A child’s view of World War IIBy MARION MILES,
Duration--- I knew this word before I knew all my colors. There were things no longer part of our lives—at least for the duration. “How long is a duration?” I asked. “I don’t know,” my mother replied. “Until it’s over, I think.” “Until what’s over?” I persisted. “The war,” she answered. “Why does the war make red not available?” “They need red in the war.” “For what?”
It was years later when someone tried to explain that some scarce chemical fixative was used in bullets-- or maybe it was grenades or bombs. Without it red wouldn’t stick to metal. Then I wondered if red cars and fire engines were in danger of exploding, but I had already had enough of hard-to-follow discussions to even ask.
We had rations for the duration. That meant we had little books with stamps that would allow us to buy certain foods and gasoline. Once the stamps were gone, we were out of luck for the rest of the month. Many people had problems with enough gasoline, but at our house it was sugar.
Dad liked three teaspoons of sugar in his coffee. Therefore, it should be evident to anyone that we were destined to run out of sugar long before we ran out of month.
So Mother devised a plan. She counted out enough teaspoons of sugar for my cereal until the new ration books came, and she hid them for me. It wasn’t long before he realized that I was still merrily eating my cereal while his coffee was becoming more bitter with each day. So he began a search.
Looking back, I think I could hide a few teaspoonfuls of sugar so that no one could find it, but at the time I thought of it as a game, so Go Dad. We even played hot/cold as he wandered around in the attic –access to our attic was not hard, people, we had steps to the attic, and it was all floored. I would say cold if he headed in the wrong direction, and hot if he got closer. He was amazingly proficient at this game, as I remember.
For the duration we had to have air raid wardens. They met and planned our evacuation because everyone was certain that right after the Germans bombed Pittsburgh, they would head directly for Birmingham. Both cities had steel mills, and they would want to remove them from action. Apparently their planes could just quietly hop over New York, Atlanta, the Carolinas, etc without encountering any resistance from our army. Maybe they would just fly straight from Pittsburgh to us, but how many bombs could they carry? And could they bomb the entire city with just a few planes? And why would they direct the entire war at us? We moved during the war and at this time we lived pretty far out—on Twentieth Avenue, the next to last paved street, in fact. The adults were busy planning, so all my questions built up in my thoughts and were left unanswered as they festered in my mind.
The evacuation plan was for the children in each household to evacuate with neighbors so that if the parents were killed, the family line would continue through the children, but if a child’s group died, the parents could have another child. It terrified me to think that I would have to go with Miss Perry who taught writing and braided ribbons in her hair while Sallie got to go with my parents, accompanied by this unborn sibling of mine. I was doomed to a life of making round OOOs and using The Palmer Method of Cursive Writing while she was destined to swing on my swing set and to skate in my basement. “Don’t be silly,” my father said, “You will be with us. If the family dies out, we die together. Besides we are going to be in a mess if we follow the plan and evacuate south while Montgomery people evacuate north. We will all meet in Sylacauga with no food or water.” And you wonder why I liked my dad. Sallie could go with Miss Perry, and so there. “But where will we go?” “Nowhere,” he said, “unless we decide to go to the country.” (He meant the coal mines). “They aren’t going to bomb dirt.”
The air raid wardens checked to make sure everyone had covers over their windows preventing light from shining through after dark so that the Germans would know exactly where to bomb. I would have hated to be the lone light visible and have my entire city destroyed just because I was in my bed reading Bambi. So I thought this was a good goal. Dad wasn’t very enamored of the ARW, so when they told each one to bring a friend to the next meeting to help, Dad put the insignia on me, and off we went. “What is she doing here?” people whispered, and when I heard one of them, I proudly stuck out my elbow to show them my armband with the Insignia. “She can’t be a warden,” they said, “She is a child.” “She can spot a lighted window as well as I can,” said my father. I don’t remember any more meetings. I don’t know if they had them, or if we didn’t go, or maybe I was the one that didn’t go.
For the duration we always pulled over when an army convoy went by. It was like we pull over today for fire trucks, police, and ambulances except that we got out of our cars and stood silently as the soldiers passed, and we children often saluted. We waved at the P-38s overhead and yelled “Keep ‘em flying” at the top of our little lungs. In case you are wondering, of course I could recognize P-38s. They were planes with two bodies. I could not differentiate between the other planes, but my friends could—it was important to be able to tell one plane from another because—remember-- we had to notify anyone if we saw a German plane. No one realized that I needed glasses at that time; they just thought I wasn’t bright about recognizing planes except dual-bodied ones.
World War II was the last war where everyone was involved. The soldiers went to war…everyone else “contributed to the war effort.” To provide money for our military, children patriotically purchased red saving stamps for a dime or green ones for 25 cents while grown-ups bought savings bonds. No one objected to peeling the aluminum foil off chewing gum wrappers to recycle and make airplanes; we saved our cooking grease in special cans and took it to wherever they collected it - I never knew what that was for; nylons were gone for the ladies because we needed parachutes. And we listened to the radio... “This is Walter Winchell speaking to Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea”... I was glad that the ships got to listen to Walter Winchell although I usually lost track of what he said. Everyone knew that God had miraculously cleared the skies for the invasion of Normandy. In fact everyone knew the same body of material, and everyone agreed about it. For the last time we were a unified country. In Korea and Vietnam it seemed that everyone went on about their business and enjoyed their activities, except for those with loved one overseas, but in World War II even the children were part of the effort.
It was a tough time for my grandmother. Her husband died one December, and her oldest daughter died the next. Now her youngest was approaching 18, and she was worried sick for him. I remember sitting at her breakfast room table with Dad while tears rolled down her cheek. “What can we do?” she lamented.
This is why she was so upset: All young men registered for The draft at age 18 and were quickly called up into the army unless exempted for officer training in college or for some mental or medical defect such as flat feet. Yes, that was ‘exemptible’, I always assumed because the soldier’s feet would hurt. So when he celebrated his 18th birthday, grandmother’s youngest son registered and was in line to be an officer. All went well until the physical exam where it was discovered that he was colorblind. So he was off instead to be an infantryman.
He would one day leave his jeep at the Battle of the Bulge in order to get water for a steaming radiator only to watch the jeep explode as he returned. The officer and other men that he had been driving along with the vehicle were just gone, and he wound up disoriented in a home with a German woman who cared for him until he could be sent to a hospital in Rome, Ga. We never knew her name.
Dad and I went to visit his brother at the hospital. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked. “He has a broken nose,” I was told. Why don’t parents just tell you? We called it shell shock because we didn’t know about post traumatic stress syndrome, but when he shuffled into the room, I knew something was very wrong with my young uncle. “He doesn’t look like he has a broken nose,” I pointed out. “Go sit down,” was the unexpectedly sharp reply, and Dad headed for a chair in a corner to visit. I think now they must have tried electric shock to no avail, and my sweet 18-year-old hero was discharged with a medical disability. He was never able to become the person I had loved and followed around, probably to his dismay.
At that point I hated the stupid duration, the war, and the Russians who immediately began to stir the world up again. I was very happy when the atomic bomb was dropped, and the other beloved uncles could return to their families unscathed.
World War II changed us all…….
Marion Miles is a Northsider.