WWII Soldiers in Their Own Words

Back in 2018, I was one of about 7,200 citizen-archivists and citizen-historians who participated in an initiative to transcribe comments handwritten by military personnel about their service during World War Two. Soldiers on active duty filled out questionnaires on topics like: women and gender, race and ethnicity, recreation and welfare, ground combat, air combat and medical care.

Unlike memoirs which are written after some time has passed, these questionnaires were filled out while the soldiers were still involved in the war. So unlike writing from memory, their responses were reactionary, honest, fresh and unfiltered.

Because they were handwritten and old, some of the words were difficult to make out, so each passage was given to multiple transcribers then compared to achieve the most accurate transcription.

Subjects discussed in the questionnaires include things like military posts, assignments, food, housing, medical care, furloughs and recreation. The respondents didn’t hold back, speaking their minds on such touchy topics as attitudes toward women in uniform and attitudes toward black soldiers serving in a segregated military. The comments were not edited for spelling or grammar which lets the respondents’ education and upbringing shine through. They are compelling, authentic and eye-opening.

 Here are a few examples:

This excerpt is from one who has had his fill of fighting:

“If the Italian Front is important enough to continue why in the hell can’t there be a few more divisions sent here instead of replacements.”

From a battle weary soldier:

“I think battalions like mine that have been on the three invasions should get a chance for some relief. We have been in all the big battles. Most of us are getting very nerves [nervous].”

From a black soldier:

“In a Nazi dominated country perhaps I would be required to wear a badge to show that I was inferior, even though I know I am not, but in America my badge is the color of my skin.”

From a soldier annoyed by what he has read in the newspaper:

“About these strikes back home they ought to put them men in the army (I mean over here on the front) and then they wouldn’t call to strike and be satisfied with there [their] high wages.”

There are about 90 different surveys which have been preserved, with as many as several thousand responses to each. Most contain questions to which the survey taker chose the answer that most closely aligned with his/her beliefs. Only a few of the questionnaires offered an opportunity for the survey taker to write out a free response to questions.

The completed, searchable survey came out earlier this year. You can check it out on the site: The American Soldier in World War II.

While the surveys help to draw a general consensus of conditions and attitudes, for me, the free responses are of most interest. One drawback is that if you leave one questionnaire, you can’t easily pick up where you left off. When you come back to that survey, you have to click your way back down to where you left off. But all in all it’s worth checking out.

Gardens

It was late winter. I was looking forward to warmer weather and itching to build cedar planting boxes to expand the raised bed garden I built last year. My plan was to construct the boxes in March, set them up and fill them with soil in April, and plant vegetables in early May.

Last Year’s Garden

In March, I headed off to the lumber warehouse stores only to find that they had few cedar boards in stock and their garden centers had virtually no concrete pavers or base material. It rained for half the month and when the stores finally restocked in April, the price of materials had gone up 120 percent.

I forged on anyway. While it rained outside, I worked inside the garage cutting, sanding and assembling. Although a month behind schedule, I still hoped to finish sometime in May.

Construction

But the outside vegetation, which had been peacefully dormant when I began my project, had awakened. My yard had transformed into a rain forest—foot-tall grass, boxwood hedges bulging like unshorn sheep, honeysuckle vines creeping through forsythia branches like body snatcher tentacles, wisteria smothering tree limbs like Devil’s Snare over the Chamber of Secrets … I finally managed to knock down the lawn, whack the weeds, take a few swipes at the snares and tentacles and get back to my project.

Finally Done

People ask if I’m working on my next novel and when it will come out. Like the garden boxes, I’m filled with ideas and intentions, but things rarely go according to plan and my next book is still a work in progress.

Bikinis and Thomas Jefferson

“All I need to know about Thomas Jefferson is that he owned slaves!” a fellow said.

The past is full of social practices that may be abhorrent to us today: killing animals for their fur, bloodletting to cure disease, burning women for suspicion of witchcraft, scalping enemies, buying and selling human slaves, forced child labor … When I hear a condemnation like the above, it makes me wonder whether people today can relate to how people viewed their world a century or more ago.

Is the eighteenth century trapper who sells furs a bad person because two centuries later we’ve condemned the practice? Should we boycott the Waldorf Astoria because it’s namesake dealt in the fur trade?

Undoubtedly, people who lived in the eighteenth century would find some of our practices today to be questionable, deplorable or even sacrilegious.

In the popular TV series Outlander, Claire, a twentieth century woman is transported back to eighteenth century Scotland. Knowing the future outcome of an upcoming battle, and pregnant with the child of her eighteenth century husband, Jamie, she escapes back to the twentieth century for the sake of their baby. Once the child has become an adult, Claire returns to the eighteenth century. Jamie is shocked by one of the photos she brought to show him his grown daughter. To his thinking, the girl is practically naked. Claire explains that wearing a bikini is quite normal in 1968.

While some may only need to know whether Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, others may want to know why the man who proposed ending slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence and continued to argue for a plan to end slavery when the Constitution was drafted, didn’t free his own slaves.

We’re all influenced by our present world, but I hope we can also relate to how the times and environment affected people’s actions in bygone days.

Metaphors and Uncle Miltie

I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

The first time I heard that phrase, I thought it was pretty clever. After a couple hundred times, it got under my skin worse than poison ivy.

It reminds me how golden age television comedians used to zing “Uncle Miltie” (aka Milton Berle, aka  “Mr. Television”) for stealing their jokes.

But it also reminds me to search my work for clichés and reused metaphors.

Slang, idioms and jargon can be used effectively to reflect a person’s personality or occupation as long as they naturally fit the person’s character. They should never be forced into the story just to show off what you know.

We use clichés, slang and idioms all the time. It’s part of who we are. It shows we’re in sync with the latest trends. After all, as social creatures no one wants to feel old and left behind. Some phrases are used so commonly, they’ve become as natural as breathing. But an expression that’s trending today, will flare bright for only a moment then quickly burn out. So a story containing today’s slang will soon feel dated.

That’s not always a bad thing. For a story set in the past, dialog should reflect how people spoke at that time, but we must be mindful that the meaning of certain words and phrases have changed over the years. Being gay in the 1890s is different than being gay in the 1990s. Calling someone a penguin today might refer to someone in a tuxedo or a dancing bird in Mary Poppins, but to a WWII pilot, a penguin who flies a mahogany plane is a derogatory term for an air force officer who sits behind a desk.

Sometimes a foreign idiom used in a book may be clear by the tone of the speaker, but sometimes an explanation may be necessary. Consider two examples from Night and Fog: One scene contains the phrase black as Newgate’s knocker. As Americans we might not be familiar with the British expression, but in the context in which it is used, we know it must be bad so we need not explain it.

Another scene has Virginia, my American heroine, using the phrase, “Vous avez de araignées au plafond,” which roughly translates to you’ve got spiders on the ceiling. But since the literal translation doesn’t help us, Virginia adds, “What? Did I say it wrong? Maybe you’d rather hear the American translation. You’re nuts!

We must also take care not to put American slang in the mouths of foreign speakers (unless it is humorous misuse or otherwise intentional). Some phrases are used so often, they’ve become part of everyday speech. This makes them harder to find and eliminate from our novels. A battlefield nurse in WWII who experiences her first bloody battle might tell herself to get a grip, but a person tending the wounded at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 wouldn’t know that term and therefore wouldn’t even think it.

That reminds me of a story our Italian tour guide in Rome told us when asked how she had come to learn to speak English so well. “I lived in London for about seven years,” she replied. “I do all right except for some of the slang phrases. One time a couple in an American tour group hadn’t shown up at the appointed time, so I told the others that I would go ‘round and knock them up. I didn’t know why the Americans were laughing until they explained that in the U.S. that meant that I was going to get them pregnant!”

While idioms and slang can flavor our novels, we must strive to create our own fresh prose. During editing, we should keep Uncle Miltie in mind so our writing doesn’t become worn out like an old joke.

Keeping Writers Writing by Posting Reviews

As an author I know how important reviews are. Some readers won’t take a chance on a book that doesn’t have a fair amount of reviews. That’s why when I finish a book I’ve enjoyed, I try to follow up by posting a review.

Since “Voyage of the Heart” was a Christmas gift, Amazon declined to post my review because the book was not purchased by me and they couldn’t verify that I had read it. So I’m posting my review here:

The risks of loving—A Review of Voyage of the Heart

When we think about World War II, we usually think of the bravery of the men who went into battle knowing that the odds of making it through to the end of the war in one piece were pretty slim. But there is a different kind of courage that we often forget about, the courage of the war brides who risked leaving the security of their homes, their countries, their families and their friends to be with the American servicemen who swept them off their feet.

Voyage of the Heart, by Soraya M. Lane, published by Lake Union, 2014, draws us in with well-developed characters forged by love, war and a chance at a new adventurous life. I’m glad Soraya took me on this journey. I have childhood memories of soldier friends of my parents’ who married war brides. I now have a greater appreciation of what it took for those women to come here.

Soraya skillfully weaves the riveting stories of four British women who follow their hearts across the vast ocean hoping that the love they feel for their new American husbands will be enough to sustain them in this foreign land.

Will this new adventure become their happily ever after or will it end in disaster?  

We simply can’t help rooting for each of these young ladies as they face difficult challenges and surprises, some welcome, some quite unpleasant.

I highly recommend this book.

P.S. To learn more about war brides, check out “War Brides of World War II”, by Elfrieda Berthiaume Shukert and Barbara Smith Scibetta, published by Presidio Press in 1988 and Penguin Books in 1989.

Paint Like a Writer

Very few of us are so gifted we can just sit and write without the benefit of learning from others. From time to time in “Within my Writes”, I like to share what I have learned on my writing journey.

Not long ago I read “Word Painting”, the revised addition, published in 2014, by Rebecca McClanahan.

It disrupted my game—but in a good way.

It reminded me of my seventh grade English class where I had tried to get by with my usual minimal effort. My classmates were brimming with grey matter and I felt like I’d been thrown into the deep end of the pool with deflated Swimmies. I learned quickly that what had worked for me in grade school wasn’t going to cut it with Mr. K. He demanded much more.

Mr. K. compelled us to study the art of effective writing. He made us work on plotting, characters, plot twists, descriptions and poetry. He pushed us to open our minds to see that through words, writers like H. G. Wells could even make us believe that invisibility was possible.

I never fully overcame my laziness that year. I was lucky to scratch out a “C” in the class and was happy to be done with that torture.

It wasn’t until I was receiving high marks in high school and college for creative writing, that I understood how much Mr. K had positively influenced my writing. I haven’t written a single book or short story without thinking about him and what he’d taught me.

In her book “Word Painting” Rebecca McClanahan provides vivid examples and techniques. She teaches us that writing descriptions is more than just describing what we see, hear, feel, smell or taste. She shows us how to see through the eyes of our characters and use vivid descriptions to bring those characters to life. And she shows us techniques for writing prose that captivate and delight readers.

Just as I didn’t like the lessons in Mr. K’s class, I don’t like the lessons in Ms. McClanahan’s “Word Painting” because she makes me work harder on my writing.

Thank you, Rebecca McClanahan and Mr. K.

But Who Should Write It?

One night, before I wrote Night and Fog, my wife asked why I was watching a You Tube video in French when I don’t speak French. It was Dédée de Jongh modestly relating how she and her comrades simply did what had to be done to save Allied airmen during World War Two.

Though much older in the video than the young girl whose daring had become legendary, Dédée’s body language and tone still bore the essence of the courageous young girl who organized the most resilient underground line of World War Two and told me more about her character than merely reading about her could.

Continue reading “But Who Should Write It?”

History lessons tell you about it—Historical novels let you live it.

Readers aren’t drawn to historical novels simply because they’re historical. Someone who likes the Middle Ages, World War II, or Colonial America, may not be interested in a racial drama set in the American south in the 1940s. This makes for a smaller pool of potential readers than say romance, mystery, horror or suspense novels. So when historical novelists keep us reading a story set in an era we didn’t think would interest us, it’s special.

Continue reading “History lessons tell you about it—Historical novels let you live it.”

Senioritis

I thought it was Senioritis, but it may have been misdiagnosed.

It’s not that we vintage folks don’t possess the grey matter to learn how to use today’s electronic devices, but….

Back in the dark ages, it required a whole semester learning FORTRAN and the step by step “if/then” procedure in order to use a computer. Once you developed the program, you had to key-punch the computer’s instructions on individual cards. Those cards were then stacked and fed into a computer the size of a banquet hall. There was always a glitch which stopped the computer so you had to go back through every one of your punch cards to find the problem. But once you got the program running, the mighty machine would crank out an answer. Imagine that! It took only three months to do a calculation that it would have taken thirty seconds to do on a slide rule!

The excitement faded quickly.

Then came the desktop computer—no punch cards required! (not to be confused with the personal computer which would come along later). You simply typed on a keyboard on one desk to program a computer as large as a refrigerator on another desk. There were no fewer glitches, but this computer spit out a code so you could find the error in a support book and fix the problem the very same day!

Early calculators, the size of a small briefcase, could add and subtract, multiply and divide faster than we could do it longhand, but we still had to use our slide rules for algebra and trig functions.

My first pocket calculator was a true marvel. I could do calculations without having to look up a nine-digit number from my two-inch thick book of trigonometric tables! And it was quicker than my slide rule. Boy was it exciting learning how to use all those functions. It actually fit inside my pocket and it only cost about a half-week’s pay!

That model was soon obsolete and the learning process began again on a new model.

Personal computers came out, so we learned how to use them. Then came windows and we relearned. Laptops came out and we did it again.

Getting on the internet required more learning. So did mobile phones, fire cubes, computer games—the list goes on and on. New strains of these products come out every year, replacing the old.

Like immunity to over-used medicines, exposure to the ever evolving variants of electronic gadgets has caused many of us seniors to develop a natural resistance to learning how to use them.

I don’t think there’s a cure.

Pearl Harbor Memories

Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?

Most of us weren’t even born yet, but this December 7 marked the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—as President Roosevelt so stirringly put it, “—a date which will live in infamy”.

Just 11 days before the bombings, Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had sent the Japanese his suggestions for a peaceful settlement covering the entire Pacific area. The cunning raid demonstrated that the Japanese had only been talking peace to stall while they secretly set up their attack. When the Japanese envoy arrived at Hull’s office, he didn’t mince words, calling it, “The damndest pack of lies,” and telling them, “In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions—infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”

The day after Pearl Harbor, New Jersey Congressman, William H. Sutphin wrote in a newsletter to his constituents: “I believe the nation is united in the belief that political considerations are out of the question until victory is ours.  There is now but one party—the American Party. Our people are either for America and victory, or for someone else and our defeat … This is an all-out fight. We must win it.” 

We now know the outcome, but at the time those who watched newsreels of the thick black smoke billowing from the ships at anchor, the soldiers, sailors and marines fighting back, and the crews and medical personnel desperately trying to rescue sailors and save lives, feared what might come next.

New York City’s Mayor LaGuardia issued leaflets instructing people what to do “If it begins”. Los Angeles Harbor area was put on high alert. Anti-submarine netting was spread across the entrance to the San Diego fleet base. The entire west coast was put on war footing. Taxicabs gave free rides to soldiers, sailors and marines on leave who were recalled to their posts. Military and civilians worked through the night putting emergency measures in place. Private planes were grounded in the Puget Sound Navy Yard area, private boats were ordered to remain at anchor and warnings were issued that any planes flying over the area would be shot down.

But what about the rest of the people? What did they do when they heard the news? What did the children of that generation do during those difficult war years?

I’m currently working with my local historical society to collect people’s recollections of the attack and what it was like living through the war years. People who were children might remember things their parents did like air raid warden, air watcher, Red Cross volunteer, nursing, canteen services or defense plant worker. Or they may remember practicing for air raids in school, rationing and shortages, knitting garments for hospital and refugee use, or participating in scrap drives.

If you’d like to know more about our local project or have memories to share, contact me at sebastianrizzobooks@gmail.com.