World War II

The Challenges During World War II For Rotary

It has been said that in our early  years  Rotary  was  faced  with  three  great challenges: the First World War, the Great Depression, and World War II. In the mid to late 1930’s Rotary in Europe was beginning to be threatened by the repressive fascist government of Benito Mussolini, who had, for a  while,  tolerated Rotary in Italy. However, when Adolf Hitler came  to  power  in  Germany, both countries made it clear that Rotary would not be a viable factor    in either country.

German Rotarians floated a range of ideas designed to save their organization. Those having contacts  with  senior  Nazi  officials  Himmler,  Goering, and Ribbentrob tried to personally intervene by contacting each  of them. There was even an attempt to arrange a meeting between Rotary International officials and Hitler himself. When these plans failed, club leaders reluctantly  voted  to  disband  all   Rotary   clubs   in   Germany   effective   October  15,   1937.  They  returned  their  charters  to  Rotary   International.

About this same time Spain, which was embroiled in  civil  war,  closed down all of that country’s Rotary clubs. This was  also  the case in Austria and Italy. At the 1938 Rotary International Convention in San Francisco, Maurice Duperrey, Rotary International president in 1937-1938, told delegates, “We sincerely regret that the Rotarians of Germany and Austria, in the face of circumstances, felt that  the  only  decision  they  could  take  was  to  disband  their Rotary clubs. But even  if  the  members  of  Rotary  clubs  in  Germany  are no longer Rotarians, they are still our friends.”

Even as Rotary’s future in Europe looked, at the time,  dire,  many  Rotarians  in  the  occupied  countries continued to meet  clandestinely.


Anxious Times for Rotary – World War II

Leading up to the United States' involvement in World War II, Rotary International was finding its  very  existence  threatened  in  Europe.  On  the  other side of the world the news was equally grim. As the Japanese invaded  China, Rotary clubs in that region were forced to close, and the war officially erupted,  entire  countries  fell  to  German  or  Japanese forces.  It   was   said   (in A  Century  of  Service  –  The  Story   of   Rotary International)  that  “484  clubs and 16,700 Rotarians were wiped off the rolls of Rotary” during this time.

In Europe Rotary records were seized by the Gestapo, Rotarians were imprisoned, and in Warsaw twelve members of the local Rotary Club were executed. Some Rotary clubs that were closed down found their  members burning  every  record of membership.

French Rotarians continued to meet secretly after Germany invaded that country. From the book, A Century of Service, the following story was told by French Rotarians:

“One day we were having (our club) lunch when a German officer, a General Shippert, came into the private dining room where we were sitting. The last mouthful (of food) stuck in our mouths as we thought he was coming to arrest us. But he was a Rotarian and past governor from Germany and said he had come to pay his respect to International President Maurice Duperrey. Weren’t we relieved!”

As was the case in Europe, Rotary members in the Far East were also imprisoned, but in these instances, by the Japanese. It would seem that in some areas of the world during the war it was difficult at best to be a member of  Rotary; however Rotarians, where and when they could, stood up to the challenge.


Those Who Led Birmingham’s Rotary Club During World War II

During the run-up and for the duration of  World  War  II,  several prominent local Rotary members led our club. These  were  troubling  and  anxious times for club members as well as  for  all  Americans.  It  would  take  very special leaders - Rotary leaders - to keep our club's focus on  Rotary's missions and ideals during war  time.

The 1940-1941 Rotary  president was  R.J.  (Bob)  Williams,  also  president of  Birmingham  Rail  and  Locomotive  Company,  a  company   that   still   exists  at this writing in 2017.  During  Bob  Williams'  term,  there  were  many  diversified programs presented to the membership and committee activities increased. Aid to high school students was  continued.

The next two presidents’ terms were filled by our future international presidents, Roy D. Hickman and Frank E. Spain.  The editor of The Birmingham Post newspaper, James E. Mills, accepted the position  of  president  of  this Rotary  Club  in  1943-1944. It was during James  Mills’  term  that  the   country, as  a  whole,  and  specifically  our  club’s   membership  was  devoted  and focused on an Allied victory in the war.

As the war drew to an end, J.C. (Chap) Hodges,  president  of  Cosby  Hodges Milling Company, brought to Rotary an appreciation  of  Rotary friendships and club functions in  a  time  of  high  anxiety.  Dr.  John  H.  Buchanan, pastor of the Southside Baptist Church served as president in 1945-1946. Dr. Buchanan was a humorous and dynamic speaker who set an "example for living and practicing  the  principles  of  Rotary."  Sadly  it  was  at  the  beginning  of  the  decade that we lost the founding father of this club. H.B.

(Harry)  Wheelock. He died  on  February  5th,  1940.  It  should  go  without saying that  without Harry Wheelock’s vision this club would not be the club it is today.