Saturday, July 13, 2013

World War II Through the Eyes of a Child

Photo via National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 515532

My first two novels both deal with different phases of World War II. Fall Eagle One is set during 1943-44 when Germany was already losing the war. Hold Back the Sun takes place in the opening months of the Pacific War, a period in which the Japanese armed forces ran wild. My focus on this period is probably because “The War” shaped the events of my childhood.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting with my father and older brother in a 1937 Chevy at the El Dorado Airport watching Army Reserve aviators taking off and landing their bi-plane trainers--high entertainment in 1941 South Arkansas. An announcer broke into the country/western music on the radio with the news that the Japanese had bombed the Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor. My father was stunned, and so was the rest of our family when we got home. Almost everyone expressed the opinion that the U.S. would stomp the enemy out of existence in six months. Reality proved something very different.

Life began to change almost at once. Hershey Bars and Coca-Cola soon disappeared from the local grocery store. Members of our family started to leave as they were called up or volunteered. My Dad’s cousin, Gordon, who lived with us, went off to the Army Air Corps. The husbands of two of my mother’s sisters went into the Navy (one of the others had served with Pershing in France in the Great war and the other was too old). My father was an “in-between’” too young for WWI and too old for WWII. He spent the war working 60-hour weeks at the lumber plant where he was the planing mill foreman. Lumber was in great demand for the armed forces.

The war affected everything from our diet to the movies we watched to our school curriculum. Everything was rationed. Meat and eggs were in short supply. The local oil company ran their vehicles on natural gas to conserve fuel for the Army. We were fortunate that our Uncle Earl owned a farm. He raised chickens and hogs and smoked his own meat. Like all her neighbors, mother tended a large vegetable garden and canned hundreds of jars to tide us through the winters. Metal toys disappeared. Our toy guns and dolls were soon made of sawdust and glue that dissolved in the rain.

When I started first grade in 1942, the curriculum contained material praising our many allies throughout the world. We read of Chinese children eating rice from Texas. Everyone was encouraged to buy Savings Stamps to support the war. Our classroom had a poster of a soldier. As our stamp purchases grew, we pasted pieces of equipment we had paid for on his body.

Newsreels touting progress in the war showed between the double features at the movies, along with documentaries like The March of Time. Feature films like Mrs. Minerva portrayed the British as steadfast and brave, the Russians in North Star determined and courageous. Bataan and Wake Island showed Americans fighting to the last bullet against impossible odds.  All the boys played war in our free time with wooden weapons we had made ourselves. We were as often Russians battling the Germans as U.S. troops.

The news as well as the movies was censored. We would get letters from servicemen with whole passages blacked out. Bad news about progress of the war was downplayed, while small victories were magnified. Propaganda filled the papers and the airwaves. I remember the jubilation when the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo came out. We never doubted for a minute that the Allies would be anything but victorious.

Blackout drills remain in my memory. These occurred with some frequency. We placed dark curtains over all our windows. Air Raid Wardens walked the streets and reported houses where any light showed. Others flew over more rural areas in a Piper Cub and dropped bags of spoiled flour on lighted houses. Offenders had to pay a stiff fine.

V-E Day and V-J Day brought relief to our long nightmare. The entire country celebrated for days. We had few second thoughts about using atomic bombs to end the war. Relief that our relatives and friends in the armed forces had survived triumphed all. 

Perhaps my most significant memory of World War II is of the national unity that prevailed throughout my childhood. Patriotism came naturally to those of us who matured during the war. Sadly, we would not see such unity again until September 11, 2001, and even sadder, it did not last nearly so long.

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