In August 1939, tanks began rolling toward the border. That short sentence should call to mind the beginnings of World War II, as German tanks headed for Poland. The very same thing was happening here at the very same time: tanks preparing for war were rolling towards New York’s border in August 1939. It was the 66th Infantry’s tank battalion out of Fort Devens, Massachusetts, crossing the Crown Point Bridge from Vermont to Port Henry and heading north to the Plattsburgh area for war maneuvers. Included were more than a hundred trucks and motorcycles and thirty-seven tanks.
War stuff seems out of place in a region of mountains, streams, and inspirational scenic beauty, but in times of all-out conflict, such as World War II, the military looked at every possible resource. Eyeing the Adirondacks, one might ask: What do they have that we could use? What are they good at?
What we had (at Mineville and Lyon Mountain) was the highest-grade iron ore in the world. That resource was tapped heavily for producing armaments, vehicles, and protective steel plating. Many miners were European immigrants who wished to join the fight and defend their home countries, but some were by government decree frozen to their jobs, which were just as important to the war effort as carrying a gun on the front lines.
But “guns” was also the answer to “what do they have?” And hunting answered, “what are they good at?” The reputation of excellent shooting skills, based on a tradition of hunting for food, was recognized early on as useful to the military. In 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel William Karp of Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) said, “The army has the names and addresses of expert marksmen and hunters of this region,” obtained from the American Rifle Association (which became the NRA).
With advances in aviation, war had evolved from small aircraft engaged in dogfights during World War I to troop drops from large transports in World War II. The army collected those names with the idea of using sharpshooters to pick off paratroopers in the sky before they became dangerous ground troops.
“Trees” was one answer to “what do they have a lot of that we could use?” Keeseville played a significant role in weapons production through R. Prescott and Son, builders of furniture and other wood products. Weapons manufacturer General Electric consulted with company president Robert Prescott about the best material for gun stocks, specifically for the powerful M1 Rocket Launcher (the bazooka) that could destroy enemy tanks. The answer was white birch: it was tough enough, in plentiful supply, and Prescott’s current equipment needed no retooling to start production.
Beginning in 1942, Adirondack trees formed the stocks and grips of more than sixty percent of bazookas. Prescott also produced chests (again made from resilient birch) to house radar units, one of the pivotal technologies that helped win the war.
War maneuvers, iron, steel, bazooka parts – just a few of the many contributions to a winning war effort from the peaceful North Country.
Photo: General Electric’s M1 Rocket Launcher, 1942 (Division of Military History and Diplomacy, National Museum of American History)