1941 : President Roosevelt Creates Military District of Sault Ste. Marie

March 1, 2018 all-day

On March 1, 1941, President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Military District of Sault Ste. Marie. The Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, shifted matters into an even higher gear, and by early spring of 1942, soldiers were arriving in large numbers at the Soo.

Neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever launched an attack on the Soo Locks, and by the end of 1942, authorities realized that a garrison of more than 7,000 troops to guard the locks was excessive. By September of 1943, generals cut the number of troops to about 2,500. By the beginning of 1944, the Sault garrison consisted of a single battalion of military police, as it had before the war. The Army shut down Fort Brady in October of 1945, and today many of the original buildings are part of Lake Superior State University.

The Rest of the Story

Could Hitler’s army really attack the Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. With fears of Axis bombs from above and torpedoes from below, America’s WWII generals deployed soldiers and big guns to guard this  obscure but essential supply passage in the nation’s heartland.

“Fear Bombing Attack on Soo, Observers are Told,” screamed a headline on the front page of the Soo Evening News on April 30, 1942.

“Trenches Will Be Handy When Bombs Drop On The Sault,” echoed another in the Evening News of July 3, 1943.

While those headlines might seem melodramatic today, they highlighted a fear that was all too real at the time—and revealed the important role Sault Ste. Marie and the Soo Locks played in the Allied war effort of World War II. It’s a role of which most Americans, and even most Michiganders, are unaware.

At Sault Ste. Marie the St. Mary’s River drops 21 feet from the height of Lake Superior to Lake Huron. During the late 1700s and early nineteenth century, cargoes had to be unloaded from ships in Lake Superior and portaged around the rapids to be placed aboard vessels that would complete the journey to ports in the lower Great Lakes.

But by the time the United States entered World War II, four locks allowed giant cargo ships to navigate the passage. To say that these locks were vital to Allied war production would be a gross understatement. Through the gates sailed nearly 90 percent of America’s iron ore production—110.7 million tons in 1941 and 120 million tons in 1942. The ore was bound for the steel mills of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania; and eventually on to factories making tanks, planes and munitions across the country. The dread that a Nazi attack might disable the locks was so genuine that, by late 1942, the military stationed 7,300 troops in Sault Ste. Marie.

There were so many troops in fact, that nearby Fort Brady couldn’t house them all. The Christopher Columbus Hall, American Legion Hall, the Union Carbide Recreation Building and other facilities were called upon to make room for soldiers.

The troops, members of the 131st Infantry and 100th Coastal Artillery, had begun arriving early in 1942. They were armed with anti-aircraft weapons and used 60-inch searchlights to patrol the sky. Steel mesh nets were installed underwater above and below the locks to guard against torpedo bombs that might be aimed at lock gates.

Shortly afterward, the 399th Barrage Balloon Battalion arrived to do their part in the defense of the locks. Their barrage balloons, 30-foot rubber cows, as they were called, were filled with hydrogen and anchored in place 2,000 feet above the locks by inch-thick steel cables. More cables hung from their rubber bodies. A dive-bomber striking one of the cables would be quickly disabled—the strategy proved effective in both Germany and Great Britain. Sometimes, though, the “rubber cows” broke loose from their moorings and drifted off. Newspaper articles of the time reported the balloons floating as far away as Midland, 200 miles south.

Charles Lindbergh had proven trans-Atlantic flight possible 15 years prior on his solo flight to Paris, so there was a palpable fear that the Germans might fly one-way suicide bombers to Northern Michigan from bases in Norway. Another theory held that they might smuggle sections of aircraft into the far reaches of Hudson Bay via submarine or surface ship, assemble them there, and launch an attack on the locks from northern Canada.

Source: Rachel North, “Northern Michigan History: When the Soo Locks Readied for World War II“, UpNorth, February 18, 2014.

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