Honoring the defense women of World War II
● By Steven Hoffman
By Steven Hoffman
The defense women of World War II were honored with a ceremony at Oxford Memorial Park last Saturday, as a plaque, memorial garden, and a bench were unveiled as a lasting tribute to their contributions to the war effort. Local residents also shared memories of the defense women and the sacrifices that they made in support of the country.
The plaque read, in part, “This garden is dedicated to the Oxford Area Defense Women. They were our mothers, sisters, daughters who united to support the war effort.”
Civilians played a major role in the World War II victory, including millions of men and women who entered the workforce at a time when many industries transitioning their assembly lines to produce war materials. The defense women often worked six days a week on the production lines or staffing other positions in very dangerous jobs. Many of them worked with explosives with only limited safety precautions, helping to produce millions of tons of ordnance used by the military. Oxford was one of the places where defense women relocated so that they could work in the munitions plants in nearby Cecil County.
Betsy Brantner and Patty Purcell recalled stories that their mother, Emma Hess Brewer, shared with them about serving as a defense woman in Oxford.
Brantner explained that, during the World War II years, women left their homes in surrounding states to do their part for the war effort. This was a time when women didn’t typically leave their homes like that. Many had husbands, brothers, or friends who fought in World War II and this was their way of showing their support. Brewer left her family’s home in Johnstown, Pa. to work at the Cecil County munitions plants. She had six brothers who were fighting in the war and felt that it was her responsibility to do what she could to try to help her brothers.
“This was her way to do her part,” Brantner explained.
The work in the munitions plants could be very dangerous, but the defense women rolled up their sleeves and got the jobs done as the U.S. embarked on an unprecedented mobilization to equip the military with what it would need to fight the Axis Powers.
Longtime Oxford resident Joe Chamberlain said that he knew several people who worked as defense women. Like so many of the soldiers bravely serving their country in the military at that time, the women were often very young.
“We called them defense girls, not defense women, because they were young girls,” Chamberlain said. He added that there were so many people working in the munitions plants in Elkton that buses would come to Oxford to take them down there.
“It really was a different time,” he said.
The defense women were almost always in an unfamiliar town and they didn’t know anyone. They relied on the kindness of local residents for meals and a place to stay.
Purcell said that her mother always spoke very fondly of “Mom Styer,” an Oxford woman who opened her home to the defense women and looked after them.
Brantner, who serves as the borough manager of Oxford, said that it’s not surprising that her mother would come to love the town.
“It takes people in, it helps people, it has a big heart,” Brantner explained.
The defense women also formed friendships with local businesspeople. Purcell shared the story about how her mother would often go into the store owned by Mr. Silverstein to talk with him. One day, Brewer went in and the shopkeeper wouldn’t talk to her. He was hiding his face behind a newspaper instead. After awhile, Brewer was finally able to convince him to put the paper down. She saw that he had been crying.
“They are killing my people, Emma,” he said, referring to the atrocities that the Germans were responsible for all across Europe. “They are killing my people.”
That illustrates how important the United States’ mission was during World War II. It took the entire country, including the defense women, to support the war effort.
An honored guest at the ceremony was Trudy Orcutt, who served as a defense woman. Her son, John Orcutt, explained that his mother came from Virginia to work in one of the plants in Elkton.
Last Saturday’s ceremony would not have been possible without the efforts of Derrick Maule, an Eagle Scout from Nottingham, who completed a scouting project to honor the defense women of World War II.
Maule raised the money to install the memorial garden, bench, and plaque, and also did most of the work in preparing the garden. Maule told the audience that when he first started thinking about what to do for an Eagle Scout project, he contacted local townships to see if they had any specific needs. Brantner suggested that he do a project honoring the defense women of World War II because their contributions have gone largely unrecognized.
Initially, Maule said, he considered doing an informational brochure, but then came the idea to build a memorial garden. Maule’s own grandmother, Evelyn Dawson, was a defense woman, and numerous members of her family were in attendance at the ceremony to see the unveiling of the plaque.
“We decided to do something lasting that the community could enjoy,” Maule said, explaining that most of the work on the project took place between the late summer of 2011 and late summer of 2012.
Fundraising was an important part of the project, and Maule said that many people and businesses were willing to help out.
“Everyone was excited about the project and willing to give something for it,” Maule said. “I like how Oxford came together over this. A lot of people contributed. I’m really pleased with how this project turned out.”
So were the relatives of the defense women.
Brantner said that the defense women were very patriotic and courageous, and have been deserving of a place in Oxford’s Memorial Park, which honors U.S. veterans.
“I think it’s long overdue,” Brantner explained. “I want people to know what they did. It wasn’t about breaking though a glass ceiling. It was about helping their brothers.”
Maule, who is currently an apprenticing as an electrician, said that he will return to do work on the memorial garden in the spring.