It was just another Tuesday when an 8-year old boy woke up to receive his daddy’s good-bye kiss and hug before leaving for work. In another week the unpleasantness, to put it mildly, of Blanche P. Bieler’s third grade would be over and there would be ten weeks of fun and play before I’d have to return to her classroom for fourth grade. I don’t recall if it was mommy or my sister Sally who cooked the hot cereal of the day or if the warm last days of spring brought forth one of my favorite cold cereals to the table by the window overlooking the weeping willow tree. At that time cereal boxes were treasure troves of puzzles, games, and surprises. A boy could cut up the cardboard box along the dotted lines and make airplanes. Not just any airplanes, but planes of the U.S. Army Air Corps and the Navy. There were even balsa wood models in some cereal boxes.
This was in the era before TV. We got our news from the radio, the newspapers, and from the newsreels at the movies. I followed the war news faithfully from December 7, 1941 studying my geography books with their atlases to learn about the places that were blanketed in battles. The radio news lacked the editorial bias found on that medium today. Americans were united in one cause: defeat the Axis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific theater. The yellow journalism of the William Randolph Hearsts was a precursor to the rabble-rousing “journalism” of today’s Fox News but we could trust our radio news readers and most of what we read in the papers.
Through my school, we briefly had pen pals in England and I learned first hand from a little girl what the blitz was about. From the newsreels I saw the damage caused by bombs, shells, and bullets. Most of my toys were ships and planes. The games I created were war games. I had nightmares of masses of German bombers slowly approaching my school darkening the skies with their numbers while I tried to outrun them for the safety of my house. I also created pre-sleep fantasies from the book “Anton and Trini”, two Swiss children whose real story has long ago been forgotten. But I, in my Navy plane, would rescue her from the Nazis. My fantasy was unaware that Switzerland’s neutrality kept it out of the war proper. But I was eight.
My daddy would come home from work at 5:00 p.m. and I would always be at the door for my hug and kiss. He would have the morning editions of the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror. We also took the local Daily Home News from New Brunswick, an afternoon paper published in the morning. This day there was some excitement as he entered our little house. The allies had invaded France. American, British and Canadian troops had crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy. I couldn’t wait to open the papers and see the arrows indicating which forces had landed and where. Suddenly, there was an image of our boys marching across France and into Germany almost as if it were a Fourth of July parade.
How can I describe my “participation” in the war. I cut out photos of our generals from the Sunday magazine section and posted them over my bed. My cousin Bill gave me a pack of photos of WWII airplanes that I treasured into adulthood. My mother made me a uniform of khaki to go with the army hats, patches, and badges I had collected from friendly soldiers or from the dumps at adjacent Camp Kilmer. I helped collect scrap paper for the war effort and participated in patriotic school endeavors to support the troops.
To an eight-year old boy eleven months is a long time. To a soldier in combat it must be eleven life-times. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for these young men with their rifles, bayonets, hand grenades and artillery slogging through mud, crossing bridgeless rivers, being sniped at in forests, and fighting door-to-door with the enemy. But I read every word and studied every map until the 8th of May in 1945 when V.E. Day was announced. That was also a day to remember.
I was nine. I decorated my bicycle with paper ribbon of red, white, and blue and rode up and down School Street while some of my neighbors and other kids came out to shout their cheers for this great day. We all looked forward to the boys coming home. Our family would get to see at least some of the 20th Engineers whom we had entertained when they’d go “over the hill” to spend some hours at Maw Brown’s enjoying coffee and refreshments while I had to go to bed early. They’d mostly come from the south and introduced us to real country music. It certainly made an impression on me. I didn’t really go to sleep.
But finally the greatest day of all came. On August 15th, just days after the nuclear holocaust that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the Japanese announced their unconditional surrender. If V.E. Day was a birthday party, V.J. Day was Christmas and Chanukah wrapped up in one. The war was over. Peace had come to the world. There would be lots of work to do to rebuild cities and reunite surviving families. But we believed the killing had ended.
Seventy years later I watch the news on my computer screen. I see how a paratrooper who was part of the invasion of Normandy recreated his jump. I see men in their 80s and 90s who have come so far in life for perhaps their last reunion to France to celebrate not just a great military initiative, but to remind us that there are no winners in war. We all lose something of ourselves as well as loved ones, property, human dignity, and more. Seventeen world leaders from nations involved in WWII, nations whose boundaries have changed, whose demographics have changed, whose forms of government have changed. Europe’s traditional enemies have formed an economic and a political union. They mostly share one currency and pledge mutual defense of one another. What would Roosevelt, Churchill, De Gaulle, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo think if they could see the world they helped to shape? What would they think of the problems we face early in the 21st century?