“It was scary then because you could hear the fighting. You could hear the cannon, you know with bombs. I remember one time we stopped because of the fighting and somehow I got left behind. I didn’t go fast enough with my father. There was a big pole there and a fat man was hiding behind it. I thought that was the safest place, so I hid behind the fat man. I was so scared.”
My mother, Suzanne, described that scene to me some 60 years after her family fled when the Nazis invaded her village near Reims, France. Her family, along with hundreds of other refugees, marched to Orleans, 180 miles to the south. She was 13.
This oral history was nearly lost to our family, were it not for a brother-in-law who said to me one day. “You have history in your family and no one has documented it. That’s a shame.”
It’s not that I didn’t ask over the years, but my parents lived through the horrors of war and they kept those memories from their children. But, in 2005, I realized time was slipping away. I sat down with my mother and father, a U. S. Army Sergeant who drove a tank during the Battle of the Bulge, and asked them one last time to open up. They did.
That interview, which became part of a family history I wrote, has become a treasured keepsake. Capturing similar first-person accounts from World War II is also the goal of the War Era Story Project co-sponsored by the Ohio Department of Aging and the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. Nearly 300 WWII stories will be made available online in monthly batches. Here are a few excerpts:
Eugene Yarger of Bellville, a pilot with the U.S. Army Air Corps, submitted his story written by an unknown author. In one incident, he recalled losing an engine on the way to his target in Cottbus, Germany during the Battle of the Bulge:
“A second engine quit over the target. Being deep in enemy territory, this was a definite handicap. After getting in formation at the rally point, the B-17 directly above him was shot down and was later reported to have been his plane. He dropped out of formation because of lack of power, and he was slowly losing altitude. The navigator quickly suggested Sweden as an emergency landing site. Gene said, ‘If we lose another engine, I’ll consider it.’
“The plane had only 1,000 feet of altitude (down from a usual bombing altitude of about 28,000 feet) left when they crossed the front lines. They landed at a small field in Florennes, Belgium. As they landed, a third engine quit for lack of fuel. Their radio was too weak to get a message through to their home base. After repairs were made and they flew back to home base three days later, the crew found their personal effects were being packed up to be sent home. They had been listed as Missing in action—went down over target.”
Robert Imhoff of Oregon enlisted in the Army Air Corp and remained stateside. Excerpts from a book he wrote entitled “A Promise Denied” are included on the website. He recalled his time at an air base in La Junta, Colorado, “Our daily routine was severe: up at 4:30 a.m., military drill, physical training, several hours of mechanics school, and about five hours of working on the flight line.”
William Williams of Perrysburg wrote, “We went to Glenwood Grade School near the Ordnance Depot, which served as a prisoner of war camp. We would observe our GI’s marching Italian POWs down the road. Gas rationing was in effect and there were “A” stamps on windshields. We visited Dad’s folks in PA and we traveled with two five-gallon cans of gas in our trunk and very worn tires. We were nervous about being rear-ended.”
Edna Cook of Toledo wrote about her assembly line job at a Massachusetts’ armory, “My job was to sand the wooden part of the rifle on a machine. An inspector came around often to see if the wooden part of the rifle was very smooth. If he found the least little rough spot, he would pull it aside for more sanding.”
Bernard Utz of Waterville wrote about combat in the South Pacific and one of the tragedies of war—friendly fire. “One man in our platoon dug his foxhole one evening about dusk and laid down to take a break and fell asleep. Two other GIs were walking by at that time and startled the first man, who woke up and grabbed his rifle and killed both GIs with one shot.”
Utz tells other stories about combat including one in which a good friend died after his platoon was surprised by enemy soldiers. He also tells a story about the daily life of a soldier. In that, he writes about Eddie, a friend from Brooklyn who thought he was good at throwing dice, “We were issued four bottles of beer a piece and Eddie thought we should sell our beers for a dollar a bottle. He then took the eight dollars and got in a crap game and lost it all.”
The War Era Project is the second citizens-history anthology comprised by the department of aging. The first was The Great Depression Story Project. If you lived through these times, or want to know what it was like for your parents or grandparents, go to www.aging.ohio.gov. Click on news & Events then click on story projects.