When Bill O’Brien walked into the Montrose Genealogy Center with 19 issues of a 70-year-old paper in his hand, he launched a historic preservation project that took volunteers about two years to complete.
The paper was the “Montrose County News,” which was published monthly for two years during World War II and sent free to those in the military from Montrose County. It contained stories about Montrose, including what was being done on the home front. More importantly, it had letters from servicemen and servicewomen, and stories about them.
It was history, written while it was being made, and the center decided to preserve it.
Restoring the paper
There were 25 issues of the “Montrose County News” published. Through appeals in newspapers and on television, genealogy center volunteers found five of the missing papers. The first issue, dated April 1944, is still missing.
The originals were about 9-by-12 inches, had small print and were folded and discolored after 70 years. Volunteers spent hundreds of hours scanning pages, enlarging them to 11-by-17 inches and cleaning up the copies.
Others researched how the paper came to be, and learned it was the brainchild of Montrose judge Earl Herman.
Herman’s big idea
Herman served in the Army during World War I and was exposed to gas while training to use masks as a defense against the Germans’ deadly mustard gas. He was hospitalized, and while there, he was exposed to the contagious spinal meningitis that was sweeping the camp. It was nine months before he recovered enough to leave the hospital. He was discharged walking with two crutches. A semi-invalid the rest of his life, Herman was in constant pain and sometimes had to go back to using his crutches, though he resisted.
After moving to Montrose, Herman was elected to three terms as a county judge. He took particular interest in helping juveniles while in office. He also devoted himself to military organizations—the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
When the Montrose County Veterans Advisory Committee was organized during World War II, Herman was elected president. The first meeting was held in January 1944. Aware of how much word from home meant to him when he was in the Army, one of his first acts was to suggest a newspaper for those in the military.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. By April 1944, the first issue, written largely by Herman, was ready to be mailed. The first issue was dated April 17. Sadly, the judge died on April 16 from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by the spinal meningitis.
The advisory committee had promised him it would publish the paper until the end of the war, and the committee members kept their word. Putting it together required many volunteers to gather addresses of servicemen and women, write the local stories and type the letters and stories by and about those in the military. The “Montrose Daily Press” printed the paper and expenses were covered by donations from local clubs and businesses. Every month, someone took on the huge job of stuffing more than 1,000 envelopes with the newspapers.
A historic treasure
Reading the letters from soldiers and the stories about them makes the horror of war real.
First Sgt. M.B. Dodge wrote from Iwo Jima, the site of one of the worst battles of World War II, about spending freezing nights in foxholes. “I have mine dug 1-by-5-by-2 feet and reinforced with sandbags, with a two-foot hole to crawl in and out. The first few days the Jap mortar and sniper fire was terrific, and I was wishing my ‘home’ was a little deeper—say about three feet short of desertion!”
He went on to say, “We have several hundred…holed up in the volcano which is honeycombed with caves, tunnels and passages—there have also been seen several geisha girls in there. We’ll probably have to end up by sealing them all up in there, as they won’t come out and we can’t get to them.”
Another issue included a story about Sgt. J.D. Stover, who was called the “Shrapnel Kid” after receiving 200 shrapnel wounds during the fighting at Tarawa. It was reported that Ensign John Stivers died from a compound skull fracture. He had been a prisoner of the Japanese for nearly four years and his injuries went untreated. Lt. Gordon Warren was awarded the Soldier’s Medal after rescuing two pilots from a blazing plane after it crashed on the landing field.
And there was Staff Sgt. Harry Dunbar, who was taken prisoner by the Germans and escaped after 13 days. He traveled almost 700 miles, on foot, by truck and via French underground and other means of transportation to reach his original company.
There were lighter moments reported in the “Montrose County News,” too. It was noted that Sgt. Ward Gardner, who spent years as a Japanese prisoner, refused the rice dessert at a local Rotary Club meeting. Sgt. Kenneth Marion Field, who was stationed in England, married a young woman from Scotland. She wore a wedding gown that had been sent to Britain by Eleanor Roosevelt, meant for servicewomen who could not have a gown because of rationing restrictions.
Lt. William H. Tanner summed up the feelings of many in a letter he wrote to the paper from Belgium. “We are the first Yanks they had ever seen and were quite a novelty to them. They have been under the German yoke for so long they don’t know how to act now that they are free,” he wrote. “The people of the U.S. don’t realize how lucky they are to be able to go where they wish, say what they want and to be able to sit down to a real meal.”
The papers (all but the missing first edition) have been scanned and enlarged, and are bound in books available for sale to the public for $35. The books are sponsored by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Uncompahgre Valley chapter and Altrusa International, Inc., of Montrose, organizations with patriotism as one of their missions. To obtain a copy, call the Montrose Genealogy Center at 240-1755.