CHESTER — As Japanese officials took to the airwaves on the morning of Aug. 15, 1945 to proclaim the nation would soon accept the surrender terms of the Potsdam Declaration, the American people, who had toiled for years to ensure that result, waited by their radios across the date line on the evening of Aug. 14.
When word came at 7 p.m. that President Truman had confirmed Japan’s capitulation and that a formal surrender was set for Sept. 2, “Delaware County… exploded into the noisiest, merriest, wildest and most spontaneous celebration the county has ever known,” the Chester Times reported the following day.
“Thoughts of gasoline rationing and tire shortages floated away with the war as almost every vehicle capable of operating was put into use” and car horns joined pots and pans, industrial whistles, church bells and other improvised noise-making. At 7:15, the planned eight blasts of the city fire siren at Fifth and Market streets officially marked the surrender. “Impromptu parades, led by fire company apparatus in many communities, quickly organized,” while in Chester “carloads and busloads of yelling men and women and children converged on the local ‘Times Square’ – Seventh and Edgmont Avenue. A double line of cars extended half-way back in Deshong Drive as the traffic jammed up. And there was no let-up until some six hours later.”
The celebration started prematurely Sunday night, Aug. 12, as a false 9:43 p.m. report of surrender from the United Press made its way to radio broadcasts. Though the UP countermanded the news flash two minutes later, city residents had taken to the streets shouting, “The war is over.” Across the county in Upper Darby, the Cardington-Stonehurt Fire Co. gave five blasts from its siren and West Chester Pike and 69th Street traffic came to a halt, “as confused motorists, many of them with radios in their cars, were caught up in the spontaneous celebration,” the Times reported.
The pent-up enthusiasm came at the end of the largest war the world had ever known, one in which Delaware County sent roughly 30,000 of its residents to fight. As of that evening, 869 were known to have given their lives in the conflict, according to Times records.
At home, residents had devoted five years of ‘round the clock industrial efforts since the start of the Lend-Lease program in 1940, and adhered to increasingly strict wartime rationing.
The efforts of World War II veterans and sacrifices on the homefront continue to resonant with county leaders today. “Think about your grandparents and great grandparents and what they did to save our country, what they did to save many countries around the world,” said Bob McMahon, mayor of Media Borough, in advice younger generations. A veteran of the Vietnam War, McMahon is a co-founder of the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum and the Veterans National Education Program.
“(The current global landscape) would not exist if we didn’t have people that not only went to war, but believed in it. They knew what they were getting into, and they were signing up left and right,” he said, believing an Axis takeover of the U.S. would have followed had Americans not gone to Europe and the Pacific. “And we saved China at that point. You don’t see that in the news today,” he said, referring to the Japanese occupation of China and ensuing war crimes during the concurrent Sino-Japanese War.
Before tens of thousands of county residents embarked on that war effort in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the county’s industrial waterfront ramped up production in 1940 to support the British war effort. Chester and vicinity would form a key Mid-Atlantic center of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt deemed the “Arsenal of Democracy” as he launched the Lend-Lease program with Great Britain.
“Everything related to licking the Japanese and licking the Germans … you were all singing the same song. You were playing different musical instruments – the farmer was one, the refinery worker, the steel worker, the chemical worker were others – it was a great big symphony that was all composed to lick the Axis,” said R. Anderson “Andy” Pew, retired corporate officer and director for Sun Oil Co. and U.S. Air Force veteran, in a recent interview with the Times. Pew’s father, Arthur E. Pew Jr., served as chief engineer at Sun Oil during the war years.
Sun Oil’s innovation in the years prior to the war would prove vital to supplying 100 octane aviation fuel to give Allied fighter and bombers an edge and maximizing gasoline output needed to supply the two-theater war. “My father and his brother Walter Pew, figured out you can so-called crack the (crude oil) at high temperature and pressure and it comes out at 80 octane,” versus the less efficient distillation process previously used in refineries, Pew said. The two pledged their inheritance against any damage to the Marcus Hook refinery by the process to ease the fears of uncle and Sun Oil President J. Howard Pew.
Arthur Pew Jr. would further the development in the late 1930s by taking another risk, this time on eccentric, auto racing French World War I veteran Eugene Houdry, a mechanical engineer turned self-taught chemist. The Houdry Process of catalytic cracking, using an aluminum oxide catalyst to raise octane levels, was a leap in oil refining and allowed the ability to ship 25,244,505 barrels of 100-octane aviation fuel during the war, according to a 1945 statistic from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Finding initial limited support from Standard Oil of New York upon arriving in America, Pew jumped at the chance to recruit Houdry. “My mother was fluent in French … Eugene Houndry came and lived at our house in Bryn Mawr for six months or so,” said Andy Pew. “They sat a card table in the living room and my mother translated. Out of that came the first Houdry catalytic process,” he said.
The rapid technological changes across industries to meet wartime demand and limited workforce would prove difficult for production at home. “The problem was, not just for Sun but all refineries… you had a lot of experienced personnel that had been drafted or volunteered. We had a fair number of inexperienced people running the refinery out in the yard,” Pew said.
County industries would overcome the rapid retooling and short training time windows as over 100,000 workers at about 250 sites supplied all branches of the Armed Forces and the Merchant Marine. Chester’s Ford Motor Company plant became the largest of America’s three tank depots, Westinghouse’s Steam Division and Merchant Marine Division turned out $140 million in propulsion equipment in 1944 alone, and Baldwin Locomotive in Eddystone retooled to produce over 1,000 M4 Sherman tanks. Sun Ship grew to be the largest privately owned shipyard in the world during the war, stretching from Chester’s East End through Eddystone Borough. Its four yards contributed two-thirds of all new U.S. tankers in 1942 and one-half in 1943, averaging 40 percent by the war’s end.
Chester’s role in the “Arsenal of Democracy” brought to the attention and airwaves of its namesake in England in June 1941. The mayor and citizens of Chester, England sent trans-Atlantic greetings to Chester, Pa., over a special broadcast of the BBC’s “London Calling” program on June 18, 1941. The radio program coincided with city Mayor Clifford H. Peoples proposing a local committee be formed to aid the English city. “Through this plan, this city would figuratively adopt its British namesake and provide money and clothing,” which are urgently needed overseas,” the Times reported June 17, as the industrial North West and West Midlands of England endured the German Blitz air raids. “The committee would also encourage the change of correspondence between the cities, school children, service clubs, etc.,” according to the Times.
One city resident, Margaret Dykes, of 1416 Williston St., wrote the Times that she lived in Chester, England, in 1898, and recalled ‘pleasant memories of a very beautiful city,’ which she hoped to hear was spared by the Blitz during the broadcast as ‘such quaintness and beauty can never be replaced.’
While no further evidence of a sister city program can be found in the Times and local historical archives, city residents would find themselves planning for their own Blitz contingency plans by the end of the year. “If bombers come roaring up the Delaware River to hit at the vital defense industries clustered along its bankers, Chester will be ready,” the Times wrote ten days after the Pearl Harbor attack. With presumed knowledge of the German’s planned Amerikabomber, capable of a roundtrip attack on the Mid-Atlantic region, and Graf Zeppelin aircraft carrier – neither of which came to operation – the Chester City Council of Defense took a cue from English cities. The council began a registry on Dec. 17 to designate homes in the city’s outlying neighborhoods and surrounding municipalities which could house up a planned 7,000 children evacuated from industrial waterfront neighborhoods.