Osceola Mills: A high price to pay

May 30, 2004November 8, 2007 

OSCEOLA MILLS -- They were thin pieces of paper that could crush a heart in a second.

"We regret to inform you," the Western Union telegrams would begin in terse type before delivering the blow.

Wounded. Missing in action.


In Osceola Mills, they knew those War Department notices all too well.

Like so many small towns across the nation during World War II, the mining and railroad community straddling Clearfield and Centre counties endured the sorrow of losing its own.

But Osceola Mills did more than its share of crying.

Thirty-five residents, including one woman and two pairs of brothers, died while fighting for their country. At the time, approximately 3,000 people lived in the Osceola Mills area.

Don Stevens' mother twice suffered the news that a son would never come home.

"To me, Osceola Mills paid its dues over and over again," said Stevens, 77, of Exton.

Whether the town gave more of its sons than most is hard to tell. Few towns, large or tiny, escaped the war unscathed. Millheim and the Brush Valley area in Centre County, with about 6,700 residents before the war, had 11 killed, according to Millheim's American Legion Post 445.

Red Oak, a town of 5,000 in Iowa, lost 31 men alone in the Battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa in 1943, says The National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.

The icon of small-town grief is still Bedford, Va., an area of about 3,200 people which lost 19 men in the first minutes of the D-Day invasion. Two more died later that day.

It's difficult even to say, exactly, how many men from Osceola Mills went to war. A memorial built in 1948 listed 345. Stevens, however, said research he and 11 others did yielded the names of 1,050 men and women from Osceola Mills and nearby Rush Township hamlets such as Edendale, Newtown, Sandy Ridge and Spike Island. A sandstone monument dedicated in 1998 bears those names, along with veterans from other wars.

What's certain is that Osceola Mills' sons -- and a few daughters -- fought all over the world, from India to Germany, from Wake Island to Normandy. They fought in Pacific islands, African deserts and European towns. They were on bombers, fighters and ships, and in hospital wards.

No less an authority than the late historian Stephen Ambrose, author of "Band of Brothers" and other World War II books, was impressed after learning of the town's wartime service.

"I had no idea that Osceola Mills made such a large contribution to the (D-Day) invasion and the war," Ambrose wrote in 1999. "Bedford, Va., gets all the publicity and they have the D-Day memorial going up there, but Osceola Mills made a contribution to victory that was just as great as Bedford."

Small-town life

War came to a town trying to shake off the Great Depression.

In 1940, government relief trucks still delivered surplus commodities to the borough's 2,076 residents. Bob Mattern, 71, of Osceola Mills, remembers pulling a little wagon down to meet one with his grandfather.

Work was mainly to be found in the area's coal mines, the local brickyard and the Pennsylvania Railroad depot. Passenger trains no longer stopped, but especially on a winter night, the sounds of freight engines struggling up the grade to Sandy Ridge would echo through the air.

Maple trees lined Curtin Street, the yellow-bricked main drag that sloped down to Moshannon Creek, stained red from mining. Residents could find about anything they needed behind the brick storefronts there.

Mothers bought groceries at the A&P store. Children pressed their faces against the glass cases in Jackson's Candies. There was the First National Bank, Fox's Drug Store, the Read House and Osceola House hotels, a florist, meat shop and sporting goods store.

For almost everything else, from clothing to appliances, Hirsch's Department Store was the place.

In the summer, Herman Hirsch would stand under his front awning and talk to loitering children. His second-floor Christmas toy display always drew Jim McNeish and his pals.

"We were seldom buyers, but we could look longingly," McNeish wrote in his memoirs of the town.

Nickels were scarce, and kids mostly entertained themselves. There were apple trees to pluck, woods to roam and "jinky" ponds full of frogs to explore. Any spot where four bases could be dropped became a ballfield.

"We learned to make something out of nothing," Don Stevens said.

For those who could scrape up the change, there were diversions. The State Theater showed daily features, plus newsreels and cartoons. Dates wound up at Gay's Skateland, or at Nick Mott's diner. Joe West ran a popular hangout, a soda shop with a small dance floor, juke box and pinball games.

On weeknights, the brickyard whistle would sound the 9 p.m. curfew.

"And you better be home by 15 minutes or your butt would be beaten," said George Brocail, 77, of Osceola Mills.

Men and older boys would gather at Joe Carter's place, cigars and newspapers up front, pool tables in the back. Thirsty miners could get a shot and a beer at the American Legion post, social clubs or any of the watering holes where a good Saturday night sidewalk scrap would invariably break out.

"They said they had a bar for every church in town," Stevens said.

Home front

Outrage quickly spread through town after Pearl Harbor.

"Indicative of the wave of common support of the nation's all-out war against Japanese aggression, during the first three days of hostilities Defense Stamp sales have shot upwards," reported the town's weekly paper, the Osceola Leader.

Nearly 300 citizens jammed the red-brick Gorman-Peters Post 313 to form a local Defense Council and plan security measures such as blackouts and plane-spotting. The region's mines and railyards, it was thought, could be targets for enemy bombers.

Seventy-five volunteers initially came forward to be spotters. Dick Powers, a World War I veteran, and his family took around-the-clock shifts on their farm outside town.

"It's easier for us to take care of it ourselves than to hunt up others," Powers told the Leader. "Besides, I think it is the duty of everybody to help the country and we're doing what we can."

And the good-byes began.

In early February, the first monthly induction, the regional draft board selected 12 Osceola men. At a farewell party in a diner, friends and family gave Robert Greenwalt, an A&P meat packer, a leather traveling case.

Many were rushing to en list, some fresh out of high school. The Mostyns held the local record with six sons serving, but windows decorated with multiple blue stars -- one for each family member in the military -- were a common sight.

Women would stop eligible young men on the street.

"They would say, `Why aren't you in the service like my son?'" Stevens said.

Daily life changed. "Victory Begins On The Home Front," the sign said in a storefront display, and residents did their part, making do with rationed gas, sugar, butter and meat.

When the fire company siren announced a random blackout, the town darkened. Four men were prosecuted, "for the good of the community," for lighting cigarettes downtown during one drill. Families unfurled heavy, black drapes over their windows.

Scrap drives took place regularly. Residents were urged to save tin, aluminum, silk and rayon. In the spring of 1942 alone, the town salvaged about 45,000 pounds of rubber.

Red Cross volunteers went door to door selling Savings Bonds, and people gave enough that Osceola Mills exceeded its quota more than once. For one drive, the princely sum of $25 went to the individual with the most sales.

The town's two Civil War cannons were hauled away and melted down for the war.

Some things, however, stayed the same. "War or no war, the annual Osceola Mills Fireman's Fourth of July celebration will go on as usual," declared the Leader in April of 1943.

Kids helped however they could. George Brocail fished out sunken tires to recycle for war material. Stevens would keep an ear out for an old junk dealer calling for "rags and iron" and sell scraps for a nickel.

One 11-year-old boy even tried to emulate his heroes. Showing a pal how soldiers shoot the enemy, he accidentally shot himself in the head with a revolver. He spent two months at Philipsburg State Hospital but survived.

To stretch their ration coupons, families around town planted Victory Gardens. They were so ubiquitous, in fact, that civic leaders ordered dogs leashed, saying strays digging up vegetables were hindering the war effort.

From the start, the Leader published letters home and faithfully kept folks posted about their men and women in the military. And they were proud. In 1943, they packed a street blocked off by fire trucks to watch the American Legion dedicate a wartime Honor Roll with 578 area names as a band played Taps.

Any overseas updates soon traveled the grapevine.

"If they were on their front porch, or if they were your neighbor, you would say, `What news do you have of Johnny?' and so forth," said Cathryn Albert, 94, of Osceola Mills.

By early 1944, reports of woundings and captures began joining news of training assignments and postings.

Then the obituaries started appearing. And the blue stars turned to gold.

The local railroad freight agent delivered the first telegram to the Stevens' home. He couldn't bear to bring the second and asked his counterpart in Philipsburg to do it.

"When my mother opened the door, she knew what it was immediately," Don Stevens said.

One funeral after another filled churches. Bob Mattern, as a boy, watched one soldier buried to a rifle salute. Neighbors would bring food to bereaved families, but grieving was mostly private. A war needed to be won.

"There were never any great emotional outpourings," said Jack Petuck, 76, of Bellefonte.

That wasn't the case on an August day in 1945 after Japan's surrender ended the war. People flooded the streets. Cars honked. Church bells rang.

"The whistles kept blowing and blowing," said Albert. "It was an exhilarating feeling. You wanted to shout, but you didn't know what to shout."

Bud O'Brien, 69, of Philipsburg, heard the commotion while at the movies and came out to see a parade of cars streaming up Curtin Street. "And I was scared to death," he said.

One by one in the next months, the veterans returned. Some became town pillars, such as Frank Wawrynovic, 87, of Clearfield, a wounded D-Day infantryman who went on to fund several college scholarships and freely open his checkbook to local groups.

Some spent days in the park drinking, shattered by their experiences.

And some came home for good. In the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church Cemetery, Pfc. Michael Fonslick rests, his grave overlooking the neighborhoods that long ago sent their best and bore the cost.

"I don't think," Don Stevens said, "there's a town of our size that gave more."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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