The first Luftwaffe bombers flew over Wielun, a small town in western Poland of no particular importance. The hospital was the first building to be hit. The German pilots circled around and then strafed the patients trying to flee the burning ruin. It was about 4:40 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, and World War II had begun.
Six time zones away, it was still Aug. 31 in Roanoke. The night shift at The Roanoke Times would soon find themselves remaking the front page. They certainly knew that war was possible — Hitler himself had been threatening it for months, even years. The newspaper the staff was putting together for Sept. 1 included a story that “locked in the vaults of Virginia’s manufacturing and industrial plants are sealed orders for a wide variety of the necessities of war.” But our predecessors on the editorial page, however, were unconvinced. They wrote that the dispute between German and Poland “seems to be resolving itself into a note-writing contest rather than the armed conflict which all feared for a time was inevitable.” As those words rolled across the press, German tanks were rolling across the Polish border — and bombers were coming back to bomb Wielun three more times. By that afternoon, when German troops arrived in the town, three-fourths of Wielun had been reduced to rubble. The number of people dead – some say nearly 1,300 — was never officially calculated because there wasn’t a Polish government left to calculate it. Today, historians count the bombing of Wielun as the first official action of the deadliest war in human history.
It is difficult to comprehend the awful destruction of that war — perhaps 70 million to 85 million dead. But perhaps we can try to comprehend the bombing of Wielun. Why Wielun? It had no military importance. So why did the Nazis destroy it? Because they could. Historian Timothy Schmidt writes: “The Germans had chosen a locality bereft of military significance as the site of a lethal experiment. Could a modern air force terrorize a civilian population by deliberate bombing?” The answer was yes. The Germans used Wielun — and smaller towns nearby —as a test. German military commanders pored over aerial photographs of the utter destruction and were pleased with what they saw. As for the Polish civilians? Hitler cared nothing for them. Just a week earlier, he had told his military commanders “to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.” The difference between Wielun and Auschwitz is really only one of technique. The goal was always genocide.
How naïve we seem through the hindsight of history. We now know Sept. 1, 1939, as a scar in history, one that the world still bears. The war that began that day saw Poles sending men on horseback out to face German tanks — and ended six years later with two atomic flashes. That war didn’t change everything but it changed enough that we often speak of “the post-war era” or date things since World War II because in many ways, what happened before then no longer applies. But on the day it all began, Americans blissfully went about their business, convinced that what happened across the ocean did not concern them.
The Associated Press quoted unnamed officials in Washington who thought there was no way that Hitler would consume all of Poland. He’d likely only seize some border towns and then stop, the officials said. The Roanoke Times reported that people were nervous but not alarmed. Why should they be? The editorial page the next day still seemed skeptical that Germany’s invasion of Poland would lead to a wider war. Even if it did, the newspaper assured readers, “what the navies of the rival antagonists do to one another on the high seas is no concern to Uncle Sam.”
Only the sports pages seemed to see the future most clearly. Sept. 1 marked the start of high school football practice. At Jefferson High School in Roanoke, Coach Claude Morrison was “faced with a real job” of rebuilding his team. So were Coaches Ducky Denton and Jim Peters at Andrew Lewis High School in Salem. But sportswriter Cawthorn Bowles saw beyond the playing field to the battlefield. In the flowery prose favored by sportswriters of the time (or perhaps even now), Bowles wrote: “One turns from the front page to sports with a dull feeling. How can a person be expected to consider football, baseball and the rest while the world goes mad? ...
These young men will go on practicing football while the Man from Mars sheds blood in the east, where the bloody sun shall rise. They will play their games this fall and we hope they play more brilliantly than ever before.” Bowles wrote that while American sports fans invested their autumn hopes in schoolboy teams, these same boys were but “merely cannon fodder to Herr Hitler.” Did Bowles perhaps see where all this was headed?
And so life went on that Sept. 1. Hunters took to the woods for the first day of squirrel season. That morning in Bedford County, one hunter mistook a rustle in the fog for his quarry — and shot another hunter in the chest, gravely wounding him. In Roanoke, police raided a house on McDowell Avenue and busted a suspected counterfeiting ring. Molds for half-dollars, quarters and dimes “were concealed under a loose board in the floor of a bedroom.” A “spurious coin” was found in the pocket of one of the suspects.
In Alleghany County, triplets were born to the Nicely family— which gave the newspaper the opportunity to update the other set of triplets born there to the Poore family just a month earlier. All were doing just fine. People in Smyth County still marveled over the three feet of hail that had fallen the day before in the Bell Hollow community, “heavily damaging” the corn and tobacco crops. Syndicated columnist Emily Post told a 10-year-old girl that she was far too young to wear silk stockings. “Silk stockings at 10 or 11 or 12 — really, no! That would be as bad as earrings.”
That night Vinton Town Council heard citizens complain about town manager H.W. Coleman. A petition demanded his firing — the town’s curb-and-gutter project was costing too much and he had been “discourteous.” Town council unanimously voted to reject the petition. That evening, the Valleydoah Athletic Club defeated Roanoke Paper 5-4 to win the championship of the Twilight League, a local baseball league serious enough to merit coverage. As those players hoisted whatever trophy they had claimed, German troops were pressing deeper into Poland, killing as they went.