Oxford Vignettes: Why We Honor Memorial Day

By Cathy Schmidt

Bill and Sara Benson were close cousins of my family who lived up the street. Throughout their lives, they enriched those who surrounded them with their community involvement, faith, grace, and generous neighborly manners. Sara kept a journal every year of her life in Oxford and Captain Bill kept a daily weather book throughout his time as ferry Captain of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. They were anchors in the town of Oxford, steadfast and kind, they were a pleasure to know.

The Benson family has graciously decided to share some of these journal entries with the readers of Attraction. Smartly titled “Oxford Vignettes” by Susan Benson, I invite you to enjoy reading these daily snippets of life in Oxford in their day.

William Lindale Benson was born in Bellevue on October 20, 1908. Sara Valliant Newnam was born on August 10, 1913, and grew up in the Grapevine House in Oxford. They married on Christmas Day in 1936 at the home of Joseph Newnam, her brother. After living in an apartment above the “Towne Shoppe” in Oxford, they moved to 315 North Morris Street in 1943, the year their son Dale Jr. was born. At their new home, Sara could watch Captain Bill and the ferry from her sink window and front porch. Captain Benson took over operations of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry in 1938. His summer schedule ran 80 to 105 hours per week. Only winter ice kept the ferry from running, and the only day he took off was Christmas Day, which was also his anniversary. He retired in 1974.

In the middle of WWII, Sara Benson’s mother, Bessie, gave her a five-year diary. It marks the beginning of her daily writing, dated from 1943 until 1947. During WWII, many items were rationed, including paper and so Sara managed to squeeze five years of writing, that’s 1,825 entries, in her small diary, each page being just four inches by five inches. So, with magnifying glass in hand, I have transcribed an entry from August 14, 1945, the day WWII ended.

In addition to storing all her journals, Sara kept her WWII rations books.

Memorial Day Remembered: Oxford at War

August 14, 1945. “Oxford went wild – horns and whistles began to blow and then sirens and church bells. All three fire trucks paraded the town with the old fire bell…children were waving flags. We turned the radio on: full of news that Japan had surrendered but nothing official. So wonderful to think it may be over that we couldn’t turn the radio off until we heard the official word from the White House at 7 p.m. There was so much excitement and noise, I didn’t sleep at all, there sure was plenty of noise. I went back to bed at 5 a.m. Bill got Dale to sleep until 9. In the cab of the large fire truck was Francis (Sara’s brother) and Randy (Sara’s nephew), he was so thrilled.”

I’m certain there was also great relief for the Newnam family as Sara’s brother, Bill Newnam, a marine pilot in WWII, was coming home.

The day WWII ended so did rations, which I’m sure was a relief to Captain Benson. “Went to the rations board today to get gas stamps for the ferry.” (journal entry September 2, 1943)

Gasoline rationing began in May 1942. Along with Sara’s journals she kept her rations books and several wartime cookbooks – Best War Time Recipes, Crisco’s New Delicious Sugar Saving Victory Cakes!, Rationing of Meat is Vital to Our Victory!, 55 Ways to Save Eggs, and How to Bake by the Ration Book.

Sara kept her WWII cookbooks.

While everyone across the country was doing their part for the war effort, Oxford was doing something many towns couldn’t do, build Navy boats. Captain Bill Benson was there to watch them come out of Town Creek, cross his ferry path, head out the Tred Avon River, toward the Choptank to the Bay and off to war. The Oxford Boatyard built landing craft, and Captain Benson recorded his observations of 20 Landing Craft for Infantry in 1944, as they passed by the ferry wharf. His list is fairly extensive, so I have taken the liberty to list a few vessels that piqued my interest. This partial list includes Navy boats and other ships that found their way to the Tred Avon River during WWII:

January 7, 1944 – Mine Sweeper AMC 36, left town wharf at 9:30 a.m.

January 13, 1944 – Poling Brothers No. 8 Tanker could not get upriver to Easton Point due to ice on the river.

January 29, 1944 – Navy Boat No. Y.P. 551 tied up to wharf.

February 17, 1944 – Aircraft Rescue Boat No. 2 from Cedar Point tied up to wharf for 80 gallons of gas and waited for fog to lift.

March 7, 1944 – Coast Guard Freight Boat in Town Creek at 11:50, out by 7 p.m.

April 29, 1944 – LCI (Light Infantry Craft) 575 & 576 lay to yacht club wharf at 5 p.m., pulled down piling when docking.

May 23, 1944 – Light House Tender No. 236 Hydrangea tied up.

August 24 – 26, 1944 – Sea Scout Boat Trinculo

September 6-7, 1944 – Sloop Sonata on shore in bight all day.

November 23, 1944 – L.S.M. (Landing ship, Medium) No. 232 anchored 5 p.m., out the next day.

February 20, 1945 – Coast Guard Tug 63301 (60 feet long) tied up at 1 p.m.

March 21, 1945 – Coast Guard Pile Driving Boat (Barberry 294) came to replace day markers in mouth of Town Creek that ice carried away.

May 29, 1945 – Lindsay Grace Bennett tied up at wharf 4 p.m. A three masted Ram built 53 years ago at Sharptown.

July 14, 1945 – Minesweeper No. 108 tied to dock. Shipyard to repair deck here.

September 1945 – Schooner Centurion from the West Indies.

WWII Navy ship at the Oxford Boat Yard.
Photograph reprinted with permission from the Norman Harrington Collection.
More WWII Navy ships at Oxford Boat Yard. Photograph reprinted with permission from the Norman Harrington Collection.
The Oxford Boat Yard was busy during WWII with Navy ships.
Photograph reprinted with permission from the Norman Harrington Collection.

By the end of WWII, Oxford Boatyard had built 126 vessels and repaired 71 for the US Navy. In recognition of this achievement, the Oxford Boatyard employees earned the Army-Navy “E” Award for “Outstanding War Production.” The award was presented on Thursday, December 21, 1944, and Sara and Bill Benson were invited to the affair.

Sara Benson saved the invitations and program of the Army-Navy “E” Award presentation.
Photograph courtesy of the Sara Benson Collection.

During WWII, Oxford Boatyard was owned by Arthur Grimes Jr., Robert Henry, Jr., and Sigurd Hersloff. At noon, the U.S Naval Academy Band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the ceremony included a welcome by Mr. Robert Henry, Jr. Once presented by Rear Admiral Edward L. Cochrane USN, the Army-Navy pennant was raised by the color guard and Arthur Grimes accepted the award. Every employee was presented an “E” pin to which William Wales, the oldest employee in length of service, accepted on behalf of his fellow yard workers. The ceremony ended with a rendition of “America” by the U.S. Naval Academy band.

Letter from the Department of the Navy. Photograph courtesy of the Sara Benson Collection.

The basis for determining production plants that earned the Army -Navy Award was complex in scope and no small undertaking. As laid out in the program, the “E” award required:

Overcoming production obstacles.

Avoidance of stoppages.

Maintenance of fair labor standards.

Training of additional labor forces.

Effective management.

Good record on accidents, health, sanitation, and plant protection.

Utilization of sub-contracting facilities.

Cooperation between management and labor as it affects production.

Conservation of critical and strategic materials.

A low rate of absenteeism.

Captain Benson continued to record ship sightings for years following the war, although his list slowly shifted from Navy craft to pleasure craft. His last recordation of a Navy Ship was on January 1949, an L.C.I. Navy Ship No. 783 tied up at the ferry wharf at 3 p.m. and spent the night; it was 158 feet long.

Navy boat 783 at Oxford Wharf in 1949.
Photograph courtesy of the Sara Benson Collection.

After the war ended, like many of their generation, lessons learned were never forgotten. After enduring WWI, the Depression and WWII, the Bensons throughout their lives continued to be careful and conscientious about resources as evidenced throughout Sara’s prolific journal writings. This patriotic generation developed great resilience in surviving hardship and solving problems. It is fitting and honorable they are referred to as “The Greatest Generation.”

In case you were wondering…

Norman Harrington was a WWII photographer who participated in five campaigns, taking him all the way from the invasion of North Africa, up through Africa to Italy, then the storming of the beaches on D-Day. Then, all the way to the bombing and capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat at Berchtesgaden, to the liberation of the concentration camps in Germany. He followed Eisenhower throughout the European Campaign. On leave, he came home briefly to take pictures of the Navy Ships under construction at Oxford Boatyard in 1944. He never fired his service pistol.

The Navy Ship 783 was built at New Jersey Ship Building Corporation in Barbar, New Jersey in 1944. It was assigned to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater and earned one battle star in WWII. It was 158 feet in length and a beam of 23 feet. Its maximum speed was 16 knots. Its troop capacity was six officers and 182 enlisted, with a cargo capacity of 75 tons.

Arthur Grimes, Jr. would later go on to construct the Tidewater Inn in downtown Easton.

“On shore in bight…” refers to a curve or recess in a shoreline. In this case Captain Benson would’ve been referring to The Strand.

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