(An American Tragedy)

Donald K. Muschany


Howell and Hamburg vs. The United States Government, 1940

     The year was 1939. Great Britain’s famous umbrella man, Neville Chamberlain, had made his last appeasement walk to Munich, and the little paperhanger named Schickelgruber (stage name—Adolf Hitler) had marched into Poland. This event was the kickoff for World War II, as England and France declared war on the little demon.
     There are those who decried Chamberlain’s jaunts, but others who say that he bought some time for England, France and, ultimately, the United States. It makes little difference which way you think—the world was stuck with it.
     The United States began to tool up to help the Allies, and thousands of War plants began to take shape. Legislation was being turned out by Congress like today’s newspaper, and our role, at least for the present, was clear; we were to be a giant arsenal, but non-combatant.
     The horror of war was balanced a bit by the return of full employment, as we were just emerging from the Great Depression of the 30’s.
     The talk of Selective Service brought many men to the cities from the country to work in defense plants which carried a draft deferral for the workers. This was a common practice in most areas.
     But in tiny Howell and Hamburg, Missouri, less than 35 miles from St. Louis, most of the men stayed home to raise crops for the war effort until they would be called for the draft. Morris Muschany, of the vibrant Muschany family, became the head of the Selective Service System in the region. He was also the instructor in the principles of appointed duties for tangent Draft Boards.
     Muschany was typical of the flexibility of the men of the area; he was a successful registered mortician, having been a farmer, general storekeeper, and St. Charles County coroner. True, the draft board concept was new to him, but it had to be done. This seemed to be an implicit motto of the Howell and Hamburg residents from the very beginning . . . “It had to be done.”
     A proportion of the young unmarried males were drafted into what has been called “the peace-time draft,” and served their hitches only to go back almost as soon as Pearl Harbor became a reality in the next year. Before that, however, Howell and Hamburg had their own Alamo.
     War is the blood-thirstiest and hungriest of man’s happenings, and its food was dynamite (in those bygone days). The Government needed vast sources of this dynamite, or more properly trinitrotoluene (TNT), ironically discovered by the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize. For safety reasons, this necessity must be manufactured in a remote area, and near water for construction purposes.
     Unfortunately for the residents, the area around Howell and Hamburg, Missouri (some 18,000 acres) provided both of these requirements.
     Yes, the year was 1940 and the month was October. Autumn was rapidly approaching. As big white lazy clouds floated in the pale blue sky, Jack Frost was busy painting his majestic pictures of color harmonies upon the area. Brilliant colored leaves drifted down to old mother earth; hickory-nut picking was being enjoyed by the younger ones; in endless processions, the birds were returning to the South; the cattle were getting long shaggy coats of hair; and the farmers were cutting their stores of wood which would keep them warm when the roads were drifted shut with glistening snow. A faint odor of smoke was in the air, and the southern heavens were aglow with a brilliant red because some careless hunter had thrown a match or cigarette into the woods and started a forest fire. Then came Sunday. A day of rest and thanksgiving. Like little groups of Pilgrims, the farmers, workmen, businessmen, wives and children of Howell and Hamburg trod down the narrow roads to their community churches to give thanks for the good crops and the many blessings that they had received during the year. They were peaceful settlements, and as little groups of men and women gathered to worship no one was aware of what the future held for them. No one had ever bothered them so why should they now? In their own security, they thought no one would harm peace-loving people; yet, they knew of the war that was raging in Europe . . . well, that was over there, so no need for worry. I can remember my grandfather telling me about the home and farm land that we owned. It had been in the family for more than one generation, and all had lived here and died here and that was just the way that my dad had talked many a time. Yes sir, nothing like it. All this freedom, good friendship with fellow neighbors, and if mom wanted to borrow some sugar from her neighbor that was just fine; and whenever someone put in a quilt, all the womenfolk had to go and help, and when butchering time came around everyone exchanged help and got ready for old man winter. Being able to have all these comforts and fine relationships with each other was incomparable.