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Looking Back: Birmingham loans ‘Eyes’ during World War I

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 31, 2018


BIRMINGHAM — Upon the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, the Navy discovered that it faced a particular problem: It didn’t have enough binoculars to outfit the seamen on ships looking for submarines, which were beginning to be extensively employed by countries on both sides of the conflict.

According to then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the need far outstripped what could be manufactured in the United States. Previously, the majority of binoculars on the market had been produced in Germany — now an enemy. The smaller suppliers in France and Switzerland were also cut off.

To that end, the Navy issued a call to action to the people of the U.S. Called “Eyes for the Navy,” the program requested that individuals who owned binoculars and spyglasses loan them to the Navy.

J. Bert Peabody — an avid outdoorsman who lived in the Ford-Peabody Mansion that is still located at 325 S. Old Woodward Ave. — answered the call and loaned his set of binoculars. Peabody was a supporter of civic causes before and after the war, including membership in the local branch of the Freemasons and serving on the school board, and his son had enlisted in the Navy.

Meticulous records were kept of the binoculars, with special instructions given as to the safekeeping of them when they were sent out. The servicemen did an excellent job of maintaining the “eyes.”  Of the over 51,000 pairs donated, only one was reported lost by the owner. Each American who loaned a pair received a thank-you letter from FDR, as well as a certificate of thanks.

The binoculars that Peabody contributed to the war effort and his thank-you letter signed by FDR can be seen at The Birmingham Museum during the new exhibition, “The People of Birmingham: Celebrating 200 Years of Stories,” through December 2018.

Do you have your own Birmingham story you’d like to share? Visit um to learn how to become a part of the exhibit.

— Caitlin Donnelly, The Birmingham Museum assistant