When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, my family was living in a small house at 21 West Third Street in the city of Stockton, which is about 80 miles due east of San Francisco Bay. Stockton Field, where Dad and my Uncle Ed, who lived with us, had jobs driving dump trucks, was already under construction when Pearl Harbor was attacked, part of a national push to get the country ready for the war most people knew was inevitable.
It must have been in the summer or fall before Pearl Harbor that my family moved to Third Street. I remember driving to the house in a farm truck loaded with Mom’s chickens. She was driving, and I was in the cab with her. She was worried about the chickens. It was a hot day, and she was afraid they wouldn’t survive the long drive from the place in Lockford.
The house was in an older part of town, our little house perhaps even older than the others on the tree shaded street. A long sidewalk went down the east side of the yard to a big, covered front porch. Ice plant and calendulas filled in the space between the walk and the low fence on the east side of the property. On the other side of the walk was a large expanse of not very green Bermuda grass that extended to the west edge of our lot where the neighbor’s two-story house was partially visible through the shade of trees and bushes. There was no driveway, so we must have driven across the tough Bermuda lawn to the barn and chicken coop in the back yard. The lot was deep with plenty of space for Mom’s chickens as well as a big garden, probably not the cow, though. That went back to Mom’s parents. A barn-like building was back there, too. That must have been where Uncle Ed and his buddy Hoppy, (Lowell Long), slept. There certainly was no room for them in the house.
It was a little old house, built very low to the ground, the wood siding painted a nondescript, faded gold. A linoleum-floored living room faced the street. A big kitchen and a small bedroom were behind the living room. This tiny room, which opened onto the kitchen, was where Nita and I slept. It was the only bedroom, so Dad made a sleeping space for Mom and himself at one end of the back porch, putting up a wall that separated it from the utility and bathroom area at the other end of the enclosed porch. My dad was no carpenter, and the bedroom was a makeshift affair, but then the whole house was poorly built, the floors uneven—even spongy, worn linoleum on the floors, cheaply built cupboards and only a curtain to separate Nita’s and my bedroom from the kitchen.
A linoleum covered counter ran along the outside kitchen wall. There was a sink in the middle of it that looked out into the side yard, the shady east side, where Nita and I had a swing tied in a tree. I remember Mom standing in front of that sink, working at the counter. I am sitting on one of the wood chairs placed at the big, round wood table in the center of the room. I say, “Mama.” She replies, “What?” I answer, “I love you.” After a bit I repeat that, “Mama.” She answers again, “What?” Again I answer, “I love you.” Finally, after a few more rounds of that, Mom grows impatient, says, “That’s enough.”
So many memories set in the house and yard on Third Street, like rolls of film that allow me to move through the rooms of the house, out onto the front porch and over to the neighbor’s house next door where some cute high school boys live who make a big fuss over me, boys I find deeply attractive and exciting.
People are starting to become interesting, not just the neighbor boys and their mother who gives me slices of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar when I visit her house. I begin to truly see my mother, too. I see her standing at the kitchen sink working in front of the window. I see her lying on the couch in the dim living room reading a book and eating chocolates from a Whitman’s Sampler. I, too, would like to have my own Whitman’s Sampler, lie on a couch reading and eating as much candy as I want. I tell myself that is what I going to do when I grow up. –I do not see Mom as clearly as the yellow box of chocolates or the free-standing heating stove with its isinglass window sitting at the end of the living room near the kitchen doorway, but she is definitely there, the constant reassuring presence in my life.
It is as though it were just Mom and me in that house. Nita was a baby and toddler during the time we lived there, but my only memory of her is from the yard. I remember jumping with her on some old bare springs on a metal cot under the kitchen window, and I remember that she has learned how to pump the swing. She is just a toddler; I am four years old—but she can pump the swing, and I can’t. I still needed someone to push me. I am embarrassed.
Dad, too, is absent from memories of life inside the house. My main memory of him during our time on Third Street is of hearing about his train trip to Florida to visit my Uncle Ed, who was a naval aircraft mechanic stationed in either Jacksonville or Pensacola. That trip included a stop in Chicago where Dad went to see an uncle who Dad said was “rich,” an Uncle Boldt. A few photos taken on that trip went into the album on our coffee table. One was of Uncle Ed in his summer whites looking jaunty and handsome standing with my dad and a navy buddy. It was not a good likeness of Dad. “Is that Uncle Ed’s boss?” I asked when I first saw it.
We lived on Third Street during the winter, spring and summer of 1942. Even though I was only four years old, I felt the energy and excitement of the adults around me during those first months of the war. They were geared, mobilized, on the move. And they were young—my mom, dad, uncles and their buddies were all in their twenties. Dad’s sisters were in their teens and twenties. It seemed like they all came to visit us at Third Street. Uncle Frank came with his best buddy, Leo Richert, with whom I was in love—I told him to promise to wait for me to grow up so I could marry him. It seemed like there was a whole crowd of young uncles and their buddies at the place, exciting young men who would throw me up in the air, catch me, toss me from one to the other.
Dad’s sisters, too, visited us at Third Street. Helen, who was in her late twenties, came on the train by herself, bringing me a present and thereby becoming my favorite aunt. Elizabeth and Martha, who were in their late teens, came down sometime during the summer. A funny picture of them with my dad and Mom’s younger sister Sylvia still bears witness to their presence. All of them are in bathing suits. Sylvia sits on top of Liz and Martha’s shoulders, and my dad kneels between his sisters holding the right leg of one and the left leg of the other which are draped over his shoulders.
For me WWII was sugar rationing and the need for coupons for new shoes. It was Victory Gardens and War Bond drives, cleaning and crushing cans for scrap metal collections. It meant no rubber doll for Christmas and waiting until the war was over for my first taste of a banana split. But none of this was scary. All I felt in the grown-ups who populated my world was confidence—“of course we’ll win.” If my mom and dad felt fear or anxiety, they never handed it on to me.
My cousin Joanne, though, has very different memories. It is only recently I leaned how scared Joanne was during the war. I was surprised. My memories were sunny. What I felt was excitement, not fear. But then Joanne lived in Vallejo, right smack in the midst of the vast network of strategic military installations that ringed San Francisco Bay. The whole San Francisco Bay area was a virtual bomb with all the ammunition and fuel stored there, a tempting target for enemies. Uncle John worked in the heart of this military complex. He would have been very aware of the reality of the war and the threat it posed to ordinary people in the area. That anxiety was contagious. Below is a piece Joanne wrote about her memories of that time, written only because she loves me. She does not enjoy reliving those memories:
“I was born in 1939, the beginning of WW2. We had moved to Vallejo where Dad worked at Mare Island Navy Yard. At age 3, 4, and 5, I clearly didn’t understand what war was. But what I did understand was that it was scary and could “get me”. During blackouts we would pull the shades and turn out all lights, then sit in the dark. My parents were afraid, obviously, so that fear became mine. Fear was an emotion I lived with all the time.
“We lived in government housing on a hillside. I would wake up very early and lie awake listening to traffic going by on our street. There weren’t many cars out that early but enough to make me listen and wait. If a car stopped, it was the war coming to get me. I would lie there terrified, hoping the car would keep going. I think that was when I learned how to pray.
“Early one morning when Port Chicago blew up, it rocked our house. Larry, Linda, and I raced into our parents’ bedroom and jumped in their bed. We weren’t supposed to do that, but the fear of what was outside was greater than our fear of punishment.
“Dad took me on a submarine docked at Mare Island. We were inside it and walked from hatch to hatch. I knew it was a war ship but didn’t feel afraid because Dad was with me.
“When the war ended, my parents and some neighbors, got us out of bed and took us to town in our pajamas. Everyone was celebrating, shouting, laughing, crying. All of that craziness was almost as scary as the war had been. One sailor got hit by a car and Mom got hysterical. Picture complete.” Joanna Williams (1 Feb 2011)
The explosion at Port Chicago Naval Magazine that Joanne remembers was a major disaster. Below is historian Kevin Starr’s description of that event:
“All ammunition intended for the Pacific was funneled through Port Chicago on the Carquinez Strait north of San Francisco, midway between the cities of Benicia and Pittsburg. … On the night of Monday, 17 July 1944, shortly after ten o’clock, a horrendous explosion racked Port Chicago as two Liberty ships, a fire barge, and a loading pier disappeared in a blast that was equivalent to five kilotons of TNT, which is to say, an explosion comparable to that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima thirteen months later. An Army Air Force crew flying overhead at the time reported a fireball that covered approximately three miles and sent metal fragments nine thousand feet into the air. Three hundred and twenty men—202 of them black enlisted stevedores—lost their lives in an instant. Only fifty-one bodies were recovered sufficiently intact to be identified. Another 390 military and civilian personnel, including 233 black enlisted men, suffered injuries, many of them serious. It was the most significant home-front catastrophe of the war.” Embattled Dreams; California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2002).
I, too, eventually began to feel fear. Ironically, that fear came after WWII was over. It came when I saw newsreels about the destruction that took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and saw what an atomic bomb could do. The A-bomb was something that could wipe out a city in a single explosion, and even if you survived the initial explosion this bomb could make you sick and kill you years later. Suddenly those old-fashioned WWII bombs felt somehow clean. If you survived those bombs you could rejoice. You knew you’d survived. With the A-bomb, there could never be that relief. The effects would linger and linger. This sent cold shafts of fear all through my body. Why would anyone make such a bomb! I was not just afraid, I was angry.
The Atomic Bomb was not something I talked about with anyone. This fear, this anger, belonged to the night when I lay in bed in the dark. It belonged to feelings that surfaced just before sleep, which often took a long time coming even when I was a girl. I don’t want to overstate my fear. I didn’t lie awake every night worrying about the bomb. It did not set the tone of my days. It existed as a shadow in what was basically a sunny landscape.
It took a while for people to understand what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All people knew at first was that the bombs had been dropped and six days later, on August 15, Japan surrendered. The war was over and the men could come home. For the military personnel stationed in the Pacific that surrender meant that that they would not have to participate in an invasion of Japan, an invasion that was expected to be brutal and hard with a high casualty rate. The military knew that the Japanese would be defending their homeland, and there was fear that fighting there would go on and on with no real surrender. My uncle Frank was one of the men waiting in Okinawa, waiting to board ship for the invasion of the Japanese homeland. The passage below is from an unpublished memoir he wrote for his family in March, 1997:
“I was sworn in on October 27, 1942, and reported to the Presidio of Monterey on November 11. After a couple of weeks there, we went to Oakland from where we got on board a ship and went to Oahu, Hawaii, where we got our basic training. After basic I was assigned to the Anti-tank Co., 105th Infantry, 27th Division. We received extended training in Hawaii before we went into combat. It was while getting this training that our first son, Joe, was born on April 7th, 1943.
“We sailed for Saipan in either April or May of 1944. On this campaign I drove a Jeep pulling a trailer hauling ammunition for the anti-tank guns. Even though we didn’t get into any tank battles we did have some difficult times. Our biggest danger was that we drew a lot of artillery and mortar fire. Sleeping in open fox holes in heavy rain with artillery fire didn’t make for much sleep.
“I believe it was on July 7, the day the island was secured that we ran into a heavy battle. …. That was the day I got wounded, but the Island was secured.
“We left Saipan for some R&R on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. …. After a rest of a few months, we went to Okinawa. Here we got more shelling … I didn’t get any wounds here. I only lost a lot of weight from what was scared out of me.
“We had secured the island and were back at a rest camp packing our bags for an assault on Japan when the Atomic bomb was dropped. Talk about a bunch of happy people when we heard that we weren’t going to Japan! The war was over. Around the first of October we set sail for home. We landed in the States in Seattle, Washington. After physicals and shots we got on a long slow train for California. When we got to Camp Beale we got more physicals and finally our discharges. I phoned Jack who was then living in Stockton. Velma was there to meet me. We drove back to Dinuba that night. It was September 24, 1945 when I got my discharge papers.
“I had reported to the Army on October 27, 1942 and got out September 24, 1945. In that time I got to see Velma one time before we shipped out, and I didn’t see Madeline from the time I left till I got out. The first time I saw Joe was when he was almost three years old.”*
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*A Short History of the Frank J. Willems Family (3/24/97). Used with permission.
Copyright Loretta Willems, 1/1/2015. Earlier versions of this chapter were emailed to my Willems family in May 2011 and posted the following fall on http://www.lwlllemsmennonstory.blogspot.com.