What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

"Life would never be the same again"


Story by Breana Comiskey

A small, cheery woman with a reddish brown pageboy, Nancy Potter is an English teacher at the University of Rhode Island who has published many short stories including her latest collection Legacies.

I was living on a farm in eastern Connecticut. I was very aware that the war was going on in England because I had an English pen pal. People grew up early in those days. My pen pal was in an air raid shelter in London, and she would write letters about the war. During two bad winters, she spent almost every other evening in the air raid shelter.

I was standing on the stairs when the Pearl Harbor announcement was made on the particular day, and the declaration of war followed very suddenly. I can remember looking down at the carpet and thinking life would never be the same again.

I was then in high school, and there was a belief that we were all going to be involved. The junior and senior classes were convinced that not only the men were going to be involved, but the women would be, too.

I had been 16 when I went into college and just 19 when I left. It was two years and eight months that I was at Tufts University. We squeezed four years into that time. There were no vacations. We had a day at Christmas and a day at Thanksgiving and that was about it. The idea was to get classes through so that they would be ready for the war.

I had several friends in my college class who were in the service. Almost immediately, there were two young men, who were freshmen, who left after a month. Both disappeared. They were shot down on a military flight over the North Atlantic.

I did work as a volunteer in a hospital in Boston to relieve civilian nurses. We were very convinced that everyone ought to be tremendously involved in the war effort. I enjoyed the hospital volunteering, but I found the experience absolutely terrifying. I had been sheltered, and I had not realized that there was as much pain and misery in the world. The hospitals were very short staffed and seemed to me that there was always too much to do. I think the responsibility was really too much for me at that age.

There were entertainment centers called "Buddies Clubs" or USO Clubs, which came a little later, and this meant that typically on a Saturday if you were a good patriotic young woman, you would go to a Buddies Club and you would serve doughnuts and coffee, and you would sit and talk with servicemen and sometimes servicewomen. There would be a tremendous opportunity to meet people from very different parts of the country. Servicemen were very lonely, very homesick, and they simply liked to sit and talk with someone. They would like to show photographs of their homes and their parents and their girlfriends and talk about all that.

What do you recall about the newsreels and how the war was portrayed?

The war was always portrayed as winnable, but important, popular and fought for a just reason. The newsreels were extremely manipulative. We were taught to be more than scornful of our enemies: the Germans and the Japanese. Our enemies were portrayed as dangerous, inhuman, uncivilized, unworthy of any sympathy. The Americans and allies were portrayed as radiant, good, decent, honorable and always fighting valiantly. It took me many years to see this manipulation. All of us went to the movies, partially to see these newsreels since there was no television and newsprint was quite censored, we had the belief that if we saw something there, that we would see it in a more intense dimension. Since we knew servicemen who were flying or were out on ships, we knew that the newsprint news was not accurate. We received letters from people which were censored and we knew that there was another side. We were all very greedy for the news.

I think all of our patterns of life, particularly our romances, our attitudes toward objects, our attitudes toward the future, our attitude toward education, all had to do with the war. I cannot imagine a day that I spent from the time I was 14 until I was 19, that I wasn't aware of the war for a good part of the day, and it had an impact on everything that I chose to do. There was no point at which, except being asleep, that I wasn't aware of the war because I had a great number of friends who died.

I had one college classmate whose fraternal twin died. After she got the message, we just simply sat through the entire night trying to think of things to say to her, and we couldn't come up with anything very extraordinary.

I can also remember coming home from lunch one day into my dormitory room; my mother had sent me a letter, and out of it fell an obituary of a young man who died in Iwo Jima. The report of his death had happened a good two weeks before his family heard about it, three weeks before it was in the newspaper, and a month before I heard about it. It was absolutely terrifying. This was happening all the time. It did have a great impact on our lives.

I exchanged mail with several young men who had been in high school classes. Every time you went to a Buddies Club, there would be billboards with names of service men who needed to be written to. We were constantly writing letters. This was considered to be an absolutely essential activity to boost morale.

Did you feel that the war was for a good cause?

I never doubted that it was. We talked about the cause a great deal. We believed rather simply that the American involvement in the European theater was an attempt to free those parts of Europe that had been overrun by the Axis forces that had annexed Austria, Poland, France and were busy trying to overrun Russia.

In the Pacific theater we were convinced that the Japanese were going to overrun the entire Pacific and land on the west coast and move over eastward. It takes a little propaganda to convince quick minds that this is true, and the propaganda was extraordinary.

I had actually read Mein Kampf and hated the sound of the book. I saw it as more than distressing. It was dangerous. I didn't see how Nazism could be stopped except by the massive military effort.

My enthusiasm about the war began to pause when the bomb was dropped. Our sense of the justice and the worth and the rectitude of the war were beginning to be challenged then. As the war went on, people grew tired. They got tired of sacrifice. They got tired of withholding their hopes and expectations of normal life, and they began to chafe a little at the restrictions. Rationing was no longer as much fun as it had been initially. Going without was much less fun. I have to confess, it was harder for me to get psyched up for the worth of the war. We wanted the war to get over and the decision to drop the bomb was a decision to shorten the war and to save a number of people who would have died otherwise. Yet, was it fair to kill perhaps 200,000 people to save the lives of 25, 30, 50,000 American soldiers?

I remember a great number of us sitting there crying because it had been a terrible experience of losing friends and having had this part of what we considered our youth used up by the war, but also because all these Japanese had died whom we'd never get to know. And that seemed very wrong -- very wrong.

I think for girls and women, and perhaps boys and men, of my generation, the war forced them to grow up prematurely. It made them far more serious about the bare realities of life: life, death, values. It robbed them, in a sense, of some childhood. Perhaps it was a good thing. But it made us more critical of later generations who seemed to have a somewhat easier time.

Table of Contents

Copyright 1995