A booming Perkasie enters World War II

Editor’s Note: This five-part series looks at the World War II-era in Perkasie Borough, using accounts from Perkasie’s newspapers and other primary sources. In Part 1, by 1941 defense production leads to an economic boom in Perkasie, but war looms as an inescapable reality.

In January 1941, Perkasie Borough was a town on edge, as it finally recovered from the Great Depression while residents prepared to fight an uncertain war against a despised foe.

The big business in town was pants, and the latest addition to Perkasie Borough’s most significant employer was the new jagged-roof modern clothing factory in South Perkasie. The Royal Pants Factory expansion in South Perkasie (the current location of the Free Will Brewery) was built to supply plants for the defense effort, with nearly 500 workers churning out 1.3 million trousers in 1940. The new building’s walls were 85 percent glass, and architect Charles Talley tailored the establishment to win Army contracts with its efficient production design. Royal Pants was so successful that it had to sublet half of its cloth cutting to other factories.

Maurice Neinkin, the plant’s manager, told the Perkasie Central News that his biggest concern was finding employees. The Borough’s other clothing manufacturers, including the Perkasie Silk Mills on Ninth Street, were under capacity due to their inability to compete for government work. However, the new Freed Glass Plant on Fifth Street had taken off after a government ban on German scientific glass imports.

That January, Perkasie had seen its best economic month in 15 years, and its employment situation resembled its peak during the cigar industry’s dominance in the early 1900s when workers from Sellersville and other towns were imported to fill factory jobs. In 1941, the mammoth U.S. Gauge plant in Sellersville, with its 1,500 employees, was converting to the defense effort, also absorbing new workers. The biggest crisis in Perkasie, its Borough Council noted on January 16, 1941, was the lack of new residential housing in town. “Perkasie is a definitely a Borough of home-owners and not of landlords and tenants,” council said.

In contrast to this good economic news, the Borough’s residents knew war of some type was coming after Nazi Germany’s successful invasion of France in 1940 and its efforts to subdue Great Britain. Germany and its leader Adolf Hitler had few fans in the region, aside from a short-lived German-American Bund club near Sellersville that was closed down after a pro-Nazy rally in 1939. Locally, hopes were that the United States could form the “arsenal of democracy” as it supplied war materials to the British and their allies. But the draft was also underway and as the year went on, more residents were called into the armed services. War was a definite possibility.

Russell Shelly JR.

Throughout 1941, Perkasie residents were consumed by other problems. Foremost was the prolonged labor strike at the U.S. Gauge plant in Sellersville, which affected the entire region. On September 21, 1941, the 30-day strike at the Gauge ended, when the 1,500 plant workers gathered at the Sell-Perk High School football field to approve a settlement. Another crisis was about excessive parking on Dill Avenue in South Perkasie across from the Royal Pants Factory. Workers refused to use the new parking lot behind the factory, forcing police to patrol Dill Avenue. And the big story, settled in an election-day referendum, was the request to show movies on Sunday at the Plaza Theater. By a 3-1 margin, Perkasie voters rejected the idea.

Through November 1941, the tone of the discussion in Perkasie changed from the need for “National Defense” to the likelihood of war against Germany. On Thanksgiving, the Central News noted that “the unfortunate people of Europe and Asia … see us as the one nation which has the strength, the morale, and vision needed to make the world of the future a better place to live in.” Few references were made to Japan as a war threat, and then only as the secondary ally to Germany and Adolf Hitler.

Japan’s shocking December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor was met with immediate security measures within Perkasie Borough. The Reading Railroad placed guards on both ends of the Landis Ridge Train Tunnel led by Perkasie police chief James Schatz, a World War I veteran. Four other volunteers served as air raid wardens.

The Central News also reported that four local young men were stationed in the service at Pearl Harbor and not yet accounted for, including Russell Shelly Jr., a Sell-Perk High School grad who had conducted a popular local dance orchestra before enlisting in the Navy. On December 16, Shelly’s parents received a telegram informing them their son died on board the U.S.S. California during the Japanese attack. Private John Headman of Perkasie was at Hickam Field in Hawaii at the same time, and he survived the Japanese assault. But Sellersville’s George Ellstrom, an Army Air Force Lieutenant, was killed in the Philippines on December 8.

George Ellstrom

George Ellstrom

The patriotic spirit in Perkasie grew. On December 23, 1941, the United States Treasury Department received a check for $5,212.52 from Maurice Neinkin of the Royal Pants Company. All its Perkasie employees donated their pay for December 19 to the war effort, with the company matching their donation. “This is one way we can express our appreciation for the American way of life,” he said.

On Christmas morning, Perkasie Postal Clerk Andrew Schuler saw an airmail letter had arrived for the parents of Corporal Jimmy Moyer, who had also been at the Pearl Harbor attack. Within three minutes, the letter was delivered to Moyer’s parents to Third Street, confirming their son survived the attack, but received a bullet wound in his thigh. “Despite the bad news, it was the best Christmas greeting she ever received,” Moyer’s mother said.

Also that morning, Perkasie residents gathered at the Plaza Theater for the usual Christmas program. Instead of the usual opening Christmas carol, the audience of 600 children and several hundred adults sang “God Bless America.”

War had finally come to Perkasie, and the next year would be trying. In early January 1942, the Central News noted that “the history of 1942 will be what we make it. Whether it will be a year in which the scale will be tipped in favor of a higher civilization or toward barbarism will depend on our work and our faith and our prayers.”

In Part Two: Perkasie sends its men and women to war, and deals with the reality of rationing and sacrifice

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