Even with victory in sight, war took heavy toll
When Mick and Digby — the British aviators who sometimes stayed with us in our Bath home during their Corsair flight training at Brunswick Naval Air Station — saw this their eyes almost bugged out of their heads. In England and Scotland, they said, only the rich landowners had the privilege of hunting game.
They could not stop looking at it, and they took pictures of it to send back to England. My mother invited them for a meal, and yes, she agreed it would be all right for them to bring along a few of their buddies.
On the appointed day, about 10 English sailors in uniform, hats in hands, stood apologetically by our front door. My mother, without any hesitation, welcomed them all into our home, set them to work placing the leaves in the dining room table, spreading a cloth on top, and setting it with the best dishes from the china closet. Then she proceeded to serve them a meal of venison steak fit for a “Scottish Laird.” The men were ecstatic.
They took snapshots of my parents standing in front of our big old house to send home to family and friends, telling them of their rich “aunt” and “uncle” ( or “ont” and “ooncle” as they pronounced it) in America.
Sometime before the end of the war, the English sailors, having completed their training, received orders to ship out. Bearing gifts for all the family, they came to the house to bid us farewell.
It was hard to say goodbye to them. They had been a part of our family and their departure would leave a big hole in our hearts. Tearfully, we bid them farewell, and then they were gone.
At Christmas, my parents received a little calendar from Mick’s parents thanking them for “the kindnesses we had shown to their dear boy.” After that we lost touch with them. We hoped and prayed their ship had not been sunk or their planes shot down.
At school, we learned how to take responsibility for one another. As seventh-graders we took turns being on School Safety Patrol. We received a white belt that went around our waists and over our chests. On it was a silver badge, which signified our authority.
We were let out of school five minutes early to allow us time to get to our corners. When cars passed, our job was to hold everyone back by putting our arms out to our sides, letting them down only when the coast was clear.
The boys liked to tease and torment. I learned to hold out my arms a wee bit longer than necessary just to let them know who was boss. As far as I know, nobody ever got reported, but we all knew the possibility existed, and after all, who wanted to take a chance on having to stay after school or miss recess?
The war dragged, and everyone was sick and tired of it. The constant flow of bad news, the deaths, the shortages, the rationing and the lack of little luxuries took their toll. The remnants of my mother’s nylon stockings had received all the mending they could bear.
All the available nylon and silk was being used for parachutes, and what was available now was either leg makeup that came in a bottle along with a little marker to make the “seams” down the backs of the legs, or stockings made out of a cotton-like thread called lisle. They were ugly looking, but my mother made the best of them.
All I knew is that I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing them.
Why did things have to be this way? My mother looked so haggard, and she was worried sick about my brother Bob who was stationed in London where the German blitz was taking place. I longed to see my mother looking the way she used to, slim and stylish and beautiful in her nylon stockings, her knitted suits, and her Bemberg sheer dresses.
I wanted all the weariness to leave her face, and have her be as she was before, smiling and full of confidence in herself. More than anything, I wanted this ugly war to be over, and to have everything the way it used to be before it all began.
On April 13, 1945, news came that President Roosevelt was dead. I thought my heart would break. He was the only president I had ever known, and somehow the country seemed to be so safe and secure with him in charge.
There was gentleness about him, in his voice, in his demeanor and the familiar way he addressed the nation in his weekly Fireside Chats. He was a sort of father figure, and he made us all feel like he cared personally for each and every one of us.
The nation went into deep mourning as the train transported his body from Warm Springs, Ga., to the nation’s capital, where he would lie in state, and then on to Hyde Park for his burial.
Thousands of people solemnly gathered at the train stations and lined the routes on the outskirts of the small towns to catch a view of his casket, and to wave their goodbyes. The tears that were shed could have made up a great river.
To this day, I cannot think of it without tears coming into my eyes. He had seen the nation through extremely hard times, and, as commander in-chief, he had guided us through this greatest of all wars, and there was much sadness that he did not live to see the end of it.
Harry Truman entered the Oval Office and plunked a plaque down on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” It was the beginning of a new era.
On May 7, 1945, the unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allied forces came in over the news. Hitler had committed suicide (good riddance) on April 30, and May 8 was declared VE Day.
The covers of Life magazine and the newspapers displayed pictures of thousands of people gathered in Times Square wildly celebrating with ticker tape parades down Broadway in New York City, sailors kissing girls and dancing in the streets.
The greatest war in history was coming to a close, and at least half of the world was now free. The relief on my mother’s face was palpable. The war in that part of the world was over, and at least for the time being my brother Bob was safe.
The fighting went on in the Pacific. The Japanese were determined to fight to the death, but the news was that the American forces were gaining ground. The death toll was enormous, and President Truman warned the Japanese that we had a weapon that would cause mass destruction and we would use it if they did not surrender.
They paid no attention to the warning, and on Aug. 6, 1945, the first of the atomic bombs was dropped on Hiroshima, incinerating thousands of innocent civilians, men, women, children and old people. To this day, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I think about it.
Still they did not surrender. The president threatened them with another such bomb, and again they paid no heed.
On Aug. 9, U.S. planes dropped a second bomb — on Nagasaki. Yet it was not until Aug. 14 that surrender was announced. The greatest war in history had finally come to an end.
My brother Bob returned safely and went on to technical school. Brother Jimmy entered his senior year of high school. My sister’s husband came home and went off to the University of Maine, and under the GI Bill, received his degree in electrical engineering.
My sister, who had worked at Bangor General Hospital to help out, received her PHT (Pulling Hubby Through). He accepted a position with General Electric, and they were off to Schenectady, N.Y.
Things began to return to a new normal. The women who had labored such long hours at Bath Iron Works were laid off to make room for the returning servicemen who had been guaranteed job security. Each of these women had done a man’s work, and received a man’s wages, and for them, domestic life would never be the same again.
My mother had seen us through it all. With grace and determination, she had maintained our home as a safe haven for all who came under our roof, and her gifts of hospitality were above and beyond the call of duty. She had suffered the shortages and deprivations without complaint, simply thankful that through it all, there was always enough to go around. If anyone ever deserved a medal it was my mother.
My mother worked for a few years at a small downtown grocery store, but work at Bath Iron Works slacked off, and so my parents went to Connecticut where work was plentiful.
My mother got a job at Aetna Insurance Co., and my father went to work at Pratt Whitney, and they continued to prosper, eventually becoming charter members of a newly established Baptist Church in Windsor Locks.
In September, I entered my freshman year of high school, into a world of jukeboxes and jitterbug, bobby socks, saddle shoes and Sloppy Joe sweaters. During the war years, I had transitioned from girlhood into young womanhood. I had grown up in an unstable world, a world of sorrow and uncertainty, of sacrifice and hard work.
We had all done our share, young and old alike, working together to help make the world safe for democracy, and it had brought out the best in us. That is the American way, and therein lies our country’s strength.
The first two installments of Lois Young Hart’s childhood recollections of life in Bath during World War II appeared Wednesday and Thursday.