World War II

(1 of 3) My cousin Billy Brailer. Billy was killed in action in Normandy in July 1944. He was barely 18 years old.
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It seems every generation is defined by some war. Ours was
World War II. For Americans, the war began on Sunday, December 7th, 1941 when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. I was almost 9 years old and in the 4th grade at Parkside Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. The attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II which was already being fought in Europe and China. In a matter of days, we had declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy.

The news of the attack reached us early in the afternoon. We were listening to a Washington Redskins football game on the radio. There was no television in those days. We sat glued to the set that afternoon waiting for the little bits and pieces of information to trickle back from Hawaii. The news that day wasn't good as you know if you have read your history. Many lives were lost and many planes and ships were destroyed.

At school the next morning, all the kids were very excited. We really had no idea of what was happening. Nobody knew much about Hawaii. We figured Japan was a very little country and Japanese people were little, too. So we ought to win the war very quickly. We sang a parody from the Walt Disney movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs":

"Hi ho, Hi ho,
It's off to war 'we go.
We'll knock the Japs right off the maps.
Hi ho, hi ho."

We were just kids but a lot of grownups, I suspect, felt much the same way. It wouldn't be that easy. Probably not one person in a thousand really understood what happened that Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor. The world was beginning to shrink. Huge oceans would not be vast enough to protect America from harm much longer. The military necessities of warfare unleashed a torrent of technological development of unimaginable proportion. Just over the horizon were rockets, radar, computers, jet engines, nuclear power!

Science and engineering found ways to go faster and faster ... and farther and farther --- until we were able to fly right off the earth and land on the Moon. Or drop a bomb on a moving tank from a jet fighter in the dead of night and never miss.

Progress, obviously, has its good side and its bad side.

World War II unleashed social energy, too. People moved around from place to place. They were exposed to different ideas. And when the war ended. they kept right on moving and trying new ideas. The war years were a watershed time.

But this isn't meant to be a chapter out of a history book. What I want to do is to give you some of my own memories from that time.

My father didn't go into the Army for a good many months after Pearl Harbor and so, at first, our lives didn't change that much. But rationing of various items very shortly was begun. Sugar, gasoline, tires ... all were rationed. So was meat. Various materials were recycled. Tin cans and newspapers were a couple that I can remember. We would take newspapers to school and periodically somebody with a truck came by and picked up all the scrap that had been collected.

Once, I remember, all the kids in class were issued knitting needles and yarn. We made khaki colored scarves for soldiers. Mine wasn't all that good but they took it anyway. And we would buy war bonds. The bonds were sold by the government to help finance the war. Buying war bonds was a very patriotic thing to do and they were heavily promoted throughout all the war years.

Dad went into the Army in the fall of 1942. We had breakfast together on the morning he enlisted. I went to school ... Mom went to work ... and Dad went to war. The house seemed awfully empty that afternoon when I came home from school.

Because Dad had been in the army for many years when he was younger, he was promoted to Staff Sergeant fairly quickly and eventually wound up in Harlingen, Texas as the First Sergeant of a training squadron where men learned how to fire machine guns from B-17 and B-24 bombers. Dad spent the war in Texas ... and Mom and I moved there in August of 1943. I was in the sixth and seventh grades in Texas. We moved back home in September of 1945 ... not long after the end of the War. That was V-J Day ... Victory over Japan.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After Dad went into the service, I had to grow up somewhat. I began to take school more seriously. And I got a paper route. In those days, kids delivered newspapers. There was a considerable amount of responsibility involved and it was a way to make some money. I was very proud of the dollars I earned. I could treat myself to an ice cream cone now and then. And buy a war bond from time to time ... or chip in with some of the cost of running our house. (We weren't poor .... but we weren't rich, either.)

I delivered the Washington Evening Star. The paper has long since gone out of business, but at that time it was a very fine paper. The rule was that newspaper boys had to be 10 years old. I was only 9. But I wanted that job so badly I lied about my age.

With some of the money, I bought gifts for my Mom and Dad. Mom, in those days, collected little glass and ceramic animals for her knick knack shelf. And so I could buy something for her collection. For Dad, I bought a stuffed khaki-colored Army mule. It was made of a material that could be written on with a pen. He had some of the men that he met in the service autograph it. To get him started, I collected the autographs of Sammy Baugh and Andy Farkas. They were both customers on my paper route and also both were very famous football players on the Washington Redskins. Sammy Baugh is enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The mule was my Christmas present to Dad. He treasured it all his life. It got lost when my mom moved from Silver Spring to Iowa in 1970. I sure wish I had it as a keepsake. But I have the memory of it ... and maybe that is all the keepsake I really need.

We followed the progress of the war on the radio and through the newspapers. In the early days, I really didn't understand that much about it ... but by the end of the war, I was older and read the paper each day and listened to the news on radio.

We had air raid drills. In retrospect, that was silly. There was no way on earth the Germans or the Japanese could get planes close enough to the United States to drop bombs. Airplanes in those days simply didn't have the range. More than anything else, the drills got people on "the home front" involved. And we were involved. Millions had friends or relatives in the service. And there were shortages of many goods. Wartime rapidly led industry to convert from peacetime output to military production. Car companies were making tanks and army trucks instead of automobiles. Nylon for women's stockings went into parachutes. And so on.

Mom's brothers and sisters lived on farms in Iowa. To increase farm output, they worked by floodlight far into the night to speed up the harvest of large fields of crops.

And war touched us in another way. People we knew and loved were wounded or killed. I had a cousin Billy. He lived in Mt. Savage, Maryland and was the son of an uncle I loved very much, Uncle Joe. Before the war, when we would visit my Dad's home, Billy would let me tag along with him. He was several years older than I and he looked after me like a big brother. I loved Billy. He got drafted in 1944. The army put him in the infantry and sent him off to Europe. He was killed a month or so after he got to France ... sometime in late June or early July of 1944. Billy Brailer was barely 18 years old.

Life wasn't all sadness or work or shortages. We did all sorts of kid stuff. Across the street from my house was a vacant field. Every afternoon, after the papers were delivered, we would gather to play softball. There were quite a few guys in the neighborhood all about the same age. We'd choose up teams with about 5 to a side and play until it got so dark nobody could find the ball. We'd keep a mental note of where it was last hit and find it the next day. One of those kids, Joe Sharpless, was my next door neighbor. He's grown up now and lives in Arizona. We still talk on the phone and share e-mail notes.

In those days, there was no such thing as television. America listened to the radio --- not just for news but for entertainment, too. Some of my very favorites; "Tom Mix", " Captain Midnight" and "Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy". At the very top of the list was "The Lone Ranger".

We had a big radio that sat in the living room. It could pick up stations in New York, Pittsburgh, and other distant cities. On Sunday mornings, I woke up early. First, I'd read the Sunday funny papers. Then I'd tune in that radio to see what stations I could hear. I had a love affair with radio, And it stuck with me for a lifetime.

Movies were a big deal, too. Our town had two theatres. The "Seco" theatre catered to kids. For 9 cents on Saturday, there would be 2 cowboy movies, two serials, a two-reel comedy, and about 4 Loony Tunes cartoons. The Seco was pretty run down but the kids didn't care.

On Sunday, my folks and I might go to the high class theatre, the "Silver". That's where you saw the better movies. The show always began with "The Star Spangled Banner". Then came the news reel, a cartoon, a short subject, previews and the feature film. The Silver charged 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. That was a lot of money in those days. But it bought you a lot of entertainment.

After Dad went to the Army, Mom and I would go to the Sunday matinee ... have a Chinese meal at Lee's Tea Garden Restaurant next to the theatre ... and catch the bus for home. We didn't have a car at that time. Gasoline was rationed ... so were tires. So Mom sold the car when dad went into the service. We got around on buses and street cars or we walked. I had a wagon for my paper route and we used that to bring groceries home from the store.

I mentioned that the movie program always opened with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Everyone stood silently and watched the image of the flag on the screen. It was a moment of respect shared by all of us in the movie house. In a nation at war, people took the flag very seriously. Nobody burned it or used it to make clothes with. Instead, it was greatly respected because it was the symbol of a country we loved. People from that era ... people like Carolyn and me ... are generally very patriotic. In some quarters these days patriotism is viewed as a quaint, fuzzy-headed notion. There are those who DO burn the flag to protest all the things they believe are wrong. That's a shame. They are so preoccupied with our shortcomings, they overlook our national virtues. The good in America outweighs the bad. I hope you grow up being proud of your country.

We spent more than 2 years in Texas during the War. Those years had a profound effect on me.