Fighting a War from the Shores of Lake Michigan:
Whiting’s Homefront in World War One

John Hmurovic

November 2018

U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman said it first: “War is hell.” He said it after the brutal and bloody American Civil War. Just over fifty years later, in the late 1910s, Americans were again discovering the truth of that simple statement. And American civilians in Whiting, and other communities across the United States, were discovering that if being in combat was hell, being at home while your loved ones and friends were putting their lives on the line was a form of purgatory.

Purgatory, some religions tell us, is a place of suffering. But it is also a place of hope. You endure the period you are there, with the hope that a better day comes soon, and you will then become free to enjoy your life in eternity.

Many Whiting residents endured that purgatory during the World War. It is estimated that 589 men from Whiting-Robertsdale served in World War One. Many of them left parents behind, as well as brothers and sisters and friends, and some left wives and children to go off to war. Those left behind almost certainly endured periods of deep worry, while longing for the day the war would end and allow them to once again embrace those who went off to fight.

To help hasten that day, many Whiting residents did all that they could to aid the war effort and support the soldiers overseas. People back home were horrified, for instance, by news of the enemy using poisonous gas against our soldiers. It was the first war where poisonous gas was widely used. Word quickly spread through Whiting when Gene Putnam, the son of Dr. and Mrs. W.E. Putnam, wrote home from the hospital to say that he had lost his eyesight for three days after a gas attack.

Whiting resident Albert Gavit was an ambulance driver on the front lines in France. “It was on one my return runs that I ran into the gas,” he wrote to his family in 1917. “As I was hurrying along I became aware of an unusual odor, like that of calcium carbide. It was just the smell we used to get when we poured hot water into the generator that made gas for the lights of our old Buick.” Gavit hurriedly put on his gas mask. At the same time, he started to fear that the engine on the ambulance he was driving was going to die. Even though he could barely see through the goggles on his gas mask he knew he had to get out of there, quickly. He took a chance. He ripped off his gas mask and drove as fast as he could, hoping the ambulance would keep running. “You can thank your stars, or your God,” he wrote, “that I came through it with nothing more than a dull headache to remind me of that long five minutes when I expected the engine to die at any minute.”

This drawing appeared in the Lake County Times in 1918, encouraging area residents to collect peach stones, pits from other fruit, and shells from some nuts. These food items contained carbon, which could be used in gas masks that protected soldiers from poisonous gas attacks.

As stories of gas attacks spread back home, so did a plea by the government: “The Gas Division of the Chemical Warfare Service has an immediate need of an enormous amount of raw material from which the carbon for the manufacture of gas masks is obtained.” That raw material came from fruit pits and shells of certain nuts. Boy Scouts across the nation sprung into action, including scouts from Whiting-Robertsdale. Peach stones; pits from plums, prunes and apricots; hickory, butternut and walnut shells were collected by the thousands. Stores put out barrels for people to deposit their pits and shells.

Some items were rationed. “Sugar is one of the best little muscle builders there is,” an article in the Whiting Call newspaper reported in 1918, “and we want our soldiers to have all they can get of it.” Back home, that meant sugar cards were issued by grocers to limit purchases. Each person could obtain only three pounds of sugar per month.      

Gas also needed to be conserved, so those who had cars were asked to park them on Sundays. “Any number of our citizens found that walking to church was no hardship,” the Whiting Call reported. There were “heatless, wheatless, meatless, sugarless, lightless and gasless days,” the Whiting Times recounted.

The war also created manpower shortages back home with men of working age going off to fight. Grocers lost some of the men who regularly delivered food to homes, so they cut back on home deliveries to just one a day per customer. Whiting’s biggest employer also had to adjust. Standard Oil began operating a daily bus to and from Chicago to recruit workers. It also brought older men back into the workforce, and there was talk of reinstituting the 12-hour work day if the war dragged on and manpower needs tightened. Also, in many cases, the Whiting Call said, “girls are replacing the men in the offices as clerks, stenographers, etc.,” jobs which had been primarily held by men before the war.  

Except for a few professions, such as teaching, society was not ready to accept women in the workforce in the late 1910s, so it was news when one took over “man’s work.” “Yesterday,” the Lake County Times reported in 1918, “pedestrians were more than surprised to see a lady mail carrier marching down the street, carrying a heavy mail bag on her shoulder.” Irene Putnam, the sister of solider Gene Putnam, who lost his eyesight for three days due to a poisonous gas attack, took the route of postal worker Johnston Knight when he went into service.

War creates opportunities in a free market economy. Cigarette companies hoped to profit. Along with this ad which appeared in the Whiting Call newspaper was an article which said the war “had made cigarettes a necessity.” Thousands of packs were sent to soldiers in France “to cheer our boys.”

Everywhere there were reminders that a war was being waged an ocean away. Troop trains regularly passed through Whiting. “The sight of these trains,” the Whiting Call stated, “should help people to convince themselves that…if it is going to be won, every single person is going to have to make a supreme sacrifice.” Service flags appeared in windows of homes: a blue star meant that home had sent a man off to war, a gold star meant someone who lived there died in the war.  The city of Whiting added another reminder, replacing the small flag pole that stood on the roof of city hall with a pole that towered eighty feet in the air, “on which Old Glory may float to the breeze in defiance of all foes to human liberty.” A large group gathered to dedicate the new flag pole in May 1918.

The city had to make other changes to aid the war effort, such as the paving of Standard Avenue. Up until that time, it was a muddy road with major ruts in it due to the movement of freight bound for the refinery. Whiting’s state senator, James J. Nejdl, traveled to Washington to obtain a priority order to get the street paved.

A list of every activity and every effort made by the people of Whiting-Robertsdale, as well as other cities across the country, would be impossible to make one hundred years later. Civil defense teams, called the Liberty Guard, were organized to train for the possibility of an enemy attack. Over one hundred boys and girls belonged to a knitting club at the Whiting Library, conducted by Hazel Long, which sent their work product to soldiers overseas.     

Before the war, there was no Red Cross chapter in Whiting. Within a short time after one was organized, it boasted 3,885 members, which was nearly 45-percent of Whiting’s population at the time. It was the largest percentage of any city in Indiana. The Red Cross taught classes in first aid and home nursing. Their members sewed convalescent robes, hospital bed sheets, socks, pajamas and garments for soldiers, as well as for the people living in war ravaged parts of Europe. Surgical dressings, compresses and other hospital needs were made by the thousands by the women of Whiting and shipped overseas. Virtually every civic and social group in the city raised money for the supplies. Whiting schools and Standard Oil also donated money to build a workroom in the school auditorium building on Oliver Street to serve as a workshop for the Red Cross volunteers.

An ad to contribute money to pay our war expenses that appeared in the Whiting Call after the end of the war.

Other women joined the Whiting Trench Comfort Club, which made sweaters, socks and other knitted items, and sent them along with tobacco and cigarettes to local men serving in the military. “We received our sweaters from the Trench Comfort Club,” Whiting soldier John Leverenz wrote to his family as a new recruit stationed at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. “The boys are proud of them, and are very thankful for them, as they come in handy in this part of the country.”

Whiting also led the war in raising money for the war effort. The United States raised some of the money it needed to mobilize for the war through what was called Liberty Loans. Each town in the nation was given a quota, an amount of money it needed to raise. Former Mayor Fred Smith headed the drive in Whiting. Five Liberty Loan campaigns were undertaken nationwide, and in every one of them Whiting exceeded its quota. In April 1918, the Indianapolis News reported that Whiting was the first city in the country to go over the top in the third Liberty Loan drive. “The city had a big parade,” the paper reported. “The patriotic enthusiasm was so great that the loan sales committee decided not to wait for Liberty Day (the opening day of the drive) and in forty-eight hours the city raised its quota.”