LONELINESS

Many years ago I treated a patient who was suffering from a near fatal case of loneliness.

 

No, I am not exaggerating for this person would later confess that she had come to me in a last-ditch attempt to resolve her problems while promising herself that if I couldn’t help she would hang herself. She was a 20-something attractive and very modestly dressed woman who did indeed look very despondent with the psychomotor retardation and furrowed brow characteristics of clinical depression. When I asked her why she was there to see me, she hung her head, stared at the floor, and tearfully responded that she had been shunned.

 

She went on to tell of how her infraction of the church’s rules (one that most of us would consider a minor infraction) had resulted in her being officially designated as one with whom the entire church should have no contact whatsoever. You may be thinking: “Big deal go find another church.” But her story was more complicated. She had grown up attending this church. It was the center of not only her spiritual, but also her social and family life. Since the church doctrine insisted that only members of their church were true Christians, the members were warned about the dangers of consorting with people outside the church, apparently convinced that sin was contagious. Thus, when alienated from the congregation, which to make matters worse, included her entire family, she found herself totally alone.

 

Such stories are not new as evidenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tear-jerker, THE SCARLET LETTER, but give witness to the importance of relationships and the pain of loneliness. Many religions have used banishment of varying degrees of severity to punish wayward members. The Catholic Church’s policy of excommunication appears to be less stringent and is viewed by the church as a means to save souls whereby one can return to the fold and regain salvation by repenting. Such tools are powerful and their use can have long lasting effects. For example, I recently discovered that my Great, Great, Great Grandfather was shunned and ejected from the Quaker church. It occurred to me that if he had toed the line, I might be a Quaker.

 

AND YOU THOUGHT SMOKING WAS BAD

Solitary confinement has long been used as a means to enhance the discomfort of imprisonment, and is agreed by many to be a form of torture. In a previous blog, WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? I contended that our need for relationships is encoded in our DNA, having evolved long ago as a major contributor to the survival of our species. If one were to accept that premise, it would be logical to assume that loneliness could be a major problem for us. Indeed, according to Vivek Murthy, M.D., the former Surgeon General of the U.S., loneliness has become “a growing public health crisis.” He has said that loneliness is a more effective agent in reducing longevity than obesity, and that its toxic effects are worse than smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Recent research into the prevalence and effects of loneliness tends to confirm Murthy’s assessment. Last year Cigna released a report on a study of 20,000 people age 18 and over as measured by the UCLA loneliness scale.

 

Nearly half reported loneliness as a problem, but even more concerning was that 27% felt no one understood them, and 43% admitted they felt their relationships were not meaningful. One in five felt they rarely or never felt close to others or that there was anyone they could talk to. It was also noted that Generation Z (those born after 1996) were the loneliest of all the generations measured.

There have been a number of studies which confirm the effects of loneliness on physical and mental health. It is not surprising that it could result in affective disorders such as depression, and may help explain the increase incidence of suicide as mentioned in my previous blog, but there is also evidence that loneliness can cause or aggravate innumerable maladies including: hypertension, coronary artery disease, dementia, inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, impairment of immune systems, and even some malignancies to name a few.
A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine sponsored by the National Institute of Health followed 1604 people over the age of 60 (average age 70) for 6 years and measured their physical decline and mortality rate. Their stark conclusion was: “Among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death.” Need I say more about our need to engage with our fellow man?

 

WE ARE NOT THE ONLY LONELY

It turns out that we are not the only nation where loneliness has become a problem, both from a public health and productivity perspective. Great Britain’s parliament has recently appointed a commissioner to investigate remedies for what has been called a silent epidemic after a study showed that 20% of Brits reported they were lonely most or all of the time. It appears there are similar studies in progress in other European countries. It would be helpful to know if loneliness is a worldwide problem or peculiar to our culture.

NOTHING ELSE TO DO

If one accepts the premise that loneliness is a significant problem, the question arises as to how did we get this way and what can we do about it. Prior to the industrial revolution, multi-generational families provided a sense of belonging. Relatives galore, including parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles usually lived in close proximity. With the switch from an agrarian to an industrial society, there had been a migration to cities where houses were built close together, which resulted in the development of neighborhoods usually composed of people with common interests. There was the inevitable clustering of children who interacted with only minimal adult supervision, and stay-at-home moms who could relate to each other in a very personal way. Neighbors were evaluated based on certain standards including friendliness and mutual respect. The lack of air conditioning and television made front porches very popular especially on hot evenings, and provided an opportunity for informal socializing. The only taboo subjects were sex, religion, and politics.

 

BETTER THINGS TO DO?

Soon after World War II ended, front porches began to disappear from neighborhoods, and there was a wild rush to the suburbs where large green lawns were treasured and families had fewer opportunities to be “neighborly.” On hot summer nights, it became more comfortable to be inside the house (with air conditioning) than outside. There were also new-found entertainment devices available – first radio, then TV, movies in the VCR and then DVD Player, video games, and then the internet which gave us social media and streaming. One could go for months or longer without ever having face-to- face contact with one’s neighbors. There was no longer danger of an errant foul tip sending a baseball through someone’s window. Privacy became important, and it was no longer considered a snub to build a fence between houses.  There were no kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalks, as a matter of fact, there often were no sidewalks in these new neighborhoods.

Competing Schedules and Activities

As more mothers joined the workforce and children were exposed to more structured extra-curricular activities, long-held family traditions changed. There was concern about the “latch key children” so named because they would come home to an empty house. The evening meal, often the only time in which the entire family came together, was often disrupted due to conflicting schedules. This led to the so-called crock pot families where the family meal was available to all who passed by…making it easy to just grab a bite and be on your way without any hassle (or conversation).

Forced Socialization in the Pew

Another effective defense against loneliness was the weekly church service. Traditionally, religious institutions encouraged socializing (and in some cases, demanded it). However, attendance at religious institutions has declined in recent years (one study says church membership in the U.S. has declined from 70% in 1999 to 50% in 2018).

 

WHY SO MUCH LONELINESS?

It is ironic that in this digital age when we have vastly improved modes of communication, that we would identify loneliness as a problem. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, insists that he saw his invention as a tool by which relationships could be fostered throughout the world and help dispel feelings of loneliness and dissention, but it appears that it has done more to promote divisiveness and distrust.

 

With the invention of the telephone we gave up non-verbal cues in our conversations, and the trade-off for its convenience seemed like a good deal. Now kids have largely given up talking on their cell phones in favor of texting. Voices from the internet, news media and politicians all conspire to promote divisiveness and paranoia to the point that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation about many of the issues of the day.

 
Today people are marrying later and living longer. As reflected in the census figures of 2012, 32 million or 27% of Americans lived alone which was up from 17% in 1970. As you might expect, widowhood is likely responsible for many single occupant households, and in another study it was found that 47% of women over the age of 75 lived alone. With aging, comes the inevitable debilities and limitations. The National Institute on Aging reports that nearly half of all people over the age of 75 have hearing loss, which can be a major impediment to any meaningful social interaction resulting in withdrawal from friends and family.

 

It has been said that Americans are losing faith in our institutions, and our political leanings are often shaped by who we hate rather than who we like. Political discourse has hit a new low. Muck raking is no longer good enough, and has been replaced by personal insults a la grade school rants. Respect for contrary opinions has now gone out of fashion. Divide and conquer is the new strategy, and a tactic that seems to have even been adopted by the news media (Matt Taibbi has written an entire book about it, called “Hate Inc.”). We lack heroes. We frequently hear the term “disenfranchised” these days, a synonym for “left out” and to be an outsider is lonely for any herd critter.

ALL IS NOT LOST (stay with me…a little break from “downer” time)

There is some evidence that there may be some efforts underway to deal with the loneliness issue. I was pleased to see a recent article in Psychiatric News suggesting that psychiatrists are focusing more on loneliness as an underlying psychiatric problem (don’t know why it took so long to figure that out). A former president of the American Psychiatric Association has suggested that assessment for loneliness be part of any evaluation or perhaps become a diagnostic category in the DSM 5 (the shrink bible). There is also a growing awareness of a worldwide suicide epidemic which most would agree loneliness all too often plays a part.  Lonely lifestyles also frequently seem to be common with mass murderers.
lonely quote

LONELINESS VS. BEING ALONE

Proximity to other people is not necessarily a solution for loneliness, for it is not unusual to feel lonely in the midst of a crowd. Obviously, some type of emotional engagement is necessary to dispel lonely feelings. Ordinary discourse involves much more than words. Unfortunately, in our digital world many of the nuances of communication are lost. Not only are the tone, rhythm, volume, and timbre involved, but there are multiple non-verbal cues which can modify or even completely change a communication. As a matter of fact, some very significant interactions may occur without any words spoken. In that vein a text hardly measures up to a face to face encounter as a means to communicate feelings.

 

Emotional tone is less relevant, for even an argument can dispel lonely feelings.
Although, until recently, there have been few attempts to measure the extent of loneliness, there is definitely a consensus among sociologists and mental health professionals that there has been a definite increase. Employers have taken note of recent research which has shown that employees are more productive when they are encouraged to interact with each other. As a consequence, in many cases the traditional office cubical arrangement has been scrapped in favor of a more open environment, teamwork is encouraged, and brief chats at the water fountain are less likely to result in a dirty look from the boss. Since most workers spend nearly half of their waking hours in the workplace such changes could be very beneficial for large segments of society.

 

GO TEAM

The needs for engagement with other humans has long been addressed by the formation of millions of organizations that bring groups of people together with myriad goals, but which also provide an opportunity to relate to others. The sense of belonging to a group is a powerful antidote to loneliness. Young people who feel neglected or alienated are more likely to join street gangs (easier to radicalize for terrorism and/or recruit for “religious” cults*). Athletic events and concerts attract millions, most of whom “show their colors” and cheer as one. One of my all-time favorite TV shows was Cheers which identified the locus of the show as the place “where everybody knows your name.” Organizations of all kinds including sports teams, military, and political groups or for that matter any group of people with a common goal make use of the need to belong which at the end of the day is an antidote to loneliness.

THEY NEED EACH OTHER

AARP sponsors a very interesting and apparently successful program called “Experience Corps” in which volunteer over 50 are enrolled in a program where they are trained to help children develop literacy skills. They spend 6 to 15 hours per week working with K-3 students with spectacular results including as much as 60% improvement in reading skills, fewer behavior problems, improved attendance, and increased graduation rates  The AARP foundation at last report had 2,000 volunteers throughout the country serving over 30,000 students. However; it appears the volunteers may be benefiting more than the kids from the program. A University of Michigan study reported a statistical decrease in depressive symptoms and functional limitations among the volunteers after two years involvement in the Experience Corps. There may also be a secondary benefit in that some kids may learn to venerate rather than denigrate us old folks. (Score 1 for the Old Farts!)

 

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

None of this should be interpreted as an attempt to diminish the value of solitude. Certainly, this need to relate can be overdone, and in some cases become pathological. In many cases of marital therapy, for example, too much togetherness can be identified as the problem. In testimony before Congress, Prof. Julianne Holt-Lunstad defined loneliness as ” the perceived discrepancy between one’s desired level of social connection and their actual level of social connection.”  She explained that some people who are socially isolated don’t necessarily feel lonely, and some people who are lonely are surrounded by people who make them feel more alienated.

 

One’s work may require so much contact with others that it can become oppressive, and some personalities may cause anal pain of the worst kind!  Nevertheless; before you make plans to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island or join an order of non-verbal monks, be careful what you wish for. Time-alone can be refreshing, relaxing and creative, but as with most things in life, it can be overdone. Alone can be good, but lonely can be very bad. In this time in which we are all mutually dependent, it has become even more necessary to have relationships than we did in those days when we needed help to bring down a woolly mammoth. It is difficult nowadays to survive in this world as a loner. We face enormous problems including an increased global population, competition for resources, and degradation of our environment. It is once again time for us to hang together or hang separately.

WHAT MAKES THEM TICK?

The ability of the human race to relate to each other has allowed us to survive and to thrive.  We need to exercise that talent now more than ever.  As I finished writing this, once again two hate-filled young people described as loners committed horrible atrocities within hours of each other. It goes without saying that we need to take logical steps to limit access to those instruments designed to kill people, but the prevalence of these kinds of behaviors also require us to learn more about the milieu in which they occur.  For example: are there genetic influences involved, does our society in some way generate such hatred, are certain personalities more easily recruited to violent organizations, is shyness a precursor, and finally does the hatred cause the loneliness or vice versa?  We need to understand more about how these people end up the way they are if we are to have any success at solving the problem.

The Way It Was| Part 10

   Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

EDITOR’S Note:

Welcome to Part 10, the final installment  of “The Way It Was” (Eshrink’s memories of WWII from his perspective as a young boy growing up in Ohio). 

2014-07-08_New_Deal_GI_Bill_Rights_03

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) signing the G.I. Bill in June 1944.

Our conquering heroes were treated as such. Many would return to their old jobs and families. But colleges, universities and trade schools were flooded with students as nearly 8 million veterans took advantage of the GI bill which paid for tuition, and living expenses for any approved college, high school, technical, or vocational school. Many universities found it necessary to erect quonset huts to handle the influx, while others opened branches in enabling some vets to commute (the latter allowed me to start college).

Low interest mortgages and business loans were made available, along with one year of unemployment compensation if needed. There were some who objected to the policy as being socialistic along with the prediction that it would encourage laziness. It turned out that this time the unintended consequences of a government policy were positive. Teachers and professors almost unanimously applauded the GI’s for their discipline, and dedication to their studies. Employers were recruiting rather than shunning veterans.

Sociologists and economists mostly agree that this massive educational effort contributed in a big way to the post war era of prosperity and to our becoming the dominant force in the world. We gained respect for not only our military prowess, but intellectual and artistic pursuits. For example, It would no longer be advantageous to study medicine in Europe, rather Europeans would now line up to study in the US. The ready availability of an educated workforce allowed us to move ahead of other countries in industrial and scientific research, and to mold our “swords into plowshares.”

Learning from History

Of course, we had a head start in the race for supremacy considering the fact that the rest of the industrial world was in shambles having suffered the brunt of the war’s devastation. In a rare display of good judgement, we seemed to have learned from past mistakes and decided to use our new-found prosperity to create the “Marshall Plan” which was designed to help rebuild and revitalize Europe including Germany and Italy.

This was in marked contrast to the treatment of Germany after the first World War, when they were severely punished. This was undoubtedly a major factor in causing WWII a mere 20 years later. The Marshall Plan, i.e., the general strategy of helping the countries we had just defeated, was roundly criticized by many who felt we were rewarding bad behavior. However, the rebuilding of Europe combined with a similar program for Japan has resulted in the establishment of democratic governments and prosperity for all, but most of all peaceful relations which have lasted for 70 years.

Those postwar years were full of the promise of peace and prosperity. The boys had come home, were going to school, or working better jobs. My Brother and my uncle as beneficiaries of the GI bill were the first in our family to have ever gone to college. As with millions of others, they were soon starting families, and the baby boom began. In 1948 I graduated from high school and worked briefly as a go-fer at an automobile agency, where there was a long list of people waiting to buy a new car. This was true of all kinds of items which had not been produced during the war. There was building everywhere, the economy was booming, and the future looked bright, but that euphoria was short lived when Joseph Stalin entered the picture.

War Makes Strange Bed Fellows

Stalin was at least as ruthless as Hitler, and is said to have executed millions of his political adversaries with even more dying in his gulags as his concentration camps were called. Nevertheless, he had been welcomed into the fold as an ally after he declared war on Germany. He called himself a communist but his definition of communism involved the presence of an all-powerful dictator.

Yalta Conference. Winston Churchill, Franklin

Left to Right: Churchill (PM of England); Roosevelt (President of the USA); Stalin (Leader / United Socialist Soviet Republic-aka: Russia)

At the famed Yalta conference called to decide the fate of post war Europe, Stalin was granted control of Eastern Europe after suckering FDR and Churchill into believing he would keep his word about establishing democratic governments in those countries. His duplicity marked the beginning of the Cold War which would become more frigid with Russia’s development of a nuclear bomb in 1949. This led to the policy of “mutually assured destruction” (a.k.a., a Mexican standoff) and the construction of backyard bomb shelters, air raid drills in schools, and teaching kids to sit under their desks…as if that would do any good in an atomic bomb attack.

air raid picture

air raid info

air-raid advertisement

Why?

It should come as no surprise that since I am a psychiatrist I might have some interest in human behavior, Although you could legitimately question if some of our world’s worst tyrants mentioned in this paper are really human. As a teenager during that great war I was subjected to a lot of news of the atrocities carried out under the direction of these people who at first glance would seem to be free of a mental illness. One of my friends had occasion to spend a great deal of time with Saddam Hussein following his capture. He was surprised to find him quite personable. In one of their conversations Saddam stated that he acted as he did because it was necessary to save his country. I am left to wonder if he really believed that, and if is such a rationalization is common among Tyrants.

After endless years of speculation as to what makes these guys tick, they remain a mystery to me. We psychiatrists are well versed in labeling various conditions, but not so good at finding causes. I am aware and concur that power corrupts, but still after those years of mental gymnastics I remain perplexed as to how these otherwise apparently normal people can do such evil deeds. Even more puzzling is how they are able to convince masses of people to follow their lead and participate in the torture and murder of others.

Nuremberg Trials

020419-nuremberg-trialWith the end of the war members of the Nazi hierarchy were rounded up and charged with “crimes against humanity.” I was 16 years old and found time to follow the trials in Nuremberg in spite having recently found the love of my life.

Nuremberg-trials-8

There apparently was some effort to learn something about these guys for I recently found they were all given Rorschach tests (these tests are now discredited by many). Herman Goering was second in command in Germany under Hitler, and I recently found a transcript of his testimony.  He was surprisingly open about the operation of his government and freely discussed the operation of the concentration camps and how adversaries were ordered to be killed by the SS or Gestapo. He was sentenced to be hanged, but managed to have cyanide smuggled in and killed himself.

goerring 1

Although, I knew the story of Goering’s suicide it was only recently that I learned there was a very interesting and strange sequel to the story. Goering had been examined by an Army psychiatrist by the name of Lt. Col. Douglas Kelly. He apparently shared some of my curiosity as to what made these guys the way they were. He is said to hope he would be able to identify what he called a “Nazi personality” which could be identified before such bad guys could come to power. From the story it sounds as if he was suffering from a serious mood disorder, which must have gone undetected by the army. In any event, after a minor disagreement with his wife he ingested cyanide and killed himself in front of his wife and children a la Goering.

True to the Biblical prophecies we have continued to “hear of wars and rumors of wars.” I was one of the lucky ones for my brief stint in the Navy was in between wars. It seems I will go to my grave with no understanding of why we do what we do to our own species. I have some ideas, but none seem to make sense. Perhaps we should add another diagnostic category called evil people to our diagnostic manual.

Thanks for the Memories

On this cheery note I leave you all to ponder those ways of the world which are beyond my understanding. I do want to thank Peter for suggesting this topic. The reminiscences have been fun, and as I have mentioned before that is the thing we old folks do best. It has also reminded me to be grateful for having been born in a time and place where I was loved, and for the good fortune that has accompanied me all these years.

 

 

The Way It Was| Part 9

   Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

EDITOR’S Note:

Welcome to Part 9 of “The Way It Was” (Eshrink’s memories of WWII from the perspective of a young boy). This will NOT be the last chapter of our series as I had written previously. The FINAL installment will be Part 10: Life After Victory (plus, 10 signifies completeness/order…seems odd ending this incredible series on a 9). In this post, Part 9, Eshrink takes us through the end of the war. What he remembers and new information he uncovered during his research. 

The Big 3 WWII, Churchill, Stalin, FDR

The Allied Forces were referred to as the Big 3 WWII. The Big Three were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union with their leaders being Winston Churchill (right), Franklin D Roosevelt (middle) and Josef Stalin respectively.

After the invasion of German-held countries (D-Day), things began to look up as the allies made substantial gains, although those telegrams kept coming and daily we saw blue stars in many windows turn to gold.  Patriotic fervor never wavered and with better news from Europe there was more focus on the Pacific theater (I always wondered who came up with the term theater, and if he really thought war was entertaining).

FDR

According to the FDR Library/Museum (go to: fdrlibrary.org – it is a wealth of information), this is the last picture of FDR, which was taken April 11, 1945 (the day before his death) at Warm Springs, Georgia.

As you might expect there was wild jubilation in the streets all over the country with the defeat of Germany and Italy (V-E day or Victory in Europe Day) in May 1945, almost a year to the day that my brother had been drafted, and one month after the death of Roosevelt, who had served nearly 12 years in office.

Mussolini was summarily executed and his body mutilated by partisans.  Hitler had committed suicide along with his longtime lover, Eva Braun. Actually, Mussolini was executed with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, also.

I do remember there were rumors that Hitler had escaped and the body found was not his, but there seemed little doubt about the fate of Mussolini as his body was hung out for all to see (Editor’s note: in all fairness, the caption from the picture of Mussolini and his mistress hanging in the center of Milan says the “fascists” who were executed, including Mussolini and Petacci, were hung in the exact spot where civilians from Milan had been hung a year earlier after being executed on Mussolini’s orders for being part of “resistance” activities).

In days, it would all be over and the dancing in the streets would begin with confidence that Japan would soon fall.  The most shocking of all those incidents during the final days was the death of Goebbels, who poisoned his six children before killing his wife and himself.  In some way this seemed the most heinous of all the millions of evil crimes committed by these mass murderers, and it has stuck with me to this day.  It remains beyond my comprehension how someone could kill his own kids, though it is true, he did have a lot of experience murdering innocent children.

All this took place in a matter of weeks after a woefully unprepared new President was sworn in.  Harry Truman was chosen by FDR for Vice President as one who could help him carry the Midwest.  He was not included in FDR’s inner sanctum, and it has been said they did not even like each other.  In July of 1945, the atomic bomb was successfully tested at Los Alamos and Truman was faced with the choice of what to do with it.  He was later discovered to have written: “It is an awful responsibility that has come to us”.  (This links to a series of articles about that difficult decision Truman made). He was of course referring to the decision to use the bomb on Japan.  Having served in WWI as an artillery captain, he knew something of the horrors of war.  He had distinguished himself as a Senator, was the only President of the 20th century that hadn’t attended college, although he was proud to say he had read every book in the Independence Missouri Public Library.  He kept a sign on his desk which said The Buck Stops Here, and indeed in this case, it did, for few would want the responsibility which rested on him.

With the defeat of the Germans, and the Japanese fleet and air force nearly destroyed, it was obvious Japan would not last long.  Nevertheless, there was continued concern about the fighting to come, due to the Japanese honor code, which prescribed that one must fight to the death.  Even more extreme was the requirement that high-ranking officers must literally fall on their swords if defeated in battle.  Thus, the fighting in the island jungles continued.  It was brutal but futile.  To make matters worse, Russia declared war on Japan, and Russians were not known to be very gentle occupiers as evidenced by their European conquests.

My memories of the fall of our European foes are clear, but I don’t know if we were informed as to what was going on with Japan in the time that followed.  I have since learned that Japan had indicated their desire for a peaceful settlement.  I do recall the term “unconditional surrender” voiced a lot by our new President, and I believe I heard the term used once by General MacArthur, the chief of military operations in the Pacific.  An invasion of Japan was in the planning stages and expected to result in as many if not more casualties than in Normandy.  The potential for invasion was achieved during the Battle of Okinawa when we took the island of Okinawa, which proved to be the most bloody conflict of the entire war as mentioned previously.

With the taking of Okinawa, the Japanese mainland was within reach of our bombers and Tokyo was basically destroyed with a firebombing even more devastating and with more loss of life than either Germany’s Blitzkrieg of London or our firebombing of Dresden.  In researching for this blog, I was surprised to learn that those saturation bombings of Japan had killed more people by far than both atomic bombs.  In spite of the obvious hopelessness of their position, the Japanese showed no sign of surrender.  Their kamikaze pilots continued their suicide missions, and many of their soldiers chose suicide rather than capture.  With that in mind, our military predicted invasion of Japan would result in an even higher body count than previous operations.

On August 6, 1945, a B-29 with the name Enola Gay would become famous as the first plane to deliver an atom bomb.

It flew from the Marianna Islands to deliver the most efficient killing machine yet.  Indeed, we had come a long way since those days of one-on-one killings with clubs or spears.

Little Boy The Atom Bomb used to end WWII

The Atomic Bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” before it was loaded onto the Enola Gay.

When the bomb dubbed “little boy” went off, the entire city of Hiroshima, along with 80,000 people, were incinerated.

But that was only the beginning for untold thousands who would subsequently suffer from various forms of cancer, organ failure and genetic diseases in the years to come.  Three days after Hiroshima, Nagasaki would suffer the same fate.

Over 50 years later, I found myself treating a former Navy medical officer who was one of the first to enter the ruins where that city once stood.  He was still tormented by memories of what he saw there.  There is no denying that in spite of the horror of those two days, the strategy was effective. Just a few days after Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito ordered the “unconditional surrender” demanded by the Allies.

Truman Oval Office announcing surrender of Japan

President Truman in the Oval Office announces the surrender of Japan.

The term “celebration” does not do the public reaction justice, and was probably exceeded only by the elation felt by those troops who were already preparing for the assault on the mainland of Japan. They must have been aware of the thousands who had died on the beaches of Normandy, and there were expectations that a mainland invasion would be even more deadly.

Celebrations in Times Square

The image that has become the symbol of the end of WWII. This was made famous by LIFE magazine. It was taken in Times Square upon the announcement that Japan had surrendered.

The movie newsreels showed images of the wildly spontaneous celebrations throughout the country, but they also showed a mushroom cloud (filmed at Los Alamos) as it rose ominously toward the heavens.  In some ways, that enthusiasm was to be tempered by the implications raised with the development of such an unbelievably destructive weapon.

As more news became available as to not only the deaths but possible long-term effects of radiation exposure, Truman’s decision to use the bomb was called into question by many.  Later, we learned that Germany had been on the verge of developing their own version and the scourge that continues to haunt us was inevitable.  We were now well on our way to developing the power to create our own version of an apocalypse, and the cold war soon began with Russia.

Our boys, as we called them, were soon on their way home to be greeted as heroes.  There were home coming celebrations everywhere.  The patriotic fervor persisted or even increased.  The 4th of July celebrations were spectacular and veterans of all stripes were treated as special.  The marriage business flourished as the vets were reunited with the girls they had left behind, and many brought wives home with them. There were happy days, except for those who returned with injuries or illnesses suffered in the fighting.  Even the politicians were united and nice to each other in spite of some differences in opinions or policies.

My Brother

My brother died a few years ago and at his funeral was an 8×10 photo of him in uniform with an army issue Colt 45 strapped to his waist.  I was amazed at how young and innocent he looked, and I realized that we really had sent kids off to fight a war.  Upon his return, two years after that picture was taken, he had aged beyond his years.  Like most combat veterans, he never wanted to talk of his experiences.  But I once heard him talking to another vet about the cruelty exhibited by some of our soldiers, and in particular one solider in his squad who was ordered to take a prisoner back to the POW camp.  Soon after leaving, they heard a gun shot. The soldier returned with a smile on his face and said “he tried to escape.” This confirmed my opinion that war does terrible things to both the victor and the vanquished.

My brother’s discharge was quietly celebrated.  I was particularly enthralled with the contents of his G-I duffel bag, which proved to be full of all kinds of goodies including a luger pistol which had been confiscated from a German officer.  Then I noticed a blue box with the U S Seal on it, which he quickly took from me saying something like, “That is just some of that junk the Army passes out.” Of course, I would never let that sort of thing rest without my perusal and when I opened it, there was a Bronze Star with the citation that he had made his way through enemy lines at great danger to himself to notify headquarters of his company’s location, which resulted in the rescue of his company that was surrounded by superior forces.  He also brought with him a special gift for me, an attack of scabies, took little note of my protests, and reported that such things were standard issue to dogfaces like himself.

Editor’s Note: Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Eshrink’s final installment, The Way It Was: Part 10, where he touches on the aftermath of the war, the good and the bad.

The Way It Was| Part 8

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

Welcome to Part 8 of The Way It Was from Eshrink. In Part 7, Eshrink covered Pearl Harbor “A day that will live in infamy” and the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II (the war to end all wars). We left off with the Allies struggling as Hitler dominated Europe. 

The turning point of the war began with the invasion of the German-held countries.  The date of the attack continues to be referred to as D-Day.  In spite of massive casualties on both sides, there was a new-found sense of optimism that we were no longer on the defensive (and that the paper hanger with the Charlie Chaplin mustache would soon get his!). Editor’s Note: This is referring to Hitler. When I searched, I found this book online about underground humor in Nazi Germany…back to Eshrink.

I must be a latter-day Rip Van Winkle for it is impossible that 75 years have passed since that fateful day when we were all transfixed in front of the radio hoping for good news, convinced rightfully so, that the fate of the world was at stake.  There were massive casualties on both sides, but landings were eventually successful.  One of Barb’s favorite uncles later reported to her that he carried a photo of her in his wallet as a good luck charm as he landed on Normandy beach.  It must have worked for he survived.

The War in the Pacific

Meanwhile, the war in the pacific had turned around following the naval victory at Midway, but the heavily fortified islands of the pacific were being stubbornly defended by Japanese troops who were products of a society in which surrender was dishonorable, and death was preferred.  In desperation, their leaders had ordered suicide attacks on our ships, and there was a lot written about these Kamikaze attacks as planes loaded with bombs deliberately crashed onto the decks.  Each island was taken with heavy casualties in an inhospitable climate.   Eventually, MacArthur was able to fulfill his promise, “I shall return,” with carefully staged filming following the retaking of the Philippines. 

kamikaze fighter pilot wwII

kamikaze before slammkng into uss essex 1944We heard much about unfamiliar places like Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.  The fighting was fierce, often hand to hand.  In Okinawa, for example, 12,500 Americans were killed,  an estimated 100,000 Japanese and at least that many civilians. There must have been more newsmen imbedded in the Pacific as I recall viewing more footage in the Movietone newsreels shown in local theaters (click here to watch the video recording).  There seemed to be more disturbing footage of the Pacific Theater than the European. One that has stuck with me all these years was of a soldier using a flamethrower at the mouth of a cave and the subsequent scene of a Japanese soldier running out totally enveloped in flames.  On the other hand, we cheered wildly at the footage of the now famous flag raising on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Editor’s Note: Iwo Jima was the deadliest battle in Marine Corps history with 7,000 soldiers killed during the 36-day battle.us marines 28th regiment of fifth division raise flag atop mt suribachi iwo jima costliest in marine corps history 7k soldiers killed 36 days fighting

us marines go ashore IWO JIMA japanese island feb 1945

Caption: Marines go ashore at Iwo Jima, Japan, in February 1945.

mcarthur wwII oct 1944 phillippines

Caption: General McArthur in the Philippines circa 1944.

A Country Simultaneous United and Divided 

As our troops in Europe advanced to reach the prison camps where an estimated 6,000,000, or perhaps more, Jews were killed, we saw more pictures of the horrific condition of the starving prisoners and of the open mass graves of thousands.  Perhaps this opened our eyes to the dangers of racial prejudice.  At that time, Jews were still not treated well in our town, for example they were excluded from membership in the local country club.  There was also the instance in which a shipload of Jews who had escaped from Germany were refused entrance into the U. S. and were forced to return to Germany.  There seems to be no information as to their fate.  I also recalled all those conversations about the “New York Jews” and was struck by the fact that we were fighting to liberate people whom it seemed we did not like. 

Although the country was perhaps more united than it had ever been politically, we were still divided along racial and country of origin lines.  There were usually a few black kids in the schools that I attended, but my interaction was limited, not by any conscious effort on my part.  I naively thought that they just enjoyed being with their own.  We were not openly segregated as in the deep South, but everyone “knew their place” so to speak.  The fact that there was a separate public swimming pool for “negroes” or that they did not eat in restaurants, that they always sat in the balcony at the movies, or that there was only one night of the week when the skating rink was open to them “was just the way things were,” and I didn’t think much about it. 

Segregation in the Military

As for the military, things were not much different than they had been during the Civil War.  Black troops lived in separate quarters and were organized into different companies which were of course led by white officers, except for those who were assigned duty as stewards or mess hall workers.  There were some exceptions and when given the chance, they proceeded to disprove the notion that they were lazy, stupid, and cowardly. 

Two of the 150 students in my medical school class were black, one of which was Bob Garrison, a very quiet unassuming guy who seemed a bit older than most of us.  A few months ago, I learned that Bob had died after a long career as a family physician.  I managed to secure an obituary and found to my surprise that Bob had been one of the Tuskegee airmen who had distinguished themselves in combat.  It was not until 1948 that Truman would desegregate the services.  Bob had followed the tradition of WWII vets and had not told anyone in our class about his service.  

Some time in the 50s, I happened to be reading an article in an old Reader’s Digest written by the first black guy to be commissioned as an officer in the Navy.  The story was about his rise to this unheard-of position, and the problems he encountered.  There were some enlisted men who could not salute a black person no matter his position.  His problems mounted when he was assigned to sea duty, which meant living in close quarters with a bunch of white guys.  He reported that there was one fellow officer on board who was supportive, and helped him survive the bigotry.  The surprise for me was that the person he named was my second cousin whom I hadn’t seen in years.  It was a nice feeling to know I was related to this person who did the right thing, a sense of pride somehow, even though I hardly knew him.

Women and The War Effort

rosie the riveter dads ww2 blogThere is little doubt in my mind that the war was an additional impetus for opening up opportunities for women.  After all, it had been barely 20 years since women were granted the right to vote.  Although they continued to be treated unfairly in many ways, they were at least given the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to do “man’s work.” It was inevitable that with the incredible expansion of manufacturing for the war effort coupled with the problem of 16 million men serving in the armed forces, there would be a shortage of manpower.  One answer to the problem lay in the attempt to recruit women to leave the kitchen and go to work to support the war effort.  There were posters glorifying “Rosie the Riveter” showing an attractive young woman working on an airplane assembly line.  As I mentioned previously, my mother was a Rosie who seemed happy to return to her kitchen after the war.

In previous wars, the only women directly involved were nurses, but this time a movement was begun to create a women’s branch of the army.  With a great deal of hesitation, the Woman’s Army Corps (WACs) was established soon to be followed by the Navy’s version called Waves.  They were to fill non-combatant roles designed to free up more male soldiers for combat.  The Air Force version of these “helpers” was never inducted into the Air Force and remained civil service employees.  They were to be involved in non-combat missions but nevertheless suffered some casualties.  Although they were never to be involved in combat, some missions, delivering airplanes to a war zone for example, often put them at risk. 

As I reflect on the pre-war days, it seems to me that the greatest change from the war was with women.  Those changes were monumental for them and catastrophic for us guys.  The oft asked question of who wears the pants in the family took on new meaning since women were now routinely wearing pants, which among some groups had previously been considered sinful.  The war finished off those Victorian values that had survived the Roaring 20s. Although detailed discussions remained off limits, a person could now use the word sex the in polite company without being thought “dirty.” Women openly smoked cigarettes, which had always been the province of men, and no longer made any attempt to hide their pregnancies.  The “sugar and spice and everything nice” characterization of females no longer seemed appropriate.  Although the “battle of the sexes” was still in full swing, the stage was being set for the unconditional surrender of our masculinity and admission of defeat.  The evidence is everywhere.  For example, when I went to medical school in the 1950s there were three women in a class of 150 (Class of 1957), while in this year’s class women outnumbered men.  Then, there is that spectacle of all those women in positions of power at the State of the Union address.  Its enough to make a macho guy like me tremble.

There had been certain positions felt appropriate for women such as secretarial work, domestic help, switchboard operators, and cleaning.  School teachers, especially those in the lower grades, were almost all women.  They were usually unmarried, chaste, and expected to remain so.  The nursing profession had a long-held tradition as exclusively female.  Additionally, their long-held position in society as nurturers was felt to make them well-suited for the job.  Some cynics insist that it is more likely due to men’s aversion to emptying bed pans.

American Industry and The War Effort

Meanwhile, this newfound talent participated in what at the time seemed miraculous.  Indeed, some historians have suggested that the war was actually won by the massive mobilization of American industry.  Planes that previously took weeks or even months to build, were now turned out in days.  We heard much about liberty ships designed to carry all the desperately needed instruments of war to Europe.  In just a couple of years, 2,710 such ships were built, and they were sitting ducks for the German U-boats.  I remember hearing much about their dangerous voyages, but it was not until writing these memoirs that I learned more than half of them (1554) were sunk.  It was said that we just decided to build more ships than the Germans could sink.  A new shipyard was built in 150 days and the record time to build a ship was an unbelievable 4 days 15 hours and 25 minutes.  Yankee ingenuity had used Henry Ford’s assembly line procedures and huge sections of the ship were produced in factories all over the country, and sent by railroad flatcar to the shipyard where the sections were put together and the ship was sent on its way.

Editor’s Note: Thanks for reading “The Way It Was: Part 8” I hope you will tune in for the final installment next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Way It Was| Part 7

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

Welcome to Part 7 of The Way It Was from Eshrink. We pick up where we left off in Part 6, where Eshrink describes the mood of the country before the USA was foisted into WWII.

THE WAR YEARS

The debate about America’s neutrality was dramatically resolved December 7th 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a day which according to Roosevelt “will live in infamy.”  The memory of that day has never dimmed with every detail remaining firmly etched in my brain.  We were visiting my Maternal Grandparents, and had just finished one of my grandmother’s fabulous Sunday dinners of chicken fried in that old cast iron skillet, which was where she worked her magic.  Dad had recently completed wiring of their house and their new Zenith radio was playing as we sat finishing the mince meat pie.  Suddenly Dad jumped up and ran to the living room and turned up the volume.  Grandad was severely hearing impaired so Dad shouted in his ear that we had been attacked by the Japs.  On our return back to our house, our radio was blasting out the bad news.  The “sneak” attack had come without warning.  Attack_on_Pearl_Harbor_Japanese_planes_viewSeveral of our ships had been sunk, but there was no accounting yet of the number of casualties.   I went upstairs and laid across the bed aiming my brother’s 44-40 Winchester at our backyard vowing to take out any of those slant-eyed devils who might show up.

The next day, not much could be accomplished in Mr. Davidson’ sixth grade class so he used the entire day to discuss current events.  Our morning Pledge of Allegiance was so loud, it was almost boisterous.  When Roosevelt’s speech to congress was broadcast over the school intercom, the room became deathly quiet.  With the completion of that speech, I was even more eager to take up arms.  I was not alone, for recruiting offices all over the country were swamped with potential enlistees.  Two days later, war was also declared on Germany and Italy.  Both countries had joined Japan in an agreement that came to be called the Axis Powers Act and therefore they were assumed to be aligned with Japan.

Fear and Anger

The sense of security we felt due to physical distance from our adversaries had been replaced by fear of invasion.  With our Pacific Fleet decimated, there was concern that the Pacific Coast could come under attack, and those living in coastal area were urged to be alert.  There was not only fear, but anger.  There were rumors of saboteurs not only amongst Japanese residents, but those of Japanese ancestry.  Conspiracy theorists promoted the perception that all Japanese were by nature devious and that their loyalty would always be to the Motherland no matter their status in the United States.  This would later lead to the shameful internment of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry in total violation of The Constitution that we were defending.

forced-internment-japanese-americansMany years later, I would come to know a fellow physician who had begun his life in one of the internment camps.  He had little memory of the experience, but told how his parents and grandparents had owned valuable land in California that was sold for taxes while they were interred.  They came out of the camp destitute.

The next day, December 8, the Japanese invaded the Philippines.  The Rape of Nanking had already gained the Japanese a reputation for cruelty, which was confirmed by what became known as the Bataan Death March.  Somehow, news had reached us about the barbaric treatment suffered by our soldiers following the conquest of the Islands, and our anger morphed into hatred.  Roosevelt’s insistence that we were woefully unprepared for war was proven correct.  However; it seemed as if the country had turned on a dime and the “war effort” was instantly in full swing.

The War Effort

It seemed that almost overnight factories all over the country were converted to producing war materials.  Automobile manufacturing was instantly converted to the production of jeeps, trucks, ambulances and tanks, and planes.  Soon warplanes were rolling off assembly lines in numbers no one had ever imagined possible.  New factories were built in a matter of weeks rather than months.  There was hardly any industry that wasn’t involved in providing war materials.  Almost instantly, military training facilities became tent cities as the number of draftees and enlistments skyrocketed.  Draft boards were busy categorizing potential draftees as to who should be deferred due to each person’s importance to the war effort as civilians.  Those ineligible or unfit for service were classified as 4-F while those whose card was stamped 1-A would soon be on their way.

All In | Everyone Participated in the War Effort

There were many ways for all to contribute to the war effort, and the of feeling of being united in the grand cause undoubtedly did much to contribute to morale and patriotism.  And patriotic we were.  We kids collected scrap metal, paper, and rubber.  There were paper drives in school.  We saved our pennies to buy war bond stamps to be used in the war effort.  We were deluged with propaganda from radio, newspapers, posters, and perhaps most effective of all, the movie newsreels.  Hollywood also got into the act with movies featuring our heroic fighting men and the demonic behavior of the enemy.  It was all very effective and probably necessary in order to mobilize and unite us.

Rationing cards were distributed to cover some foods, in anticipation of the needs of the those in the armed services.  There was also rationing of gasoline, and other petroleum products, along with shoes, and clothing.  I recall that restrictions on coffee and tires were particularly stringent.   Tires were especially important in those days since they were made exclusively of rubber which was imported.   As the war went on, tires became more precious and it wasn’t uncommon for a person to awaken to find his car on jacks without tires.  When a car was wrecked, the first thing salvaged was the tires.  When I worked at Dad’s service station during the later years of the war, I remember we did a brisk business patching tires and tubes in an attempt to get a few more miles out of “bald” tires.ration card gas

Not All Ration Cards Were Equal

Every household had their ration book and every auto had a sticker on their windshield announcing their status.  The A sticker was for those without special needs, the B and C stickers were for those whose driving was essential to the war effort.  There were no self-service gas stations in those days and it was the attendant’s job to collect the appropriate stamp along with the customer’s money.  Likewise, the station would be responsible to match the stamps to the amount of gas sold.

The Good. The Bad. And the Opportunists.

It has been said that war brings out the best and the worst in people, and it was inevitable profiteers would emerge from the midst of the patriots.  It didn’t take long for a vigorous black market to develop.  Although; I had no personal experiences in that regard, it was clear that those people were considered unpatriotic.  Certain things were particularly valuable.  For example, nylon stockings had recently been invented and were highly prized.  Unfortunately; nylon was also needed to make parachutes and the resultant scarcity made the stockings very valuable.   Likewise, a tire with little tread left could bring much more than the cost of a new one.  A guy with a gas can and a siphon hose could find ready customers for his product.  Car care became important for there would be no new cars until the war was over.

Actually, there were ample opportunities for profit without skirting the law.  Companies with government contracts, which included manufacture, construction, and transportation were billed on a cost-plus basis.  Consequently, there was no need to cut costs because the nature of the “cost-plus basis design” meant the higher the costs, the more the profit the company being contracted.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit Thrived

There were many rags to riches stories, but my favorite took place in my own town.  He was a Hungarian immigrant who still had trouble with the English language and was frequently seen in the streets all over town pushing a wooden cart mounted on two wagon wheels.  He scoured the neighborhoods for any trash of value.  As the war progressed, the need for metals of all kinds increased, and Harry had a large stockpile in his back yard.  There had been many complaints about Harry’s messy place, but as the scrap and paper drives went into full force, Harry became the go-to guy who could buy and sell the scrap.  He became quite wealthy.  His son was in my class in High school and was the only kid to come to school in a suit and tie.  He subsequently became a lawyer, moved to Hollywood, and used his considerable inheritance to invest in the motion picture business.  One newsreel in particular sticks with me.  It must have been early in the war as it showed groups of solders training with wooden replicas of rifles.  The film was to demonstrate the need for scrap metal of all kinds that could be melted down to make guns.

Support and Spirit AND Opportunity

It seemed that everyone was involved in the war effort as it was called.  There was the USO whose volunteers were present wherever there were uniforms, passing out coffee and donuts and schmoozing the troops.  Women were busy knitting socks and scarves and sending “care packages” hoping the cookies would survive the trip.  Women were entering the workforce and doing jobs never felt appropriate for them in the past.  rosie the riveter dads ww2 blog“Rosie the Riveter” was hailed as a heroine.  Factories were in need of more employees as most began running three shifts.  The word was that there was big money to be made in the defense plants sometimes as much as a dollar an hour.  This got Dad’s attention besides, they needed him in the war effort since he was too old to serve so he quit his man killing job, and went to Akron where he went to work the second shift at the recently built (in record time) Goodyear Aircraft factory where they were turning out Corsair fighter planes at a record clip.

goodyear aircraft ww2 dads blogpniswv0620goodyearhistoryspotlight goodyear factory maybeGoodyear_HangarMany had the same idea as Dad and housing was very scarce, but he found two rooms behind a barber shop on the south side of Akron (not exactly a posh neighborhood) and called for us to come join him.  Mom got a job on the same shift doing some clerical work, and even my brother, who had just turned 16, worked there filling vending machines throughout the plant.  Schools were so crowded that classes were only held in two four-hour shifts per day.  Initially, I enjoyed the solitude of being home alone.  I was able to spend my evenings in the darkened barber shop watching the occasional fights outside the beer joint across the street.  I even had free reign to sample the many hair tonics.  School in Akron was a bummer.  There was a lot of racial tension largely due to a an unusual number of southerners who had migrated north to cash in on those high wages, and were  unaccustomed to dealing with uppity black folks.

I was unhappy and my request to go live with my maternal grandparents was honored, but that is another story (which I have written about previously). Editor’s Note: The story of Eshrink’s experience during WWII while he stayed at his grandparents’ farm is available as a free pdf download at this link or you can purchase the hard copy here. It’s a great read…it makes me feel like I’m catapulted back in time.

Blue Star Families

Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor blue stars started appearing in windows, and soon many would be taken down in favor of gold ones.  Parents lived in dread of the appearance of a Western Union messenger praying that he would not stop at their house with the “we regret to inform you…..” message in the pouch they carried.  My brother graduated from high school in May of 1944 having reached his 18th birthday in April.  In October he would find himself pinned down in the famous Battle of The Bulge.  What letters received were by V-mail, a system in which written letters were reduced in size and printed on very thin paper in order to reduce the amount of space and weight required to ship them.  Although soldiers were forbidden to say where they were or what they were doing in combat, it soon became obvious to my parents that he was there, since no letters had arrived in a long time.  The plight of the troops was big news and Mom and Dad sat by the radio listening to their favorite commentators at every opportunity.  I believe they attempted to minimize the danger in order to protect me, but our family was among the lucky ones for whom the telegraph never came.

The First War Correspondents

Print media was still king of the news gathering business, and correspondents like Ernie Pyle soon became household names.  He put himself in the midst of the action, and sent home stories of personal hardship and bravery on the part of the GI Joes.  His stories were always on a very personal level, harvested from direct observation or conversations with those spending time in fox-holes.

ernie_pyle_marquee2
Ernie Pyle Wearing HelmetAfter covering the European theater, he moved on to The Pacific and was killed by Japanese machine gun fire.  Of those who commanded our rapt attention on the radio, the most famous was Edward R. Murrow, who broadcast from London during the Blitz.  quote-a-nation-of-sheep-will-beget-a-government-of-wolves-edward-r-murrow-35-44-23He recorded his experiences on multiple bombing missions over Europe, and at times one could hear the sound of anti-aircraft.  These flights were not without danger…over 2,000 planes were lost prior to D-Day, according to war department records. After the war, Murrow made the switch to television once that new medium was introduced.

Early in the war, things did not look good.  The Japanese were having their way in the Pacific, England was vulnerable, and invasion was felt to be imminent.  Air raid drills were conducted routinely, even in our small town in the Midwest.  In fact, my future father-in-law was an air-raid warden.  In spite of all this we were deluged with propaganda touting the certainty of victory, not only due to our physical strength, but the righteousness of our cause.  It was fashionable to show Churchill’s “Digital V” for victory sign, and difficult to find a place where there was not a poster with Uncle Sam pointing his finger: telling you to buy bonds, conserve, collect, contribute, or sign up!

Winston-Churchill Victory sign

i want youEditor’s Note: THANKS for reading! Stay tuned for the next installment where Eshrink walks us through the turning point of the war…spoiler alert (the good guys won!)

 

 

 

 

 

The Way It Was| Part 6

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

Introduction: Welcome to Part 6 of The Way It Was from Eshrink. In Post 5, Eshrink wrote about his memories of the late 1930s (pre-war for Americans, but wartime for Europe). He also described everyday life, the values and customs of the day, as well as working conditions that he remembers from his dad’s stories working at a tile factory. In Part 6: Eshrink will write about his first experience with death, which is one reason he posits that he remembers this pre-war period so clearly.

The Way It Was: Part 6

Death | Funerals | Customs

Meanwhile,  ”across the pond,” the German panzers were on their way to achieving their goal of world domination.  In October 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. I recall the name Neville Chamberlain being disparaged, but later learned that his sin was in attempting to appease Hitler in order to spare England from attack.

chamberlain and hitler dads blogIt seemed that everyone except him knew that there would be no stopping the Germans until they had punished all of Europe for Germany ‘s defeat in WWI.  Those dates are remembered by me since the death of my paternal Grandfather was during the Russian invasion of Finland, which happened three months after Germany conquered Poland.  As we listened to the news, I was enthralled by stories of how, although hopelessly outnumbered, a few brave Fins had held off the entire Russian army with soldiers attacking on skis.  That would not be the last propaganda we would hear designed to bolster our spirits.

FInns on skis fighting russians dads blogDeath

My Grandfather’s death was illuminating in several ways.  This was my first experience in dealing with death, and I didn’t like it.  I visited him with Dad just two days before his death.  He was on his death bed as the saying goes and suffering from pneumonia, which has been called the “old man’s friend.”  In years to come, I would hear Dad express regrets that he had not complied with his Father’s last wish to bring him a bottle of Muscatel wine.  As was the custom, when my grandfather died, he was laid out in the parlor for all to see. There was a steady stream of visitors to offer both regrets and food.  In spite of the sadness of the occasion, I was enamored with all those goodies the ladies left on the kitchen table.

The burial was scheduled for three days after his death, which I have been told is just in case of a resurrection.  Ostensibly, for the same reason, it was mandatory that someone stay with the body night and day during the “showing.”  In this case, his children and their spouses took turns standing guard.  I have since read that the custom actually originated due to the fear that rats might undermine the undertaker’s efforts and spoil the whole show.  This particular death is also memorable because it was the only time I ever saw my Father cry.

It was customary to “take leave,” an exercise which took me by complete surprise!  The entire family was herded into the parlor, the door was closed, and suddenly as if on cue, everyone began to sob.  It was so loud that I cringed, and one of my aunts, who was famous for fainting at every opportunity, slipped from her husband’s arms and fell to the floor.  Just as I thought of a way to escape, the sobbing suddenly stopped. Again, as if on cue, eyes were dried, the undertaker closed the casket, and we headed for church where Scud’s virtues were briefly extoled and we made ready for the short walk to the graveyard behind the church (grandad’s real name was Jesse but known in the community as Scud).  Most of his friends would probably not even know his real name.  One’s given name was only to be used by strangers.  It had been a tough day, but all that pie and cake back at the house almost made up for it.

One of my regrets is that I feel as if I had never known either of my Dad’s parents very well in spite of having vague memories of visits there.  Although Grandad apparently had serious problems with alcohol, it now seems to me that he has not been given credit for some major accomplishments.  My one fond memory of him was when he introduced me to sugar on my tomatoes, which converted me to a tomato lover.  At the viewing, one of his acquaintances referred to him as a “tough old bird” which might contribute to him becoming the subject of another blog in the future.   It seems strange that I remember Grandma’s sister but little about Grandma.  The sister hosted the annual family reunion at the large dairy farm where she lived in a grand farmhouse.  We looked forward to these celebrations as they were great fun.  There were cousins galore and an abundance of the participants’ favorite recipes.  One of the highlights of the day was the performance by my great Uncle, who was an award winning “old time fiddler.”

Pre-War America as I Remember It.

During those prewar days, Europe took little notice of my small part of the world, but we were very concerned about what was going on over there.  There was vigorous debate as to what extent the US should be involved.  FDR had managed to increase military spending, and wanted to sell weapons to England.  The isolationists were successful in their opposition to even peripheral involvement by US.  Their view was that we were safe from attack due to the 3,000+ miles of ocean between–an idea that was soon to be squashed.  FDR in one of his fireside chats announced that he was implementing a program he called “lend lease” in which we would lease rather than sell arms to England.   He thereby by-passed Congress and everyone knew that Hitler’s submarines would be gunning for any transport of arms to Europe, which would inevitably lead to war.  I was old enough to understand some of this, and listened to some heated debates on the subject.

Meanwhile, the Germans were gobbling up property as fast as their tanks could take it.  They were conquering France with little difficulty, along with lesser countries.  France had felt themselves impregnable due to the Maginot line; a series of fortifications lining their border with Germany.  Dunkirksoldier1It was a marvel of engineering which I had read about in history class, but its effectiveness was lost when the Huns simply went around it, picking up Belgium in the process.  With that they were able to surround the French and English forces leading to the disaster at Dunkirk as in the recent movie by that name.

 

 

 

The Way It Was| Part 5

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

The fifth installment of The Way It Was picks up after Eshrink illustrated how the technology we have today has made life so easy by describing how they did things and what they didn’t have in the 1930s in his previous post: Part 4. 

The Way It Was: Part 5

We humans are very adept at making stuff, but not so good at predicting their consequences.  When I was a kid we spent most of our free time outdoors only because we had no play stations, cellphones, or TV.  There were no traveling sports teams, other than in high school, and kids were expected to be creative enough to find ways to occupy themselves.   We were free to fight, make up, make friends and enemies, in other words learn how to socialize.  In the January issue of Scientific American is an article titled: “Evolved to Exercise,” which posits that humans must be active to remain healthy, which made me think of the recent statistics regarding what some refer to as an epidemic of childhood obesity.  An even more frightening stat is that Type 2 diabetes, formerly a strictly adult disease linked to obesity, is now being seen in children.

In my own case I lost my super stardom in the 4th grade when we left the little farm and moved to town.  As a matter of fact, I did not feel accepted and became shy.  I was bullied and in response became something of a wimp.  I was saved from the bullies who were routinely taking my lunch from me by a kindred soul who had some intellectual deficits and a speech impediment that left him a few grades behind.  Fortunately for me, he was large in stature and came to my rescue.  This story will be quite familiar to my gang as they have heard it many times and it was featured in the “Papa Stories” which I wrote long ago for the Grandkids.

News of the Day

There are only snippets of memories of those days in the late 30s, but since I had no friends after we moved, I must have spent more time listening to the news on the radio and even reading the newspaper.  I do recall hearing stories about Father Coughlin who was a Catholic priest, one of the first to use the radio as a platform for preaching.  Now 800px-CharlesCouglinCraineDetroitPortrait dads blogsince looking up his history, I realize Dad had disliked Coughlin not because he was Catholic, but because his preachings had become anti-semitic and pro fascist.  Coughlin heaped praise on Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, and felt Hitler was correct in blaming Jews for his country’s problems.  His programs had taken this turn apparently due to his antipathy toward Roosevelt whom he had initially supported.  He is said to have had 30 million listeners to his weekly program, many of whom had joined his “National Union for Social Justice.”  He was forced off the air when the war started.

In like fashion, I used Wikipedia to fill in the blanks of my foggy memories of the German American Bund, which was a pro-Nazi organization formed at the behest of Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s right-hand man.  It’s goal was to form a Nazi party in the United States.  Membership was limited to those of German descent and even some American citizens were members.  Until now I didn’t realize what a formidable organization they had become with uniforms, Nazi salutes and even the establishment of military style training camps.  I was amazed to learn that this organization was allowed free reign until 1942, well after war had been declared on Germany.

During those prewar days of the late 1930s, there was a lot going on with much concern over Germany’s rearmament.  The news reels showed footage of massive displays of armaments along with thousands of “goose stepping” troops giving the Nazi salute as they marched past Hitler.   Roosevelt’s fireside chats warned of our lack of preparedness, but his entreaties were ignored by the isolationists who had barely recovered from World War I with its millions of deaths.  The veterans of the war who continued to suffer from wounds, disease, or the sequelae of exposure to poison gas were daily reminders of the horrors of war.

Working Conditions & Unions

It must have been sometime in the late 30s when Dad became involved in attempts to unionize his workplace.  His complaint was regarding working conditions. He worked in the “press room” of the tile factory which was said to be the most dust ridden area of the plant.  Indeed, he arrived home from work every day covered in white dust so thick that one could barely distinguish the color of his clothes.  Our town had at one time been world famous for the production of ceramic products of all kinds, and also a place where there had always been a lot of “lung trouble” which was often fatal.  There had recently been studies in which there was shown to be a link between such dust and pulmonary disease and an increased susceptibility to tuberculosis.  This disease was also found to be prevalent in those working in foundries (they used a lot of sand in molds), and recently has been found to be the major culprit in the black lung disease which afflicts coal miners.  It was called silicosis after the silica which was shown to cause it.

The late thirties was the hey-day of union activity following passage of the Labor Relations Act, another of FDR’s New Deal legislations in 1935.  I have rather vivid memories of several evening visits to our house by a union organizer.  There were intense discussions and he left a lot of literature including scientific publications about silicosis.  I thought that stuff was cool.  There were pictures of X-rays, and lungs that had been cut out of people.  I presume that my Father was chosen to head up the campaign to organize the plant because of his reputation of being outspoken.  I recall one discussion about exhaust systems which could remove nearly all the dust in the plant.  Dad was particularly angry to find there were solutions to this problem which the company had ignored.  After all, he knew several people who were disabled or dead as a result of that dust.

The first step was to try to be the first to punch his time card out in order for him to station himself outside the gate in position to pass out literature and talk to any one who would listen.  It was strictly forbidden to do any campaigning on company time and even discussions were grounds for immediate dismissal.  In spite of his best efforts, the vote to join the union was turned down.  I remember Dad saying they were all a bunch of “chickenshit suck asses.” He suffered no immediate retribution, as I think the law protected him from being punished for union activities, although I am sure there was no effort to make things easy for him.  He did have a great deal of respect for his foreman, they had become friends and I suspect he may have attempted to shield Dad.  The company remained in operation for many more years and of course never did anything to ameliorate the dust problem.

As for me, I have always felt a kinship to the union movement.  In spite of the excesses they perpetrated in later years, they did much to not only create a blue-collar middle class but also help improve working conditions.  There is a family myth (might even be true) that my Mother’s great uncle, who was a charter member of the United Mine Workers, once escaped from a group of strikebreakers with noose in hand by climbing out the rear window of his house as they broke down the front door.  Now the UMW is a toothless tiger and once again mine safety regulations are being ignored.

Values

Before proceeding to the war years, I feel it important to elaborate on some of the values and behaviors held important then.  There was great emphasis on manners which extended to the deferential behavior towards women.  We boys were trained that the female was a delicate flower which could be easily destroyed either physically or emotionally, and to strike a woman was not only unmannerly but unmanly. It did seem strange that our Mothers, though obviously female, were tough as nails, and to disrespect her could well unleash not only her wrath but also Father’s wrath.  Discussions in mixed company of anything remotely connected to sex, even the word sex, were strictly for bidden.

All these and other conventions were supposed to be a mark of respect, yet respect in the workplace was lacking.  Women were barred from positions of leadership, and mostly limited to jobs that involved positions in which they were subservient to men, which was also mirrored in their marital relationships.  In general, they were felt to be too emotional to make decisions and to handle responsibility.  We thought we were being respectful, but now I am told the opposite was true.  The war soon to come would shatter many or those stereotypes as women were given the opportunity to demonstrate they were capable of more than nurture.

The Elderly

There was a great deal of respect shown for one’s elders (I was born too late for that).  The rule was that they should always be addressed with the proper prefix (Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc).  The proper suffix should be used in in responding, such as: yes sir, no sir, yes Mam, and they should never be addressed by their first name unless permission was granted.   In private however; they would often be referred to as old geezers or worse.

Table Manners

Table manners were high on the agenda and dinner was always punctuated with instructions as to how one should use the tools, pass the serving dish before spooning out a serving for oneself, and keep elbows off the table.  Eating with fingers was a definite no-no, and to not eat every speck on one’s plate was to insult the cook, not to mention all those starving children in India.

Seen and Not Heard

In the presence of adults, children were to “be seen and not heard” which always left me wondering why we were there in the first place.  One particularly difficult place for me was my dad’s brother’s house, whose wife always impressed me a being “stiff as a board.”  They were childless, their house was immaculate and extensively populated with breakable items.  Upon arrival, I was always directed to a plain chair near the corner of their living room.  I don’t believe she ever talked to me but did occasionally talk about me.  At the same time, I was petrified and scared to move a muscle.  I bode my time by reciting numbers in my head (“a thousand one, a thousand two, and so on until I hit 100, then started all over again.  I remember asking my Dad why they had no children and he answered, “He is a dry bag.”  I only had an inkling what he meant, but didn’t pursue the subject.  In his honor of my Uncle, I named our most recent adopted dog, Floyd.

In marked contrast to Aunt Florence was Aunt Toad, (I never knew her real name, nor how she came to that nickname). She was also childless, but she couldn’t get enough of my talking.  She always greeted me as if I were the most important person on earth and after stuffing me with cookies, cake, and her home squeezed grape juice, she would ask me all kinds of questions, and I would talk non-stop, confessing to all my dreams of being a private detective or airplane pilot, or whatever grandiose scheme came to mind on a given day. She would listen attentively.  She never appeared to doubt my capabilities to do any of those things, and I felt comfortable telling her anything that came to mind.  I think she would have made an excellent psychotherapist even without the cookies and cake.

What We Wore

You may have noticed there are few walk in closets in houses of this vintage or older.  Usually all the space needed was room for a Sunday suit a couple of shirts and maybe a pair of “good pants”.  The suit was for church and funerals.  The pants for family reunions and eating in fancy places. Of course, there was no air conditioning and the suit was mandatory on Sunday no matter the temperature.  A pair of good shoes was also necessary.  Although May 1st was the magic date at which we kids could shed our shoes for the summer, we were forced to stick our swollen feet back into shoes we had probably already outgrown in order to go to church or even a movie.

Men wore hats no matter the occasion, almost always felt, but there was an occasional flat top straw seen in the summer.  No hats of any kind were ever to be worn in doors, and anyone who crossed that line was in trouble.  Hair was worn slicked back, and brilliantine was the most popular way to accomplish that.  It also smelled good which was nice since weekly or less frequent shampoos were the norm.

Editor’s Note: Stay Tuned for “The Way It Was: Part 6” where Eshrink chronicles the pre-war years (WWII) from his perspective as a child. Not only will he discuss “the mood of the country” as he remembers it regarding the war in Europe, but shares personal stories, such as the first funeral he attended when his grandfather died and remembrances of the people who shaped his life.