Betsy Voorhees

My family lived about 15 miles from Boston. I was just turning eight years old when World War II broke out. I remember, like it was yesterday, my sister coming home from the roller skating rink crying hysterical and neither my parents nor I could understand a word she was babbling. Finally we made out the astonishing and unbelievable news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and many were killed. This was the night beginning of World War II. We didn't know it then, but our whole lives and everyone around us would have dramatic changes to their lives.

All local boys were to report the next day to the recruitment office and sign up for military duty. Only a few weeks had gone by and I can remember our communities were in an uproar. The draft called men away from their jobs with not enough males to fill their slots. Women were hastily recruited to fill the servicemen's vacancies.

My sister quit her job as a store detective to be employed at the Quincy Shipyard in Boston Harbor as a riveter. She was not accustomed to hanging over the side of the ship in the below zero temperatures we had that winter with the ocean spraying her body. Her hands, face and legs were severely chapped and bleeding from the cold. She would come home crying because her job was necessary and she didn't want to be a quitter. Weeks went by and she continued to cry and by now all necessary civilian jobs were "frozen" meaning she couldn't quit without being sought and found and put under arrest. She caught pneumonia and after three days was ordered back to work. I think someone came after her. It just didn't matter how sick you were, unless you were dying you had to report to work. Our whole family was torn apart. One day she ran away at the age of about twenty to New Jersey because she couldn't bear another day riveting ships in the harbor. The search was on looking for her! Then one day she called to say she was safe and had a good job using her aunt's name. She returned home after the job freeze was lifted.

Then, there was my brother a healthy nineteen year old who couldn't wait to be in the Air Force. He would shine his imaginery "wings to be assigned to his uniform." He left for uptown Boston and told us goodbye because he probably wouldn't be back. He came back with tears in his eyes. He passed the written test with a perfect 100 point score. But, he failed because he didn't know he was color-blind and was labeled 4-F. His dream of joining all his neighborhood buddies in the Air Force was shattered. (Men with worse ailments were accepted). He was the neighborhood Champion Arm Wrestler and Champion bicycle racer as well as a speed skater. Like he said, "I'm no chicken". So, he applied for the Marines as his next choice and said goodbye as he left for Boston. Again he came home with his long face after being turned down for color-blindness and a scar on his arm. He had a perfectly sturdy arm which bore a huge scar from a broken arm when he was about five years old. His Champion Arm Wrestling could prove he was fit and ready to fight in the war, but the enlistment crew didn't care. His next stop was to enlist in the Navy and when he left this time he said, "Don't lock the doors because they will probably stamp me 4F." He came back but was extremely depressed for days after being turned down. He felt like he was worthless and a failure.

My brother couldn't understand why all the streets were cleared of men and he knew some of them were disabled but why was it that no one wanted him? Finally, he decided he'd go in the Army because he thought the Army would take anyone. No such luck. He came home; started drinking carrot juice because one of the recruiters told him that if he drank enough carrot juice it would cure his color blindness. He went back in a month to see if he would pass his eye test, only to find out his color blindness was worse. With this denial he gave up and settled with a job at the same shipyard my sister worked at. Without having many of his old friends around he concentrated on his sports. With the shortage of young men at this time he had flocks of women chasing after him. Of course, being the most handsome and wonderful person didn't help to discourage them.

Then the news came of his best friend being killed in action, another being sent home with broken legs, etc. He was thankful to be alive and be there for his injured friends returning to the States. He would say, "I'm good for something!" He now felt being turned down for military service meant he had a purpose - to be there for his buddies and console them. Some of his buddies were now getting "Dear John" letters. He was there to counsel them which he was very good at.

My father was 36 years old when the war broke out and the proud father of a baby born two weeks after the war started. As the war went on, my Dad worried he would be drafted and have to leave his family. He would have served his country if called. However, my dad was supervisor for a major bus/railroad company who occupied many acres of land. One day the government seized half the lands and put up emergency Army Camps for the soldiers and WACS. All these service people lived in tents. His job was listed as "critical". He needed to stay put and be sure his transportation system was running and especially should an emergency arise! Most of his mechanics and other help had been drafted. Since he was short-handed he would have to work all hours into the night and weekends. We hardly saw Dad during the war because he was at work when we were home, etc.

During the war the coupon system came out. People were assigned so many coupons for food, sugar, butter, meat, shoes, car gas, etc. It didn't matter how many coupons you had, if there wasn't a supply available then you had to go without. I can remember one Easter being all dressed up except for my shoes all turned over and full of holes. I couldn't have another pair of shoes because my year for a new coupon wasn't up and Dad had just given his coupon to my brother. So I put new cardboard inside my shoes for innersoles and off to church I went - new suit, new gloves, bonnet, purse, etc. I think the shoes were too small and I can remember my father cutting a hole with a razor through the leather uppers to make room for my toes. My sister went to church on Easter dressed in her new outfit with old shoes. What was worse for her was the shortage of nylon because of the nylon being used in parachutes. The alternative for wearing "bobby-sox" was painting your legs with artificial nylon which worked o.k. as long as it didn't rain and leave streaks on your legs.

To help with the food rationing, people were ordered to have gardens to help with their food problems. If the family didn't have space for a garden, they could drive or be bussed to their "Victory Garden" in another town. We were fortunate to own several acres of land and many fruit trees. One of our neighbors named Henricksen were vegetarians and didn't use their sugar coupons. They would give us their extra coupons so Mom could preserve jelly, etc. from our many pear, peach and plum trees. The above family who gave us their sugar coupons came from Germany two years before the war and appeared mysterious. I feel guilty now thinking when I was a little girl that they were spies. They told me how they hid on a ship and were imprisoned at Ellis Island for months before being released. Later they learned that all their family were killed during the war.

Meanwhile, while Mom was doing her daily chores, it was time for us kids to help in different ways, like taking the blocks of white margarine with the yellow tablets included and mixing the yellow into the margarine until it was blended and looked yellow. I used to hate the icky margarine squeezing out between my fingers. It was a big treat one day when a neighbor who was in the Army brought real butter from his parents' farm in Maine. It was like being kings and queens. He explained his leather jacket with (I think it was 48-49) bombs. Each bomb represented an enemy plane he had shot down. To me he was such a hero, but today I can't remember his name after 55 years have gone by as I was so young.

Then, there was the dilemma of meat. Poor Mom would go to the market with her coupons and stand in line for hours and sometimes only get a couple pounds of hamburger; or sometimes the meat would run out before she reached her turn. She had the money but the store had no supplies. We always knew that on Fridays we had to eat smelts. Hope everyone knows what these little smelts were, with thousands of tiny bones (at least it seemed like that), and we would have to be careful how we ate them. I can't remember if we needed meat coupons for these or not. It seems probably not in view of the fact we all hated these fish. I wonder if we would have been forbidden to go dig clams? Anything would have been better than these smelts.

Every so often we would have a treat - homemade ice cream - made by cooling a can of evaporated milk, then beating it until it was thick and adding maple flavoring and grape nuts. When this concoction was finished we poured it into ice cube trays and let it freeze. We thought it was yummy after all the bland foods we had to eat. We thought it tasted like maple walnut ice cream and the grape nuts tasted like walnuts.

I can still remember our family going to Castle Island which was taken over by the military. This was a place where we used to go swimming before the war which had a large camouflaged fort used during different Wars. On days when ships were going past the Island off to war, the roadblock would be opened to those showing proper identification (don't remember what was required) and we could go in and watch the soldiers being shipped off to war. How some of us would cry as we waved goodbye to the ships going out to sea.

In the city we had practice air raids when the fire whistle would blow many times. If it were during school time we would run along together to the direction of our home and drop out at our street or home. I think back how scared I was because the teacher never told us if it was a real attack or a drill, just "Children run home as fast as you can!" (Course, she probably didn't know either.) I was the last one on the route and had to run through a woods and cemetery on my mile and a half trek and being only eight was petrified of a "boogey man" jumping out. Then I had the fear a bomb might drop at any moment and I would never see my family again. I can remember the pains in my side I would get from running, but I would keep up the pace and not let up - because I was so terrified. If the Air Raid practice was at night we would have to block windows with dark shades and use a candle so no light would show through. In a real attack if the planes saw light they could figure they were in the city and bomb the area. Each neighborhood had an Air Raid Warden who would walk the streets to make sure no lights were seen on the outside. Our Air Raid Warden Mr. Fitzgerald was appointed to our area and he used to be scared and ask people if he could "come in." I don't remember hearing of anyone letting him in but I can remember peeking out one time and seeing him huddled under our window. I didn't tell my parents because I felt sorry for him. During these Air Raids emergency vehicles would have to have their headlights blackened with paint to such a degree I don't understand how they knew if they were on the road or not.

Finally, the war ended and the popular song was the famous song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Hurrah, Hurrah." There were several people I remember named Johnny who didn't make it back home.

We would go to Castle Island on Boston Harbor and greet the shiploads of returning soldiers and still cried when we should have been happy for their return.

One of the happiest things I remember among many, was that after all this time of coupons, my father could finally have a new pair of shoes. He didn't have to give his yearly shoe coupon to his kids. He used many, many cardboards for innersoles to cover the holes in his shoes and went without for us kids during these war years. And, Dad was elated to have his men return to the company. This meant I wouldn't have to help him add pages and pages of figures in his bookeeping system without an adding machine. We spent hours together trying to balance his books. I was lucky to be gifted with the ability to add column after column of numbers so I could help Dad. I used to love just being able to help Dad and felt important. After things returned to normal at the bus/railway company Dad bought himself his first adding machine - the kind you poked the numbers in and cranked the handle. He sure was proud of this new fangled machine.

My sister returned home and married her sailor boyfriend who went to college and became a drafting engineer, later owning 1/2 of a large company in Boston and travelling with his family all over the world. My 4F certified electrician brother married someone he met while doing his thing at speedskating. One brother, said he was sitting back watching his friends getting divorced and after having his heart broken over an engagement, decided to never get married. He was the baby and is now sixty years old and a guard at a jail and is presently a bachelor after the death of his longtime girlfriend. Now here I am, someone who detested history in school, retired after working 48 years and now loving history and can't get enough. When the war ended it was like a miracle not to have to mix margarine, and to a kid that was something to rave about.

World War II was certainly not a nice time to remember. Every family seemed to have heartaches and stories. I am glad I live in America where we have freedom of speech and always have a President who tries to avoid wars.

Betsy Voorhees
Town of Herkimer Editor
May 2001


Helen Wheatley
Norway, N.Y.

I, too, was 8 years old when the war began, but don't have the things to tell that Betsy does. I remember the air raid drills in school, yes, we even had them up here. They had black shades and pulled them down during the drills. We kids used to be able to buy 10 cent and 25 cent war savings stamps and put them in a little book. When we had $18.75 worth we could buy a $25 savings bond. We used to gather milk weed pods in the fall and put them in burlap bags and take them to school. They told us they were used to make parachutes. My mom used to trade rationing stamps also, and she detested margarine. It was sort of a dirty word in our house. We were fortunate for most of the time we could buy butter from a lady who had a jersey cow and made her own. My older sister used to paint her legs because you couldn't buy nylons. Of course, in the winter that wasn't too practical in these parts.I remember my mom returning the empty toothpaste tubes when she bought a new tube of toothpaste. I had an older brother who didn't make the draft because he had had one ear drum removed. My brother and my two older sisters all worked in a defense plant. My husband remembers that in New York, more than half the people you would meet on the street were in uniform, and he says that on the subway there would be MP's to keep all the guys in uniform in line. So these are some of my memories of the war years.

Helen Wheatley
Town of Norway
May 2001

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Created: 5/3/01
Copyright © 2001 Betsy Voorhees
Copyright © 2001 Helen Wheatley
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