, and of Shaw Field base in Sumter County, military personnel flooded into the area. Volunteers at the Camden USO, housed in the old armory on Rutledge Street, welcomed them with “recreation and entertainment.”
Rationing, scrap metal drives, blackouts, civil defense drills - all became a part of everyday life. As did news from the front. New technology allowed service personnel to make recordings for their loved ones at home. V-mail provided a secure method for writing letters. Snapshots recorded the war from the soldiers perspective. For Camden, World War II was not fought in a distant land by someone else. It was fought by everyone, everywhere.
Camden at War: 1941-1945 will look at the lives of Camdenites both at home and abroad during World War II. Artifacts on display will include a photograph album from the First Army Maneuvers, a saddle owned by General George S. Patton, numerous uniforms and other military equipment, official government posters, and photographs taken by Camden residents.
Header image: Sergeant James M. Thornton, Jr, U.S. Marine Corps. James Thornton lied about his age and enlisted into the Marine Corps in July, 1942. He served in the Pacific theater and fought at Guadalcanal and Bougainville. Sgt. Thornton was discharged in 1945.