The mountains at war

Col. Robert Morgan, the acclaimed pilot who flew the equally famous Memphis Belle, may be the most glamorous name in Asheville’s roster of military heroes. But a new pictorial book goes way beyond the dashing bomber pilot in exploring Western North Carolina’s wartime legacy.

Part of the “Images of America” series, Asheville and Western North Carolina in World War II (Arcadia Publishing, 2006) by Reid Chapman and Deborah Miles is a treasure trove of local experiences.

Far from being a mountainous backwater depleted of its men, Asheville and WNC were hubs of activity that yielded a complex history. Geography played a large role in the region’s wartime transformation: Its isolated location, proximity to Washington, D.C., and abundant housing (built during the 1920s real-estate boom) caught the government’s eye. Local industries retooled: Dave Steel produced parts for ships and landing craft, and Beacon Manufacturing made and delivered more than 7 million blankets to troops. Asheville’s many hospitals were pressed into service as well.

The softcover book also serves up a host of fascinating tidbits. Asheville, for example, temporarily played host to the exiled Philippine president and government after the Japanese invasion of that country. And in 1942, the most valuable treasures from the newly opened National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., were transferred to Biltmore House for safe storage.

But war is ultimately about people, and the book’s many photos show local folks — women, school kids and men unable to fight — planting victory gardens, working in factories and helping sustain some semblance of the area’s prewar culture.

The eyes of white, black and Cherokee soldiers stare out from these pages, along with those of their wives, loves and children. Amid the fear and uncertainties of war, most of those faces display a smile and a flash of can-do spirit. And for those in love with Asheville, the book offers many teasing glimpses of the city’s architectural and sartorial past.

Asked what impact the authors hope the book will have, Chapman said: “First, we wanted a record of the dramatic changes that occurred in North Carolina during World War II — changes that still resonate today, from Fontana Dam in Graham County to the [National Climatic Data Center] in Buncombe County.

“We also wanted the voices of 18-year-old boys and girls who survived … to remind us of the dimensions of war that are sometimes obscured by the oceans that separate the United States from a war zone, or by patriotic fervor. Their experience sheds light on the contemporary threats of fanaticism and terrorism.

“Most of all, we want to underscore the necessity of the never-ending work of peacemaking and diplomacy that are necessary to prevent war and genocide.”

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