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
Armuchee Creek creeps through the Appalachian foothills as it has for thousands of years. These hill are old, the eroded remnants of their former selves. The locals will tell you that Armuchee is Cherokee for “land of many fish” or something to that effect. When the Cherokee lived here the creek provided water, food, and transportation.
After the Cherokee removal on the Trail of Tears, this area was resettled and the creek remained important. Some 50-60 years after the last Cherokee left the creek found a new use. In the old village, what locals call “Downtown Armuchee,” stood a grist mill, a pants factory, a cooperage, and a cotton gin. All of these operations were powered by an early-technology electric generator that was powered by the creek.
A small dam ponded the creek near the iron bridge where Little Texas Valley Road crosses the creek. The mill harnessed the power of the pond overflow to turn the little generator and produce electricity. The amount of power generated was more than these small industries needed and several homes were added to the local grid. The residents of this small village were reading by electric light two decades before the TVA broke ground on their first hydroelectric dam.
The evidence of this fact is confirmed in a May 1916 publication of the Electrical Review and Western Electrician. The report in that journal was that the Armuchee Water Mill was unfortunately destroyed by fire. That sounds like a strike against local power but this was early technology and fire was a widespread problem in structures of all sorts. While fire is and will remain a threat, new technology and practices have greatly reduced that threat. Present technology also offers redundancy that make accidents less devastating.
In 1916 there was little more than lighting that would use electricity in a home. These days almost everything uses electricity. But modern technology has created energy efficient appliances and devices. Major utility companies have reported dips in demand as people choose LED lighting and other energy saving options. Modern technology also produces a lot more electricity than 1916 technology did.
Generating electricity has become more efficient as well. Most notably, solar panels have become more efficient and effective while also becoming more affordable. One kilowatt/hour of solar power is now cheaper than the same amount of coal generated electricity. This has made solar a viable option for use in community power.
More recently, the South Georgia town of Plains, longtime home of former President Jimmy Carter, now generates half of its needed electricity by a local solar farm. Let me specify that Plains is a small town. I’m not advocating running the whole state this way. There is still a real need for large scale power generation in places like Plant Bowen, Plant Vogtle, and by TVA dams throughout their system. But for small towns or even designated neighborhoods in big cities, community power is a revolutionary opportunity.
By generating power locally and establishing a micro-grid, like Armuchee at the turn of the 20th Century, we can lower our costs and build in resilience to protecting ourselves from disruptions. Armuchee historically used the creek and hydroelectric generation. That is possibly still an option. But in The South we also have an abundance of sunshine. Solar panels, partnered with the latest in storage units could make the needed power and store it for nighttime or in the case of (literally) a rainy day.
The resilience comes into play with the local micro-grid. For example, a few years back when a tornado cut through the Berry College and Glenwood communities, serious damage was caused to transmission infrastructure. The Armuchee area was without power for days. Had the old micro-grid still been active no loss of power would have occurred in the old neighborhood. That area was barely impacted by the storm. The mill and the grid would have remained intact. Even during the Blizzard of ‘93, a local crew could have hooked up individual homes in a day and power would have been restored quickly. Even a mechanical malfunction at the mill would be backed up by the storage units until repairs are made.
Local power can be a game changer for small towns. Poorer communities within cities can also benefit from this idea. The best part is that our local EMCs as well as the TVA or The Southern Company can get in on this. They need to hear from customers or members who are interested in bringing this sort of project to their neighborhoods.
Local power lowers costs while building resilience and investment in our communities. There is no downside to the proposition. By revisiting an old idea we can open possibilities for the future. We can build a future with better opportunities for businesses and residents. We can power healthy and sustainable economic growth while fostering a sense of community. Local power is the best way to illuminate the way forward.
Sam Burnham, Curator
Tis the season for stories of the macabre, the grotesque, the suspenseful. The modern genre of horror has often strayed into an overuse of violence and gore in place of suspense and psychological thrills. I don’t care much for the blood and gore of the slasher genre but I love the old style. Hitchcock was a master. Stephen King’s 1408 and the movie adaptation of the same are also good examples.
The South has a long tradition in this genre. Although Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, he was raised in Richmond and attended the University of Virginia briefly. Poe is but one well known pen in a sea of Southern ink that has given America ghost stories, and of course our most famous literary class - Southern Gothic.
The stories are the fruit of a grotesque history. Our region has seen the War for Independence, slavery, the War of 1812, the Trail of Tears, The War Between the States (specifically Sherman’s March), Reconstruction, Jim Crow. Death and tragedy have stalked The South since settlers arrived at Roanoke Island. Disease and pestilence have ravaged this land. Cities like Savannah and Charleston are filled with ghost stories and much of the region remained, until relatively recently, a frontier only inhabited by the strong willed, who often succumbed to its hazards. This history and the personal tragedy invested in it led writers, including Poe, to delve deep into tragedy, mystery, intrigue, and suspense
Poe himself pointed to the past when searching for America’s best ghost story. As my friend Sean Busick relates: “Grayling, or Murder Will Out,” Poe wrote “it is really an admirable tale, nobly conceived and skillfully carried into execution—the best ghost story ever written by an American….”
That’s a pretty strong endorsement.
Simms was the most important writer in America’s antebellum period. The South Carolinian is remembered and celebrated by the Simms Initiatives at the University of South Carolina. A few years ago they teamed up to create this video playlist, a reading of that best American ghost story, Grayling or Murder Will Out. I have decided to link the playlist here for anyone who’d like to hear it read aloud. It’s an appropriate story for a good Southerner at Halloween.
[This story can be found in print in The collection The Wigwam and the Cabin. More information on Simms and Grayling can be found at the link above, where Sean Busick is mentioned in red.]
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire