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Every day we pooled our eavesdropping, snooping and overheard talk of war from each of our homes. Roosevelt’s radio talks were occasions for excitement and serious deliberation by adults. We watched adults closely for signs of fear. We figured out they intended to keep bad news from us. They didn’t want us to be afraid and I think they did a pretty good job. (I never heard Edward R. Murrow’s chilling reports from London until I was a grown man.)
Nevertheless fear came anyway. It came from watching newsreels of Hitler and especially the massed thousands of goose stepping soldiers. Even we could read headlines about the war in the Pacific and see the pictures of Europe in Life magazine.
The air raid drills and blackout curtains were daily reminders. My in-town cousins told me about German spies. But, except for the girl on the neighbor farm, we kids never spoke out loud about our fear, not even the fear for our fathers and brothers in the war. Perhaps giving voice to our fears would have given them a toehold on our reality.
Reality, too, came anyway. Boys were coming home wounded. Parents hung gold stars in windows to silently attest the loss of a son. Every time I went out delivering milk I would watch for any new ones.
We had big excitement in my town when the Army decided to build a hospital for the boys coming home. What made it so exciting was that we heard POWs were being used to build it and if you went by you could see them! It turned out they were Italian prisoners being used to build the stone chapel for the hospital. I went by delivering milk one day and told my school mates that the prisoners didn’t look scary, just sad.
Sometimes in class we would have young student teachers come down from the Normal School. In the third grade one student teacher came and had me sit in a special chair rigged with a broom handle, wires and pedals and explained how to fly a plane. (Years later on my first training flight at Pensacola I remembered everything she taught.)
The end of WW2 was as intense as its beginning. News of D Day was everywhere and on everyone’s lips. VE Day a year later was stirring even though by then we all expected it. Then came VJ day and, along with the rest of the country, our town exploded with joy. The war was truly over!
I was eight when my mother drove us down from the farm to see a spur-of-the-moment VJ Day parade. Not far out of town we began to form in a loose caravan with other packed cars and trucks. Gas rationing just ended the day the war ended and Bill Crawford who owned the ESSO station said he would pump whatever gas anybody needed for the parade.
We wound all around the crowded downtown blowing our horn and joining in with the shouting. I had never heard such noise. A bunch of boys and girls jumped in the back of the truck and, all laughing, we became part of the mayhem for a while. We found a place to pull over and joined the crowd waiting for the soldiers and sailors to come marching by.
We found a viewing spot at the curb and soon were witness to a ramble of cops and firemen, air raid wardens and clubmen and smiling shirt sleeved political glad handers. Anybody who could play an instrument and walk had been conscripted for the parade band. As the band passed us with music in the air, the boys came in to view. There were no more than a few dozen who had made it home by that time and half of those were banged up one way or another limping, staring at things the crowd would never see.
On a Saturday shortly after the war I joined a pack of boys downtown who were moving from one veteran’s house to another to look at their treasures.
I recall seeing a real German Luger, Japanese flags
and some grainy gruesome pictures among other things.
One sad impact of WW2 involved an older cousin. He volunteered early and returned only after the war. He had been hospitalized with a head injury for years in an Army hospital. While he was away his family moved just a few streets over. When he returned he could not accept that his old house was no longer his. He would stand in front of his old house and cry for hours on end demanding the new owners give back his house. Family efforts to get him to stop, to convince him of the new situation did not work. Kids were hustled away when he came out because he could be frightening. Then one day he was gone. No one would say where he went. The sight of his tortured face and the sound of his anguished cries remain vivid to me.
Looking back over the war years I recall something about my childhood friends and schoolmates that I have never seen in children since that time. I can only describe it as a deep watchful quietness. I saw it and felt it all around me, even during play. To us, bonded by the war, the world seemed ominous but we recognized that we had no agency over anything. We watched; dependent, impotent, and obliged to be silent. We waited for things to get better and they did.
We are the last ones who remember.
Excerpted from “A Memoir from the Home Front 1941-1955 © C. D. Peterson
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