Slowly, like the month of March after a long winter, the dark days of the war seemed to lighten as the news from both fronts became more and more positive. The pace seemed to pick up and people talked about the war with a more optimistic tilt. My father received letters from my Uncle all throughout the war and they came more frequently now though still censored with the thick black line strike through of words and even sentences. One day two small boxes arrived from Europe filled with German emblems and armbands, souvenirs from the front. I tore into them looking for blood stains or a bullet hole to tell me they had been ripped off a fallen solider in the field but they were all brand new, probably found in some overrun supply depot. Every night my dad would listen to the radio and get the latest news. I was old enough by then to realize some of what was going on and I would often listen with him, as he would try to interpret what was said to my understanding. I can still hear the level, measured voice of Edward Morrow with his clipped sentences calling in reporters from all over Europe with their updates. There would be times dad would bring out a map and trace where our troops were and how far they had to go to end the war. I know now that much of his detailed interest was in following where his brother, Uncle Al, was. Al had fought on three fronts in Africa, Italy and France. He was now with the 1st Army making its way across Germany and headed for Berlin. Each mile brought them closer to victory and the chance that Al would be one of the lucky ones who saw combat and lived to tell about it.
The end seemed to come quickly. One day we were bombing Berlin every night and our boys were plowing towards that city and then it was over. Germany had surrendered. Everyone’s attention turned to the Pacific where a terrible war of hopping from island to island toward Japan was going on. Just as we were contemplating the horrors of invading the island of Japan, I remember a picture that covered half of our local papers and appeared in Life and all other magazines. It was a strange looking mushroom shaped cloud with a long dark stem and flattop. This picture is an icon now conjuring all types of feelings in people from awe to revulsion but at that time it was just a curiosity and a blessing because shortly after those pictures appeared, Japan surrendered. As I remember there were no second thoughts about that bomb. We were all thrilled, the war was over and our boys were coming home. Uncle Al and others who were getting trained to move half way around the world to invade Japan could now be relieved.
To a pre-teenage boy, you might say, that the end of the war was a letdown. Overnight there were no more war bond drives and no more talk of fighting the enemy. The esprit de corps that infused everything we did dissipated and I missed that feeling that everyone was pulling together for a common cause. The air seemed to have been let out of the balloon, so to speak. My dad worked less, which was good because he was home more, although soon there was talk of a strike at his factory as the workers tried to increase their wages, which had been frozen during the war. Of course the strike meant less money in the short run and I remember one Christmas with just one small gift for my brother and me. Dad’s health suffered from the long hours of work during wartime and he suffered from some of these medical problems the rest of his life. Uncle Al came home to find he no longer had a mother or father and that his girlfriend was no longer the woman he would marry. He found another girl, married and had a wonderful family and typical middle class life dying at the age of 89. He never talked about the war.
When pressed he would only say, “he and his buddies had a job to do, a rotten, stinking job and they did it.” Occasionally he would mention something funny that happened but never the horrors of the war itself. The 50th anniversary of the end of the war brought out an outpouring of articles, books and memories of the war by the victims as well as the men who fought. I cornered Al at a family gathering and tried to find out more about the war in his words hoping that at this time he would be more forthcoming. The only thing he said was that the worst thing for him was to see soldiers, some of them friends of his, just break down under the pressures of combat and become quivering, crying shells of themselves. He said that was the one thing he could never forget. He still had terrors about it. Uncle Al and his pals of the greatest generation!
The last thing I remember about the war before I became obsessed with basketball, girls and what I was going to do with my life, was the story of the freeing of the concentration camps. I knew there were prisoners of war. They were alluded to in movies, books and magazine articles, but to see pictures of thousands of civilians who were held prisoner and starved to death was bewildering and upsetting even for a typically narcissistic pre-teenager. In my mind I can still see those pictures in Life magazine of people so thin I wondered how they were held together. Their sad, searching eyes seemed too big for their heads, which were shrunken from starvation. I knew then, more surely than I did from the first that this was a war we had to fight, that we were the good guys and winning it was very important. I miss that feeling and the feeling that we were all pulling together for some common good. Since then our wars seem too long, they never seem to end and we’re never all convinced that we should even be fighting at all. In between wars we have other things pulling us apart, class against class, race versus race, or youth against the older generation. I know I was young and naive and I didn’t see the bombing and destruction that other parts of the world saw so my judgment is very stilted; but you know; I sort of miss that war!
About the Author: Tom Gworek