Updated: May 10
I've been privileged for the last year or so to visit with an elite group of citizens. Assigned the task of writing about what life was like on the home front during World War II, I began reading old news clippings and chatting with folks who could recall the war. And the more I did so, the more I began to feel a sense of urgency in capturing these folks' stories before they're no longer around to tell them. I'm afraid I've been like the child who lets his grandparent's stories pass in one ear and out the other, entirely failing to appreciate the tales until after the grandparent is gone, then wishing he had listened a little closer or asked a few more questions.
We are nearing a time when any information about WWII will have to come from books and news clippings. Future generations will have to rely on the archives of war data. Indeed, most who lived through the war have already passed on, but we have the opportunity to talk to those who are around, the privilege of really listening to those whose knowledge of life during WWII came from experience, not from history class.
So rather than trying to write about life during World War II, I'll leave the storytelling to those who lived it. And although their recollections may seem a bit scattered or they may get a date wrong here or there (after all, they are reaching back nearly 80 years into their memories), they also will paint a picture of wartime life far better than I could summarize. Whereas old news clippings give snippets of fact – who did what, when? - the precious memories of patriots give feel - not merely who did what, but what was it like, how did folks cope, what brought hope and even joy?
For today, while we can still hear first-hand memories of life during WWII, we're wise to leave the telling to those who lived it. -- Kristi
WWII from a Child’s Perspective, 70 Years Removed
By Kristi Graham
Conversation with a room full of 90-year-olds, give or take 5 years, certainly has its moments. One’s memory of childhood triggers another’s, and another’s, leading the conversation along a zig-zaggy path that seldom returns to the original topic. Laughter comes freely as these members of the “greatest generation” tell stories of friendship, school days, and hard work. So, too, comes a degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness, especially as they recall what life was like during World War II. And although their thoughts are more scattered than linear, two obvious themes emerge through their memories: Life during those war years was hard; but it was also a time of unified purpose and community such as our nation has never again known.
“It was hard… It was very hard,” Ginny Billings replied when asked what she remembers about life during the war.
She grew up on a farm in rural Illinois, but as a teenager she stayed in town during the week with various relatives so she could attend high school. As a junior, she lived with an aunt who had two sons in the service. During that year, one of the sons, Ralph Foster, went missing in action.
“For quite some time they didn’t know if he was dead or alive or if he was a prisoner of war; then they finally got word that he had been killed,” Ginny recounted.
In response to Ralph’s death, Ginny’s brother Robert determined to enlist. He was 4F due to a heart murmur, but he went to three different doctors until he could get passed through, and he joined the infantry.
“I had wonderful teenage years,” Ginny said brightly, careful not to paint a picture of only hardship and loss. “But it was very hard.…”
For youngsters, it was difficult to watch their family members leave for the war. “I was so scared that my brother was going to go, and my dad. I was 10 at the time. It was frightening,” Nancy Wilbur Dunstan recalled.
Also fear-invoking was the drill of having to hide under the desks at school, Jim Hempstead admitted. To Jim and the others who remember practicing what to do if the school were bombed, this simple drill made the war seem especially real. So did blackouts, added Jim’s wife Suzanne, who was a child living in Chicago during the war. To have the city go completely dark, either from blackout curtains drawn or lights turned out, instilled a fear in her that she recalls vividly.
News about the war came almost exclusively via radio, and even young children knew what was expected of them when the radio tuned in to war news.
“You’d better be quiet when the news was on,” Howard Ball recalled with a chuckle.
“You didn’t dare talk when the news was on!” Ginny Wilbur agreed. Some children also got to see glimpses of the war on the news reels that ran before movies. “We went to the movies every Saturday night. The first 10 or 15 minutes showed war news, so my dad would always take us. It was very censored, too, but at least it gave you an idea of what was going on,” Ginny said.
Likewise, Jim Ulberg remembers sitting for hours at a theater in Detroit that showed only news reels all day.
“It was scary stuff,” the group agreed.
Although they were adolescents during the war years, not responsible for providing for a family as were their parents, they still felt the effects of supply shortages and rationing. Dorothy Holzschu, who was 14 years old at the start of the war, remembers using tokens to get food that was rationed, like sugar, butter, and meat. She also reminisced about finding creative ways to get by when supplies ran short.
“We put lots of cardboard inside the soles of our shoes to make them last longer,” she chuckled. Ginny Wilbur said her family had a farm in Sault Ste. Marie, so they didn’t need to use the ration coupons for milk or butter, but they did take a rather unique approach to getting meat: “I went to Canada every Saturday morning on my bike to buy meat. I would ride over on the ferry, get meat, and come back home because the rationing books didn’t go that far.”
Thelma Drenth also grew up in the Upper Peninsula, in Rudyard, and was 12 when the war started. “It was a little easier for us because of the farm,” she said, “but I remember seeing lines that stretched all the way around the block for the soup kitchen in town.”
Nancy Dunstan also recalled using the ration books. “We felt lucky because my dad was in the service, and we had his ration book. Mom didn’t drive so we had to walk everywhere. We walked for groceries and everything.”
When her mother needed a big amount of groceries, though, a neighbor would offer to drive her, Nancy said.
It was the simple, neighborly acts like this that multiplied into what these folks describe as the predominate feeling of community and unity during the war. There was an “overall feeling of people coming together,” Suzanne expressed.
Among adults, it ranged from simply sharing what was needed with one another to uprooting lives and moving away to work in factories that were making parts for the war. Suzanne’s dad, for example, had a huge victory garden in the Chicago area that supplied for the whole surrounding area. Countless people contributed to the war needs in factories that were converted from their original purpose to supply the war, and others helped sustain local businesses, such as Jim Hempstead’s mother, who took over her husband’s job at Prudential Insurance while he was serving in the war.
But it was far from just adults who united in their war efforts.
“We were patriotic even as children,” Susanne asserted.
And the others in the group chimed in their agreement eagerly.
“The children felt as strongly as anyone,” Carolyn Switzer said. “We’d do anything they asked us to.”
Why? Howard gave the motive: “Because almost everyone had someone in the war.”
They pulled sleds or wagons around the neighborhoods to collect grease and aluminum foil – even separating the foil from the paper backing on gum wrappers. They saved everything from string to scrap steel to stamps, they knitted, and they picked crops.
“My Girl Scout Troop went door to door collecting grease to make gun powder and aluminum foil, which was dropped from planes to mess up the enemy’s radar. [My sister] Janet and I knitted scarves, mittens, watch caps, and turtleneck vests to be sent to the servicemen, as well as 8 x 8 squares that mother sewed into afghans for the wounded,” Nancy Dunstan recalled.
“It seemed everyone I knew was doing something for the war effort.”
June Zoerhof and Carolyn, both Petoskey residents who were 10 years old when the war started, distinctly remember picking potatoes for the farmers and “earning a few cents” picking milkweed pods.
“We were so excited because we knew that [the milkweed fluff] was going to help,” Carolyn says, giggling a little as she adds, “And to think we got out of school to do it!”
Some children even assisted the adults who were trained as air wardens. Thelma remembers sitting in an observation tower in the Upper Peninsula with her older sister to watch for any suspicious aircraft.
“I was too little, but Gert was trained and knew how and what to report.”
Jim U. also remembers filling in as an air spotter in a watch tower at the top of Bay View Avenue when he was 9 or 10 years old. He and a friend would substitute for one of the female volunteers during her bridge matches.
“As boys, we knew more about the airplanes than she did anyway,” he joked. And although youngsters were permitted to help, Jim emphasized the importance of this task. “People took this very seriously. My mother and father were both spotters. They all went for training on the different shapes of airplanes and such. There was a big group of people doing that to make sure no planes got over there by the Soo Locks.”
Indeed, it seems as if everyone, child to adult, was concerned about the world affairs and involved in a creatively diverse yet wholly unified war effort.
“The fact that everybody just got together and did what had to be done was the most remarkable part,” Jim U. mused.
“Everybody did whatever they could do, and everybody did it willingly.” To the nodding agreement of the group, Howard summarized, “I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t patriotic.”
When asked how that sense of unity relates to today, the group grew solemn.
“It seems like patriotism has never been as strong as it was during World War II,” Howard said.
And with sober sincerity, Jim H. urged us to never forget, “What you have today is because people fought for it.”