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Forest Hill woman reflects on her memories of Pearl Harbor for posterity

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I had always wished that my great-grandmother, who lived in Maryland during the Civil War, had written some personal notes as to what it was like for her at the time. They would be especially interesting for us now. With that thought in mind, I wrote some of my memories of World War II for my grandchildren. I attach the article for your review since Dec 7 is today, it puts a human touch on the anniversary date.

Some things you never forget, and those of us living with memories of WWII recall with great sadness a quiet Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941. The day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Even after all these years, the anniversary date brings back memories of troubled times. I was only 11 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, yet, now in my older years, it seems like only yesterday. The tremendous emotional feelings of those years, as a child, trying to sort it all out in my mind was stressful. The span of years had dimmed the events until recently. The memory came back close and personal hearing air raid sirens going off in Israel.

Going back in memory to those days, I believe if everyone had known at that moment the extent of our unpreparedness, we would all have been very much more frightened. As a shy timid child in the fourth grade learning the map of the world, it was stressful to read in the daily papers of the nightly bombings of London. Definitely not reassuring when we would hear the air raid sirens and quietly wait for the all-clear sound during the regular Civil Defense drills in American cities.

To me, it was the most frightening aspect of the war. Japan seemed far away from us and less threatening and yet they, by their bombing Pearl Harbor, had brought us into the war. The presence of our parents was reassuring, but my grandmother was deeply upset by it all. When told by the Air Raid Warden that in the event of bombing she would be taken out in an ambulance with another elderly neighbor, she was totally distressed to think of it. Most times. the air raid siren would go off around dinner time, just when we intended to sit for a meal. Every home had to install black out curtains and learn the routine of lights out. An air raid warden would tour our area and, if he saw light, came to the house to not too calmly scold our ignorance of the seriousness of the situation.

Our family was given instruction to listen for an explosion and in the event of such to rush for the basement area below. The basement door was always left open. Fortunately, we had a concrete front porch which made a good shelter area down below, and we also had a downstairs bathroom. My mother put blankets and such in that area and first aid supplies. Thank God we never had to use them, but we assumed we were prepared. The howling sound of the air raid siren was in itself very frightening, going on and off which seemed forever with its howling sound. Each time it sounded was the possibility that it was a real attack, not just a practice drill, which gave us a high level of alertness as we awaited the all-clear sound.

As a child, it was difficult to see the pictures that were displayed daily of the people behind barbed wire fences who were skeletal-like from starvation.

Until that day, Dec. 7, the war had seemed far away and involved other people, not us. We had been reading daily that German submarines were off the Atlantic Coast and there were rumors that some Germans had landed in New England. Mom would say: "Don't worry about it." We knew she was worried. During these difficult days, everyone tried to go about their daily routines, but the level of stress was affecting everyone. Children have a keen awareness of the feelings of people around them. We sensed it was difficult for them. It took the strength of the home front to support those in the front lines of battle. My dad aged very much during the war. He would work 13 days straight and have one day off. Because he commuted 50 miles each way to work, he would come home late, eat, go to bed and be back up at dawn. On his day home, he would sleep most of the time. Once when he was sick mom pleaded with him to stay home a day and he said: "I can't. The fighting men need the torpedoes I am working on. They can't take a day off so neither can I." All the people working in defense plants worked overtime 24/7, and were happy to feel they were doing their part in the war effort.

Of the many atrocities that were daily displayed in the papers, were dreadful pictures of the death march of Bataan. We all knew one of the local boys was one of them. His mother would stop people on the street and ask prayers for her son. We also saw pictures of Jews in Germany being railroaded off to prison and death camps and the pictures were so graphic and the people so pitiful. It would take a person with a heart of stone not to feel the suffering of them all. I was a sensitive child and wanted to go into a corner and cry. Sometimes it made me feel sick. It gave everyone a feeling of helplessness.

There was one positive aspect to all of this, people began to go to church and pray.

All churches were filled every day and everyone started praying in their homes as well. It is sad that it takes a great tragedy to turn people to God in prayer. My own family began family prayer after dinner while we were all together. It had a calming effect, especially when the air raid siren would begin. It is not difficult to pray in the dark.

It was also helpful to me and helped me develop a stronger spiritual bond with God and the family. Prayer seemed like a good thing to do. It gave a person the sense that you were doing something positive.

We lived in a row house and two houses next to us their sons were immediately drafted and my cousins were as well. Every day, the war affected us in some way. Even in school the war was with us. The teacher called a classmate out of class to send her home and then quietly whispered it was because her brother had been killed in one of the battles of the Pacific Islands. The rest of the school day our class was quiet. Schools had many fire drills to teach us to quickly evacuate in event of fire. It became routine. Schools were very strict in those days. You did not question authority.

We went to a local movie theater on Saturdays and the news of the day showed graphic images of the war in Germany. We saw General Eisenhower, General Patton and General Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Montgomery always in the news. Much that was shown was to boost morale of the people at home. The positive was stressed to be encouraging to those waiting at home. A radio newscaster would always start his program with the words, "Ah there is good news tonight. " Something we so badly needed to hear. TV had not yet been invented, we only had the radio or movie theater and newspapers and, of course, Life magazine for news pictures. As I moved up a grade and then another, I began to pay attention to the names of the important leaders of the war. The names of the admirals and, of course, the hero of the Pacific region General Douglas MacArthur. Years later, I met Vice Admiral Turner Joy at June Week at the Naval Academy. It was wonderful to meet someone I had read about during the war.

We had rationing of meat and everyone was given food stamps according to how many lived in your family. Naturally, people with big families received more stamps. People would barter their stamps and we had a laugh in our family that my cousin, Mary Jane, who was a very pretty girl, her mother would send her to get the meat at the market because the butcher liked her and would always put in an extra piece of meat for her family. I was too young for dating, but it was said that if a guy liked a girl he would try to bring her nylon stockings because nylons were so scarce during the war. Most nylon was used for parachutes and other war needs.

Because of the constant deaths of those we knew locally, and of all service personnel killed daily, almost without realizing it we all began to feel deep anger and hatred for our enemies who were perpetuating the atrocities. People would say I hate the Japs or I hate the Nazis. Newspapers often showed cartoons featuring Japanese with horrible mean faces that made them easy to hate. The Nazis were depicted in various forms of evil as well. Everyone in the nation was united in the war effort that we must win because the war was already costing so many lives.

Then, the unthinkable happened: President Roosevelt died. I came in from school one day and mother was crying and told me the president had died. It was difficult what with the war still going on to lose the leader that everyone had confidence in. Fortunately, with our system of government the vice president immediately became president, so we did have a leader, but he had a difficult job in that President Roosevelt, even with a severe handicap, had endeared himself to a whole generation. Eventually, people did get to like President Truman because he was a no nonsense person, but it took some getting used to. Then when this new weapon was discovered (the atomic bomb), President Truman decided to use it to bring the war to a conclusion to save many American lives.

The atomic bomb was only used because the bombing of Tokyo with conventional bombs did not bring the wanted and needed surrender. At first, we did not comprehend the full horror of the atomic bomb. We were just thankful that it had been effective in bringing the war to its end. The Japanese government made a formal surrender. We began to see the aftermath of the destruction in great detail as the Japanese cities were now in the newsreel photos. The pictures were so graphic and horrific with people with their skin hanging off running to areas of water and jumping in to get the fire off their skin. The whole world now became aware of the horror of the atom bomb. There are no winners in war. …

The war in Europe had already ended and when it was officially announced that the war was over, our hometown erupted with excitement. Everyone piled into their cars and drove into the city and walked the main downtown streets, yelling, screaming and grabbing everyone and hugging them and kissing all the servicemen. It was such a joyful time of relief and readjustment.

I had moved up a few grades during the war and I was now in the first year of high school. I took notice of how much dad and mom had aged from stress and I myself had difficult days at school. The war and its aftermath had left invisible scars, but it had been a growing up time for me. A plaque of stars was put up in the local square; a poor substitute for the lives of those who did not come back. The town had changed and something would never be the same. The war had changed all of us in different ways, but we were stronger as a nation.

We had endured together the good, the bad and the ugly of the war. The children of Germany and Japan were babies of the war and were not to be held accountable for the heartache and misery. A new generation was coming of age, the babies of the war. It took time for the healing of both sides. Certain tragic events we always remember. For some, it was President Kennedy's assassination. More recently, for many it was 9/11.

For the older generation, the remembrance is World War II.

Mary Griffin Frese

Forest Hill

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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