A Camp Director Remembers World War II

by Helen Herz Cohen

Running a camp during World War II took creativity, ingenuity, and some sacrifice. While friends and family were being asked to give their lives for our country, those of us at camp wanted to do our share. We wanted to provide our campers — eighty girls who were twelve to sixteen years old — with good memories of their time at camp, but at the same time, we knew it wouldn’t always be easy.

Food Rations at Camp

As Americans, we were accustomed to an abundance of food and other goods as a part of our lives, and I think the most obvious adjustment to the war took place in our kitchen and dining room. When restrictions were imposed, we were willing to cooperate and anxious to sacrifice. Early in the war, the Federal War Board placed restrictions on all residents for amounts of sugar, coffee, meat, and gasoline. Every person in the United States was issued an allotment of these commodities in the form of stamps. Before the camp season started, we required each camper and staff member to send us the allotted stamps for the eight weeks of camp — in those days we had one session that lasted eight weeks — not numerous shorter sessions. We turned these stamps into the federal agency in charge and were given checkbooks with a total number of credits for all the stamps we had submitted. When we purchased any of these items, we wrote a check for the amount to be delivered.

Obviously, we were restricted in what we served at meals. We understood the limits imposed, and we used our ingenuity to make life at camp as normal as possible. We knew our kitchen staff was honest, but they were often cheated or had their orders changed by the salesmen or the delivery persons. At the end of every week, we would review our remaining stamps and change trips or meals accordingly. And often, we were pressured to break the rules. Among those who pressured us were men involved in organized crime. They tried to bully us into buying meat “under the counter” or gasoline and to have us give them some of our allowance. These were difficult times, and it was truly scary to turn them down.
Campers ate what they were served, and there were no “special” meals for those who had allergies or needed different diets. All the food was made from scratch, and in hindsight I think our girls were lucky that there were no frozen foods available. The counselor at the head of the table served the food, and if you did not like something, you could ask for a “thank you” portion.

The War Effort Meant Beans

As a camp, we were involved in many projects to help the war effort. Every camper and counselor had some relative or good friend who was overseas, and we wanted to feel that we were making a contribution. The first year I tried growing beans in an open field. When I arrived in Maine, the weeds were far healthier than the beans. We gave that up and volunteered our time and efforts by picking beans for local farmers. It was a hot and dusty job. In order to keep the campers working instead of talking, we placed best friends at the ends of the lines — so that they would want to pick faster and meet up with their friends. The money that we collected from the farmers was sent to refugee camps in Europe.

Sewing Through the War

We had an excellent arts and crafts counselor who knew a great deal about pattern making and sewing. We turned our recreation porch into a sewing room, rented ten sewing machines, and taught the campers how to use them. With our patterns for children’s clothes, we made cute dresses and overalls to send abroad. Each garment had two pockets, one was filled with a bar of soap and one with a toothbrush. The machines were busy all day long. Every camper gave up at least one period every day to work in the sewing room, and we would regularly ship off six or more cartons with these well-made, wearable garments.

Spotting for Enemy Planes

The four camps in our area cooperated on another war project. We all took part in spotting for enemy planes over Portland Harbor. Early in the season, an officer from the Air Force came to camp for an assembly. He had silhouettes of our aircraft and of the enemy aircraft. Each camp was to take a week on top of Mt. Pleasant watching for enemy planes. This mountain stands alone with a glorious view of the nearby White Mountains on one side and Portland Harbor on the other side. Beneath are the beautiful lakes and streams of the Southern Lake district of Maine. We had teams of six girls each. They climbed Mt. Pleasant with their packs and the food and water that they would need for twenty-four hours. At the end of that time, another group would climb up to relieve them. It was not an easy job.

The job wasn’t easy, and neither were the packs to carry. The packs were really bedrolls — three blankets were stretched on a poncho and folded into an envelope that was held together by large pins, called “blanket pins.” Then the bundle was rolled as tightly as possible by a team of two or three girls, and poncho straps were clasped around it. The packs were heavy and clumsy. The thermos jugs we now have were not yet in existence, and most of the water was carried in individual canteens. Although the task was somewhat arduous, everyone pitched in with good humor.

We took our assignment for two weeks during the summer. We never saw any enemy planes, but we felt good about helping. As I look back at this chore from a peaceful distance, I wonder what the campers would have done if they had seen a plane. They had no means of communication except on the top of the fire tower. The forester who usually sat there was not on duty during the war, and the room was locked up. Thinking back, I realize that one person sitting in the fire tower could have done a better job then we could have done on Mt. Pleasant. But in those days, we did what we were asked to do and were glad to help.

The Journey to Camp

The railroad played an important role in camp life during those years. During the war, we traveled to Maine on sleeping cars from Grand Central Station to Portland on the New York Central Railroad — we didn’t have busses and parents didn’t bring the girls by cars. We met in New York City and escorted the girls to camp. In the early morning after a sleepless night, we would arrive in Portland, change trains, and lug our belongings to cars run by the Boston and Maine Railroad. The long journey ended at Brownfield station about fifteen miles from camp. The empty unused station is still there.

The first part of our journey was in sleeper cars that had upper and lower berths. The trips were fun, and lots of popcorn and cookies were passed around. We worried about transportation during the war as the railroad cars were used to transport troops. Luckily, we were allotted a triple-decker sleeping car. It had two upper berths instead of one. There were no curtains to block off the berths. But, we were young, and the campers enjoyed swinging from one upper berth to another as they had in earlier trips.

The railroad and station were even a big part of our camping trips. All the camps had only one truck and maybe a car or station wagon for transportation. When a camp needed extra transportation, we pooled our vehicles and helped each other. We all used the railroad for trips to the White Mountains. The counselor would buy tickets to the nearest station and make arrangements to have the train stop at the beginning of the trail we were to take up the mountain. We would climb for a day or two and then go back to the railroad tracks to flag the train and return to Brownfield station. We were tired and dirty but ready to return to camp with songs and stories about our trip.

On one occasion, in order to save our gasoline stamps, I had the brilliant idea of obtaining a cart to transport the gear for a riding trip. We packed the cart with food for the campers and for the horses and all the equipment the campers would need to stay out overnight. We selected one of the riding counselors to drive the wagon and harnessed two of the riding horses. The journey started out smoothly. However, when the horses got to the camp gate, they took off. They galloped down the road with the cart swinging from side to side. The counselor jumped off safely, and the horses ran on with all the gear tumbling out of the cart along the roadside. Luckily, a nearby farmer heard the clatter and the shrieking of the counselor and ran out on the road. He grabbed the reins and was strong enough to stop the horses. The counselor limped back to camp with the sad story. The farmer walked behind her leading the horses.

Good Help Was Hard to Come By

Finding adequate maintenance help during these difficult times was nearly impossible. Our regular caretaker was working on ships in the New York Navy Yards. We finally hired Joe, a middle-aged man who had all the mechanical skills necessary, and who was also an alcoholic. We were desperate and thought we could control this habit by refusing to give him any means of transportation. But Joe was smarter than we were. He decided that he was a Catholic and that it was necessary for him to go to church each Sunday. We assigned a counselor to drive Joe to Bridgton and to stay with him during the services. We were sure our plan had worked, but we were wrong.

On the following visitor’s weekend, Joe helped us prepare the benches and other chores to have everything ready for the visitors. Once again, we had a counselor drive Joe and stay with him during the services. It was a glorious Maine day, and all the visitors were seated on the beach watching water sports as the campers sang and cheered for their teams. Suddenly Joe pulled up at the beach in a rowboat. He had slyly arranged to have a six-pack left under where he sat at church, and he somehow hid it from the counselor on the trip back to camp. Then he took out one of the rowboats and consumed all the hot beer as he sat in the middle of the lake. As Joe stepped from the boat on to the sand, he collapsed. Luckily for me, two of the fathers picked Joe up and carried him off the beach. The water sports continued as if nothing had happened. I lead the two rescuers to Joe’s cabin. We threw his clothes into a bag, and the two wonderful fathers drove Joe to the bus station and left him there with enough cash to buy a bus ticket back to New York.

And then what did we do for help? I think we hired two high school boys in the village, and the staff pitched in to get the daily work completed. Whatever the solution, the campers had a good summer, and the parents never referred to the incident. They understood that in those times there were challenges to finding good help.

Walking to the Peace Circle

We were always anxious to hear the news on the radio and were all affected by every battle. On Sunday evenings we sang around a campfire sitting on a piece of cleared ground near the bottom of a steep hill. I never liked the spot and hired a local forester to peel some pine logs and lay them in a semi-circle around a secluded spot by the lake. On V-J evening, the news came over the radio that the war was over. I announced it to the camp in the dining room. There was a stunned silence. We were overcome with relief. I suggested that we walk quietly to the new campfire circle and sing together. We all walked silently down the path, sat down, and started to sing with our arms around each other — many of us sobbing. Most of us sang all night and watched the sun rise. A quiet feeling of joy permeated the camp. The next day, we all had our own special way of expressing our happiness. Some ran and yelled, some went to church and prayed, and some just went about their daily routine. This was the first time we had been together at the new campfire. We called this beautiful spot The Peace Circle, and it’s still at camp today.

Helen Herz Cohen was director of Camp Walden in Denmark, Maine, from 1939 until 1995.

Originally published in the 2003 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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