Here is a story about what some in my family experienced during World War II as residents of Niles, Michigan. This story is neither exceptional nor unique. It is just the result of me talking to my Grandma.
I encourage everyone to talk to the Greatest Generation. They have much to teach us and will not be here long. Just ask for stories. You will be amazed. But hurry. You’ve got to hurry.
I am not putting the full names of anyone but my Grandma Ossmer. She granted me permission to tell her story. It never occurred to me to ask the others, but now they are dead. In respect for their privacy, I use their first initials only.
My Grandmother, Ethel Fitch Ossmer, worked in the Kingsbury munitions plant in LaPorte, Indiana, during WWII. Her job was making bombs.
Here she is in a group photo at the bomb plant. She is the short but scrappy lady in the front row to your left. A woman in her forties, she wears a mid length skirt and dark blouse and she is pointing into the camera’s eye.
Born a true Victorian lady, she never wore trousers, not even to make bombs.
She has something that looks like a model airplane across the top of her shoes in the photo below. Two of her sons were at war at the time, in Europe and the Far East.
Uncle B— stormed the beach at Normandy on D Day, was trapped in a shallow foxhole with a dead German, whom he used for cover, (I mean I would too!) and survived to become a highly decorated hero and later, a successful executive. He had a big beautiful family and lived a long happy life.
Uncle D—- escaped from a Japanese prison of war camp and returned to Niles for a job on the railroad. Not long after his return, he was crushed between two railroad cars during a switch operation on the tracks down by the ice house.
Another Uncle D (should we call him D Plus?) was a merchant marine. He survived the war and became a steeplejack, retiring to Brooklyn, Michigan, where he built his own house by hand and had a fieldstone fireplace. One of the rocks had a petrified lizard tail embedded in it. I hope it is still there.
Perhaps the little plane was a momento one of them sent, or gave to his mother when he was home on leave. In any case, in this photograph, my Grandmother has a war plane on her feet, and she is sending a message.
SEND A MESSAGE WITH THOSE BOMBS!
One day, the plant officials took all the ladies outside and posed them in a group. “Ladies! Send a message to go with those bombs! “ So they all posed looking warlike and fierce as a message to their enemy.
In this picture, Grandma O told me she was telling the enemy, “Here’s One in Your Eye!”
Although raised never to point one’s digit, she made an exception just this one time. The circumstances called for it, overriding nicety.
She told me they sometimes wrote notes on the bombs to support the soldiers who would use them. Often they would put on bright lipstick and give the bombs a big red kiss. Somebody else put ink on an old pair of high heel shoes and stamped footprints across the casing of a bomb. A note to the enemy (we stomp on you with our pretty little shoe) or a note to the soldiers (we’ll be here when you get home, Hon, and we will be lookin good) ?
Back to the picture. Please note Grandma O’s daughter B——- to her left in the coveralls. She is energetically emulating a machine gun. This eldest daughter was a scrapper, the story goes, until she found religion and straightened herself out.
My mind’s ear can hear her going
While I did not know her at her scrappiest, I can hear her making that noise. Look at her picture and you will too.
We think another daughter, S——. is behind Grandma O’s right shoulder. It looks just like Aunt S——— but she seems older, thinner, and more careworn than she should have been at that time. Of course, the times were rough. She later recovered her joi de vivre, married a dashing cavalier on an airplane, had three sons, and was tragically widowed. She came back to Niles from Gleason, Tennessee, got a job running the eye doctor’s office, and bought a house on Regent Street, enjoying a long happy marriage with her sons’ sixth grade teacher, our beloved Uncle Harold R——-. She was also a well known realtor in town.
Grandma O said the money at the Kingsbury plant was great, plus they also got free housing and food.
She told me they were required to smoke Kool menthol cigarettes during breaks and lunchtime to “clear the lungs.”
So what if her hair turned green and her complexion yellow.? She was a single mother of a very large family and desperately needed the work. Plus she was serving her country.
In spite of all the toxins, the birth of 12 children, and the stress of widowhood and loss, Grandma O lived past her hundredth birthday.
We think she was 103. During the Depression and the war which followed, the family made themselves older or younger to suit the circumstances so we are not sure about her true age. The birth certificate was destroyed in a fire at the Baptist church some time in the 1920s.
I make no claim to historical accuracy in the details of this story. I am just recounting what my Grandmother told me.
We love her story just the way she told it and we don’t need anything more.
One last thing. Please take the time to scan this photograph to examine the faces and dynamics of these heroic women. My family only takes up one corner, but every one of them tells a story of her own.
One of those stories could be yours.
On March 12, 1943 The Office of Price Administration (OPA) announced the following
Each person regardless of age will be allowed 16 points a week for the whole group of new items to be rationed. There will be no exact meat ration, although the amount of meat available will average two pounds a week per person for home consumption. Restaurants will continue to be coupon free to the customers , although OPA will ration the supplies used by restaurants.
Bouillon cubes and beef extracts, not rationed now with canned soup, will be rationed with meat.
Not all cheeses will be rationed. Hard cheese like Swiss and American will be rationed; soft or perishable cheese like cram cheese or cottage cheese, Camembert, and Brie will not be rationed.
Canned fish will be rationed, but fresh, frozen, smoked, salt and pickled fish will not be rationed.
Weekly coupons will be good for a month. If any coupons are left over from the first week, they may be used the second week’s coupons.
Blue Stamps in War Ration Book No. 2 are used for most canned goods and for dried peas, beans lentils, and frozen commodities like fruit juice. The red stamps are used for meats, canned fish, butter, cheese edible fats, and canned milk. You have to give up more points when buying scarce foods then when buying the same quantity of a more plentiful one.
(Special note: This will be the last post for a while due to a project request.)
from Emil Stefanik b. 1938
My grandfather was from Cleveland. He owned a clothing store and held some stocks and lost everything in the depression. He took a job in a small steel mill where he earned 50 cents an hour. He was too old for the war. He heard about the need for workers in the war plants so he moved his family to Camden, New Jersey and got a job in the shipyard. His pay went from 50 cents an hour to a dollar an hour with plenty of overtime. Grandad, my grandmother and my mother also got help to pay for some of the rent. He always told that it was fated for him to make that move because the first ship he worked on was the U.S.S. Cleveland.
(Author is unknown )
World War II made me love this country because there was a spirit of love in America which has never been here since. I had respect for my country and fellow citizens. I felt the country had great promise, and I was really happy that I was living in a period of history when I could play a part.
During the war we didn’t have a lot of violence here. People were future oriented. You had a sense of purpose, a sense of moving with the country.
I wish we had more of that today.
By Dave Bielkins b.1966
My grandfather, Walter Bielkins, was born and raised deep in the North Carolina backwoods on a small, horse-powered farm. They had jury-rigged electricity which they used for lights and the radio, but no running water. He had never traveled much beyond the farm drive.
He enlisted right after Pearl Harbor and was sent to Fort Bragg. He told me he had some trouble adapting to being in such crowded quarters along side so many strangers, but it was for the war. His big shock came when he took a weekend pass to Fayetteville. He had never even imagined what a city was like. He was awed by so many cars and so many tall buildings. He saw houses all jammed close together. The restaurants and stores were a big shock as he had never been in either. He wasn’t alone because there were other country boys in his unit all discovering the same thing. He told me that with tens of thousands of boys being moved all around to new and different places, the war changed far more in the country – and in its soldiers – than anyone could imagine. He came home safely from Europe and lived to be 76
Albert Scioffi b. 1936
My sister, Alice Mary, had a boyfriend who joined the army.
Before he went in, he bought her an engagement ring. Alice Mary didn’t want to be engaged, but she felt bad because he was going off to war. In 1945 her boyfriend was coming home and she was worried about how she was going to break the news that she didn’t want to marry him. She felt sorry for him, but that’s how she felt.
She met him at a restaurant downtown near the train station. My parents, my brother and I were all waiting for her when she came home that night. “How did he take the news?” we all asked. “I never gave him the news,” she said. “He gave me the news that he was engaged to some girl he met when he was on leave in New York. He said he was very sorry.”
Alice Mary felt she should be happy that he no longer wanted to marry her, but she felt jilted nonetheless and cried all night. The next day she was fine and was glad her pretending to him was over.
Something of value
I grew up in a small town near Dallas. My cousins and I played marbles games back then. We had lots of kinds of marbles; glass, stone, “aggies” of agate, and there was the rare ‘steely’ that my cousin, Maryann, used for her shooter.
. Our games were simple: draw a circle, put in a marble from every player and then take turns trying to knock the other players’ marbles out of the circle. She won lots of games with that steely and prized it above anything she owned
When my father was killed in France, Maryann came to our house for the wake. We were both about 10 years old. As a kid, she didn’t know the right things to say, but she gave me her steely. I knew what it meant to her and understood what she was doing.
I won some games with the steely, but never used it against Maryann. Today the steely is in my jewelry box where I see it and think of Maryann’s war time kindness often.
(It’s summer and time for re-runs. Here is an earlier post from Col. Bob Mosely, brother of Zack Mosely, the cartoonist who created the popular war time strip “Smilin’ Jack.)
The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) had been given a mission by the US Army Air Forces to perform shore patrol duties off the Fla. coast from Palm Beach up north to Cape Canaveral (about 130 miles of coast) and then there was another CAP unit out of Miami for the area south of us and others on up the north coasts, all the way to Maine (as I remember it). German submarines by that time were sinking many cargo ships along the east coast. The Gulf Stream is a current of water about 50 miles wide (just a guess) and moves at about 10 to 15 knots and flows around the bottom of Fla. out of the Gulf of Mexico and north along the coast and then on out into the Atlantic.
The US ships moving south would often get in very close to shore, to get inside the Gulf Stream and avoid the current so as to not lose that 10 to 15 knots of speed. At this time the Army Air Forces were short on planes and could not provide much in the way of patrol coverage. And if a submarine was spotted by some other source, a call would have to be made through channels and a very slow observation plane could then be dispatched, but if the observation plane did not happen to be in that particular area at that, it might have to come all the way down from Savannah Georgia. This was obviously no threat to the Germans so they were having a field day out there sinking merchant ships.—- When the ships were in so close to land, inside the Gulf Stream, the Germans would silhouette them against the lights of Palm beach at night and blaze away at them (this led to more strict blackout rules). They were in so close we were awakened several nights (living in West Palm Beach) by torpedo explosions sinking ships. Some of the broken hulls stayed around for a long time; one in particular off of Vero Beach was visible for as much as 20 years later.
These sinkings led to a bunch a things; one being a lot of oil on the beaches, one being a total black out at nights (we had to tape up the head lights of our cars and leave only a little slit of light for night driving, but with gas rationing there wasn’t all that much driving going on anyhow) and another thing it brought about was the change in the mission of the CAP being upgraded from an observation/rescue role to a more aggressive role, to try to help out with the German submarine menace. The idea was to put 100 pound bombs on the little Stinson 10 A, 90 HP planes we flew. Now we really did not expect to do a lot of damage with those little planes, although they could possibly inflict some damage. But, mainly it was figured that the Germans had some kind of electronic gear to detect an airplane was over head, and it might deter an attack.
With the advent of the beginning of the war, that sleepy little airport in West Palm Beach that I had fallen in love with when I arrived in West Palm Beach in 1940, became Morrison Field and a bee hive of activity with military planes of all sorts parked everywhere. Thus, there was no room for any civilian operations like there had been for the original Florida Air Patrol and early CAP operations, so the CAP operations had to be moved to the new Lantana airport, about 5 miles to the south of West Palm Beach.
It was at this time, thanks to my brother, Zack, that I got into the CAP as a pilot because I had my pilots license. I went from a grunt working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for $10 dollars— washing, fueling and hangaring airplanes— to a Second Lieutenant in the CAP, where they paid me $8 dollars a day and I could get all of the flying time I wanted. They called that pay Per Diem; a word I came very familiar with later on in my career. I had definitely moved up in the world and I was beginning to realize that my decision to become a military pilot; i.e. work for the Government, was not a bad idea from a monetary stand point as well as getting to fly their beautiful airplanes.
I really loved that CAP experience. For as mentioned before, nearly all of those Civil Air Patrol pilots were of Zack’s age or older (a couple of them had even been in World War One). They were successful people by my standards in that they had made enough money to buy their own planes, and also they were very experienced pilots. I had enormous respect for them and it was an honor to get to fly with such men. They seemed to respect me also even though I had done nothing to prove myself except that I did have a pilot’+s license. Part of their respect for me, I’m sure, came from the fact that I was Zack’s brother. But I suspect it also was the fact that they knew I was going to be getting in the real shooting war very soon and they were too old and would not be able to get to do that. That is a strange thing to think about as I write this, in that people really wanted to go to war which could mean getting killed. But a person needed to have lived at that time, when your country was really in danger of being taken over by the Germans and the Japanese, to understand how Americans wanted to get in the fight. It was an extremely threatening period and almost everyone wanted to do their part.
Parachutes for their Sons
At Pioneer Parachute is was really possible to pack a parachute for your son
By Claire Stafford b. 1936
My Aunt Marie worked at the Pioneer Parachute Company in Manchester, Connecticut. Pioneer was the first company to use nylon instead of silk for parachutes. It was an important factory for the war effort. Mostly women worked there making and packing parachutes that paratroopers would use.
A woman named Adeline Gray who worked there tested the first nylon parachute by jumping out of a plane.
My Aunt Marie told me that women had to put their name and identification number on the chutes they worked on and that one woman’s chute actually got to her own son. She wasn’t sure it was true but it didn’t matter because every woman felt she had to do her best because somebody’s son’s life depended on her.