World War II in the eyes of an 11-year-old

In an essay, a 1953 alum shares how wartime affected every aspect of growing up stateside during the 1940s.

In September 1941, my family moved to the small village of Manchester, Washington, located on a point of land between Bremerton and Seattle. On a clear day, one can see the Seattle skyline across Puget Sound. In Bremerton, housing was at a premium because of an expansion of the Navy Shipyard. We lived in a converted two-room cottage, which was equipped with a wood stove, a bed and a camp cot for me. The toilet was in another building across the yard. In looking back, it was a little like the housing in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Talk about feeling like a second-class citizen! This was a real come-down from our house in Montana.

The school in Manchester was unique to me. The fifth-grade class consisted of me and four other students. The school contained two classrooms, grades one through three in one room and four through six in the other. There were 23 students in my room. Many of the families were new to the area. This was my first exposure to Texans, Okies and Arkies. A large number of workers had been recruited from the South to work at the Navy Shipyard in Bremerton. War was something that, as children, we played when we were tired of playing cowboys and Indians. I don’t remember much talk of war other than my parents listening to the news.

This changed rapidly on December 7, 1941. As we did most every Sunday, we drove to Bremerton to attend a movie (this was before TV, of course). During the main feature, the lights came on and the manager announced that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese and that we were at war. We didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was, but everyone was concerned because Bremerton was the home of the U.S. Navy Shipyard.

The government expected a follow-up attack on the West Coast and immediately mobilized National Guard anti-aircraft units. One unit was set up on the ferry dock in Manchester, about two blocks from where we lived. This unit consisted of eight or 10 soldiers, several tents set up in a field, one old AA gun and a spotlight similar to those used to announce new store openings. The soldiers were only a few years older than us, but were very impressive in their uniforms. They were more interested in finding out who had older sisters than in fighting Japanese.

The Navy also had a presence in Manchester. The oiling station, where my father worked, was being built on a point of land overlooking the Bainbridge Channel. This was the only access for ships to get to the Navy Shipyard in Bremerton. The Navy built a small dock adjacent to the ferry terminal so that a launch could be tied up to transfer personnel and groceries to the sailors stationed at the fueling depot.

Seattle and Bremerton were considered prime targets and were protected by barrage balloons. These were large sausage-shaped fabric balloons with rudders to keep them headed into the wind. They were raised and lowered by large, trailer-mounted winches located in parking lots and fields surrounding the shipyards and downtown Seattle. When approaching Seattle by ferry, one could see more than 100 of these balloons. Air-raid wardens were appointed to ensure that all windows were heavily draped and that no light shone outside. This was done so that Japanese bombers couldn’t hone in on lights at night.

A large number of Japanese Americans lived on Bainbridge Island, which was only several hundred yards across the waterway from the fueling station under construction in Manchester. They were mainly truck farmers who raised vegetables to be sold at Pike Place Market in Seattle. They immediately became suspect Japanese spies. All kinds of rumors cropped up. They were accused of storing explosives; several had dynamite for blasting stumps or plowing their fields so that the furloughs pointed directly toward the shipyard. They were also accused of having shortwave radios and guns, which everyone owned. Public opinion and resentment caused the government to move all persons of Japanese descent to detainment camps, even though many were American citizens. I remember on a cold Sunday morning, going to the ferry dock to see busloads of Japanese who were being transported temporarily to the state fairgrounds in Puyallup, where they were housed until internment camps were constructed. This was a big event. The National Guard stood around with rifles. Everyone from town turned out to watch. Each person being deported was allowed only two suitcases of personal belongings. Most of them lost their farms because they couldn’t keep up the payments or pay taxes.

For a fifth-grader it was an exciting time. We had air-raid drills in the two-room school. The procedure was for everyone to run into the woods and hide. The all-clear was when the teacher rang the recess bell. All students had to wear metal ID bracelets engraved with their name. Mine was purchased in Seattle and after several months the plating wore off. After that, my wrist was always green from the brass. One day, our teacher said there was going to be a mock strafing by an Air Force plane. When she signaled, all ran for the woods and into our hiding places. However, when we heard the plane, everyone ran out of the woods into the playing field so we could see the plane.

Rationing of scarce items started. Everyone had to appear in person to pick up ration books. Each person was entitled to one pair of shoes per year. Sugar was in short supply. Canned goods, butter and meat as well as coffee were rationed. Gasoline and tires were allocated depending on need. Each vehicle had a sticker on the windshield designating A, B, C, or T for truck. The “A” sticker allowed one to buy five gallons of gasoline a week for personal use. The “C” sticker was the most desirable and was given to those who needed to drive daily to work — doctors or other occupations requiring travel.

Every male over the age of 17 had to register for the draft. Local draft boards determined how everyone was to be classified. Anyone classified 1-A was usually drafted immediately unless they worked in a critical job and could obtain a deferment. In 1942, I watched a group of local draftees boarding the train. There were about 20 young men or boys, many of whom I knew. They were so drunk that several had to be helped onto the train.

Everyone helped the war effort. Scrap drives were held to collect aluminum, rubber, tin cans, coffee jars and scrap iron. People were encouraged to buy war bonds and war savings stamps. War savings stamps were bought at schools, banks and at post offices. These were much like green stamps and were pasted into stamp books. When a book was filled for $18.75, it could be traded for a war saving bond, which would be worth $25 in just 10 years. New cars were not available to the public after 1941. Automobile production was diverted to the military. Prices and wages were controlled.

Shipyards were built on sand beaches along the Columbia and Willamette rivers. By 1943, Victory Ships were being launched at the rate of one every week. These cargo ships were built by people who had never seen a ship before. Housewives were trained as welders. A large number of Blacks were moved into Portland and Vancouver to work in the shipyards. Many lived in hastily built government housing in an area near the present Delta Park in Portland called Vanport Village. In 1948, a broken dike flooded the area, destroying the temporary city of 40,000 and causing a great number of deaths.

In the spring of 1942, my father was hired to build barracks for a naval training facility near Sandpoint, Idaho. Because there was no housing available for civilians in the area, my mother and I returned to our home in Libby, Montana. Because the weather was so cold that winter, most of the trainees were sick. As a result, the Farragut Training Center was closed shortly after the end of World War II.

That fall, I returned to the sixth grade in Libby. During the year we were away, things and friends had changed dramatically. Several of my old friends had moved away. That Christmas, my father was hired as an aircraft engine inspector at Ford Island in Hawaii. He did not return until the war was over.

During the first week of school, it was announced that the Navy needed airplane models to be used for teaching aircrews to identify friendly and enemy aircraft by their silhouettes. The U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics supplied plans and dimensions to schools from which students built solid-wood models and painted them black. Needless to say, we were all very enthusiastic. One class period a day was devoted to model making.

I selected the British Sunderland heavy bomber. This was a four-engine twin-tail heavy airplane with turrets on all sides. An original is displayed at the Lakeshore Park in Toronto. This looked great on the plans. Everyone else selected fighter planes consisting of a body, wing, tail and rudder. My plane had a body, four engines, a split wing, stabilizer and two rudders. We were reminded daily by the teacher that all parts had to meet Navy specifications.

Niels Lumber Company supplied our raw materials (pine planar mill ends). We brought our own tools, a dull saw, pocket knife, several razor blades and some sandpaper. I got off to a bad start when I carried the razor blades to school in my pocket. Two of my fingers were severely cut when I forgot they were there and reached into my pocket. Then someone stole my wing and cut it up for their plane. By Christmas, most of the other airplane models were almost done. My bomber was far behind schedule. It consisted of a body, stabilizer and numerous planar ends. It is extremely difficult to whittle four engines and have them look alike. It is even more difficult to drill four holes in the leading edge of a thin wing with a brace and bit!

Needless to say I was really frustrated. The teacher kept pushing for the whole class to finish because the Navy needed the models and I knew that unless I found some new technology, we would lose the war before I completed the project. Fortunately, we spent several days in Spokane over the holidays. There I found the solution: a solid wood model of a B-17 bomber, which I persuaded my mother to buy for me for Christmas. This solved the engine problem. The B-17 engines didn’t meet Navy specs, and were smaller than the blueprints but at this point, I was only interested in fishing the bomber and never see it again. One other major problem remained, that was how to fit the engines to the wing.

This was solved with great gobs of PLASTIC WOOD. It took a lot of sanding to give the appearance of belonging to the wing. By Easter, all of the components were glued together and with some imagination they remotely resembled a British Sunderland bomber. I still have the certificate issued by the Navy on 27 May 1943, conferring on Jimmy Mitchell the honorary rank of Cadet Aircraftsman. We all did our part for the war effort. I hope that none of our pilots misidentified and shot down Sunderlands as a result of my hybrid model.

Most able-bodied men were in the service and that meant that even youngsters were put to work. My best friend Jimmy Brown’s father owned a service station and wholesale gasoline distributorship. When Jimmy and I were 13, his father hired us to deliver gas and diesel fuel to the gold mines around Libby. This meant that sending two 13-year-olds driving a loaded gas truck 10 to 20 miles into the mountain over one lane dirt and gravel roads. Everyone ignored the fact that Jimmy had no driver’s license. There was no one else available to do the job. We also unloaded and loaded freight cars for his father.

After school was out in the spring of 1943, another move. My father took a job in Hanford. We later learned that this was a secret facility in which to develop an atomic bomb. His job was building permanent barracks. Hanford was no more than a wide spot in the road through the semi-desert near the Columbia River in central Washington. Streets were bulldozed out and workers lived in tents. Each block had a barrel of ice water filled daily. There was no infrastructure for sewers, water or electricity. It was not unusual to have two or three dust storms every week.

Fortunately, my mother and I remained in Libby. She received an offer on our house and decided to sell it so we moved to Longview. My older brother Harold suggested that we stay with them in Longview as his wife was pregnant with my niece, Linda. I started the seventh grade at Kessler School in Longview. This was not a good year. My nephew, Larry, and I were too close in age and were like brothers; we didn’t get along. We were both in the same class but had few friends in common.

During the seventh grade, I acquired an early morning paper route. This meant getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and delivering 40 papers along a 3-mile route. This made it difficult to take part in afterschool activities as it was necessary to collect from my customers monthly. I turned out for football but realized that, as a member of the second string, my main role was to provide live tackling dummies for the first string. Two weeks of this was enough. My football career was over.

But that was OK because I really enjoyed making money on the paper route much more than sports. I would usually finish the route and be back home by 7 o’clock, in time to catch the school bus. This paid about $25 a month but I was responsible for collecting and paying for my own papers. If a customer wouldn’t pay, or moved, I was left holding the bag. One quickly learned to watch for moving bans. I was about to quit but Mr. Gano, the manager, persuaded me to take a larger route downtown, where the houses were closer together. There I delivered 110 dailies and 150 Sundays. This paid more than $40 a month.

Many of the wealthier people lived in this area and collecting wasn’t much of a problem. At Christmas time, the tips were great! When it was cold or snowing, I would fold papers in the lobby of an apartment house. While folding, I could read the latest news of war in the Europe and the Pacific. This greatly helped me in school. The houses were close together and I could ride my bicycle down the middle of the street and throw papers on porches, or roofs, or shrubs or occasionally through a window. One would be surprised how loud a broken window sounds at 5:30 in the morning.

Some executives at The Oregonian got the bright idea to publish an armed forces addition which was letter-size and contained no advertising. The Oregonian would mail directly that version to overseas servicemen. This program kicked off with a bang! Sales were to be made by us carriers and commissions were doubled for the first two months. Our new manager and the area manager from Portland held a joint sales meeting with all the carriers at a local hotel. We were told that if we behaved ourselves, we would get a steak dinner after the presentation. Well, the presentation went on and on. Try to imagine 25 11- to 14-year-olds in a sales meeting! We were supposed to practice a sales pitch on one another to learn how to sell the “Victory” edition. The managers were terribly frustrated and were ready to fire the whole crew but they knew they couldn’t find replacements. With the war going on, all able-bodied men were in the service or working in defense plants. We finally did get the steak dinner, which was a real treat as meat was rationed.

We actually did very well selling the “Victory” edition. Quickly we figured out that the houses with service stars in the front window were prime candidates and the wives and mothers of men serving overseas found it difficult to turn us down. Of course, we also learned to avoid houses with gold service stars as that indicated they had lost someone in the service. Thinking back, I am not sure of the ethics in selling in this manner. Hopefully, the papers were appreciated by the recipients overseas. My bicycle was stolen and new bicycles were not available; however, a lady on my route said that her husband had a bicycle that he never rode. She showed me a beautiful red bicycle with a headlight and white sidewall tires. I bought it on the spot for $35.

As the end of the war grew nearer, we had several EXTRA editions, D-DAY; VE-DAY; VJ-DAY and the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Extra editions always seem to arrive early in the morning. I can still remember yelling “EXTRA, EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT” at 4 o’clock in the morning, in the middle of the street in a residential neighborhood. It took a lot of nerve to yell the first time. People came out in their night clothes to buy paper. One learned very quickly not to have any change. The paper sold for a nickel and if all the change a buyer had was a quarter, they usually said “keep the change.” Occasionally they only had $.50 a piece, not bad as profits as we didn’t have to pay anything for the extra addition.

On the Fourth of July, a submarine, a cruiser and two destroyers visited Longview. This was their first port of call after returning from the Pacific. My boss decided that this would be an opportunity to sell a lot of papers. He was right. Every day they were in port, I would go aboard and the master-at-arms would announce that papers were on sale at the quarter deck. These guys had money and were eager to buy. They always paid at least a dime and often a quarter or fifty cents and again said “keep the change.”

My favorite was a submarine. They always gave me the run of the place. I could go from one end to the other selling papers. I did learn not to wake up sailors with a hangover. The mess crew always insisted that I eat breakfast. Guess that is why I wanted to join the Navy. At 17, I enlisted in the Navy Ready Reserve unit in order to avoid the draft. I spent a month in boot camp on the destroyer USS Buck, sailing from Seattle to Honolulu. I decided then that I didn’t want to make a career as a swabby.