Monday, September 2, 2013

Growing Up in World War II

My Dad: Victor L., 2nd Lieutenant JG, U.S. Navy (circa 1943-45, approx. age 35-37)

Dear George,
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, I was four and a half and my brother Steven was one.  As with hundreds of millions of families, our lives were powerfully altered by World War II.  I started kindergarten at Boswell School in 1942.  A year later we moved to Sheridan Road, and I transferred to Washington School for first grade.  There was a lot of patriotic fervor throughout my grade school years.  We began each day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; our Weekly Reader highlighted news reports about the war; and our teachers made continual reference to America’s role in battling Germany, Italy, and Japan and helping save the free world.  My school’s fourth grade teacher structured her entire classroom as a system of military ranks in which children could earn points through approved activities and progress from Buck Privates to a possible rank of Gold Star General by year’s end.  Though I didn’t enter fourth grade until a year after the war’s end, we still attained positions in the classroom army and it was highly involving.   I was a comic book addict at the time, and I spent a lot of school time drawing cartoon faces of Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini.  The culture as a whole was nationalistic, militaristic, xenophobic, and male-dominated, and all of that filtered down to us schoolchildren as well. 

The media in the 1940’s was saturated with war-time news and propaganda.  Kids from our neighborhood went en masse to matinees every Saturday afternoon at the Menominee Theater, located in the old Opera House.  We bought a season’s worth of twenty tickets for a dollar.  The matinee typically included a couple of cartoons, a news reel, a short (e.g., The Three Stooges), and a main feature.  Most of the features tailored to children centered upon violence in one form or another – either war movies, which were being churned out in Hollywood by the dozens, or westerns or crime/detective movies.  The newsreels featured war-time news clips from Europe, depicting cataclysmic events laden with tension for kids whose parents or other family members were fighting abroad.  Even the animated cartoons involved war-time themes, e.g., Superman battling the Nazis.  My friends and I became knowledgeable about the various symbols and artifacts of war – identification of enemy and allied planes and ships, symbols of rank in the various military branches, prominent generals and admirals, flags of the nations, weapons, and the various battles that appeared in the news.  I was probably more knowledgeable about international events in grade school than I was in the twenty years that followed. 

Preoccupation with violence carried over to our childhood play activities. Guns were our single most important playthings, at least for boys.  Through play and games, we were getting psychically prepared for a future in the military or other aggressive adult male roles.  We all owned six-shooter cap guns, and we made regular treks to the corner variety store to replenish our supply of caps for a dime a pack.  We owned toy military guns, cowboy guns, and police/detective weapons and paraphenalia.  Our personal armories also included water guns and rifles which shot ping pong balls or suction cup arrows.  We played cops and robbers, cowboys against Indians, and War (Americans against Nazis or Japs).  We had separate military games for the Army fighting in towns and forests and Marines storming the beaches.

My dad left for officer training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago some time around 1943.  My mother, my younger brother Steve, and I moved to a second floor apartment in a building in a less affluent section of town.  My mother had her hands full, keeping a household going and rearing two young boys.  She felt uneasy about some of the kids in our neighborhood and monitored and restricted my playtime activities outside the house.  It was hard to no longer have two parents at home.  According to family legend, I saved up several pennies and gave them to my mother to help my father come back.  Everything was rationed at the time – gasoline, rubber, clothing, sugar, coffee, food of all sorts, even bicycles – and there was a general sense of deprivation among civilians, though also a lot of commitment toward contributing to the war effort.    All in all, I think my mother was terrified for my father after he left for the Pacific theater, as were her female friends and relatives for their military spouses and family members.

The war came to an end, of course, in August 1945, within weeks of the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In the months and years that followed we schoolchildren learned details about the atomic bomb, as well as potential peacetime uses of atomic energy.  When news came later about the Russians development of nuclear weapons, rumors circulated in Menominee to the effect that Russian bombers could mistake our river and harbors from the air for the St. Lawrence seaway and drop atomic bombs on Menominee.  In school we had regular classroom drills in preparation for nuclear attacks which mainly consisted in bending over and putting our heads under our desks.  Tensions regarding the potential destruction of the human species became a chronic condition – the world had profoundly changed. 

On the day the Japanese surrendered, I was allowed to go out to the family automobile and honk the horn as long as I liked.  My dad came back from occupied Japan around six or seven months later, and I still have vivid recollections of my parents hosting a coming home party for the Steffke’s (Pat was in the Army) and the O’Hara’s (Mike was in the Marines).  Steve and I were exiled to our bedroom after the first hour or so, and we were bitter about being excluded.  Pat Steffke had married an Austrian opera singer (Martina) that he’d met in Europe, and we young boys thought she was the most beautiful woman to ever grace our home town. The postwar period was a time of great national pride.  My father and his friends shared strong bonds from their military experience that lasted throughout their lifetimes.  Years later my dad told one of my college friends that being in the Navy in the Pacific during the war was the most meaningful experience of his life.  In contrast to our country’s subsequent wars, there was no question whatsoever of the rightness or necessity of America’s involvement and the country’s crucial role in helping to save the world from Fascism.  Adults and kids wound up with unwavering patriotism and feelings of pre-eminence in the world.  America had emerged as a super-power, and there was little recognition of  possible downsides of that role.   Nowadays, following Korea, the Civil Rights revolution, political assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, the emergence of the counter-culture, 9-11, and Iraq and Afghanistan, that seems like an incredibly long time ago.

G-Mail Comments
-Terry O-S (9-2):  I think you meant  circa 1943-44, not  43-54.  I have long believed that the primary reason why our parents and  their friends were so exuberant in their social lives was because they were all so relieved that the men, at least in their immediate circle, had all survived the war.  Martina was the beautiful, indeed - and was also grateful to our Moms for befriending her.


  1. My brother Michael and I spent the time that our Marine father, Mike, was also in the Pacific with my Mother's family in Indiana. I know it was a grand reunion when our respective Fathers returned from overseas and my family returned to Menominee.

  2. That's so interesting, Terry. I had no recollection of that at all. In my mind, I imagined our mothers spending a lot of social support time together in Menominee. I wish I could remember more about those years.