Oshkosh Stories and Snapshots: World War II

World War II
Contributed by: Ron

It was simply known as The War by my parents' generation and partly by my own, as if no other wars came before or after. It was the natural state of affairs when I was young so I thought not much about it, although I was reminded of other times in the not-so-distant past when I failed to clean-up my plate or complained about hand-me-downs.

In some ways these were happier times for us. Dad was working, money was not scarce, and we had beef roasts most Sundays, pork and beef when the butcher shop and the red tokens cooperated. My two older brothers no longer had to pull their wagon to the corner of Seventh and South Main to pick up surplus foods, and my mother no longer had to fear the sound of the Relief Lady on our front porch.

Like most we experienced the war in small ways. The word shortage, for instance, took on an expanded meaning. There was a shortage of sugar and meat during much of the war, butter was scarce if nonexistent, and there were no more bananas and little coffee because of German submarines in the Caribbean. Shortly into the war my mother received ration books and tokens. When she went to buy meat or butter, sugar and the like, shoes later on, she needed to hand over the ration stamps or dime-size tokens along with money to buy the item. She also saved bacon fat in tin cans--something about the war effort and explosives.

Most everyone had a vegetable garden. It provided fresh and inexpensive food and it was patriotic as it saved canned vegetables for our soldiers overseas. The bigger the garden, the deeper the patriotism. In our neighborhood the Hielsbergs were the most patriotic. They grew everything from sweet corn and potatoes to the usual assortment of lettuce, cabbage, peas, beans, tomatoes, onions, radishes, kohlrabies, and carrots. Melons were generally not planted because the adults knew the neighborhood kids would have them pilfered before they got on the dinner table.

No one was immune from the war. It was in our comics, in our movies, and in our songs. The radio was filled with it. Most evenings my parents listened to Edward R. Murrow and Gabriel Heatter, keeping up to date on the progress of the war. And in school we followed the war on maps and in classroom discussion.

Wartime in the '40s had a feeling of its own. Unlike wars since, World War II had a home front. Civilians felt the war and fought it too. They fought it by working long hours in war industries; they fought it on the dinner table, with the cars they no longer drove, in the things they did without. They fought it by buying war bonds, by growing victory gardens, by conserving and salvaging things previously thrown away. They fought it in their minds as patriots and, they fought it in the songs they sung. They deeply felt a sense of loyalty and responsibility to get the job done. I felt some of this too.

To help finance the war effort we bought war stamps. For a dime or a quarter we bought stamps to paste in a U.S. Savings bond booklet. When the booklet was full--eighteen dollars and seventy-five cents worth--it could be exchanged for a twenty-five dollar war bond. This piecemeal fashion of loaning money to the government allowed even poorer families like ours a feeling of helping save a soldier's life.

There were air raid warnings and blackouts during those early years of the war. The roof of the First National Bank building was used by civil defense workers as a lookout for spotting enemy aircraft. I'm not sure if any were spotted, but I do remember Mother turning off the lights and pulling down the shades in our living room during that first citywide blackout. The sirens blared and the seriousness that filled the air made the moment feel eerie to a seven year old.

Kids helped too. Honey Hielsberg and I, when we were trying to scrape up some spending money, went door-to-door asking for old newspapers, cardboard, rags, and metals and taking them down to Block Iron and Salvage or to Pumps' on Tenth. We would start by cleaning out his house and then mine for anything salvageable. We then went next door to his Aunts Elsie and Emma's and did the same. From there we walked around the block knocking on doors asking housewives if they had any of these items lying about. Once in a while the lady of the house would let us go down in her basement and poke around. Any junk we found was ours. For Honey and me it relieved the boredom of a summer day, and for our efforts we might make seventy, eighty cents a piece.

And then it all came to an end. I was standing in our driveway of our Minnesota home on that August day in 1945 when the bells in he tower of St. Vincent's rang nonstop, and the city sirens blew and screamed with joy. I ran into the house to ask my mother what was going on. She told me the war was over.


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