Reading War Brides by Helen Bryan caused me to ponder the memories of World War II that have been passed down to us by relatives. Everyone seems to have a story. Some are humorous, some tragic, but all reflect the stress of a world at war.
Like Helen Bryan, I am a product of the war. I was born in 1943. My father returned home from the hospital to find his draft notice in the mail. My father served “state side”. He and my mother did not suffer the severe stress of the characters in Helen’s book, but even secure in the United States, they had to put up with blackouts, rationing, knitting for the troops, requests for extra defense products production and concern for the safety of friends and relatives in the war zones.
It amazed me that my mother could knit while talking with company or even during teachers’ meetings. I am not talking about knitting straight rows. They bored Mom. By 1955, Mom only knit articles with patterns, and often with cables or “pop corns”. She seldom looked down at her work. Her explanation was that all of the women knit for the troops during the war, and then with a laugh she would say, “During a blackout, you had to knit in the dark.” She still had a little book with instructions for knit scarves, hats, gloves and socks for the servicemen.
Rationing did make cooks more creative. Mom always made jokes about baking sugarless, eggless, milkless cakes. One day someone challenged her so she pulled out a recipe and made a cake without sugar, eggs or milk. When it was done, I was surprised to see her pull a spice cake out of the oven. I recognized the cake as my favorite that she still often made for the family. It was sweetened with molasses and raisins. Apparently spices like cloves were available during the war. While this cake was excellent, I am sure many of the innovative recipes were mediocre.
For more than a decade following the war, parts of uniforms and items military equipment were in common use. Many men and boys wore military jackets in the winter. For winter camping, I wore heavy wool uniform pants originally issued to my father. Most of us carried Army issued canteens. All boy scout units camped in military surplus tents. My troop camped in baker tents. Others used shelter halves known as pup tents. My father carried a short handled trench shovel in trunk of his car for emergency use. Clamped on the steering wheel column was a khaki, angled flash light of the type issued to soldiers. Such items were often issued during war, but in many cases were purchased as surplus after the war.
After Dad was drafted, Mom saved her gas ration stamps and tire ration stamps so that, when Dad got permission to let his family join him, she could drive to his base. She drove from Chicago to Texas. Meanwhile, Dad got a weekend pass and hitch hiked north. (note: Motorists were encouraged to pick up servicemen in uniform.) They met somewhere in Oklahoma. Roads were primitive. Cars were somewhat fragile. Dad inspected the car to make sure it needed no repairs before continuing. He laughed and said, “What is this hair pin doing here?”
Mom answered, “Well, I was fixing the car and needed a cotter pin. Since I didn’t have one, I used a hair pin.” It worked. I am sure Mom was not the only woman who had to maintain her car while the men were at war.
Mom thought I needed a bath. The hotel had a bath tub per state regulations, but no drain or faucets. Plumbing was not required by the regulations. I must have survived with a sponge bath.
Eventually, Dad was ordered to report as an x-ray maintenance instructor to Brooks Army Hospital. Like everyone else, he had to take his turn being the hospital air raid warden. About once a month, he would put on his helmet and armband. He would make his rounds to assure that all blackout curtains were in place. Meanwhile my mother would wrap me in a blanket and bring me into the hospital. While I slept in the tray of a footlocker, they would spend the night developing and printing pictures in the x-ray department dark room. Periodically, my father would make his rounds and return to the darkroom.
My father-in-law was exempt from the draft because of his occupation as an engineer, but his employer freely lent him and other engineers to the local ordinance works. Eventually he was assigned to a top secret project. It was so secret that each engineering team was assigned to only one room. They were told what would come in one wall and what they were expected to send out through pipes through the other wall. Their assignment was to design and build only that specific section of the process. The project was at Oak Ridge. Eventually they learned they had helped on the Manhattan Project.
When I went to work at a paper mill in northern Wisconsin, the mill had a large machine room with two paper machines. I was told that the second machine had been built in the 1950’s. During the war, the employees had run one machine and had a large space that would eventually house the second machine. Employees worked their shifts on the paper machine. Then they put in over time to build marine winches for the Navy in the space on the other side of the room.
Dad’s younger brother was not so fortunate. Drafted out of college, he shipped out for Europe. His troop ship traveled directly from New Jersey to Normandy, arriving a couple of weeks after D-day. Using a temporary wharf to unload, that ship was one of the first troop ships to bring reinforcements and replacements directly to the beachhead.
My uncle survived, but returned home with trench foot and psychological wounds. His buddy next to him took a bullet in the head. Three feet to the left and it would have been Uncle’s head. Uncle adopted his friend’s mother as his own. Other than that, however, he seldom said more than a few words about his experience. He was reluctant to even admit he was a veteran. Another veteran eventually encouraged him to make a written account of his tour of duty as therapy. Otherwise, much of his experience would have been lost.
My muse has yet to inspire me to write stories about what I have been told about this unique time in American history. Perhaps sometime in the future I will write something about WWII. My second book, currently in production, is about the Vietnam War and the years following it. I did not serve, but friends who served told me about their experiences. Of course, I also remember much of what went on at home during that time. Again, it was a stressful time, but the stresses were far different from World War II. The stresses were also not so severe except that my college friend, and many others returned in pine boxes.
It is so easy for us to forget what happened, and very easy for the younger generations to forget what their parents, grandparents and great grandparents endured. When the occasion presents itself, I think we owe it to the younger generations to pass on the lore we either experienced or learned from our relatives.