Parks, Politics, and the People
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Chapter 8:
War: Hot and Cold

By 1941 the oncoming war had affected all activities in the National Park Service and in many other bureaus of the government as well. Although a bill had been introduced in Congress to abolish the CCC, many of us were still clinging to the hope that it could be sustained at a low ebb for at least a few years. In December, Secretary Ickes wrote to the president regarding a letter the president had sent to Social Security Administrator Paul V. McNutt that called for gradual elimination of the army from the operation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and that requested that legislation be framed to consolidate the corps with the National Youth Administration. The secretary stated that he was in full accord with the removal of the army from the CCC, but he concluded with this appeal: "I strongly urge that instead of transferring all War Department duties in the CCC administration to the Federal Security Agency you consider a plan which would transfer the bulk of these duties to the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, leaving with the Federal Security Administrator responsibility for determination of general policies and for program coordination." He reported that the Department of Agriculture fully agreed with his recommendations. That letter was forwarded to the White House on December 6, 1941.

The next day, Sunday, December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and we were at war. The United States declared war on Japan on December 8, and on Germany and Italy on December 11. There was no doubt then that we were through with the CCC; it was no longer a question of reorganizing it but rather of disbanding it. Every emergency program began to dry up, and by the next fiscal year—July 1, 1942, to June 30, 1943—the only funds available for CCC operations were a few thousand dollars to take care of the transfer of equipment and materials to other jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, orders came for the National Park Service, along with two other bureaus of the Department of the Interior, to move to Chicago and make their Washington space available for war activities. With the splendid cooperation of all concerned, all arrangements were handled smoothly. Associate Director Arthur Demaray, his secretary, and three or four staff members remained in Washington to carry out the service's responsibilities there and to act as liaison for the Chicago headquarters. An office and a secretary also were maintained in the capital for Director Newton B. Drury, who often had to visit Washington.

Newton B. Drury and wife
Director Newton B. Drury and Elizabeth Drury attending a fortieth class reunion at the University of California in 1952. They saw the National Park Service family safely through the trying years of the move to Chicago and back during the World War II and cold war periods of restricted operations, 1940 to 1951.

August 8, 1942, was our moving day. Assistant Director Hillory A. Tolson was assigned full responsibility to organize the move. Many railroad cars were required to transport the service's furniture and equipment to Chicago. Arrangements had to be made to temporarily house the service's staff in hotels and motels there until houses and apartments could be found to rent. Quite a few of us found living quarters along the north shore of Lake Michigan. The offices were in the Merchandise Mart, within walking distance from the station for me; though there were winter days when, walking into the icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan, I didn't think I'd make it.

Those were very discouraging and trying times. Many of our best people were the first to leave for military service, and because of family ties many could not go to Chicago with the Park Service. Further, the call to military service affected the individual parks almost as much as it did the Washington office. With gasoline rationing, travel to the parks went down. Funds for maintenance and care of facilities were cut below the minimum needed for preservation alone. Our appropriations in 1940—regular funds together with the cost of the CCC camps in national parks—amounted to $33,577,000, but during the war years they were rapidly reduced. The low point was reached in the 1945 fiscal year, when funding for the service amounted to only $4,740,000. After V-E Day our budget began to pick up until it reached $30,111,000 in 1950. But the damage had been done so far as maintaining park roads and structures was concerned. Moreover, our organization had been greatly reduced, and not all who had left came back.

In June, 1945, the secretary of the interior was asked to send representatives of the department to Berlin, Vienna, and Rome to advise the military government on matters in which the department was interested. I was selected to go to Berlin, but since no definite date was set, the director sent me to the West Coast on an inspection trip. I received word while in Yosemite that I should return immediately and get ready to leave for Europe. I returned to Chicago, having taken some of the necessary inoculations before I left Yosemite, and made arrangements to move my family back to Minnesota, the home of both our parents. We stored our furniture in Chicago and found a small furnished bungalow in Minneapolis.

On September 21, 1945, I left Minneapolis, spent a day in Chicago, and then continued to Washington. I was transferred to another payroll but retained my civil service status and grade. I was told that I would have to be in uniform, as were all Americans in the foreign theater at that time, but that I would have no military rank. I was also told the kind and amount of clothes I would need in Berlin, and I bought them right away. But the urgency apparently was over, because I sat in Washington checking every other day on when I was supposed to leave and how. I found out that special planes would be provided to take us over. The wait proved to be a long one, keeping me in Washington until October 28. I helped Demaray around the office and renewed contact with my brother, who was then a captain in the navy. He had been through the Pearl Harbor attack, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and Guadalcanal, and he had been wounded. During the month I was in Washington there was a change in plans; on October 22 I received word that I would be sent to Vienna, Austria, instead of Berlin.

I departed on the twenty-eighth and, after stopovers in Bermuda, the Azores, and overnight in Paris, then proceeding via Frankfort and Salzburg, I arrived in Vienna at 5:15 P.M. October 31. There were about seven of us in the party, and we were the first group of American civilians to arrive in Vienna. We were met by several officers, including Colonel Wm. E. Caraway and General L. (Les) D. Flory. General Flory was on General Mark Wayne Clark's staff and was handling the military government part of Clark's command in Vienna. We all had dinner together that evening. It was unusual for a general to meet a group of civilians, but General Flory explained that he wanted very much to meet me. In the late thirties, as a captain, he had been in charge of a National Park Service CCC camp on the historic site near Fredericksburg, Virginia, where several major Civil War battles had been fought, the Battle of the Wilderness among them. He had read many of the instructions the Park Service had sent out regarding the CCC work program on the battlefield sites, and most of them had been signed by me. We became very good friends, and I enjoyed my stay there very much. It turned out that I was the ranking civilian, with a civil service grade that gave me the general's commissary privileges.

Wirth, Armstrong, Meyer
Civilian advisers to the World War II United States military command in Vienna, Austria, wore officer's uniforms without military insignia. Photographed at Kahlenberg the winter of 1945-46 were, left to right, Conrad L. Wirth, Walter Armstrong, and Fred Meyer.

One thing I learned in Vienna was what it meant to be on the losing side in the war. The Austrians were taken over by Hitler against their will before the war really started, and then they were subjected to the pounding forces of our side in driving Hitler out. After our victory, the occupation of their country by the fighting forces of the Allies wasn't any too pleasant for them, either, though I believe it was absolutely necessary during the reorganization of local government. After years of occupation by troops of several nations, people get to the point where they give a wide berth to anybody in uniform. My little apartment in Vienna belonged to an Austrian family of four that had to move out so that I could live there. I found out who they were and where they were staying and invited them over several times. The first time they came their attitude was a little cold, although they did say they were glad to see the Americans. Before they left I invited them to come again and asked whether the wife would cook dinner for the five of us if I furnished the materials. This offer was accepted with pleasure, and we did it several times.

I had greater difficulty establishing rapport in another instance. After I left for Austria, my wife went to the University of Minnesota to brush up on conversational German in anticipation of joining me in Vienna. Her professor happened to be from Vienna, and when he found out that I was there, he told Helen that none of his letters had gotten through to his mother since the Germans took over and that he had not received any news from her. He gave Helen a letter addressed to his mother in the hope that I could find her and deliver it.

I took my trusted jeep and followed his directions until I came to a big, heavy wooden gate between two four-story buildings that were joined together as one building above the gate. The only way to get to any of the apartments in that city block was through those solid wooden gates. All the apartments faced inward, away from the four surrounding streets, and there were no side street entrances. It was after dark, and through a very small crack I could see a dim light on the other side. I pulled the rope that rang a low-pitched bell inside, and I knocked hard on the gate. I was about to give up when I heard somebody coming down some wooden steps. Soon a male voice at the gate asked what I wanted. I explained, and he told me to push the letter through a little slot he would open. I objected, saying I wanted to see the lady and give her the letter in person and explaining why. After a few more words he told me to wait a few minutes. About five minutes later I heard the footsteps of two people coming. They opened the gate to let me into the courtyard, closed and locked it after I got inside, and told me to follow them. We went up some outside stairs to the second floor, then along a porch, and finally to a door. They knocked and were told to come in. They didn't leave me alone for a minute. There in the room was a very dignified, nice-looking lady sitting on a plain wooden chair beside a large round table. She was smoking a cigarette, and beside her was a plate containing some small cigarette butts.

I introduced myself and asked her if she had a son in the United States. She said yes, told me his name, and said she had not heard from him for years. I gave her the letter, and she asked me to sit down. As she read it she tried very hard not to show any emotion. When she finished she could hardly speak, but she passed me the plate and asked if I would like a cigarette. I took one of the butts and lit it. We talked a little, and she offered me a glass of wine. Then she asked me if I would mail a letter to her son. I said I would and gave her my office address. The next day one of the men who had let me in brought me the letter. And so I became her letter carrier.

Before I left that night, I gave her a couple of packages of cigarettes, two bars of soap, and a half dozen bars of candy that I had carried in my overcoat pocket. She was very grateful, because soap and cigarettes were very hard for them to get. The cigarette butt she had offered me had undoubtedly been picked up on the street after some GI discarded it. In those times if you were walking along a street smoking, pretty soon you would hear footsteps behind you, and when you threw away your cigarette it would be picked up as a collector's item. Later her son sent a box of food which I delivered to her.

I was assigned to work with a Colonel E. A. Norcross, who was responsible for dealing with land matters and conservation of natural resources. As a part of my orientation program I made a trip by jeep to Salzburg, headquarters of the American army in the American sector of Austria under the command of General Harry J. Collins. On my return I wrote a memorandum on what I thought ought to be done in and around Salzburg. It was a relatively short report and didn't say a great deal other than that I objected very strenuously to the troops painting the letters and numbers of their units in bright colors on old, historic buildings. Norcross handed my report to General Flory, who called me in to see him. He suggested that I delete from my report the part that was critical of the field troops under General Collins, explaining that one never criticizes a general in the field with the fighting troops. I understood his point of view, but I told him that I had been sent over to represent Secretary Ickes and his department, that the department considered painting on the walls of historic buildings to be vandalism as well as poor public relations, and that I wanted to have that viewpoint on the record. (Actually I was serving as policy adviser to the United States Allied Council.) Flory implied that he'd send the report through if I wanted him to but that it might result in my being sent back to the States. I replied that, though I was enjoying my duty there, I would take the risk.

I had arrived in Vienna on October 31, handed in my Salzburg report on December 8, and got my first paycheck on December 10. On December 211 was told that I was to be transferred to the executive division directly under General Flory, and I moved there on December 27. Apparently I had been on the State Department payroll and now, in the executive division, I was transferred to the War Department payroll with the same civil service classification. The executive division coordinated the work of the several divisions responsible for the military government under the command of General Clark. The command of the military government was changed every month amongst the four allies—the United States, England, France, and Russia. Every time the command was changed, the chairmen of the divisions were likewise changed. Consequently, toward the end of the month, each of the various divisions going out of office had a farewell party, and, the first few days of the following month, the divisions taking over would have their incoming receptions. As a member of the executive division, I was invited to eight or ten parties a month.

Toward the end of February it became clear that the ranking officers would soon be able to bring their families over, and so I notified my wife and began to look for a house. In March the ban was lifted, and I filed a request to bring over my wife and our son Pete. General Clark approved my request, and I selected a nice villa not far from General Flory's home. On March 28, General Flory showed me a wire received from the War Department to the effect that the Interior Department was requesting my return. I knew that Secretary Ickes had resigned, and I had heard that Oscar Chapman was the new secretary. I wired the secretary's office for information, and on April 4 I received a wire from Under Secretary Chapman saying it was important that I return soon. General Flory and General Tate agreed that I should be released from duty as requested by the Department of the Interior. All approvals were in from Washington—the State Department, War Department, and Interior Department—by April 10. I wanted to leave the several assignments I was working on in good order, and this task took me about two weeks. One of my main assignments was working with two colonels on drafting an American version of a treaty with Austria.

I finally got things straightened around so that I could leave on April 26. I left Vienna on the Mozart at 7:35 P.M., and the commander of the train gave me his bed, or bunk, since there were no other sleeping accommodations. I arrived in Linz at 2:25 A.M. and transferred to the Orient Express, which left at 6:30 A.M. We passed over the Austrian-German border at 9:55 A.M. and over the French-German border at 10:20 P.M., arriving in Paris on Sunday, April 28, at 9:00 A.M. The first ship I could get back was the General Brooks, which was to sail at 4:00 P.M. on May 4. I was assigned to share a room with seventeen army officers. The ship was a regular navy transport, and I was the only civilian in the officers' quarters. Everything was crowded, because of all the military personnel heading back home, but nevertheless it turned out to be a very enjoyable voyage. After letting the captain know I was the brother of Turk Wirth, Naval Academy Class of 1921, I received a much-coveted invitation to dinner in the captain's cabin, an honor usually reserved for ranking officers. The ship docked in New York at 11:00 A.M. on May 13.

The next morning my wife and I took the train back to Washington and started hunting for a furnished house, because Chapman's wire had indicated I would be stationed in Washington and our furniture was stored in Chicago. The reasons why I was in Washington were a little vague to Helen and me, and finally I came to the conclusion that the department must be planning to bring the whole Park Service back to Washington within the year. The war was over, and the pressure for space was easing. When I reported at the Washington office on the morning of Wednesday, May 15, I found that they had no money to pay my salary until the beginning of the next fiscal year, July 1. So I stayed on the War Department payroll until then.

I was informed several years later by Horace Albright that Oscar Chapman had been told that he was going to be appointed secretary of the interior and that he was calling me back to appoint me assistant secretary; but at the last minute President Harry Truman changed his mind and instead appointed Julius A. Krug secretary. By that time it was too late to change the orders returning me from Austria. I told Horace that, while I would have been very appreciative of the high honor, I would have turned it down, preferring to remain with the Park Service. But as I look back, it is possible that on the spur of the moment I would have accepted.

Newton B. Drury
Newton B. Drury, director of the National Park Service from August 20, 1940, to March 31, 1951.

The National Park Service made a very important contribution to the war effort, although we had to assume a defensive attitude. We wanted to cooperate to the fullest extent possible with the military and other federal agencies involved in war activities without allowing the national park system to deteriorate. Many of the facilities, especially those that belonged to the concessionaires, were made available to the military as rest areas for recuperation of injured men. Some park areas were used for mountain maneuvers and for training ski troops. Others were used to train paratroopers and men who would work as saboteurs behind the enemy lines.

All of this was good, and we were happy we had facilities and personnel to he of help, but we did not lose track of the fact that the national park system was a heritage that should not be destroyed, except as a very last resort. The service's main problem was with those who wanted to exploit the resources that were being conserved in the national parks. Some thought the sitka spruce in Glacier Bay National Monument, in Alaska, should be cut for airplane construction or for the use of other countries, even though they had far more sitka spruce than we had. There were situations where certain minerals in a park were closer to manufacturing centers than the source of minerals the manufacturers were using, and therefore they wanted to take minerals from the park. Many applicants would not take no for an answer but would apply all the pressure they could muster. Although the pressures on Director Drury were tremendous, he approached all the problems in a very practical way. In a few places where no appreciable harm could be done, he allowed certain surface minerals to be used if they were in short supply. I know of one case in particular in which a valuable source of a mineral that was in very short supply was located in one of our big parks way up on a mountain and very close to the park boundary. No permit was granted, but under our close supervision we allowed the mineral to be removed. For convenience of reference and analysis, the various kinds of proposals and authorizations have been broken down into ten major classifications. These and the number of authorizations issued in each classification for all areas administered by the National Park Service, except the National Capital Parks, are as follows:

Classification Number of

Permanent transfer of jurisdiction4
Temporary transfer of jurisdiction6
Utilization of minerals, timber, forage, water, etc.31
Occupancy and use, involving construction or appreciable modification of landscape features or both71
Occupancy and use of existing facilities73
Exclusive occupancy of operators; facilities5
Field exercises, maneuvers, overnight bivouacking162
Temporary rights-of-way26
Loan or transfer of materials or equipment27

I am certain that nothing was done in the parks that was permanently detrimental to them. When the war was over, however, we realized very vividly what had happened. The lack of maintenance—preventive maintenance as it is called—had caused deterioration of roads, buildings, and other facilities to such an extent that they could not be repaired but had to be replaced. The asphalt pavement on roads, for instance, had dried out and cracked in many places, and, as traffic began to build up, the road surfaces began to crumble. Patching a dried up and crumbling road is not feasible. Buildings that had been used for a number of years without maintenance had also deteriorated.

The appropriation of less than $5 million in 1945 was barely enough to keep the heart of the park organization intact and could not provide even ordinary protection of some 180 parks. Some units in out-of-the-way places, especially, were left unattended. Although there was a gradual buildup after 1945, by 1950, with 21 additional parks and twice as many visitors as we had in 1940, the Park Service funds were 25 per cent less than in 1940. And things were getting worse. The shooting war was over, but the cold war and grants in aid to nations throughout the world—allies and former enemies alike—left very little funding for the National Park Service. The number of visitors to the parks had grown from 33.2 million in 1950 to 56.5 million by 1955, while our appropriations had increased from $30.1 million to only $32.9 million. It got so bad that conservation writer Bernard De Voto wrote a very strong column urging that half of the parks be closed and that all funds be devoted to those left open to the public. It was quite evident that the cold war was damaging our parks more than the war itself had. We coined such expressions as "the people are loving the parks to death," and "patch on patch is no longer possible," to describe the seemingly hopeless situation in 1955. Something drastic had to be done to protect the parks and keep them in condition for the amount of use that people were entitled to give them. Many natural, scientific, and historic areas that should have been added to the national park system were being gradually destroyed and lost forever. The seashores that were studied and recommended for parks in the thirties were disappearing; they were no longer available. It was most discouraging.

Writh, Tillotson, Pedro, Drury
On an inspection trip to Big Bend National Park, Texas, before its dedication were, left to right, Assistant Director Conrad L. Wirth, Regional Director Miner Tillotson, Pedro, and Director Newton B. Drury.

Truman and delegation
A committee from Texas and a congressional delegation called on President Harry Truman to invite him to attend the dedication of Big Bend National Park in 1950. Director Newton B. Drury of the National Park Service, second from right, and the author, second from left.

Looking back, suppose we had got double the appropriations we were given between 1950 and 1955. Could we possibly have done enough to heal the damage suffered during the stagnant war years? What would have happened had we carried out Bernard De Voto's suggestion and used the money we had for operating half of the parks, letting the rest go to seed? I know, of course, that De Voto didn't really mean that; it was just his way of saying how bad things were. We were, however, in a situation where something spectacular had to be done to awaken Congress and the administration to what had actually happened, to rouse everybody to roll up their sleeves and go to work.

The damage to parks during World War II was going to require a big sum of money to bring all the various elements back into full bloom to be of service to the public. The fact is that even twice the amount of funds that we were getting at that time would not have provided the answer. It was not alone a question of repairing what existed; it was a question of rebuilding both the national park system and the National Park Service. Conditions got so had that greater amounts of money, up to an average of $100 million a year for ten years, would have to be provided to do the job right. The Park Service was ready and willing to roll up its sleeves and go to work if the administration and Congress would only give the word. And under the Mission 66 program, they did.


Parks, Politics, and the People
©1980, University of Oklahama Press
wirth2/chap8.htm — 21-Sep-2004

Copyright © 1980 University of Oklahoma Press, returned to the author in 1984. Offset rights University of Oklahoma Press. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the heir(s) of the Conrad L. Wirth estate and the University of Oklahoma Press.