I was seven years old on December 7, 1941, the day the war began for us, and ten years on VJ (Victory against Japan) day, September 2, 1945. Too young to be of much use but old enough to realize some of what was going on while being innocently immune to the horrors of war.
But the war definitely affected the daily life of my family and indirectly me, and I have many memories. It was the last war that could have destroyed our democracy, at least until now when the enemy comes from within. And it was the last war where virtually our entire country was involved in one way or another.
Patriotism was at a fever pitch. Every day in my school we said the Pledge of Allegiance. And, since we knew God had to be on our side, the Lord’s Prayer. I had a friend who declined the prayer (in secret, of course) but pointed out to me with a big smile how kids were muttering the words without thinking about any meaning while shifting their attentions elsewhere. He was right. I really liked that kid.
Rationing hit us all. We had coupon books for all sorts of desires. When you wanted a restricted item, you’d check to see if you had enough coupons. If so, you’d tear them from the book and present them along with your cash. If not, too bad unless you could get a friend, a very good friend, to give you more.
Some foods were restricted. Like butter, meat, coffee, dried fruits, jams and sugar. Spam became normal in most people’s diets and to most people’s chagrin. I always liked it, but I admit to not having eaten any for over 75 years. Do they still make it? And we learned about margarine. You know, the kind that looks yellow, like butter. Back then, though, it was of a whiteish hue and was accompanied by a little packet of yellow something. You’d take that something and mix it with its pale companion. The result was sort of yellow, and we could pretend we were consuming real butter. I loved ice cream, but it was not available to most. Unless you were in the military and in uniform. My brother-in-law was an army physician and I used to adore his visits.
Heating oil was heavily restricted. It was needed to run the war equipment. This created a problem for us because my dad, deeply involved in the war effort at Bell Telephone Laboratories, became ill and had to recuperate at home. In a very cold apartment. My mom took me in tow and visited the Ration Board that was set up to deal with special requests. Or more likely to deny special requests. Her hope to snag extra coupons for heating oil was unsuccessful. My dad recovered, but his health was never the same and he died a few years later at the young age of 55.
As with heating oil, gasoline for cars was significantly restricted. Our family had always taken a day trip to Asbury Park once a year where we walked the boardwalk, and I rode the merry-go-round and played shuffleboard and miniature golf. But how to continue the tradition during the war with gasoline at a premium? The route to Asbury was hilly. At the top of every hill my dad would turn off the motor and we’d coast to the bottom. I’m not sure it saved much gas, but we did make it in both directions on the gas allotted to us.
Even clothes were rationed, especially shoes. And nylons!
Rationing continued for a while after the war as peacetime industry needed time to recover. No one liked it. But almost all accepted it. I don’t recall any whining about personal freedom being attacked, but I’m willing to bet that any such complaint would have met stern resistance. Not like today. Back then there were more Liz Cheneys and very few Josh Hawleys.
Daylight saving was instigated to allow increased daylight hours in the evening, and families were encouraged to use that time to create Victory Gardens. We, along with others, did, growing some of the food that was denied us by other means.
I knew the war was going on, but I was, after all, just a kid. I still liked toys. I still liked to play. And I had toys and I did play. But often those toys and that play had a war theme. I “joined the army,” sporting a miniature uniform. I started as a private, but promotions came fast and within a couple of weeks I was a four-star general. My mother was kept busy creating, sewing, and replacing one insignia after another from stripes to bars to stars. I was diligent in seeking out the enemy and not a single German or Japanese successfully invaded our yard.
One of my toys was a map of the world that could be mounted on a porous board. It also contained multiple flags of a variety of nations including the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, Germany, Japan, Italy, France and more. Each flag was attached to a pin. Every evening my family would gather around the radio for the news. As force advances and withdrawals were announced, my tiny flags reflected the changes on the map. The Allied flags moved backward all too often for a long time, and then, finally, reversed direction.
Brigades of small metal soldiers advanced through our living room. I wish I’d saved them. I understand they now are valuable.
If a cereal box top was sent to the appropriate address along with “only” 25¢, I could receive by return mail a cardboard replica of the control panel of a U.S. fighter plane. So my military activities expanded to aerial warfare as I sat at a table with the panel in front and engaged the enemy in many a duel. To continue my fight against the airborne enemy I had a piece of cardboard with circular holes of various diameters. By each hole was the name of an enemy type of warplane. The idea was to search the sky for a plane and face the cardboard toward any found. If the plane exactly extended to the edge of a hole, you had identified an enemy aircraft of a specific type. I don’t think there was any instruction to contact the authorities if such a plane was discovered, probably a wise omission. Because our own planes might be detected, or an incorrect determination of the type of plane might ensue. After all, a plane had only to fly lower to fill a bigger hole and higher to fill a smaller one, scientific realities that eluded me at the time.
Then there was Superman, who in the monthly comic book would take on enemy forces. One month the Man of Steel announced that he would capture Hitler in the next installment, and I wondered how he could be so sure. But he was indeed correct, at least in the sense that Hitler fell.
I had such a simplistic view of the world and the war. I thought anyone on our side was good and everyone on the other was bad. I remember after the war I was shocked when Russia became such a pain. Had I read the Churchill biography by then I wouldn’t have been. Whether based in reality or not, the authors describe military failures, misjudgments by allied leaders, and disagreements between them including distrust, well placed, of Stalin and also of Charles de Gaulle. Only with the passage of time did I learn there were truly evil people in the world other than Hitler and Tojo, including Stalin, Putin and our very own neo-Nazis.
Time also has taught me that the war was not the fun and games of a preteen child. Only later did I appreciate the misery represented by the hanging in windows of a fabric on which was the image of a silver star. It indicated a wounded family member. Even worse was a gold star announcing the death of a son, husband or other loved one. Those hangings, sadly, were everywhere.
And then there was the atomic bomb. In my youth I thought it a wonderful invention because it brought Japan to its knees. Only later, as the horror of war with ever destructive and terrifying weapons became clear, did I realize the threat to our existence posed by that use of the atom.
If only humankind could become wise and save us all from annihilation. I don’t want some other preteen to have memories of a childhood in the heart of a worldwide bloodshed. It’s bad enough so many are dealing with more local conflicts. Like Ukrainian youth.
I am not hopeful we will ever learn.