Appeared in the March 2014 issue of The Southern Genealogists Exchange Quarterly
GROWING UP IN WORLD WAR II
J. G. Braddock Sr.
In the summer of 1941, shortly after my eleventh birthday, I moved with my family to Charleston, South Carolina, unaware that within a very few months my world, our world, everyone’s world, would suddenly change and never be the same again. .
Like most other American households of that era, we listened to the radio every evening after supper. And we had an array of great programs to choose from: Fibber McGee and Molly, Fred Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Inner-Sanctum, Duffy’s Tavern, Amos and Andy, Lum and Abner, to name a few. As we listened to some now-forgotten program Sunday evening December 7th, an urgent voice interrupted it with an announcement that America had suddenly become involved in the deadliest military conflict in the history of the world. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Charleston, with its Naval and Coast Guard bases, Port of Embarkation, and Fort Moultrie Army base, soon overflowed with the sight of men in uniform. The Navy Yard immediately began gearing up for the building and repairing of ships on a big-time scale. Housing developments began springing up all over the areas surrounding the Navy Yard to house the tremendous influx of people coming to work at the Yard.
Military recruiting offices were soon overrun with long lines of men and teenage boys clamoring to enlist in the military. As soon as my brother Arnold turned fourteen, he lied about his age and joined the Navy. Our mother had refused to sign for him, so he got a school teacher to sign. After boot camp, the Navy assigned him to the destroyer escort USS Evarts.
Our step-father tried to enlist in each of the branches of military. He came home each time with tears of disappointment in his eyes. Each had turned him down for being color blind. Not to be denied, he joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and was issued a uniform and a Colt .45 pistol. Several nights a week, he joined with others in the Auxiliary in patrolling Charleston’s lengthy waterfront. The only live action they saw was shooting at wharf rats.
He also served as an air raid warden. Charleston being a prime military target, we lived in expectation of being bombed at any moment by enemy planes and that their attack would come under the cover of darkness. Air raid drills were held at frequent intervals to insure that the entire city lay in complete blackness if an attack did occur. Sirens sounded all over the city to signal the start of the drill. Upon hearing the siren, occupants of every house were to turn out all lights or have windows sufficiently covered so that no light could be seen from the outside. Air raid wardens and their assistants walked up and down the streets of their assigned blocks and looked for signs of light emanating from houses. If they saw any, they blew their whistles, shouted, banged on the house, rang its doorbell, whatever it took, to alert the residents of the light.
Even at my young age, I found a place of service as an air raid messenger and wore a Civil Defense armband with a lightning bolt superimposed on a triangle within a circle on it. As an air raid messenger, I had to carry messages through the dark streets from one air raid warden to another. During one drill, a warden handed me a message and told me to deliver it to a warden two blocks away—PRONTO! I took off into pitch-black darkness on my bike as if the lightning bolt on my armband had come alive. I had gone half a block when I suddenly became airborne upon running into the back of a parked black coupe automobile. I skidded across its roof and down onto its hood, rolled down onto the ground, got up, shook off my daze, ran to the back of the auto, picked up my bike, pushed its front wheel back in line, took off again, and delivered the message
Posters about the importance of secrecy were everywhere, and everyone took them seriously. It wasn’t too farfetched to suspect that the guy standing next to you on a street corner or sitting at the next table in a restaurant or bar might be an enemy spy. Security was a matter of great concern, especially in a city as heavily military as Charleston. In addition to posters on the subject everywhere, large signs with strong warnings that no photos were to be taken were posted all along the waterfront. Security was so intense that radio stations could play only songs approved by the Federal Government for fear that the broadcasting of certain selections could be used to transmit information to the enemy. The few approved songs included the works of Stephen Foster. Old Folks at Home and Beautiful Dreamer are wonderful songs, but you get quickly tired of them after hearing them twenty or more times a day.
To help finance the war and to make civilians feel personally involved in supporting the war effort, the government issued War Bonds for people to buy. Many celebrities, some major, some minor, came to town from time to time to promote the sale of them. Sometimes they rode in a parade down King Street, Charleston’s main drag, right past our house, in a convertible. We had a bird’s eye view from our upstairs porch. The only celebrity I can recall seeing was actress Veronica Lake, whose trademark was her peek-a-boo hairdo. One of the more famous actors of the time, Tyrone Power, visited the Navy Yard to boost the morale of the workers. As he stood on the platform speaking to the assembled workers, he casually flipped his cigarette butt to the ground in front of the platform. A near-riot ensued as almost every man on the front row of workers made a determined dive for the precious souvenir.
Every week had a drive to collect scrap paper and metal to help in the war effort. I took part in several of these drives and got to ride around town on the back of a stake-body picking up bundles of newspapers and boxes of tin cans from in front of doorways where they had been put for us.
A small red bordered flag with a blue star in its middle hung in the window of each home having someone in the military. Few were the houses without such a flag. Many houses had more than one flag, one for each member of the household in service. As the war progressed, many of them were replaced with flags with gold stars, indicating someone in that household had paid the supreme price for our freedom. Almost daily the newspaper carried a lengthy list of war casualties from our area.
Many items necessary for waging the war, such as meat, butter, shoes, sugar, and gasoline, were rationed. Ration books containing stamps necessary for securing these items were issued to every family. No stamp, no shoes. No stamp, no meat. Automobiles had alphabetized stickers on their windows indicating their priority in getting gasoline. Autos driven to and from jobs on military installations had the highest priority. Carpooling to work was not only encouraged, it was required. The nation-wide speed limit was 35 mph, not so much to minimize gas usage, but primarily to save wear and tear on tires because of the great rubber shortage. No one complained. Everyone counted it a privilege to do without so that our fighting men could have whatever they needed to help win the war.
While the war caused a shortage of many items of consumption, there certainly wasn’t a lack of booze. On weekends, a multitude of men in uniform flooded the streets of Charleston, especially King Street, some of them looking for a place to get a drink. Market Street, which ran off King Street a mere four blocks from where we lived, was the most notorious boozing area in Charleston. More bars than populate most towns lined its one block length. A frequent sight, when daring to pass through that area, was a member of the Shore Patrol—the Navy’s equivalent to the Army’s Military Police—carting off a sailor or two for being drunk and disorderly or for fighting, or for both. A restaurant almost directly across the street from our house attracted military men who meandered down into our area. It was not uncommon for us to watch fights in its parking lot from our porch.
It didn’t take being half-crocked for men in white uniforms to get into a brawl, nor did their brawling require a barroom as an arena. Merely speaking the wrong words in passing on the sidewalk provoked almost as many knockdown-drag-outs as booze, the wrong words being “Shallow water sailors” or “Hooligan navy,” from the mouths of a group of Navy men passing a group of Coast Guardsmen. My young eyes saw more than one storefront plate glass window broken out by brawls ensuing from such derogatory comments. Sometimes, the number of men joining in the melee swelled the affair to riot proportions. My stepfather was seriously injured while trying to break up a free-for-all in front of our house.
However, disorderly military personnel were by far in the minority. Most confined their off-duty diversion to sober pursuits, such as Charleston’s very active USO, nonprofit organization that, since its establishment in 1941, has provided programs, services, and live entertainment to our military
Almost every activity revolved around winning the war, even school. Patriotic presentations and songs permeated the weekly assembly in the auditorium of the school I attended. We sang all the military songs: Anchors Aweigh, The Marine Hymn, The Caissons Go Rolling Along, The Coast Guard Marching Song, The Army Air Corp Song at the tops of our lungs. Each student received a War Stamp book. Stamps to go in it cost ten cents each. The backs of them had to be licked to moisten their glue to stick them in the book. When a student finished filling a book, he could trade it for a War Bond. Our school held a contest to see who could come up with the best slogan for why people should buy War Savings Stamps. One kid’s entry, “To lick the other side,” won hands down. No small contribution of the school I attended to our success in the war was the show of faith by teachers. The first prayers and bible readings I ever heard were by teachers holding short devotions each morning at the start of class.
So many men being away in the military or in jobs that supported the war effort made getting a job easy for teen-agers and even younger. During the war years, I held several, jobs, including bagging groceries, stocking shelves, delivering groceries, jerking sodas, and delivering newspapers. I had two paper routes. Part of the first one I had, an evening route, ran along the road leading from the Port of Embarkation docks to Starke General Hospital. Seeing a long caravan of Army ambulances transporting wounded servicemen from hospital ships at the docks to the hospital was not an uncommon sight. One of my friends had the route that included the hospital. I went with him several times as he walked through the hospital delivering a paper to each bed. Seeing all those wounded men, some with a missing eye or a limb, many barely older than I, colored my life considerably and imbued me with a deep appreciation for those who serve our country that has not diminished one iota in all the years since.
When I reached fourteen, the owner of a harbor taxi hired me as a deckhand. The taxi ferried crewmen between the dock and the many Liberty ships that usually dotted Charleston’s harbor while waiting their turn to be loaded with war supplies to transport to the European warfronts. On my first trip out to deliver a crewman to his ship, a pot of table scraps consisting mostly of spaghetti got dumped over the ship’s side onto our forward deck. The owner of the taxi thrust a mop and bucket into my hands and ordered, “Get out there and clean it off quick!” I dipped the bucket over the side and filled it with water, then made my way forward, struggling to maintain my footing as the strong, gusting wind and surf-like waves driving into the bow made the boat pitch and yaw like a coon tail on the antenna of a speeding automobile. I had to lie down on my side in the mess and hold on to a bow cleat with one hand while manipulating the mop with the other. I’ve always found the aroma of spaghetti to be a delight to my nose, but not while fighting an assault on my equilibrium. I quickly learned the two symptoms of seasickness: The first is you are afraid you are going to die; the second, which soon follows, is you are afraid you’re not going to die. Needless to say, I lasted one trip as a deckhand.
The war brought new meanings to some words. I learned the new meaning of one such word as an usher in the calm of the aisle of a theater many blocks away from the river. One evening as I stood at my post at the head of an aisle, a sailor strolled up and asked where the head was. I led him into the office and up to the manager’s desk and pointed at the manager. The sailor looked at me quizzically and asked, “Why do I want to see him?” I responded, “You wanted to know where the head was, and he is the head.” After all these years, my mind can still vividly recall the look of disbelief on the sailor’s face as he said, “All I want to know is where’s the bathroom.”
By the time I reached the
eighth grade, the war had been going on three years, and on two fronts:
Europe and the Pacific. While walking to school May 8, 1945, I
noticed that one of the girls in the crowd walking along with me was
crying and smiling at the same time. When I asked what her problem was,
everyone turned and stared at me in disbelief. The girl said, “Haven’t
you heard? The Germans have surrendered. The war in
News of the Germans’ surrender was met locally with reserved jubilance—the war in the Pacific appeared to be a long way from being over. Men were still dying, and by the thousands, on beaches with almost unpronounceable names as our forces slowly and relentlessly pried the fiercely resisting Japanese from one island and atoll after another on their way to an inevitable invasion of Japan. Two million American servicemen were being readied for that seemingly inescapable event. Considering the ferocity of Japanese fighting men on islands distant from their homeland, it was a foregone conclusion that their increased intensity on their own soil would exact a horrendous toll on the invaders. Estimates of projected American deaths ran as high as 267,000 and 1.2 million wounded. This would be in addition to the 418,500 of our military already killed on both fronts and 683,846 wounded. It is estimated that the total casualties for all countries involved in the war were 60,000,000 to 85,000,000.
Thankfully, President Harry Truman made a decision that would not only avert the invasion but would also change the world forever—to use the atom bomb against Japan. It was dropped on Hiroshima August 6, 1945. When Japan did not surrender, another one was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. In the years since, a lot of ink has been used, mostly by people who were not even born when the decision was made, questioning the wisdom of the decision. I think I can safely say that had the government asked for someone to volunteer to make the decision, when the ensuing stampede had settled down, they would have found every living soul—able-bodied, blind, cripple—in America of the age of reason clamoring to be the one to say DO IT! I know I would have been in the midst of it yelling, “Let me! Let me!
My brother returned home August 14th, his 16th birthday—kicked out of the Navy for being underage. However, he got his licks in. He served aboard the destroyer escort USS Evarts for over a year. During that time she made two runs to North Africa protecting convoys of ships delivering war supplies.
The next day, August 15th, I was engaged with a few others in a game of ball in a clearing near where I lived. A woman across the way threw open a second-story window and yelled, “THE JAPS HAVE SURRENDERED!!!” We left the bat and ball suspended in air as we all broke in a dead run toward Beaufain Street heading for King Street, three blocks away. By the time we hit Beaufain, a mere 100 yards away, we were engulfed in a mass of humanity surging at breakneck speed as one screaming, crying, laughing, almost hysterical body toward King Street. By the time we reached King, the jubilant mob had swelled until it overflowed Beaufain Street, sidewalk to sidewalk. The mass of humanity that already filled King Street was a sight to behold. People were dancing and singing and yelling and talking and hugging and kissing and shooting fireworks. Many were laughing and crying at the same time. If the fervor of the celebration that comes upon reaching the end of a travail is any measure of the travail’s severity, anyone who had been in the midst of the wild jubilation that jammed King Street for many blocks from within five minutes after the War’s end was announced until the wee hours of the next morning would have known that the worst doom imaginable had been averted. There hasn’t been a scene like the one that day in Charleston, and I hope there will never be cause for another.