, Salem, MA

November 11, 2013

Wartime Marblehead comes back to life


---- — MARBLEHEAD — When amateur historian Sean Casey began to research what Marblehead was like during World War II, he talked to people who were there, and he investigated documents, letters and news stories. It got so he could say in words what it might have been like to walk the streets in those days — but he never expected to actually see a wartime Marblehead movie. Then, he discovered that the American Pictorial Service, a branch of the U. S. Army Signal Corps, had sent filmmakers to the town on November 8, 1944, and made a brief, Hollywood-quality film.

Casey, 56, a Marblehead native, will give two illustrated, 90 minute talks at Abbot Public Library. “Marblehead in World War II: Over Here,” on Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m., is a look at the Marblehead home front during the war. A second talk on Sunday, January 12, at 2 p.m. will discuss “Marblehead in World War II: Over There.” The six-and-a-half-minute Signal Corps film will complete Wednesday’s program.

A consultant in government work, Casey is married with two children. The idea of researching what his hometown was like during the war seemed a natural. For Marblehead natives, he said, “History is around you all the time.”

Roughly 1,300 out of 10,000 Marbleheaders served during World War II, said Casey. That transformed the town.

“Anybody even close to physically fit between the ages of 18 and 38 was gone.” Parents, wives and children often knew generally where loved ones were and knew the dangers they faced. “The stress on parents and wives was heartbreaking.”

He estimated that 46 Marbleheaders were lost in the war, 31 in combat. Although those numbers are hard to pin down because the town had so many summer residents, it’s a bigger percentage than suffered by most communities.

The number in the service, on the other hand, isn’t unusually high. For that reason, Marblehead is a good proxy for all the towns in America.

“For the most part, Marblehead was very, very typical. ... You can use it as a lens to see the entire war,” Casey said.

There was one crucial difference — the town’s link to the sea. Most ’Headers served in the Navy or Coast Guard, which actually had a barracks on Front Street.

Being on the water also meant never forgetting a war was on. Boaters and fishermen had their comings and goings restricted. Residents on Ocean Avenue were forbidden to show lights at night out of fear that German U-boats would use them to silhouette passing American ships. On West Shore Drive, lights had to be dimmed.

Poring over documents, Casey found a reference to the movie “Massachusetts Shore Leave,” which he later located in the National Archives. Marbleheaders stationed overseas had an uncanny aptitude for finding one another and calling out a peculiar local greeting, either “Whip!” or “Down Bucket!” Yet, Casey suspects that none got to see this movie.

“I don’t think anyone in Marblehead ever saw it,” he said.

The film aimed to give servicemen a glimpse of home, a reminder they were not forgotten. It would be shown with a cartoon, said Casey and carry the message that “on the home front, they’re pulling their weight, too.” The Pictorial Service made other films showing places like Madison, Ind., Detroit and even a Georgia peanut farm.

The Marblehead movie depicts fictional sailor Walter Burke, a shipmate in tow, coming home to the town “Where they say the U.S. Navy was born.” Actors play principal roles, but real Marbleheaders are seen, as well, particularly during a service at St. Michael’s Church.

Casey noted that former Selectman Bill Conly believes he was in church on the day the movie was filmed. The names of actual Marbleheaders serving overseas are mentioned, including “the Polley boys.” Bud Polley had already been killed in action, while Gib was a prisoner of war, Casey said. The Boggis brothers, Cliff and Porter, had been wounded at Normandy.

The filmmakers clearly sought the most cinematic locations, the result being that the two sailors travel crazily from place to unconnected place. Casey pointed out that the overall command of the Pictorial Service was in the hands of Hollywood icon and director Frank Capra. He detected evidence of “Capra-corn” in the touching portrayal of families, religion and wholesome values. Today, we can only imagine what it meant to men and women to see this after serving far from home for months and sometimes years.

And for a moment Marblehead was the stand-in for all of America.

Casey continues to seek letters, diaries and other documents relating to the town in World War II.

Alan Burke can be reached at