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Guest Blogs

Mar 24,   SusanDay on Being a Grandparent

13th Mar Stories of WWII are Fading Fast

I’ve often discussed both here and in Hello Myrmidon how sharing our stories can enrich other people’s lives. This really came to the fore this week for me when I replied to a message from an elderly gentleman in Australia who was a young child in Germany during WWII. Just an ordinary little boy, who didn’t understand why he often had to huddle in the corner of a cold basement in his PJ’s and bare feet. He had only a thin blanket to protect him from falling debris, as saturation bombing spread nightly devastation in his neighborhood. When I asked him to elaborate, he said he wished there was a delete button to erase the pain of retrieving those experiences from his memory banks. I responded that, although we have no delete button to erase such memories, what we can do is to look back at them through the telescope of time and carefully examine how they have shaped our character and provided us with a special inner strength that we take for granted today. Doing this hopefully will put those recollections into perspective and thereby lessen the pain when they do unexpectedly pop to the surface of our sea of memories.

The man’s story is short, only a couple sentences, but the power it holds is very evident to whoever reads it.   You can easily imagine all the suffering and hardship that accompanied it, but if there were a few more details it could really come alive to the reader. A while back I corresponded with another gentleman in Australia who had a similar story as a young boy in London during WWII. He reluctantly shared a few of his memories too, so I encouraged him to tell me more, but he said he didn’t want to remember so he stopped writing about it. However, he gladly continued sharing many details of other colorful adventures he’s experienced in all parts of the world.  Even though he was very young and doesn’t remember much about the war years, his story is very powerful, with quite a few details as seen through the eyes of a small frightened child. It really demonstrates how much more just a few more details can add to a readers understanding of what he experienced. Here it is in his own words, edited slightly for clarity:

“I was born in 1940, so I really don't remember much of the war, but what I do remember is being evacuated to Broadstairs, south of London. I had my cap on and a pair of shorts, and a small brown suitcase. Around my neck was a string, and a piece of card with my name on it, and I presume my address, and age?? I got on the train with loads of other kids of all ages. How I got there I don't know, I don't remember my parents taking me. I think we went to a hospital, as I was in a ward with loads of other kids. We had to have a nap every afternoon, outside, on these stretchers. I must have been away for years, but I don't ever remember my parents coming to see me. My (older) sister was evacuated as well, to a different part of the country, I never saw her during that time.”

I’ve noted before that I believe everyone can benefit by recounting their own stories, and then analyzing how they relate to their unique way of viewing the world and their current place in it. In fact, that is what I try to do here in many of my own blog articles, although my stories are rarely as powerful as these. It’s too bad that so many survivors of those turbulent WWII years are leaving us now, taking their stories with them. But if they would just leave them behind, those who hear or read them could feel the pain and learn the lessons that the survivors did, but thankfully be spared the scars from the actual events.

As I wrote about this, I was reminded that my own father was part of a reconnaissance unit that flew over Europe to catalog troop movements and outline prospective bombing targets. He was a doctor, but occasionally rode with the flight crews to observe them for mental fitness. So he could very well have been along one time when the crews chose the target that eventually resulted in a frightened little kid huddling somewhere in a basement. Wow. That really changes one’s perspective.

I also began thinking how WWII affected me as a tiny baby. I had no father until I was almost 2 yrs old. And, as many other soldiers did, he brought home residual psychological issues from his wartime experiences that impacted the lives of our whole family. I wrote about some of these in HELLO MYRMIDON, but today I pondered why I hadn’t said much in the book about what my mom did during the war. I may have touched briefly on her service in the Army Nurse Corps. But I didn’t mention that she also volunteered early in the war as a civilian to accompany Japanese-Americans on the trains that took them away from the coast to relocation camps in the Midwest. There were pregnant moms and new babes aboard, so the people in charge felt a nurse should accompany them.  

Hearing the stories of those 2 men I wish now with all my heart that I had listened more closely and/or written down my mom’s story of those trains, but now they’re lost forever. I remember that Mom said they were polite, well behaved people who mostly just kept their suffering to themselves. She did overhear them occasionally voice their anger among themselves because they were citizens like everyone else, and they felt they did not deserve to be treated so badly. They had good reason to be angry. Mom told us that some of their fine citizen neighbors that were not Japanese swooped in and immediately looted their homes as soon as they were gone, bragging about it later, and the police did nothing about it. And government officials used any excuse they could to confiscate their properties. The Japanese Americans may have been American citizens but they obviously took their character from their much more gentile and reserved Japanese heritage.

We could take a lesson from them for sure. What do you imagine would happen today, if a whole neighborhood of LA or San Francisco was forced to leave their homes for no reason except to alleviate the fear of their fellow citizens? How would we react right now to being forced onto a train, and taken to a primitive camp far away from our homes, leaving behind everything that we had worked for? I think you know the answer to that. Immediate resistance, leading to riots, violence, hatred, bigotry…. need I say more? But instead, many of the Japanese American men demonstrated their allegiance to the country that did this to their families by serving proudly in the   442nd Army combat unit, the most decorated unit in American history. Prejudice did remain after the war. However, today I see very little obvious racial bias against Japanese Americans, compared to that of other minorities who have taken a different stance against mistreatment and prejudice.

We can all learn lessons from these stories and the many others that are stored in the memory banks of those few who remain and can still tell their stories. So anyone who has family or friends that are a storehouse for such gold should try to make voice recordings of their recollections, or at least record them in journals or other articles or books.   Another option is to document them on a family history website to save them for posterity. Please, keep these wonderful legacies alive, don’t let the stories perish along with the folks who lived them. And honor those many folks, both famous and ordinary, who have already documented their stories, by reading their books, writings, and photos, and sharing them with others in your family.

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