In the Shadow of World War II

Greg Shreve, Army Brat, Wiesbaden, Germany in 1957

Greg Shreve, Army Brat, Wiesbaden, Germany in 1957

Our generation, the much maligned “baby boomers,” (more on that in another post!) grew up in the immediate shadow of World War II. Our parents, the “Greatest Generation,” had lived through that war just a handful of years before we were born. We heard about the war from friends and family at an early age, and most of the kids we knew at school had parents who had participated in the war in some way. The war, though over, was still a constant presence.

As kids that age do, we talked and told tales. One of Joan’s friends confided that his dad had been captured by the Germans and spent years in a Stalag as a POW. Once a year on the anniversary of his capture (or release, we don’t know), his dad would get drunk and, sobbing, relive what he had gone through. There was a woman who would walk down Joan’s street, always alone, covered from head to toe  in a heavy long coat, hat, and gloves, even in the middle of the hot summer. The kids on the street would whisper that she had been a concentration camp victim. Some of what we heard from other kids was probably just made up from things they had heard. Joan knew a boy who bragged about his dad having a necklace strung with the teeth of Japanese soldiers that he had killed during the war. True or not, it was the kind of horrific thing some kids talked about.

Joan remembers hearing people in our parents’ generation recall what life was like during those dark years. During the war there were shortages of things like meats, milk, butter, and eggs. Women complained that they couldn’t get silk stockings. That was a hardship in the days when women were expected to wear dresses and skirts most of the time (and pantyhose hadn’t been invented yet!) Joan also remembers hearing about a popular cake called the “War Cake” that didn’t use milk, butter, or eggs, but she doesn’t remember ever eating the cake herself. Probably by the early 1950’s the time for rationing and “War Cake” was long past.

Neither Joan nor Greg heard their fathers say much about the war, although it was clear that they thought about it. We don’t know whether this was typical of most veterans, or whether it was just a reflection of our fathers and their particular set of experiences. They were young men when they went away to fight. What they must have seen and experienced affected them deeply. Only later in life did some details emerge to be written down and preserved. Greg was close to 45, and his father 75 or so, before any real detail of his military years emerged in the context of an oral history he recorded for our daughter Jessica. Joan’s father only began to talk about his experiences much later in life, after a trip back to Sicily where he had fought and been wounded. The shadow of the war was apparently a deep and dark one for these two men.

Much of Greg’s life has been defined by the military and World War II; he is a true result of the war. His father, an American military policeman in Austria in 1948, was providing security for a refugee camp in Linz. There he met Greg’s mother, a “displaced person,” who had come to the camp in the early 1940’s, an ethnic German (Donauschwaben) who had fled her home in Romania. The MP and the war bride married in 1948, and in the natural way of things, Greg arrived two years later. Greg’s father spent 26 years in the military all told, and Greg spent much of his childhood and teen years on Army bases in Germany between 1956 and 1964. He recalls vivid first-hand evidence of World War II. A particularly clear memory he has is of playing with other children in the ruins of bombed out houses near the military housing in Worms am Rhein in 1958. We didn’t think much at the age of eight of what the rubble and the ruins represented. They too were a remnant specter of the war.

World War II cast a long shadow on the popular media. Movies, television shows, and documentaries about World War II were popular in the 1950s and early 1960s when we were growing up.  The mid-afternoon movies on television constantly replayed many of the films made during the war (although we can’t remember any of their names!).  There were plenty of movies in the theaters, too: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Battle of the Bulge, Von Ryan’s Express, The Longest Day. Comedies like McHale’s Navy and The Wackiest Ship in the Army were so popular in the theaters that they were made into television series. Another comedy, Hogan’s Heroes, became a huge hit. Although he would never say anything, Joan remembers her father leaving the room whenever Hogan’s Heroes came on. He found it disturbing that a German POW camp could be turned into a sitcom.  Television, of course, had dramatic series as well, like Combat! and Twelve O’Clock High.

Here in 2014, almost 70 years after one of the great wars of our time, World War II seems to be receding in our cultural consciousness. While the media revives the war every few years (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers), overall we seem to be moving out of its great shadow. Those who fought in it (and those who waited and worked for the cause at home) are now passing from our midst. Their eyewitness accounts and authentic memories are passing too. Those of us who followed, Sixty-Somethings like ourselves, carry second-hand memories of the war, gathered from the rare stories our fathers and mothers told, from the narratives of the schoolyard, and from the media that replayed the war for more than 20 years after it was over.  Soon, even those memories will fade, and the shadows of that Great War will shrink and lessen until they are gone.

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