Veterans Day: WW II Through the Eyes of a Kid

A blue star banner indicated that a household had a family member serving in the military during the war. A gold star indicated a family member had died in the service — either killed in action or died from other causes.

by Dave Riley

MY WORLD WAR 11 began on a Sunday afternoon in December of 1941. I was on the floor of our living room playing with a train set, my Dad was in an overstuffed chair reading the Sunday paper, and my Mom was sitting on the sofa doing I don’t remember what.

The radio was on — no TV “Breaking News” in those days — and in what I recall as somber, clipped tones, an announcer said that Japanese aircraft had just attacked Pearl Harbor as well as other sites in the Pacific. At the time I had no idea what or where Pearl Harbor was.

“Does that mean we’re at war?” I recall my Mom asking.

Yes, Dad replied, we were at war, whatever that was, and whatever it was didn’t sound good.

Thus began a child’s four-year journey through World War II. I never really understood the enormity of it — the possibility that if we lost we’d all be under the heel of the Japanese and the Germans, people, by the way, I grew up calling Japs and Krauts.

Our lives quickly morphed into a wartime mode. Every home was supposed to have blackout curtains and every neighborhood had an air raid warden who came around and explained our duties. In later years I found it ironic that on the West Coast Japanese Americans were being rounded up and put in internment camps, while in our neighborhood, our air raid warden was Italian American — Italy being one of our declared WW II enemies.

Eventually I became aware that we had soldiers in our midst. Dow Field (officially Dow Army Air Field) became a jumping off spot for GI’s on their way to fight in Europe. At one point — I think it probably was later in the war — I wandered out to the main gate. I was maybe nine of so, and I wanted to see inside.

“Not possible,” an MP said to me. His name was Walter Czbulski, the spelling of which I have undoubtedly butchered. He was from Ohio.

We talked for a while, and finally he told me to come the next Saturday. He’d be off and could give me a tour. These days if an adult stranger volunteered to give a kid a tour, alarm bells would go off, but not then.   Walter was, in today’s parlance, a cool guy. I read recently that somewhere in Bangor, possibly the library, there is a record of soldiers who passed through Dow and were later killed in Europe. I wish someone would check that list for me. I hope Walter isn’t on it.

LOTS OF FRONT WINDOWS in town had banners in them. A blue star banner indicated that a household had a family member serving in the military during the war. A gold star indicated a family member had died in the service — either killed in action or died from other causes.

From 1944 on we read dispatches regularly in the Bangor Daily News by John M. O’Connell, the managing editor who became a war correspondent and brought the conflict home with stories about local GIs fighting in Europe.   It was about this time that I discovered the columns of a great journalist, Ernie Pyle, who eventually was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Pacific. I’ve always loved writing, but I think no one individual spurred me on more than Mr. Pyle. His stories weren’t about palling around with generals and admirals but emotionally gripping tales about the dirt-faced GIs who were hunkered down in the trenches.

Parade2We knew for sure the Germans and the Japanese were the bad guys because every Saturday afternoon we went to the Park Theater and, for twelve cents, saw a double feature, a serial with some heroic figure, and a newsreel that told us how brave our guys were and how awful (the newsreel used stronger words, but I won’t) the Germans and Japanese were.

What were German soldiers really like? We got a brief glimpse in Bangor. One night the Penobscot Exchange Hotel on Exchange Street burned in freezing temperatures. The Penoby, about five stories high as I recall, was a respectable business type hotel where groups like Rotary held their luncheons. The fire was devastating, leaving nothing but a shell. The weather was so cold that the water the firemen poured on the structure froze in long trails, leaving the shell surrounded by a spectacular free-form ice sculpture.

What made it memorable for me was the cleanup — the government sent in platoons of German POWs who set about chopping the ice bit by bit. Across the barricade hundreds of gawkers gathered to see what Germans looked like — we had been heavily propagandized so I guess we expected them to breathe fire and have horns. To this day I remember the look one of them gave as he stopped — no emotion really, but not too far from fear. Did he have a family back there? Had they been bombed out maybe?

EXCHANGE STREET, OR NEARBY REALLY, was also where my war ended. On May 8, the battle in Europe ended and in August of 1945, radios blared the joyous news that President Truman had accepted the Japanese surrender. The war was over. People poured out into the streets of Bangor to celebrate. My Dad took me downtown in the evening and as best I can recall, the celebrating throngs were huge, like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. We stood leaning against the Park Theater for I don’t know how long. Eventually I became aware of a GI on the ground beside me, pretty much passed out from too much alcohol. He was, to put it delicately, icky sick.

“Hey,” a voice said sharply. It was another GI, the sick fellow’s buddy. “Leave him alone. He’s got a right to celebrate.”

My Dad tugged at my arm and we moved on.

Almost a month later, on September 2, the formal peace papers were signed.

My World War II was pretty sanitized. I didn’t see the blood spurting out of bodies or watch guys’ limbs get blown off. I knew people died and I was sad for them and their families, but I didn’t know the reality of it.

Many years later, in September of 2001, HBO began broadcasting Steven Spielberg’s ten-part series Band of Brothers, adapted from Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book. It told the war experiences of Easy Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

Band of Brothers is not a pretty thing to watch, although I have to admit I could not take my eyes off it. I felt a real kinship with Captain Winters and all the other characters, as if a colossal heavenly mistake had been made and I should have been born ten years earlier and fought in Europe with them. Finally, after sixty years, I was seeing the grisly reality of war. Mrs. R is only one of a number of relatives who can’t sit through a single episode, and I certainly can’t fault them.

WW II was the deadliest of all wars. More than 60 million were killed, which, I have read, is the equivalent of three per cent of the world’s population in 1940.

On this Veteran’s Day, and forever after, may God rest their souls.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.