What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

URI Scientist Helps the Navy Tame Quonset


Story by Jason Gelles

Irene Stuckey's house is full of healthy green plants along with vivid wildlife photographs. Plants and wildlife were on her mind when she came to Rhode Island a few years before the start of the Second World War. She was anxious to tell her war memories. With her precise detailed descriptions and her immense knowledge of agriculture, she took charge of the interview.

I got my Ph.D. at Cornell in 1936, and I came to Rhode Island in 1937. My job was full-time research in the agricultural experiment station. Agriculture was important during the war, but the peak of agriculture in Rhode Island was actually 1880. At that point, when the western lands were opened, a lot of the marginal farmers went west where they grew grain. But, the three crops that stayed in New England were the fruits and vegetables, poultry, and dairy farming. So a lot of this land had grown up into brush and into forest. Nothing had been done to them except grazing so they were very low in nutritional value. I had a program on pasture renovation and pasture improvement and spent an awful lot of time and energy on it.

Now, when the war clouds were gathering, the Germans invaded Belgium in 1939, and anybody who'd been in Europe during those years -- several of my friends had -- they all said, "It won't be long before we're in it too." During this time, Quonset moved in -- the years just before the war.

Back then a lot of Quonset was all raw sand. There was no vegetation on it, and the wind blew. They were having a terrible time. The men in the barracks were getting respiratory ailments and the sand was getting into the airplane engines

. Well, Bob Bell and I were about the only two people left on the faculty because half of the staff was young. We lost 22 men to the military service very soon after war was declared. The rest of us were trying to keep things going as best we could. So, the two of us were asked to go up to Quonset and decide what to do about the sand.

There was a peat bog on the property so we devised a method of digging out that peat. Of course, labor was no problem with the Navy, digging out that peat, pulverizing it, mixing it, spreading it on these areas to give organic matter, and then seeding it and keeping it watered. It didn't take too long to get most of the flat areas under grass and to stop the sand from blowing all over.

But there were two places that were real problems. They had ammunition dumps, just low mounds -- obscure from the air from enemy planes. But those mounds had doors in them which led to underground ammunition storage. Sand was being blown off the mounds as fast as they put it up and they couldn't stabilize it. So, we got some tobacco cloth, like a heavy cheese cloth, very wide. We got some of that and we took some of the sod from the experiment station plots. There were no sod farms in those days. We put the sod down and covered it with this cheese cloth and pegged it in with metal pins bent in loops to hold it, and they kept it watered.

Another place was a high embankment -- very steep, very high, and the wind kept blowing the grass off. I was asked what could be done about it, so I started climbing up the side of it, and it's fairly steep. I could hear this rat-tat-tat way off in the distance and my colleague called up to me, "Be careful, Irene. Don't put your head up over the top, that has a target on the other side and they're using it for target practice today." Well, it didn't take me very long to decide what needed to be done. I thought beach grass was the only thing that would grow up there. It was so dry and they couldn't water it very well. I came down in a hurry!

Another day I was out by one of the runways where the planes were landing, checking some of the areas along the runway where they'd been having trouble with erosion, and this perfectly beautiful silver plane landed on the bay. I admired it when it landed, and then all of a sudden, it turned toward me and came up a ramp, right out of the water! I was told, "Oh that's our latest secret plane. It's one that can land on water or land." This was highly secret. But of course you just didn't talk about things like that.

A lot of the research work for the first landing in North Africa with the pontoon rafts was down on Salt Pond. The troops were taken ashore on pontoon rafts. Some were just barrels underneath, and had a motor on them. I used to get invited to go down to Salt Pond and we'd ride around on those pontoon rafts. I would say, "This is a military secret. I really shouldn't be here." But the lieutenant gave us permission and sometimes he would go with us. Everybody in South County knew about it, but it was a very well-kept military secret because when those pontoon rafts landed on the coast of Africa, the enemy knew nothing about them. South Countyites were very closed-mouthed. I always marveled about those pontoon rafts going putt-putt up and down Salt Pond.

There was a military unit of some kind on every hill and every valley around South County. Enemy submarines were right off the coast. All the area up and down Narragansett Bay was patrolled. The different services had different units mapped off. It was patrolled 24 hours a day. Point Judith was considered a very dangerous place. The ships would go around Point Judith in convoy with an escort. There is supposed to be a German submarine sunk somewhere between Point Judith and Block Island.

After the war, our 22 officers at URI who had gone off to war came back. Only one was killed. We had to get the campus ready for this influx of GI's. They put Quonset huts all over the campus for residences. There'd be two married couples in one Quonset hut. It took quite a long while to get rid of those huts and build some new buildings because the campus was bursting at the seams after the war. They converted some of the military buildings into apartments for faculty. Quite a few of the young faculty who came in right after the war lived over there.

Dr. Stuckey concluded her interview with the comment:

When you're in the country of the young you learn to chaperone your memories.

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Copyright 1995