Life on Eastern Shore farmland is interesting if you make it so. That is what Ralph and Leona Van Dyke did through their childhood. Whether it was through playing with rationing supplies or by counting blimps, fun was to be found. Sometimes it could be found to an explosive degree.
Playing with Rations
The gasoline, for example, I grew up in Dorchester County, so I’m down the road a little bit, on a farm. And my father, once a month, would go to Federalsburg to get his monthly allotment of gas and oil for, well you didn’t have the type of farming equipment you have now-a-days, you had horses, but you also did have a tractor here and there and of course trucks. One thing I will never forget is he went one day to get his allotment and he came home and he was very busy and instead of putting it away he put it under a tree out in the backyard, and I was very good at making mud pies. (Laughter) I spent quite a bit of time making mud pies out of those cans I can still remember because I got a hand to my backside when he decided that I should have known better. I used it all. I was probably 6, mud pies were ok because farm kids did all sorts of things like that. Dig a hole, get some water, and make mud pies, and do all sorts of things, it was there to pass time. If you have fuel or oil in a can that made it even better, you didn’t have to get the water!
Munitions Plant Explosion
At the plant here at that time, I think I was around 11, and they had an explosion there, and it killed two people. Two men in the powder house, where they mixed explosives. That morning I was home, it was a Sunday morning I’ll never forget. We lived on Mill Street right up here, and we had a coal stove that we used to have hard coal in and I remember dad shaking the coal down with dust coming up, and mom getting fed up over all the dust in the living room. Next thing you know BOOM! Sounded like the thing had blown up, I thought the stove had blown up. You never heard such an explosion you know? He said “My heavens that’s the plant, your mothers working out there. So, I’m going right out there, and you stay here and don’t leave the house until I get back.” It frightened all of us. She being out there. At that time, she said “I saw a flash of light, a brilliant flash of light” and of course light travels faster than sound. Than right after that BANG! Boy it went off. The whole building… Dad said they weren’t in there, he said you couldn’t find a piece of them bigger than a wallet. Everything went to pieces. And I knew of one person. It was two people there killed, but I knew one of them was named Lowman from Church Hill. That’s about all I know about that. But that happened, and at that time, they were manufacturing, not the whole hand grenade, but they were manufacturing… you know the handle? The handle and the part that goes on top of the pineapple. They manufactured that part. They also manufactured detonators, which were sent to the Navy as I understood it at that time, to put in Navy shells on the ships. When they built the health center once in a while a bulldozer would hit something and then POP! And pop in the ground there, in later years because they were still there at that time. Also, they got caught up ten years later in firecrackers when the munitions plant was converted to firecrackers and pyrotechnics. That’s when they had that terrible explosion.
I don’t know what the dirigibles were doing. The watch tower was probably a mile from our house. It wasn’t uncommon to be outside playing, run into the house and ‘Hey mother there’s a dirigible right out there’. And he’d be there for what seemed like forever because they didn’t move much, they were just big things floating up there. As a matter of fact we had a cow have a calf born in the field one day and my little brother swore that was dropped by dirigible. I know where it came from! I know where it came from, that dirigible has been hanging up there most of the day.
So, we would go in the morning so we must have spent maybe nine to five or eight to four, something like that. Because we’d be there all day. And we’d have our little snack for lunch and I’d take my afternoon nap on the couch that was there, and she’d do whatever she did whatever she did up at the top and I’d play with my dolls or whatever else I’d carried for the day.
An Acquaintance in Bataan
Tom Davis. Tom said he was in the service in Texas. And this first sergeant that he had said “Where you from?” He said Chestertown. Oh yeah, he said I had a colonel from Chestertown. He said I was his Jeep driver on Bataan. Remember that? He said who are you talking about? He said Colonel Bowes. And Tom said “Well he died on Bataan Death March didn’t he?” “No he didn’t, he and I both made it. But, they put him on one ship and me on another. And they shipped us to Japan. And they torpedoed the ship he was on and he died drowning on that ship.” That’s what happened. And I went to school with his daughter, Patsy, Patsy Bowes. Right here at Perryville High School and she lived in Salisbury the rest of her life.
Sergeant down there wrote Mrs. Bowes in this town, she’s gone now. He wrote her letters back and forth like Tom told him to do the rest of their life. All about his being with her. Of course he was his private Jeep driver, I guess for him and stayed in the army all those years. He was pretty close to him, you better believe it. And they were captured on Bataan by Japanese. Horrible. Horrible.
Date of Interview: June 9, 2015
Interviewers: Adam Goodheart, Michael Buckley, Lani Seikaly, Rachel Brown, Emma Buchman, Elijah McGuire-Berk, Nick Coviello, Sarah Graff, Abby Gordon, Joseph Swit
Transcriber: Elijah McGuire-Berk, Nick Coviello, Sarah Graff, Joseph Swit