Helen Southworth: volunteering in World War II

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

One country after another surrendered to the Nazis in 1940. Heavy bombing of London was underway before 1941 was half over. U.S. relations with Japan continued to sour.

The future didn’t look bright as World War II began to take shape. Although the United States had yet to join the battle, changes were evident throughout the country as uncertainty hung in the air.

Would the war come to North America?

In June 1941, the call went out through the pages of the Morenci Observer to join the Red Cross and learn first aid. It was time to begin preparing for an unsure future.

Helen (Kahle) Southworth was among those who answered the plea for help.southworth.red.poster

“This was before I was married,” Helen remembers. “I was single and fancy free. It was quite an experience for me.”

She was still living with her parents at the family farm on Packard Road and working at the bank in Morenci.

“We saw the story in the Observer and [bank employee] Rose Margaret Rorick said, ‘Why not stay in town tonight and we’ll go and see what the class is like?’”

They went to the meeting at the high school and signed up. Rose Margaret ended up leaving Morenci to go back to college, but Helen stuck with it.

“I kept right on with the Red Cross,” she said. “I thought it was a great organization and a great duty to the country.”

Classes were scheduled on four Tuesday nights and 45 citizens enrolled at a cost of 75 cents each. Students learned how to bandage, locate pressure points to stop bleeding, attach a splint for a broken bone, etc.

A graduation ceremony took place on the stage of Stair Auditorium, with Leo Bess Chappell at the piano to lead community singing.

After Helen became proficient in first aid procedures, she served as an instructor.

“The first class I taught was at the high school in Onsted,“ she said. “The town wanted a first aid class and there were three others who went with me to teach it.”

Helen went a step further by signing up for nurses aide training at Bixby Hospital in Adrian which, at the time, stood in the location of the present post office.

Later in 1941, a Red Cross Room was set up in Morenci city hall. Various groups ranging from the American Legion Auxiliary to the Order of the Eastern Star to church groups took turns staffing the office in an effort to “fill the quota.”

Volunteers knitted wristlets and anklets for snowsuits, created sweaters and mittens, and sewed a variety of clothing. Dozens of sweaters, cardigans and skirts were knitted by December 1941. Fifty heavy dresses were sewn, 160 snowsuits, 50 two-piece suits and much more.

Red Cross groups across America became the chief supplier of civilian relief supplies for an international cause, aiding refugees, soldiers and prisoners of war.

Along with this came scrap metal drives, victory gardens and rationing.

In a November 1941 Observer, the effort to attract new Red Cross members was evident in a front page plea.

“Much work is yet to be done and every individual will be asked, for the need for Red Cross work and money is greater today than at any time in the history of this country.”

Even before the Pearl Harbor Day tragedy, civil defense organizations formed in towns across the country. An Observer article called for volunteers who could serve as air raid wardens and fire watchers, for people to join debris removal crews, road repair workers and decontamination squads.

Life went on—the new Morenci Rubber Products building opened after a fire destroyed the factory earlier in the year, plans for a new community swimming pool progressed—but daily events existed under a pall of impending war.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany declared war on the United States.

While troops fought overseas, citizens at home banded together to form the greatest volunteer effort the country has ever seen.

People such as Helen Kahle stepped forward to do their part and are now left with some memories of the trying times, along with memorabilia such as the service pins she earned.

“I also found a certificate from the Red Cross signed by President Harry Truman,” she said. “It says I gave 500 hours of volunteer time.”

She joined millions of other Red Cross members of the time to fulfill the agency’s motto: “We serve humanity.”

     – Nov. 1, 2006
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