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How World War II Changed Montgomery

New industries, a labor shortage and a changing status quo provided the backdrop for wartime in the village.

Before World War II, Montgomery was a typical country village where most of your daily needs could be met without leaving town.

Downtown Aurora was a few miles north and a streetcar ride away. There were a few manufacturing plants in town that employed a large number of local people, and also drew from a labor pool in Aurora and Oswego. The village was surrounded by small truck farms that employed many people, mostly family of course, but others found work on these farms during the summer months.

World War II dramatically changed all of that. First, all young men were required to register for the draft when they turned 18. This began the shrinking of the available labor pool. Then, the government began sending engineers around the country to retrofit the factories to produce ammunition and other war materials. 

United Wallpaper Company bought the grounds of the former Fox River Park and began construction of several cement block structures. They would contain storage magazines for explosives and production facilities for making flares, used all over the world to light up airstrips and battlefields.

Lyon Metallic began producing parts for the famous Corsair F-4-U fighter planes and landing mats for rapid construction of airfields in the Pacific.

The Defense Plant Corporation built 14 hemp mills in northern Illinois. Illinois farmers were asked to help grow the fiber needed to supply the material needed for rope. The hemp would replace the manila fiber formerly imported from the Pacific area. These farmers would receive draft deferments.

By this time, the streetcars in Aurora had been replaced by motorbuses, and new routes brought a workforce from Aurora and surrounding towns. And, even more significant, a large numbers of women joined the workforce for the first time. Having women join men on the production line in the defense plants further altered the status quo.

On December 11, 1942, bold headlines in The Aurora Daily Beacon-News pushed a shocked Montgomery into the spotlight, and illustrated just how much some things were changing. “MAN SHOOTS WIFE, VERNON COOP," the paper procaimed.

Mr. Coop died of gunshot wounds the next day. The love triangle developed when the 40-year old man began a love affair with Mrs. Harold Luke, a female co-worker at the Buick aviation engine plant in Melrose Park. Harold and LaVon Luke lived in an apartment above a garage on Webster Street in Montgomery.

Mr. Luke learned that Mr. Coop was visiting his wife while he was at work in Seneca. He worked long hours as plant foreman for the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company there. A separation followed, with Mrs. Luke keeping the apartment while her husband rented a room in the house of his landlord. Mr. Luke stayed home from work one day and surprised them together. It ended with Mr. Coop near death, and Mrs. Luke hospitalized with gunshot wounds.

Further tragedy took place before it was over. While Mrs. Luke survived her wounds, her husband died while in custody. He was a diabetic and did not receive proper treatment.

The war was changing everything, even on the home front. Doctors and nurses were needed in the military hospitals. Life would never be the same.

Like children everywhere, Montgomery’s children were affected by the war, and the sacrifices that all were making. And, like children everywhere, they were caught up in the patriotism and the glamour of hero worship. Young boys played soldier, donning makeshift gear and inventing war games. 

One “uniform” staple was the tin can shoe. They were made by stomping hard on the center of a tin can so that it fastened itself around the shoe and made a very satisfying clunk as they marched down the sidewalk with their wooden guns made by finding a gun shaped piece of wood and fastening a clothespin to it with bands cut from an inner tube. Flipping the clothespin would launch a rubber band toward the "enemy."

Little girls used bobby-pinned dishtowels to simulate the nurses’ uniforms. Others played “Camp Grant” where they bundled up their dolls and took them to a backyard army camp and held imaginary conversations with their soldier husbands. They would catch their hair up in a bandana a la “Rosie the Riveter” and picture that life in a defense plant would be so much more interesting than homemaking.

Families, still suffering the economics effects of the recent depression, were forced into further belt-tightening. A family was issued a certain amount of coupons they could use along with cash for sugar, meat, gasoline and other goods. Butter was either rationed or in short supply and families bought white margarine that contained a little capsule of yellow food coloring. (There was a law against selling yellow margarine, sponsored by the butter industry.) A favorite chore was pinching the capsule and squeezing the margarine packet to color the "fake butter."

New tires were impossible to get because of the rubber shortage. People saved leftover fat from the kitchen and turned it in to their butcher. They made balls out of tin foil scraps and turned them into a collection point. Women donated costume jewelry to be traded to the natives in some far away jungle. It’s hard to say how this contributed to the war effort, but it certainly made people feel virtuous and patriotic. Patriotism ruled!

Many people who grew up during these years, remember wearing their shoes until they outgrew them, and by then they often had been resoled many times. But the shoes weren’t through yet. They would be handed down to a younger child, who hardly appreciated the gift and longed for the smell of brand new shoe leather again. 

The war brought out the best in our community as we united behind a cause. The hardships of wartime sacrifices and shortages were a good bonding experience for neighbors who sent their bravest and best young men off to fight for our freedom in an unknown land. We prayed together for our servicemen, cried together when a family buried a son and flew our flags when they came safely home. We were confident that this was a war that would end all wars.


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