Marshalling the troops: World War II on Martha’s Vineyard comes to life


“Martha’s Vineyard in World War II” by Thomas Dresser, Herb Foster, and Jay Schofield. The History Press, Charleston S.C. and London, 2014. Softcover, $20. 190 pages with notes, bibliography, and index. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, Edgartown Books, and at area libraries.

No surprise that Herb Foster ordered The Ryan sandwich for lunch at the Woodland Variety & Grill last Thursday, May 1. He has ordered it every Tuesday for the past six months.

Mr. Foster likes The Ryan. A solid sandwich. Ham, Swiss, sliced cucumber, and honey mustard on a bulkie. With chips and a pickle on the side for $5.99.

Like every Tuesday at 12 noon, he was seated cheek by jowl with his buddies, Jay Schofield and Tom Dresser, at a double table in the rear of the breakfast and lunch eatery off State Road in Vineyard Haven, just past Eden Nursery. But everything that happened after The Ryan arrived was both surprising and very pleasant for the three men. They were starring in a world premier event, an authors’ signing of their new book, “Martha’s Vineyard in World War II.”

The Woodland Variety & Grill has never had a authors’ book signing before, not once in its 17-year history, proprietor Rob Baker acknowledged with a grin. “Yeah, this would be the first book signing here,” he said. “I thought it was a fantastic idea. It’s been great to hear the stories.”

“We figured, why not have it here?” Mr. Dresser said. “The Woodland’s been very good to us. Everybody on the Island knows where it is and we’ve been meeting here for six months, updating each other on the research and writing.”

The event began at noon. By 12:07, the trio had sold and written in five copies of their story of the tiny island’s substantial role in the Second World War. By 12:15, a line had formed in front of the signing table with several generations of Island residents sharing family stories about one of the most exciting and scariest times in Island history.

Barbara Silk of West Tisbury was elated. “I am honored to have the first signed copy of the first edition,” she said. Ms. Silk said she came, “for the signing, because I know two of the authors and because I want to read this story about the history of World War II on the Island.”

Sharon and Rick Mello came for the signing because of a long relationship with Mr. Schofield, Mr. Mello’s state Hall of Fame basketball coach at Martha’s Vineyard High School back in the day. “We try to buy every book written by Island authors,” Mr. Mello said. “I remember fishing at Gay Head in the late 50s and 60s and watching the planes practicing bombing runs on Nomans Island,” he recalled.

Jim Rivard of Edgartown gives Island tours and has great interest in World War II and its literature. “Very little is written about the home front during the war so this is a great perspective. I want to read it also for the local knowledge I can use in my tours,” he said.

Mr. Rivard got a lot of information for $20. The authors have all written books of their own. They divided the research and writing according to skills and interest. Mr. Schofield did the personal interviews. Mr. Dresser reads miles of microfiche at The Vineyard Gazette for the flavor of the war years. Mr. Foster, who got in during the tail-end of World War II in Japan, worked on the story of Peaked Hill, the Island’s tallest point and a fortified lookout during the war years.

“No egos, no bickering on this,” Mr. Schofield said last week, proffering a plate of cookies that his wife, Pat, brought to the celebration.

The lads have done well. From the opening account of retired Gazette editor George Hough awakening in Vineyard Haven one morning in the summer of 1942 to a landing “invasion” of U.S. Army troops on Vineyard beaches, to explanations of why gasoline and sugar were really rationed here and across America, their story is a gallop through the places and the Island people who lived, fought for, and protected their tiny island enclave through the second “war to end all wars.”

The Vineyard built boats for the war effort, patrolled the beaches and high points to keep track of German submarines that routinely patrolled the coast. And on August 19, a substantial portion of the population rose from the sand dunes to cheer the arrival of the 45th Armored Division, which hit beaches in a dawn attack to retake the Vineyard from occupying German forces.

The top-secret landing was a warmup for the the D-Day invasion 22 months later on the beaches of France. If it was top-secret, why was half the Island on the beaches at dawn to greet the troops? Probably because then, like now, there were no secrets on Martha’s Vineyard.

The authors draw on rich interviews that “Vineyard Voices” chronicler Lindsey Lee conducted with World War II Island voices. Ms. Lee also contributed the foreword to “Martha’s Vineyard in World War II.”

Her work, along with accounts from newspapers at the time and a willingness by the authors to mine the material, allows the reader to walk back nearly 70 years in time and to feel the experience of this tiny Island during wartime.