Local historian David Gilbert features work

DANSVILLE — Those of us who did not live during the time of World War II probably gathered a lot of our information from our history books.

But one local historian has taken the time to research what many history books do not write much about: the homefront.

David Gilbert’s, Dansville War Diary: A Chronicle of Dansville During World War II, was recently published through Avon-based Penny Lane Printing for the sake of recounting the impact the war had on this small town.

“What I learned was the resilience and the determination that everybody had, to do everything they could to end the war as quickly as possible and to get their loved ones home,” he said.

Nearly 800 people from Dansville had signed up or were drafted for service during the war. Some worked in supporting roles rather than combat, including women.

“Now when you think about a community like Dansville who had five or six thousand people living in it, that’s a huge chunk of the population off to serve in the war,” he said, adding that nearly everyone in Dansville personally knew someone in service. About 30 from here had lost their lives in the war.

His inspiration for the book came from watching a Ken Burns’ documentary called The War, which in part, included the impact on the homefront.

“That motivated me to produce something along the same lines with Dansville,” he said.

What stood out to Gilbert regarding Dansville, was the tremendous amount of volunteerism that took place to help the war effort, plus millions of dollars in contributions just from Dansville alone. For example, the number of volunteers for the local Red Cross chapter boomed during that time, “by orders of magnitude.” Also, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day, he said, “there was hardly a day that went by without people canvassing the area for contributions.”

Another notable point was how the war gave a tremendous economic boost to Foster Wheeler, which was busy making boilers for Navy vessels. Just prior to the war, the company was nearly shut down due to the Great Depression.

Gilbert also noted that though the war helped Dansville, as well as the rest of America out of The Great Depression and into economic prosperity, many locals still went without in order to ration and supply the war effort.

“By the time the war ended,” he said, “you had an entire generation of Americans that were born, grew up, graduated from high school, who only knew hardship. First, The Great Depression, then the war.”

He said that this particular generation had been called The Greatest Generation, “and I think they deserve that accolade.”

To gather information for his book, Gilbert scoured every issue of Dansville’s two newspapers at that time, Genesee Country Express and Dansville Breeze, which meant looking through hundreds of issues and thousands of pages. Not only did it give details of what was going on in Dansville, but it included what happened to its hometown heroes overseas, including publishing some of their letters from faraway places such as Italy, England, and South America.

He noted that though this book is specific about Dansville, it is universal. Many other towns and villages were going through the same thing all across the country.

The project took Gilbert, who is the Dansville Area Historical Society Museum curator, more than a year to complete. He finished the writing around the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor (in late 2016), then went onto finding local photographs to go along with the book, then editing, and then publishing. Though there were not many photographs due to shortages of film, he was able to find some photos via the town historian’s office, as well as locals who helped to contribute, plus through Foster Wheeler’s newsletters and via newspaper clippings.

In addition to this project, Gilbert has written and published a short history on Dansville’s Castle on the Hill, as well as having contributed to The Express with a regular historical column during Dansville’s 200th anniversary year in 1995. His current project is gathering the history of 100 items in the Dansville historical museum, which he plans to publish.

A book signing of Dansville War Diary is scheduled to be in the museum from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sept. 21, which will coincide with the museum’s WWII special exhibit. The book is currently available at the Society’s gift shop and at Dansville Stationers. Cost is $30, proceeds benefit the historical society.