First Person / Gold Star heroes

I was a kid; it took me a while to understand what war was

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The day was Dec. 7, 1941. Joe Z., Charlie and I were hanging around the front porch of Dick W.’s house. We were headed out to Guyasuta Boy Scout Camp for a hike. Our plans changed unexpectedly when Dick’s brother, Ron, came charging out of the house. He was red in the face and out of breath. “You guys better get home right away. The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor.”

“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” I asked him.

“Hawaii.” He answered. Meant nothing to me, so I asked him when Dick would be coming out.

“We’re going up to the Rocks for a hike.”

“Not today, you’re not. Better get home right away.”

I turned to Joe. He shrugged. “Look.” I held my bagged lunch to show Ron that we were prepared for our hike. That sort of got him really upset.

“Look, you two, what I just told you is really serious. We’re at war. We could get bombed any minute now.”

Pearl Harbor and Hawaii didn’t mean much to us, but war and getting bombed hit home and that’s when we scattered.

At home everyone was crammed together around the upright Majestic radio. A deep voice (Gabriel Heater) continued to announce, “We interrupt this program to bring you the latest news. The Japanese have just bombed Pear Harbor. All regularly scheduled programs are canceled. Stay tuned for further updates.”

The more I heard, the more frightened I became, confusion mixed with panic. I just didn’t get it as the radio blared on, noon to evening, evening to morning. FDR came on telling us that this was a day that will live in infamy. Then the guy with the deep radio voice told us that our Navy had nearly been destroyed. Hundreds of sailors and soldiers had been killed, many ships sunk and “WE ARE NOW AT WAR!”

Mum cried, sister Emily sobbed with her. I ended up crying, too, but my vivid memory reminds me … I didn’t know what I was crying about.

Shortly thereafter brother Max went to war … illegally at the age of 16. My happy-go-lucky world dissolved.

Days passed. The news became more depressing, though memories tell me I misunderstood much of the media reporting. What I remember most was FEAR.

The air-raid drills scared the living hell out of me. Blackouts! Air Raid Wardens patroling the streets! The Japanese are coming! Cover up! And then came more bad news … more war, with Hitler and the Nazis.

I was lost, worried and filled with anxiety. War was supposed to be in comic books and movie matinees. Where were Superman and Captain Marvel? Would they ever come to help us? Deep inside, this kid knew that wasn’t about to happen.

What could I do to help? This is what I remember.

At school we sang patriotic songs after lunch: “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Halls of Montezuma,” “Caissons go rolling along,” etc. etc. After which we bought war-bond stamps, filled up our books and got a $25 bond. Never understood what that was all about either.

God, I hated this war. I prayed for brother Max. Where was he? Mum said he was in the 3rd Army. Brother John said that Patton would take care of him. Days were often full of doom and gloom. News of Wake Island, Corregidor and the death march gave me many bad dreams.

Enough was enough. I had to do something. Dick’s dad said we had to do our part, so I joined the Junior Commandos and every day after school and on Saturdays we went door to door collecting scrap. I truly didn’t understand how they could make bullets and airplanes out of water heaters and junky car parts. But I went along with the concept and kept pulling the junk into poor Mr. Weber’s yard.

The next project was more perplexing. We set out to collecting pounds and pounds of milkweed pods. I used my newspaper bag to collect them. Ten cents a pound. We donated our hard-earned coins to the Red Cross.

I was so embarrassed but had to ask the scoutmaster what the government was doing with milkweed. At night before falling asleep I prayed our soldiers wouldn’t get sick eating those stupid weeds. Maybe milkweed had some kind of life-saving vitamins. Turns out they were used to manufacture life preservers for the Navy.

There were many other things, some I understood, others I didn’t — like mixing a yellow pill in lard to make ugly-tasting butter and saving grease in a large tin. I hated listening to my mother complaining about food stamps. Yes, Lucky Strike Green went to war (didn’t care, didn’t smoke.)

Brother Emerick complained the gas sticker never provided enough fuel to get to work, and steak and pork chops were ground up in K rations for our troops. Mom made soup out of fatty ground meat. She went into a rant when I said it tasted like dog soup, reminding me what brother Max was going through. That turned into an instant guilt trip.

At school we all received the name and address of “OUR SOLDIER.” I wrote him religiously and was shocked when he wrote back. But the days dragged on with more sad news: Mr. Roosevelt died, blue stars in windows turned silver and some turned gold.

The war finally ended and I remember the celebrations of VJ Day. Rosy the Riveter went back to cooking and housekeeping. Our boys came home. Max had some medals but never talked about them. He never was able to settle down and soon reenlisted.

Peace never lasted long enough. One war ended and others began: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan …

Later, my own years in the military taught me lessons beyond my college degree. One of those lessons was to never let Memorial Day and Veterans Day pass without saying special prayers for all those who have served our country, and to give special tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. They will always be my Gold Star heroes, never to be forgotten.

Max is gone and I’ve grown old, but never will I forget to display our flag.

Don DiMarco is a retired school administrator, teacher and coach from what is now the Deer Lakes School District. He lives in Prospect, Butler County.

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