Jordan M. Poss, ABG Contributor
One night in April 1942, a German U-boat sighted and torpedoed the American tankers SS Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rouge. The two ships sailed unescorted en route to Europe, where, at this stage of the war, the Allies were still weak, holding out in Britain while the Nazi military prowled the Atlantic and Mediterranean and slugged it out with the Soviets thousands of miles away. Both ships sank, with a loss of twenty-two crewmen. The U-boat slipped away into the night to continue its raiding.
Fortunately, this incident did not occur in the frigid north Atlantic but in the waters just off the coast of St Simons Island, Georgia. The Coast Guard rescued the survivors and brought them to shelter on the island. Even the two ships were not total losses—both were refloated and towed into St Simons Sound to be repaired and relaunched at Brunswick’s shipyards before the end of the year.
As the museum film and exhibits at St Simons’s World War II Home Front Museum make clear, the sinking of the Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rougechanged things for coastal Georgia. One elderly Brunswick native interviewed for the museum film remembers the whole city shaking when the ships were torpedoed, the sea amplifying the shock of the explosions and concussing the peninsular town from all sides. That made the war startlingly present for them, he says.
Within months coastal Georgia saw the largest military buildup since the Civil War, or perhaps even the days of Oglethorpe, when Georgia was briefly the most heavily militarized place in the western hemisphere. Brunswick, once a small but busy port city, grew by 16,000 people as the JA Jones shipyards expanded to build Liberty ships, the mass-produced cargo vessels that fed men and materiel to multiple fronts on the other side of two oceans. One of Brunswick’s Liberty ships would steam to Europe, North Africa, and the Philippines before the war was over. Radar aerials went up along the seaward shores of Jekyll and St Simons Islands and St Simons’s luxurious King and Prince Hotel hosted a radar training school. Two naval air stations went in, one north of Brunswick and the other carved out of the marshes and live oak forests of St Simons. Both had runways for the fixed-wing aircraft—fighters, bombers, scout planes—that would patrol the sea lanes around the islands, and NAS Glynco housed Squadron ZP-15, a unit of LTA (lighter than air) ships in some of the largest hangars in the United States. Trainloads of raw material arrived in Brunswick daily as the Liberty ships—ninety-nine before the end of the war—slid down their slipways into the sound, as radar scanned the sky for threats, and as planes and blimps criss-crossed the heavens, watching, shepherding.
While the beaches of Normandy, the black sands of Iwo Jima, or the skies over Europe command our imaginations when we think of the war, none of these—the sharp end of the spear—would have been successful or even possible without the unromantic and quietly diligent work of the home front. The World War II Home Front Museum pays brilliant tribute to this often-overlooked side of the war.
The museum stands on St Simons’s East Beach, in the old Coast Guard station where the survivors of the U-boat attack were brought in the aftermath. The station’s old boathouse features the first exhibits, which include a mural-sized map of Brunswick, St Simons, and Jekyll, with key military features labeled, and a good photographic timeline of the events that led up to the war and US involvement. A short museum film includes stunning archive footage and photographs and interviews—like the one I mentioned above—with some of the precious few remaining of that generation. But rather than infantrymen or pilots, these interviewees were welders and dockworkers, the men and women often lost in the accidentally glamorous and abstract image of Rosie the Riveter. The second half of the museum, housed in the main building, includes extensive exhibits on radar, the blimps that patrolled out of NAS Glynco, and the construction of the Liberty ships.
The entire museum is beautifully designed, subdivided into inviting rooms on specific aspects of the war on the home front and decorated with hundreds of large photos. The museum also benefits from lots of well-designed interactive exhibits, which are both informative and entertaining. One is a game in which you have to shop for groceries using a limited number of ration points, and another invites you to build a historical Liberty ship from the hull up, offering a sense of the labor required to produce even one, and then animates your chosen ship’s fate, adding a further sense of the dangers involved in just getting to the front. Yet another is an aircraft spotter game, in which you must identify friendly and enemy planes based solely on silhouette as they “fly” over. All were a huge hit with my kids, ages five and almost three, and there were other interactive exhibits unavailable at the time owing to COVID-19.
Perhaps most striking of all, though, were those photos, presented without overt political messaging or activism—hundreds and hundreds of them, showing Americans of both sexes and all races welding, riveting, building together, rejoicing with each other over the launch of each Liberty ship, and each time turning seriously back to their work, the defeat of not one but two evil enemies. Together these civilians built and launched almost a hundred ships, and these sailors, aviators, and coast guardsmen escorted them and hundreds more, with no more losses in Georgia’s waters.
The Home Front Museum is a magnificent tribute to the home front generally and the experience of coastal Georgia and these civilians and soldiers of the home front, who are so seldom depicted in movies or worshipfully remembered during our holidays. If you find yourself in or near the Golden Isles, pay a visit to this museum and commemorate this forgotten front of the war. If the sinking of those ships in the dark of night in the spring of 1942 made the war real for Georgians on the home front, this museum can make it real for us, too
Jordan M. Poss is a Georgia native and graduate of Clemson University. He is the author of Dark Full of Enemies, No Snakes in Iceland, The Last Day of Marcus Tillius Cicero, and Griswoldville, all of which are available at his website. He lives in upstate South Carolina with his wife—a Texas native—and three children.
Sam Burnham, Curator
In volatile times it is important that we keep a grasp on what really matters. Without going into drama, I’ll say that this hasn’t just been a volatile time in general. It’s been volatile personally. So I’m having to slow down and focus on the things that are foundational, what keeps me anchored, what really matters.
The great philosopher Roger Scruton said it this way: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” Basically it’s a lot easier to destroy something beautiful than it is to create it. This makes sense as the wrecking ball moves much faster than the mason’s trowel or the artist’s brush.
It is the same with communities and relationships. After all, a community is nothing more than a web of relationships. The visible elements of a community, arts, architecture, institutions, all of it presents a visible form of the relationships that lie underneath. Therefore a town is built over decades of interconnected relationships of family, friends, and faith.
We are limited in our influence. There is only so much in life that we can control. We cannot expect our society to be healthy if our region is not healthy. We cannot expect our region to be healthy if our state is not healthy. We cannot expect our state to be healthy if our town is not healthy. We cannot expect our town to be healthy if our neighborhood is not healthy. And we cannot expect our neighborhood to be healthy if our home is not healthy. But there is really only one of these that we can effectively control: our own homes. Building a better society starts at home and then spreads outward.
“Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” - Roger Scruton
Washington can not effectively change the state of poverty, inequality, racial strife, crime, whatever. First of all, they don’t want to change it because they use it to pander to their voting bases. More importantly, they are too far away and disconnected from all of our communities. I can’t change Washington. But I can mow my lawn, care for my family, foster meaningful friendships with people, and defend the beautiful things in my community. From there I can vote and be active in local issues. I can support fair businesses and avoid unfair ones. I can hold my local government accountable for how they treat my neighbors. We need to demand fairness, justice, opportunity.
But once there is damage, that’s hard to repair. Destruction breeds resentment and that’s not promoting unity. It doesn’t improve relationships. We’ve lived for many decades with different forms of inequity. We need to move away from that. But I’d suggest that the way we do that is to build, rather than destroy. Burning a building or toppling a monument won’t cure hate or poverty. Giving all citizens a fair shot at life in our society can. Society is a relationship. We have to build that relationship on trust and understanding.
Building that trust and understanding is like weaving a tapestry. It tells a story. We don’t need to destroy monuments. We need to add monuments that tell more of the story. Get the community involved through fundraising, identifying worthy subjects, and designing new markers and monuments. We don’t need to burn businesses. We need more people in business, building an economic future for their families. Build more monuments. Build more friendships. Build more families.
Protesters in Valdosta have suggested doing exactly that. They are asking to build monuments to tell more of the story, not destroy the monument that is there. Savannah has a monument to honor the Haitian soldiers who fought there during the American Revolution. The Tuskegee Airmen National Monument is one of the best sites we’ve visited. How many community, military, and cultural figures are there who could represent more of the story? This is the way. Unify, come together. Build bridges and connect our communities.
Now think about that as a metaphor in all our relationships.
All of our social endeavors, all of our engineering plans, all of our political action is worthless if we don’t build a strong foundation. That foundation starts at home. It is buttressed by friendship and strengthened by faith. We need to get our houses in order and work outward from there. It’s easy to complain about Washington but It’s another thing to restore order in the family room. It takes effort to build character in your children, to foster healthy relationships, to emotionally invest in things that matter. But the payoff can be enormous.
Our society was built this way. We need to open it up now and make sure it is accessible to all. We should not accept less than that. If enough of us commit ourselves to tending to our own spaces, our own relationships, we can make a real difference. Broaden that foundation. That’s good economically, socially, and politically. That makes a better future for us all. Family, faith, friends. Don’t tear down. Build.
On Tuesday June 2 all of our ABG social media accounts participated in the Blackout Tuesday trend to show support for justice in the cases of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. We posted a solid black photo on each account and posted no other content for the duration of the day. It is important that Amendments IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII protect the the rights of all Americans regardless of race, sex, or class. That’s the promise of America.
Equal justice under law is a good start. It is pivotal in building healthy black communities. Rather than split hairs about statistics let’s just say these three people are dead and there’s no good reason for any one of them to be dead. Americans have to have a reasonable expectation of safety from police and vigilantes. We cannot have law and order when the enforcement is not subject to the same laws.
I say it’s a good start because there are other issues we need to consider.
Now would be an excellent time for McIntosh County to reverse their asinine property tax increases on the Gullah/Geechee people on Sapelo Island. A few years back islanders received notice of tax increases, some as high as 1000%. The island has no police or fire coverage, no schools, and the county does not adequately maintain the roads. But residents now have tax bills that they cannot afford. This is a shameless land grab. The islanders have tried legal avenues to defend their property but it doesn’t look good for them.
The Mississippi Delta is one of the richest expanses of farmland in the world. This alluvial floodplain was harnessed by plantation owners in the 1800s and a cotton empire was built with slave labor. These days the biggest landowners are Wall Street hedge funds. TIAA, Hancock, AgriVest, and other pension funds gobbled up this land and now rent it to farmers. While that’s building wealth for investors (quite possibly you and I via 401 accounts) it is doing little to build wealth for the farmers, many of whom had the land scammed out from under them or their ancestors. We’re not saying that the hedge funds should just give the land away but finding a reasonable deal to let these farmers purchase their farms would allow them to build wealth and have something of an inheritance to offer their offspring. I’m citing the Delta here because of the broad example it creates. This phenomenon is happening throughout rural America though.
Honestly one of the biggest things that could be done right now is to get out of the way. I’ll use the example relayed to me by online food delivery service drivers in Atlanta. There’s a black-owned restaurant in Atlanta. You can’t go there to eat. They only operate via online delivery service. I’m not outing the restaurant, the delivery service, or even the drivers because the federal, state, and local governments will run this guy out of business for operating a restaurant out of his home. His customers love his products. More power to him.
We can build a stronger, broader economy by encouraging investment in black owned businesses. This means restaurants, banks, grocery stores, insurance companies, clothing stores, farms, whatever, you name it. This will solve food deserts and economic stagnation. It’s not only building the economy in black communities, more people in business is better for the economy at large. Yes, there are communities that have crime problems but they can be solved by better public relations by police forces becoming more involved in the community. Build trust, share respect, make progress.
Again, the best thing we can do is get out of the way. Let entrepreneurs, engineers, artists, and scientists do their thing. Let up on some regulations, don’t usurp attempts to build generational wealth, and for goodness sake, stop killing people.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire