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Petoskey’s Virginia Wilbur: Sault Ste. Marie WWII memories

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

As a teenager in 1941, Virginia Wilbur recalls changes brought on by the second world war

Life as a teenager in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in the early 1940s was anything but usual. Virginia “Ginny” (Splan) Wilbur, 95, grew up near the Sault Locks with her family. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, the locks became an important navigational and strategic military location. Residents of “The Sault” saw many changes to their community after the United States entered WWII.

“Before the war, you could go anyplace, walk along the locks and go anywhere,” recalls Ginny, who has lived in Petoskey since the 1950s.

“But once the government took over, they built walls and fences around the locks. The war changed the locks.”

She remembers going on a tour of tunnels under the locks. The public was not allowed in the tunnels once the war began.

The Sault Locks were seen by the U.S. government as a potential target of bombings by both Germans and Japanese. Protecting the locks from invasion and bombings became a central purpose of the military and many people in the Sault area.

Fort Brady, a U.S. military base, had been a staple in the Sault for more than 100 years. The primary responsibility of the post at Fort Brady was to protect the canal.

The U.S. Coast Guard also had a prominent presence in the city. Once the U.S. entered the war, Fort Brady grew to house 15,000 troops. The 2nd Infantry Division conducted cold-weather training at the fort to determine what equipment would be necessary.

In 1944, before the end of WWII, the Army decided to close the fort as surplus. In 1946, the Army gave the fort to the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, now called Michigan Technological University, who established a branch campus at the site. After renovations, the fort was sold to Lake Superior State College, now known as Lake Superior State University.

“There were many service people in town,” Ginny remembers.

Ginny describes how the military suspended long cables over the city to prevent potential enemy aircraft from getting close enough to the locks for bombing raids. The cables were suspended by enormous helium balloons.

“Once in a while the balloons would break loose and military personnel would scramble to retrieve them,” she said.

An entire battalion of Black soldiers were brought to the Sault with the sole purpose of shooting down enemy aircraft, should any be spotted, she said.

Ginny’s parents were extremely protective of her, her two brothers and two sisters, a discipline that only got stronger as the town filled up with young men in uniforms. Ginny was a teenager in high school at that time. Going to school, church on Sundays, and working as an aide in the hospital on weekends were the few activities she was allowed. Being strict Presbyterians, her family was limited in what they could do on Sundays.

“During the war, we could knit socks for servicemen on Sunday,” Ginny said.

“We could play games, but not cards. My mother, Grace (Scott) Splan, brought soldiers home from church for dinner on Sundays.”

Prior to the war, Ginny’s family was struggling along with the rest of the nation with the Great Depression, a time she remembers as “rough,” although her family didn’t suffer as much as others did. Her father worked for the city maintaining the streets. Her grandmother lived with them for quite a few years. She has memories of going to Canada to have lunch on occasion.

“Back then, parents didn’t talk to their kids about their finances or troubles,” Ginny said. “We had no idea we were poor.”

Her family heated their home with coal, and she doesn’t recall there ever being a shortage of it.

After the war started, Ginny’s family collected ration stamps like everyone else. Her aunt, her father’s sister, lived on a farm outside the city. The aunt gave them butter and eggs from her farm. Ginny’s parents traded gas stamps with neighbors and friends for other goods they needed, as Ginny’s parents didn’t own a car. A friend of the family kept Jersey cows and would share milk with her family. Everyone looked out for each other, she recalls. Her family did fairly well considering her parents had five children to feed. She remembers how there was no sugar available and how dull most dishes tasted.

On Saturdays Ginny would ride her bicycle to the ferry and get transported to the Canadian side of Sault Ste. Marie and shop for meat for her family. Canada wasn’t rationing, so Ginny didn’t need ration tickets. She made the trip so often, that the butcher got to know her and sold her quality cuts of meat.

As young men in the Sault area joined the armed forces, Ginny remembers going to the train station in 1941 to watch her classmates and neighbor’s sons board the train, heading off to war, saying goodbye to their families.

“I did that only once,” she said. “It was so sad watching them say goodbye. That was not my cup of tea.”

Her brother-in-law, Gordon Peltier, her sister Joyce’s husband, joined the service in 1942. He served in the Navy for 6 years.

Ginny’s father, Thomas A. Splan, was a “watchman” during the war. He took his volunteer duties seriously. At night he would patrol through their neighborhood with a flashlight and whistle, making sure that houses had their black-out drapes closed. No light was permitted to be peeking out between drapes, she said.

Ginny graduated high school in 1943. She continued living with her parents during the war. Ginny worked in a dress shop, a dry goods store, and a dentist office. Many residents of the Upper Peninsula and rural areas across the state of Michigan migrated to the Detroit area for factory jobs building military equipment for the war. Ginny moved from the Sault to the Detroit area to live with an aunt, who was a schoolteacher in Huntington Woods. Eventually, Ginny’s interests took her to Ferris College, as it was known then, and to attend nursing school.

From Detroit, Ginny boarded a train bound for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to enroll in a technical school to become an X-ray technician.

“I wanted to be in the medical field,” Ginny said.

After the condensed six-month education, Ginny acquired a job as an X-ray technician in Highland Park, Illinois, about 30 miles north of Chicago. With only six months of training, none of which included working on actual patients, Ginny was thrust into the medical field. While working in Highland Park in 1948, Ginny met the man who would become her husband, Richard “Dick” H. Wilbur.

Dick was going to engineering school in Chicago. Ginny’s roommate at the time, Alice Bellmer, was from the Petoskey area. Dick and his friend, John Wooden, were also from the Emmet County region. Ginny recalls meeting Dick when Alice and John were dating each other. The men visited Alice and Ginny one evening.

“Alice and John eventually broke up, but I got stuck with Dick,” Ginny jokes.

Ginny and Dick were married in the Sault on Dec. 17, 1949. They returned to Highland Park so Dick could finish his education. In 1951, Dick graduated from engineering school. Dick’s father, Richard A. Wilbur, owned a construction business in Petoskey. Ginny and Dick moved up to Petoskey so Dick could work for his father for one year.

An opportunity for an engineering job at an atomic plant in Augusta, Georgia, became available and the couple moved to the South. Most of the labor workers at the plant lived in mobile homes in a huge trailer park. There was no other housing available, so Ginny and Dick lived in a hot trailer with no air conditioning. They found relief by going to the Georgia coast to go swimming.

At first, Dick was working days, but eventually the plant had him working nights. Dick resigned and they moved back to the Detroit area, where he worked as a brick layer in Royal Oak. He went to work for S.S. Kresge, which would become known as the Kmart Corporation. As a supervisor of store remodeling projects and construction of new structures, Dick and Ginny moved around the country a lot, she said.

“In the South, they adopt you,” Ginny said of Southern hospitality.

Of all the places they lived, Ginny’s favorite was Blue Field, West Virginia. While Dick remodeled a store there, Ginny made friends with neighbors and visited with them often. They had social groups of 10 or more friends.

“When we were in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, we never made long-lasting friends,” Ginny said.

While they were living in Ohio, the couple adopted their son, John. Shortly after that, they moved back to Petoskey so Dick could work for his father in the construction business. They would live in Petoskey for the rest of their lives. They’re daughter, Jane, was adopted in 1960.

Their first home was on Grove Street. Then they moved to Lindell Street, and finally into a house that Dick built on Lincoln Place, off of Mitchell Street. Their neighbor, Ruth O’Gawa, told Ginny about life in Petoskey during the war. Little Traverse Bay was considered a prime spotting location by the U.S. military, because it was the shortest distance to the Sault locks. Volunteer spotters were recruited to watch for enemy aircraft through binoculars around the clock. Before the trees were as tall as they are now, standing up on Mitchell hill and what is now the Winter Sports Park, spotters had a clear line of sight out to the middle of Little Traverse Bay. Most spotters were women, she said.

Having met her husband after the war, Ginny said he never spoke about his time in the service. Dick enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 17.

“He quit school and signed up,” Ginny said.

Dick’s father was already in the Navy serving as a lieutenant in charge of ordering supplies in Norfolk, Virginia, in the Construction Battalion (CBS).

“Dick went to boot camp, then was stationed in Hawaii,” Ginny said.

“That was after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was always interested in going back to Hawaii, but when we would begin planning the trip, something always came up.”

He never did go back.

Dick passed away on Nov. 12, 2004, leaving Ginny to enjoy their grandchildren and grand nieces and nephews. Their son, John, had a son, A.J., who has two children. Sadly, John passed away in 2014 at the age of 61.

Daughter Jane married Peter Schwartzfisher and they have three sons. Ginny still lives in the house they built many years ago.

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