World War II on the home front was a bewildering time for a 12-year-old feisty kid from Wynne, Arkansas.
I had attained my 12th birthday in August, 1941, then in December war came. Most of us underage types in Arkansas had become accustomed to the Depression (that was the way the world was). Our future seemed to hold little more than more of the same. Then, breathtakingly, our universe turned upside down. At once it became a cosmic swirl of uniforms, trainloads of tanks, rationing, shortages, blue stars in the windows, alarming but fascinating news from the fighting fronts and soldiers, soldiers everywhere.
Newspapers bristled with war stories and battle maps. It seemed everyone was writing patriotic songs, panting to attain the emotional heights of “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor.” Even one of my schoolteachers had a crack at it:
When this awful war is over,
We’ll be sitting deep in clover,
Onward to victory!
Truly, WWII produced more lousy music, at least American music, than any other. Later when I learned what cool tunes the Germans were singing, like Lili Marlene, and the Panzer Lied, I felt bad for our side. But at least we had the Andrew Sisters who managed to put bounce into the soggiest lyrics.
Every movie Hollywood ground out was either a war movie or had a plot with a war angle. It was the heyday of John Wayne and the Fighting Leathernecks.
Yet in spite of turmoil and bloodshed it was the greatest of times, something I have found impossible to explain to today’s youngsters. How could one not feel more alive, more important, and more involved than in any era before or since? We were going up against the worst evil that had bedeviled man in all his long history, and we were going to stomp it to death. Trouble was, all the desperate excitement took place somewhere else and involved somebody else.
Kids sneaking into the Army or Navy were three grades ahead of me. My own life was a dreary round of school, work after school, and maybe a war movie on Saturday. During summer vacations and after school it was long hard work in my dad’s grocery, counting ration stamps, toting tons of feed and flour, butchering meat and doling out scarce Cokes and chocolate to our best customers. My only consolation (by stretching it a bit) was that I filled the job of a man at the front. This dreary routine of the home front was a stultifying counterpoint to the thrill of war itself. Even today when I envision that domestic era I paint it in colors of gray, black, and olive drab.
In another way it was an exquisite torment. We kids were perishing to join up and “slap the Japs” or “bomb Berlin”. But it’s tough to enlist when the recruiting sergeant observes one wearing short pants or knickers.
We almost fainted from envy when a friend named Calvin, who had been held back several grades because of reading difficulties, disappeared, then re-appeared wearing a stunning Navy uniform, his reward for lying about his age. He had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve to avoid an un-nautical lump in his uniform pocket, and as we gaped in shock and amazement he took out a cigarette and lit it — right there in the school hallway! And nobody said a word! Before he had been dumb old Calvin who lost a tussle with dyslexia. And now he was a war hero. I pondered bitterly on life’s inequity.
To relieve this gray drudgery shrouding us we snapped up every scrap of information from the theaters of operation. Each evening a friend, Zeke Bronstein, and I would wait for the trains to arrive bearing newspapers which we delivered. From Memphis came the Commercial Appeal and Press-Scimitar, and from Little Rock the Arkansas Gazette and Democrat. We spread our papers out on the grass and devoured every map. In time we became quite expert at geography, able to locate Vyasma and Tula in Russia and Kwajalin and Truk in the South Pacific. We could learnedly cite the road miles from Smolensk to Rostov and the sea miles from Tokyo to New Guinea.
The battle maps of 1942 were grim artworks. They informed us the Germans were still near Moscow and in the south were apparently driving for the Volga River. In North Africa the Afrika Corps had knocked the British back into Egypt. In the South Pacific the Japanese were running wild everywhere. Despite defeats we remained optimistic, even when Bataan fell to the Japanese. We had a profound faith in the arms of the United States, an attitude adults around us often seemed not to share. And the following year our maps told a much more cheerful story, vindicating our patriotic faith. Our only question then was, when are we going to win?
Firing up our optimism were the first German prisoners of war who began trickling in. The government built a small camp to house them north of town and surrounded it with fence wire. After the mass German and Italian surrenders in North Africa our little camp bulged with occupants. Despite the crowding I’m sure no one tried to escape because the perimeter fence was as porous as the driven snow. Anyone who desired to flee to the Arkansas swamps beyond would find little to block his goal. As proof I offer the fact Zeke and I experienced no trouble breaking into the camp numerous times in an attempt to talk to the prisoners. Twice we simply walked through the front gate and struck up conversations with the guards, then slipped away to pester the PWs. The rest of the time we slipped under the fence.
Our only peril in these forays was the camp commander, a lieutenant who apparently set great store by regulations. If the lieutenant caught us, out we went. His men on the other hand were limited service types rejected for regular military jobs who were happy to greet us as relief from guard tedium.
We did not enter the camp unarmed. We toted a large German-English dictionary (borrowed from a teacher) with which we fondly hoped to communicate without benefit of Teutonic grammar or pronunciation. It is possible to converse in this way by flipping the pages and pointing at the desired English word, letting the German do the translation. But the process is so slow and tedious that one could grow gray and bent before he managed to produce a paragraph. Most of the Germans didn’t have the patience to stick with it. They were mainly unschooled farm boys and industrial workers. Some of their sergeants spoke passable English, but they were too busy to waste time answering dumb questions from a couple of kids. So, the total information we collected was the hometowns of several soldiers, plus the names of their fathers and mothers.
To understand the labor we expended on our PW project one must remember that German soldiers to our youthful eyes were as exotic as Martians. We had seen their reproductions in movies and we were perishing to learn if they were as evil as portrayed by Hollywood. Zeke, who was a military buff, was sure they goose-stepped everywhere. I, on the other hand, theorized they gave each other the Nazi salute, but only when Americans weren’t looking. But in spite of microscopic scrutiny they persisted in acting much like the war movies we had seen of Americans in PW camps. Our Germans did become more entertaining when they went outside the camp to work which was allowed by the Geneva Convention. It was a rare sight to see them picking cotton in a field with black workers. The blacks had also seen those war movies — they knew what those Krauts did! Hence they maneuvered to keep an entire field between themselves and the ravaging Huns.
Of course not all the events of that time were so light. The day they brought Jack home meant the first military funeral I had ever seen. Jack was one of the older high school boys I had watched play football. When he ran with the ball he stuck his tongue out between his teeth, and the coach was constantly yelling. “Jack, you’re gonna bite that tongue off!”
Jack had been a member of a bomber crew in England and his plane was one of those that didn’t make it back. The crash must have messed him up bad because the coffin was closed through the service. The honor squad of soldiers fired the three volleys and the minister delivered a sermon. Jack’s mother held up well until they started lowering the coffin into the ground, then she let out a little choked cry, and this set off a chorus of weeping among all the women present. I was glad when that service ended. Someone told me later she had replaced the blue star in her window with a gold one.
Of paramount interest was the Great Mystery that settled on our town. It centered on our only railroad overpass which became of sudden interest to the military. One day a squad of soldiers with helmets and rifles arrived and set a guard around it. They were commanded by a lieutenant in a jeep who checked on them, and brought in other soldiers in relief. Since I knew lieutenants headed up platoons and not squads I figured there were a lot of other soldiers in the vicinity, but they remained invisible.
Squad members would chat with us kids as we walked under the overpass but none would say why they were there — and we questioned them hard. Zeke struck up a friendship with one of the men who in a careless moment loaned my friend a helmet and rifle. Zeke was pointing the rifle skyward when the lieutenant suddenly drove up in his jeep, and proceeded to eat the soldier alive. After that we made no more overtures to the squad and lapsed back into pondering the enigma of their presence.
Then after over a week the soldiers departed as suddenly as they had appeared. More weeks passed and we had almost given up the guessing game when there came a sudden flurry of headlines. They informed us that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had passed through our town in a train on his way to a conference with the president of Mexico. We eagerly gobbled up the details. It was one of those hemisphere defense talks that we had heard so much about and understood so little. Every bridge, overpass, underpass, and culvert between Washington, D.C. and Mexico City had been guarded just like our own. It was inspiring to think our insignificant little burg had been included in this Great Event.
We kids made a pilgrimage to the overpass to examine the rails, to see if they had somehow changed or been ennobled by Roosevelt’s presence. They were disappointingly still just plain steel, but the whole episode was a great morale fill-up. From the overpass’s height the whole town seemed somehow larger and more important than it had been. Perhaps the whole nation had proportionately grown larger, stronger, more important. Surveying the scene it was easy for us to say, “There’s no way we can lose this war.”
And we were right.