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America’s WWII Blackout Cars

by M. Ruth Myers

While working on my current Maggie Sullivan mystery, I wanted to make sure when World War II blackouts went into effect in the United States, especially in Dayton, Ohio, where the series takes place. After all, private eyes wouldn’t be private eyes if they didn’t do a great deal of creeping around at night!

What will be book #6 in the series takes place in the spring of 1942. Despite nationwide fear of air attacks, however, local historian Curt Dalton writes in his book Home Sweet Home Front: Dayton During World War II, that the city’s first total blackout wouldn’t take place until a year later, on May 27, 1943.

Ah, but here’s where researching historical fiction yields countless collateral dabs of information that can enrich a story — and make the creative process just plain fun!

Note the lack of shiny surfaces on this WW2 “blackout car”.

Although buildings and streetlights weren’t blacked out until 1943, vehicles were. I’m not talking about extinguishing headlights and taillights. I’m talking about creating what a whimsical turn of mind could view as the 1940s version of stealth technology. Applied to cars.

Just a few weeks before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, production of new 1942-model cars had begun. It screeched to a halt as the US government almost immediately classified chromium as a strategic material since it was needed in the manufacture of stainless steel and necessary to the war effort. The nation’s auto manufacturers were ordered to eliminate “brightwork”, the chrome and stainless trim on cars, within one month. They would have to end production of passenger cars altogether in two months in order to switch to production of military trucks and ambulances, tanks, and aircraft engines.

The few thousand new cars produced in the weeks between when the supply of shiny parts ran out and early February of 1942 when US passenger car production ended entirely are known as “blackout specials”. Normally shiny parts were painted black, gray, olive drab or similar dark color. In some cases the trim was a color that looked attractive with the car’s background color, a decidedly unflamboyant relative to today’s pin stripes and detailing. Surviving cars, and even photographs, are rare.

The same flat, non-reflective painted trim was used on military vehicles as well.

What color do you think Eli and Calvin at Wheeler’s garage paint the trim on Maggie’s DeSoto?



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A .38, a nip of gin and sensational legs get 1940s private investigator Maggie Sullivan out of most scrapes,
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Pearl Harbor Attack Brings War to an Ohio City – Part II: Immediate Response

M. Ruth Myers

The speed with which the city of Dayton, Ohio, responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor was stunning, especially when contrasted with the slow pace of communications detailed in Part I. The extent to which the city was prepared to step onto a war footing was equally amazing.

Police Chief Rudolph Wurstner, Dayton, Ohio

Police Chief Rudolph Wurstner, Dayton, Ohio


Within hours of receiving initial word of the attack, the city’s entire police had been mobilized. All vacations were canceled. Police Chief Rudolph Wurstner activated a plan which he and a few other members of his command had worked on quietly for more than a year. During that time, two members of his detective bureau had been assigned anti-sabotage investigation duties and had been in constant contact with the FBI. Now, almost immediately, police patrolled to protect the city’s numerous manufacturing and research facilities.

I was able to show the outer results of that planning in Maximum Moxie, the latest book in my Maggie Sullivan mystery series, which is set in Dayton. What I couldn’t show was the wealth of activity going on behind the scenes that was unknown to my detective and other characters.


Just outside the city lay Wright Field and Patterson Field, military installations vital to operations of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Wright Field was headquarters of the Materiel Division, the branch of the Air Corps which developed new aircraft, equipment and accessories. Nearby Patterson Field was the center for Air Corps aviation logistics, maintenance and supply. They, too, had been making secret preparations, which now went into effect.

At word from Washington, both airfields put aerial defenses in place and added ground reinforcements to boost security. Armed aircraft were stationed at both bases. All civilian planes were grounded. All military leaves were cancelled until further notice.


A Home Defense Auxiliary already had been established. It now was called into service. This force consisted of 100 members of the American Legion and V.F.W. They were organized under four commanders who held a rank equivalent to those of police sergeants. Other civilian groups organized quickly.

By Dec. 9, less than 48 hours from first word of the attack, the city’s Volunteer Defense Office issued a public appeal for 200 women to train as nurses aides. Both married and single women were welcome. Training classes would be held for six weeks Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9-12 a.m. Volunteer office help also was needed from 7-9 p.m., and would work in the lobby of the Municipal Building.

Also on Dec. 9, the Citizens Protective Committee appealed to all owners of motor vehicles to register, giving name, address and phone number. They could be pressed into service in the event a forced evacuation of the city was needed.

As I sat reading the long-ago newspaper announcements of those initiatives, I found myself wondering over and over: How many cities, faced with a similar catastrophe today, could match that kind of speed and efficiency?

— Book of the Week —


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Pearl Harbor Attack Brings War to an Ohio City – Part I: Communications

by M. Ruth Myers

shattered Christmas ornament


Most accounts of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged America into World War II focus on actions at the distant naval base itself, or give passing mention to the fact that those on the home front heard the news on their radios on a Sunday afternoon.

The home front part in particular has always struck me as distressingly incomplete.

In Maximum Moxie, the latest book in my Maggie Sullivan mystery series, I wanted to give a more detailed, close-up view of what occurred in one city (Dayton, Ohio) in the hours immediately following initial word of the attack. It was, after all, the Christmas season. Children were stringing popcorn and making paper chains to decorate the tree for Santa’s visit. Women were baking. It was the last ordinary day in what would be a very long time.

To appreciate how news of the Pearl Harbor attack shattered that day, imagine the sudden horror and uncertainty of 9/11 — but without modern communications.

  •  Teletype was the swiftest way to send information.
  •  Home radios were becoming more common, but were still a bit of a luxury in middle class homes.
  •  Only two radio networks broadcast nationally, and only one of those broadcast news on Sundays.
  •  Images of breaking news in distant places would, if you were lucky, appear in your local paper half a day later.
  •  Telephoning relatives in another city, let alone another state, required waiting while operators connected one exchange to another (and another, and another) when there was room on the line.
Pearl Harbor radiogram

From commander in chief of naval operations in the Pacific

For some, the effect of the first, brief radio bulletin about the attack was immediate and tragic. In Berkeley, California, Sidney Arthur Higgins, who had worked on construction of the Panama Canal and served as an Army captain in World War I, was listening. When he heard the news, he shouted to his wife to come listen. By the time she got there, he was having a heart attack. He died less than a month later on Jan. 2, 1942.

But how people reacted, and the speed and variations in how the news reached them, varied considerably.

At the time, the United States had just two national broadcast networks. One, NBC, split its programming into two feeds but had no Sunday newscasts. The other, CBS, had a regularly scheduled news program, “The World Today”, that was about to begin when news of the attack started arriving on wire service teletype shortly before 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time. CBS was therefore able to shift from scheduled news to that of the attack, and to provide steady coverage as fresh details came in.

Dayton, where the Maggie Sullivan mysteries are set, was like many other cities. It didn’t have a CBS station. It got only a branch of NBC. There a program featuring Sammy Kaye’s orchestra was just ending, and a scholarly discussion, “The Chicago Roundtable” about to begin, when wire-service machines clattered out news of the Pearl Harbor attack. NBC was able to cut the start of the Roundtable program to provide news bulletins – but then it returned to regular programming. Interrupting programs with commercial sponsors required permission from the sponsor executives, so the network was largely limited to providing updates during breaks.

That’s how it was for the rest of the day. Distant horror, with occasional details trickling in.

Only the following day, when Dayton papers carried photographs of the attack, could residents picture the scope of what had befallen them. Only through maps printed there did many readers begin to understand where the distant U.S. base that had been the target of the attack was located.

In contrast to the era’s slow communication, however, Dayton’s emergency preparedness, even by today’s standards, was amazing.  Activation of a plan to move the city to a wartime footing began within hours of receiving news about the attack.

(Next week – Part II: Immediate Response)

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It’s practically a return to the dime novels of the 1940s!  This new Crime Cafe box set gets you nine full-length mystery and crime novels by nine different for just 99c. (Okay, technically that’s 11 cents each, but consider inflation.)  Authors include Austin Camacho, Donna Fletcher Crow and others, including yours truly.   Editor is New York Times best-selling novelist Debbi Mack, host of Crime Cafe.


You might think that this is the first time a woman has won a national following running for U.S. President, but in 1940 a woman did just that. Even more amazing in today’s political climate, her campaign attracted fans from both parties.

Her name was Gracie Allen, and she was half of the popular Burns and Allen comedy team. Her persona was that of somewhat flighty naivete. Interspersed with her funny lines, however, were seemingly innocent zingers that were wickedly wise.


“A platform is something the candidate stands for and the voters fall for.”


From the age of three, Allen was a performer. Her career began on the vaudeville stage, where she met, formed an act with and eventually married George Burns. The comedy duo moved on to radio and eventually television.

On radio, Burns and Allen discovered their listeners loved running gags which might go on for months. So in 1940 Gracie Allen announced she was running for President. The media, as well as her fans, ate it up.

  • Her party? The Surprise Party.
  • Its mascot? A kangaroo. (It was a leap year.)
  • Her platform? “knotty pine trimmed with oak and inlaid with California redwood”

Allen made “surprise” appearances on other radio shows to plug her candidacy. She spoke before the National Women’s Press Club at the invitation of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She received an endorsement from Harvard University.

“We favor putting Congress on a commission basis. Pay them for results. If they do a good job and the country prospers, they get 10% of the extra take.”

You can read much more about her campaign or listen to her first press conference.

It was all a joke, of course. In 1940, who could possibly take seriously the idea of a woman President?

Maybe the 42,000 voters across the country who, come election day, voted for her as a write-in candidate.

So as our current, surreal election season grinds on, if your spirits lag, think of Gracie Allen’s campaign and smile.

“Today millions of people are living who will never do it again. Millions are being born for the first time-and millions are doing nothing because it’s the best offer they’ve had this week. … It is for these people and many others that the Surprise Party is conceived and desecrated, founded upon the principle that everybody is just as good as anybody else, even though they aren’t quite so smart.”

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1940s detective Maggie Sullivan is more at home in the dark

Maggie Sullivan mystery Number 4

Maggie Sullivan mystery Number 4

streets of Dayton, Ohio, than in the posh little hotel where she’s hired to solve a theft — and encounters a maid’s body in a trash can.  Amazon   Apple   Nook   Kobo

Problems Facing America’s Working Women in WW2

Today I’m a guest of author Suzanne Adair on Relevant History, where I describe some of the lesser known hardships faced by American women who flooded into the workplace during World War II. These went beyond scarcity of hosiery and unavailability of new girdles. (If you can imagine not wearing a girdle being a hardship.)

US Army poster of civilian workers

US Army poster of civilian workers

Stop by. There’s a book giveaway. While you’re there, have a look at Suzanne’s historical mysteries, including her Michael Stoddard series featuring a young redcoat officer during the American Revolution.

A County Nurse of the WW2 Era

Before World War II plunged countless American women into factory jobs and vacancies left by men who had gone to fight, the two careers most open to women were teaching and nursing.  They required professional training, and women who underwent it were looked up to in their communities.

Today, author Anna Castle shares the story of her grandmother Saima (pronounced like “sigh”), a Greatest Generation woman who enjoyed a long career as a county nurse.  Other photos of Saima and two nursing student friends appear on the Share Stories page.

by Anna Castle

Saima Lydia Johnson was born on the farm in 1907, the newest member of a small Finnish farming community near Brocket, North Dakota. Her father had homesteaded there along with some dozen villagers from northern Sweden. His name was Johanni Perälä, changed to Johnson at Ellis Island. (That explains why my great-grandfathers on both sides had the same name. The Norwegian ‘Johnson’ never told anyone his original name.) Her mother was also a Finnish immigrant named Hana Uusitalo.

Saima taught grade school in Brocket for several years after she finished high school. Then she applied for a scholarship to the nursing school at St. Michaels Catholic Hospital in Grand Forks and was accepted. She worked in the ‘cook shack’ all summer cooking for the men in the fields and saved money to buy a new coat and shoes and a ticket to Grand Forks on the train.

Saima and two other nursing students work in the Cook Shack.

Saima and two other nursing students work in the Cook Shack.

“I think she must have been a wonderful nurse,” my mother, Carmen, said.  “I would often meet one of the nuns or people she had taken care of and they would praise her. My dad meanwhile, considered it a disgrace that his wife would leave the home to work. At first he expected meals on time and everything to be the same. Later he sort of ignored her career but at least didn’t criticize.”

Saima was appointed public health nurse of Grand Forks County and worked for some years there before retirement. She kept the county clean, visited the schools to inspect for lice, worked with the doctors at the end of the TB struggle before penicillin.

She married Emilio Acosta, originally of Puerto Rico. Emilio served in both world wars and went to the University of Missouri on a VA scholarship. He earned a Ph.D. in Spanish and got a job as a professor of Spanish at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He and Saima had three children.

The couple are buried in the Finnish cemetery near Brocket, where Acosta is the only non-Finnish name.  His headstone is distinguished by the tiny flag of a veteran. We don’t have flags to commemorate county nurses, although their service was every bit as important to the health of this great country.



Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas, mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees — BA Classics, MS Computer Science, and PhD Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitressing, software engineering, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. Find out more at



My novel The Whiskey Tide is free through March 27 on Amazon.  In the 1920’s, three sheltered sisters from a proper New England family smuggle liquor from Canada to support their family after their father’s death and a relative’s treachery leave them penniless.


World War II Icon Turns 75: The USO

One of the icons of World War II, and a presence in the live of American service men and women from then to now, turns 75 today – the USO. It was the brainchild of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who saw the need for an organization to boost morale and provide recreation to American G.I.’s. He also saw it as a way to build support on the homefront if and when the country went to war.

Roosevelt enlisted the help of Mary Ingraham, a long-time social reformer who from 1940-1946 served as president of the National Board of the YWCA. Her first task was uniting the work of half a dozen organizations under one umbrella. They were:

  • The Salvation Army
  • Young Men’s Christian Association
  • Young Women’t Christian Association
  • National Catholic Community Services
  • National Travelers Aid Association
  • National Jewish Welfare Board


The resulting organization, the USO, was incorporated in New York on February 4, 1941. Although chartered by Congress, it was not a government program, but a private organization supported by donations and staffed largely by volunteers.

What would the movies do without all those scenes of USO dances sparking wartime romances between young G.I.’s and local girls? But USO centers, some in barns or churches, also provided coffee and small snacks, showed movies and provided writing materials. Some even made childcare available for military wives.

In October of 1941, the year it was founded and just two months before Pearl Harbor, the first of the legendary shows associated with the name USO was produced.

Happy Birthday, USO. Thanks for the memories.

Women Clash on Eve of WW2

In the two years before the Pearl Harbor attack, Americans were divided over whether the country should get involved in the war against Hitler. Nowhere was this split more evident than among American women.

In 1940 and ’41, when politics was still largely a man’s game, women who never before would have done something as indecorous as marching with signs — let alone acting up in public — took to the streets. Others took to the airwaves of that new medium, radio. Some testified before Congress.

On one side were the Isolationists, women who believed America should stay out of the war in Europe. Under the umbrella term the ‘Mothers Movement’, they organized local groups with various affiliations across the country. Dressed in black and wearing veils, they screamed and spat on members of Congress who didn’t share their views. They held vigils and wailed. In Washington, DC, they hanged an effigy of Sen. Claude Pepper (who supported helping Europe) in front of the Capitol.

On the opposite side were the Interventionists. They believed America had a duty to help allies, defend democracy and fight fascism. Among their numbers, in addition to ordinary women, were women educators and journalists. One of the most prominent was Dorothy Thompson, who wrote a newspaper column as well as one in Ladies Home Journal and had a weekly radio program on NBC. In September of 1939 Thompson testified before a Senate committee, urging them to sell arms to Great Britain and France.


This clash of positions split families.

  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and wife of the famous aviator, was an ardent Isolationist and the darling of the Mothers Movement.  She and her husband had been guests of top Nazi officials.
  • Her mother, Elizabeth Cutter Morrow, a noted educator who served as first woman head of Smith College, was an active Interventionist. She did a radio speech in favor of American involvement in World War II, and was the target of threats from the Mothers Movement.
  • Anne’s older sister, Elisabeth, likewise strongly supported the Interventionist cause.

For women, one particular issue added fuel to the disagreement: efforts to enact the country’s first ever peacetime draft. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s military advisors, alarmed at how ill-prepared the country was for war, wanted to start peacetime conscription so at least some trained fighting men would be available if needed.

On Sept. 14, 1940, both houses of Congress passed the Selective Service Act. At the end of the following month, one week before Election Day, the first draft numbers were drawn. Isolationist women continued to rally. If only they could prevent FDR’s re-election, they thought, their sons and other loved ones would never be thrust into battles on the other side of the world.

But he was and they did.

Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration



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Maggie Sullivan mystery Number 4

Maggie Sullivan mystery Number 4

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