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Stories from DEP is a collection of feature articles
published in DEP's internal newsletter, Weekly Pipeline.
This article was originally published January 10, 2012.

In World War II, BWS Police Ensured All Was Quiet on the Watershed Front

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into a world war. Life in every part of the country changed overnight with New York City being no exception. For its part, the Board of Water Supply (BWS) organized a seminar in February 1942 at which it presented a report entitled “Wartime Protection of Water Supply Systems” to the engineers of its sister agency the Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity—the department responsible for operating the upstate and in city water systems. Both were predecessor agencies of DEP. In its introduction, the report gets right to the point with the assertion that “of all public utilities, water supply is the most affected by warfare.” This led to a detailed examination of how best to protect New York City’s water supply against enemy attack. The primary concerns were protecting the water supply from sabotage and air attack, including explosives, poisons and bacteria.

The BWS Police constituted a key part of these protections. With a long and distinguished record of service before the war, these men were entrusted with additional responsibilities that lasted from 1941-1945. Normally assigned to protect water supply construction projects, expanded responsibilities included safeguarding the upstate water supply from Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers to the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains. This territory included the Croton system, parts of the Catskill system and the Delaware system still under construction.

Temporary patrolmen and guards were hired and trained to bolster the ranks of the BWS Police force. During the war, the number of precincts was increased from eight to nine with 123 foot patrol posts manned with 184 patrolmen (up from 101 in 1940) and 250 guards (a position exclusive to wartime protection). BWS ensured quality training for these men at the New York State Police School, with the Bomb Squad of the New York Police Department, and with the Winchester Arms Company among others. To ensure swift communication between the posts and the precincts a telephone system was installed along the line of the Catskill Aqueduct, and squad cars were maintained at each precinct to transport foot patrols to and from their posts. More men on the ground provided a reliable, potent force to oppose any enemy agent attempting to sabotage New York City’s water supply. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia would authorize $695,667.46 between 1942 and 1945 to cover BWS Police emergency expenses associated with protecting the upstate water supply under the auspices of the city’s Civilian Defense Program.

For guidance on protection against air attack, BWS looked at how England and Germany handled water supply issues during wartime as outlined in the 1942 report Wartime Protection of Water Supply Systems. This report suggested the protection of large dams from bombs and aerial torpedoes through the use of anti-torpedo nets, balloon barrages, anti-aircraft batteries and even camouflage. In addition to physical protection of the water supply, consideration was given to maintaining water supply service to the city if the upstate systems sustained damage by attack. One tactic was to distribute repair materials along cut-cover sections of the Catskill Aqueduct to expedite repairs. To ensure water supplies to the city if the Catskill Aqueduct were damaged by air attack, the Delaware Aqueduct (complete except for certain operating equipment unavailable due to the war) was placed into emergency service between Kensico and Hillview reservoirs on April 8, 1942. This was accomplished by repurposing obsolete equipment from the Croton system. Additional sections of the Delaware Aqueduct would be placed into emergency service in 1943 and 1944. Fortunately, the war never came directly to New York City.

Protecting the water supply would only be one facet of BWS’s contribution to the war effort. BWS employees (both men and women) also served in all the branches of the armed forces during World War II. The Delaware Water Supply News, BWS’s monthly newsletter, followed its employees as they fought around the world. Sections of short letters and notices appeared in the newsletter throughout the conflict to inform colleagues of their experiences and the progress of the war. Women from BWS also joined, some serving in the US Naval Reserve (Women's Reserve), commonly known as WAVES, and at least one serving in the Marine Corps Reserve. Loretta McDonough, a secretary with BWS, joined the Marine Corps as private and was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant.

By the end of the war, 277 BWS employees had served in the armed forces, with some making the ultimate sacrifice. One such person was Lieutenant Junior Grade James A. Leussler, who died in action on July 29, 1943 after sustaining fatal gunshot wounds. The Delaware Water Supply News, published a large photograph and obituary for Lieutenant Leussler who, before the war, was an engineering inspector for the Kensico Division. In its post-war annual report for the years 1940-1946 the BWS honored the service of its men and women who served in the armed forces and at home to protect the upstate water supply and to “eight of our men who, with high devotion and courage, made the supreme sacrifice. We will always be mindful of our loss.”

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