Christmas 1942 in Rochester, Remembering the Fight and Loss of the War

Virginia MacLeod and Christmas 1942 in Rochester 

Seventy-five years ago, Rochester’s Christmas season was a memorable one – for a tragic reason. The end of the first year of the Second World War brought with it rationing restrictions, worries about absent loved ones, and the shock of a wartime-related death that happened not overseas, but right here at home. 

There were no big, bright holiday lights on Rochester’s Main Street in December 1942. The news from the fighting fronts was discouraging, and the war demanded more sacrifice on the home front with each passing day. The government now rationed gasoline and many food commodities. The latest news was that coffee would be rationed with an allowance of one pound per person every five weeks. 

White House Christmas tree and Roosevelt family in 1942

President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the White House Christmas tree would remain unlit in 1942

Just after Thanksgiving, Rochester merchants announced that they would leave the Main Street holiday lights in storage that year. The federal government asked that towns forgo holiday lights to conserve electrical power for defense industries. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even announced that the White House Christmas tree would remain unlit. The telephone company ran an advertisement in the local newspapers, asking that citizens refrain from making long-distance holiday greeting calls. Long-distance lines had to remain open for urgent war news. 

Plans for the celebration of Christmas went on regardless, with allowances made for wartime considerations. As Rochester’s families gathered around holiday tables with empty chairs for fathers, sons, and brothers serving overseas, they prayed that the dreaded War Department telegrams would pass them by. Even so, the realities of war came to Rochester’s doorstep that year. 

Local industries, such as National Twist Drill and McAleer Manufacturing, abandoned domestic production to fulfill defense contracts as part of the Detroit region’s “Arsenal of Democracy.” McAleer, which had been making automotive polishes in the former Western Knitting Mills plant at Fourth and Water (now Rochester Mills Brewing Company), started turning out photoflash bombs and flares. The company also built an auxiliary plant on South Street, where it produced explosive powders for the military. 

Black & White photo of Virginia McLeod

Virginia MacLeod

McAleer expanded its workforce to nearly 500, and employed many local women. Among them was Virginia Ann MacLeod, age 22, who had a brother serving in the army and wanted to do something to contribute to the war effort. MacLeod worked at the powder plant, mixing explosive metals in one of several of the isolated concrete bunkers that were scattered along the Clinton River just south of the factory. 

On December 17, 1942, something went wrong in the bunker where MacLeod was working. An explosion in a mixer leveled the building, seriously injuring the three women inside and setting their clothing on fire. Virginia MacLeod suffered second- and third-degree burns over much of her body, in addition to other trauma. One of the women eventually recovered, but MacLeod and a co-worker from Pontiac died from their injuries. MacLeod lived just over a week, and finally succumbed on Christmas Eve. 

Unbeknownst to her family, Virginia MacLeod had enlisted in the U. S. Navy just days before her death. Moved to make a greater contribution, she had decided to do so in uniform. But her death reminded the community that defense industry workers were indeed fighting the war, just as surely as those in military service were. American industry on a war footing ran shifts around the clock, racing against time to equip Allied forces on two fronts. Unfortunately, under such conditions, accidents and deaths in the factories were all too common. U.S. military deaths from all causes numbered 22,497 in 1942. By comparison, in that same year, 18,500 American defense workers lost their lives in industrial accidents on the home front. 

Photo of Virginia Ann MacLeod's Headstone in Mount Avon Cemetery

Headstone for Virginia Ann MacLeod in Mount Avon Cemetery

Virginia Ann MacLeod lived in Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) and graduated from Rochester High School with the class of 1938. Her tragic loss was felt by her former classmates, her co-workers at McAleer, and among her fellow parishioners at St. Andrew Catholic Church. She was laid to rest at Mount Avon Cemetery just after Christmas, 1942. Her family was unable to provide a headstone at the time, so she lay in an unmarked grave for decades. In 2014, the Rochester Avon Historical Society featured Virginia MacLeod’s story in its annual cemetery walk. The historical society purchased a marker for MacLeod’s grave, acknowledging her ultimate sacrifice in the service of her country.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Donald Worrell says:

    I’m always especially pleased to read engaging, well-researched articles by Ms. Larsen.
    I had no idea that so many home front defense workers gave their lives. This is a very
    eye-opening article in a number of ways.

Speak Your Mind

*