Town Hall Occupation was Somewhat Surreal  
Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Army invoked military occupation orders for parts of the Webster Town Hall 70 years ago this week.

It wasnít a hostile action, but the takeover was official at 9 a.m. Jan. 16, 1941, and armed guards were immediately placed about the downtown complex. Everyone entering the office building, even town officials and town office workers, was interrogated.

It was a temporary situation, prompted because Company L, 181st Infantry, was organized and trained in the town facility over several years. The original basement banquet hall and adjoining offices, used by a federal work and help program, the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, had relocated, probably to a vacant school, so the basement became a National Guard camp around 1939. The Town Hall auditorium was the unitís drill shed. It was an informal arrangement, with public functions held in the auditorium other than Monday evenings, when the guards had occupancy.

Army protocol was invoked after Company L was federalized, along with its 86 enlisted men and six officers. The Army seized control of the municipal facility, segregating town offices and basement entrances to the then-adjoining Bartlett Senior-Junior High School.

The occupation was relatively shortlived, some 10 days or so, pending reassignment of the company to Camp Edwards on Cape Cod. All of this was less than a year before the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, thrusting America into the worldwide conflict.

So, the Armyís presence, with armed guards, and soldiers drilling about the town facility and along public ways, became somewhat surreal. This was especially true for BHS students, who studied in practically the same building (school and town offices were connected by a jointly used auditorium), and for others attending the former St. Louis High School, just up Negus Street. The likelihood of war was disturbing.

The soldiers were mostly local men, known to many of the high schoolers, even related to some of them, facing the unknown. They were at home in a sense, but certainly in the militia, just waiting transfer to a permanent training installation.

Downtown had a viable retail district in 1941, and the soldiers marched the length of Main Street three times and back every day, going into Dudley and the nearby Stevens Linen Associates clubhouse, where a mess hall to feed the new soldiers had been established. People stopped along the sidewalks to observe the military march to meals. The Stevens Club, improved and modernized some years ago, is now headquarters to OíConner & Co. Insurance. Most of the soldiers went home to sleep after evening exercises, but the military presence at Town Hall was around the clock, and under guard, so some of the men slept on cots in the building.

Although they were inducted into the Army for one year, the local soldiers were extended after World War II was declared. Most served through the hostilities, and some never returned.

The military incursion into municipal life took place at a time when the rumble of war carried across Europe, and things were beginning to simmer in this country. Webster didnít have an armory before the war, so the Army action was necessary to bridge an informal arrangement between the town and its guard company. A Webster-Dudley National Defense Committee had previously set up a military display in front of the Webster Town Hall, and enlistments into the regular Army were encouraged.

The Webster Area Draft Board mailed questionnaires at about the same time to 11 men in Oxford, 13 in Auburn, three in Douglas, and 23 from Webster for the nationís first peace-time military draft. Dudley citizens were inducted through the Southbridge Area Draft Board. The numbers on local notices coincided with the numbers drawn through a national service lottery in Washington, D.C.

The Town Hall basement, set up for military use, remained vacant but a short time. Another guard unit was quickly organized, made up mostly of men 38 and older, and teeners 18 and younger, ages of men then exempt from the draft.

This was an early prelude in our towns as America faced the long, terrible years of World War II.

-Courtesy Of
Telegram & Gazette

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