What was it like to be a child during WW II? For children in Europe the war began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland then Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. In China, it began even earlier when Japan invaded their country in 1937. The U.S. didn’t enter WWII until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, over 77 years ago.
I vividly remember December 7th, 1941. It was a Sunday afternoon and my parents and I had just enjoyed an excellent lunch in our favorite restaurant in Miami. When we stepped outside we saw several people clustered around a newspaper boy who was shouting, “Extra, extra, read all about it. Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.” I was a little over eight years old. I remember being scared. I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was — maybe somewhere near us! My parents assured me that we were safe and we hurried home so we could listen to the radio.
For the next four years all activities were affected by the war. My sister, Jane, had a boyfriend whom she later married. He dropped out of his senior year in high school to join the Navy and was put on a ship that was sent to the Pacific. His ship was hit by a Kamikaze and many of his sailor friends died, but he wasn’t hurt. My older sister’s husband went into the infantry and, after the invasion, was sent to Europe. He marched across France and into Germany with Patton’s Third Army. He was wounded but recovered and was sent home.
At home, gasoline, tires, food and many other things were rationed. Meat, butter, sugar, eggs almost every kind of food was scarce but our family had plenty to eat. My dad planted a huge victory garden so we always had an abundant crop of tomatoes, carrots, cabbages and other vegetables, plus oranges, grapefruit, mangoes and avocados all picked from our own trees. My dad loved to go fishing and usually brought home plenty of fish, including enough to share with the neighbors.
My dad was too old to serve in the military so he became the Air Raid Warden on our street. He walked the neighborhood at night looking for people violating the “blackout” restrictions. At school we practiced hiding under the desks in case of an air raid. There weren’t any air raid shelters.
I had an Aircraft Spotter’s Handbook and became proficient at identifying enemy airplanes, or at least I thought I did; of course none ever flew over the U.S. When I could find a model kit, I would build a war plane, but kits soon became very scarce. We were told that all balsa wood was being used in life rafts so dressing up like soldiers and holding mock battles became our playtime priority. In those days, packs of bubblegum came with cards illustrating baseball and football heroes and all boys had stacks of these cards, some to keep and some for trading. After the war started, figures of sports heroes were replaced with battle scenes and every boy knew the names of the airplanes, ships, tanks and guns that appeared on these cards… all the weapons of war. The fear, the suffering, the agony and death of war were abstract concepts to a child who was neither a witness… nor a victim.
Miami was a training center and an important military seaport; soldiers and sailors were everywhere. There was a severe housing shortage and people were encouraged to rent rooms or move in with relatives to make houses available for military people. Everyone had to support the war effort, to accept the shortages, to work in factories, and to donate food, clothing and any kind of metal, especially aluminum but also paper and glass. Posters, newspapers, and radio broadcasts denounced the enemies, praised our soldiers and sailors, and pleaded for volunteers for all sorts of patriotic activities. Details of battles, casualties, and territories gained or lost were reported daily and were the subject of conversations by all adults. Word quickly circulated if a relative or neighbor was wounded, killed or missing. I remember wondering what kind of news would be reported after the war…there wouldn’t be anything to talk about. Unless you were a soldier, sailor or airman, or the parent, relative or friend of someone in the war, I guess you could say life wasn’t too bad for us in the U.S. We didn’t get bombed and, for many, life went on almost as usual.
But, what about life in other countries, especially England, Germany and Japan? What was it like to be a child in WW II? Let’s ask them.
DENNIS GILMORE —ENGLAND. Dennis was born in 1933 and was six years old when Great Britain declared war on Germany. He lived with his sister and parents in a small house in Middleton, a rural community, not far from the A.V. Roe aircraft factory where the Lancaster bomber was built, and only a few miles from the industrial city of Manchester. In 1939 England was still recovering from the great depression so it was not a time of prosperity and the onset of war did not impose sudden hardships the people in his community were already used to
hardships. Heating and lighting in his home were provided by gas, not electricity, and there was no hospital nearby, only a chemist (what we would call a drug store). They didn’t have much in the way of luxuries, just the basic needs of life, but when war came things definitely got worse, as Mr. Gilmore explained:
“Shortages got worse. We had enough to eat but all foods were rationed. I still have a ration book that I will bring to the museum if I can find it. Children were given extra ration coupons to ensure they had at least a subsistence level diet. There were farms near us so we had some food supplied by those neighbors. Later on, the government provided small land allotments we could use to grow vegetables ourselves. They were similar to your victory gardens, I suppose. We were required to donate all kinds of things to the war effort. Iron fences and gates would be cut down with torches and hauled away. A man used to come around shouting ‘Rags, bottles and bones, rags bottles and bones.’ I don’t know what they did with these things, especially the bones, but they were wanted.
After the escape of our soldiers from Dunkirk, the people were really discouraged. It seemed like we had already lost the war and it was only a matter of time before we would be invaded.”
Mr. Dennis Gilmore
Dennis and I briefly discussed that historic event. He noted that, to this day, he doesn’t understand why Hitler did not press forward with the invasion; it was fully expected and England was not equipped to defend itself against an all-out attack. Then I questioned him about his life at school and asked if he had relatives who were in military action, and we returned to his recollections:
“I didn’t have toys or fancy clothes, we made do with what we had but we did dress up in our ‘Sunday Best’ for church and religious events. My dad was an Air Raid Warden who made sure blackout curtains were drawn or lights were out at night. We had a ‘Home Guard’ militia, mostly older men or those unfit for regular service. I walked to school carrying my gas mask, and we often had air raid drills and practiced putting on our masks, but there was no shelter at the school. We had a bomb shelter in our back yard that could house perhaps six people. It was shaped something like an igloo and had drainage water and frogs in it. It was unpleasant, so it was never used, but we had access to a large underground shelter nearby that housed 200 or 300 people. I’m sure that shelter was clean and safe but, after the bombing started, we moved into my grandparents’ home. They had what we call a Public House where they served beer. The house had an underground beer cellar that was heated and more secure than upstairs, so we lived there in the cellar for the rest of the war. I had two uncles in the war, one fought in the African campaign against Rommel’s forces and remained a career soldier. The other was on a ship that was sunk when crossing the English Channel, but he was rescued.”
Then I asked Dennis if he ever witnessed bombing in his area and he said:
“There were air raid warnings all the time — wailing sirens to start, then a steady sound to
signal the end and all clear. Liverpool and Manchester were important targets for the Germans but their bombers couldn’t fly very far and they usually chose to bomb London; because it was closer for them, I suppose. It was dangerous for them to bomb England because our fighters, Spitfires and Hurricanes, would be waiting for them as soon as they crossed the channel. There were anti-aircraft guns in my neighborhood and barrage balloons with long wire cables hanging from them to catch low flying aircraft. When the Germans did choose to bomb Manchester, I could see the flashes of light and hear the noise. I could also see and hear the big AVRO Lancaster bombers when they left from their factory near us. A cotton mill, only a half mile from my home, was bombed and I heard the bombs exploding and could see the fires. We kids liked to search the fields for pieces of shrapnel to keep as souvenirs. It was a fearful time but, somehow, we managed to carry on.”
I asked Dennis if there was one event that stands out most vividly in his memory. Here is his answer:
“I awoke one night during a bombing raid. The bombs were hitting close to us and there was no time to run to the shelter. My mother was lying on top of me and I realized she was willing to sacrifice her life to save me.”
I then asked Dennis about life after the war and he noted that severe shortages continued and there was rationing until 1950. He explained that, after the war, the people were tired of being deprived and wanted to return to normal life. Churchill had served them well during the war but the people wanted a change. Clement Attlee of the Labor Party was elected Prime Minister and a new socialist government took over. Socialized medicine was instituted. For his neighborhood, that was a welcome change…at last they had access to doctors and hospitals. But, according to Dennis, true economic recovery didn’t return to Britain until there was another change in government many years later.
Dennis joined the RAF after the war and became an electronics and communications specialist. He came to the US as a technical representative for a British firm in 1978 and continued working here when his business blossomed. He is now retired and living with his wife in Laguna Woods. He has visited Lyon Air Museum several times and has served as a Volunteer Ambassador at John Wayne Airport.
FRANK TAKASHI OHGI — JAPAN. Frank Ohgi and his brother were born in Los Angeles. His mother was second generation Japanese; his father was a Japanese citizen. In 1938, his father became ill and wished to spend his final days in Japan. The family left for Japan by ship but his father passed away on board. Frank’s brother, still just a young child, but the oldest son, became head of the Ohgi family in Japan, as is the custom. Not anticipating war, Frank’s mother decided to stay in Japan to help manage the family affairs over there. They had fruit orchards, homes and businesses in Okayama prefecture on the main island of Honshu, adjacent to Hiroshima prefec-ture. Their living quarters were behind a store. Frank’s aunt, his father’s sister, lived nearby. She and her husband had a business making and selling goza, the straw mats used for flooring in Japanese homes. There were several other shops on their street: a tofu maker; a basket weaver; a sake brewer; a fireworks and gun shop; a butcher; and other businesses typical for a rural village.
Frank was only four years old when the war started, but he was able to provide many details of his life there during the war and subsequent years while he remained in Japan before returning to the U.S.
Frank and Elaine Ohgi
I asked Frank to tell us some of his recollections as a child in Japan during WW-II.
“There were food shortages. We had a property with an old barn on it. My mother used the land around it to grow sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, greens, and Kabocha pumpkins. Although Kabocha pumpkins are popular with Japanese, we ate them so often that I never want to eat them again. There was a shortage of white rice, a usual staple, so we substituted a mixture of crushed oats and rice. My mother liked dried bananas that came from Taiwan, but those were no longer available. Meat was scarce and, although seafood is abundant in most of Japan, we lived far from the coast so it was also rarely available.
All kinds of materials were collected to support the war effort, such as aluminum kitchen wares, iron and rubber. A funicular railway to a mountaintop temple was dismantled for iron and other materials so people had to walk to the mountain top to visit the temple.
Young men were drafted into the military so there were manpower shortages. Older kids had to help with farm work and younger ones were given the jobs of collecting acorns and picking grasshoppers and caterpillars from the crops. Sometimes grasshoppers were fried and eaten. This was not unusual because they were always a popular food item in Japan and other Asian countries.
The morale of children was affected as the war continued. A cousin of mine in middle school started smoking and misbehaving. His class was sent to work in a munitions factory and he didn’t like it; he felt his future was grim. But after the war he overcame his difficulties and had a successful career in the textile business.”
I asked Frank if there was bombing or any evidence of military activities in his community. He responded:
“We lived in a rural area away from big industrial targets. Even so, there were air raids and we had to be prepared. Towers were built so lookouts could spot enemy aircraft approaching and report their type, number and direction. My uncle made scale models of aircraft to help train the spotters. Water reservoirs were placed in front of houses for fighting fires. Houses had to be blacked out at night. Children from cities were sent to relatives and friends in rural areas for safety. Several second cousins from Tokyo came to live with us and attend our schools but even our area wasn’t safe. There were air raids and when they occurred during daytime, school kids were sent home individually or in small groups. The air raids became more intense near the end of the war. One night the city of Okayama, near us, got fire bombed. I slept through it but my brother stayed up and later described what he saw. He told me that the moon was bright and the bombers flew over in formation dropping incendiary bombs that started to fragment soon after release so the view was spectacular. That raid killed many people and flattened the city.
I saw the clouds of smoke rising over the mountains from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We lived in the next prefecture east of there, about 70 miles away, so we weren’t affected by the bomb but we knew something special had happened. Government communications were poor in the rural areas and radio broadcasts were not on a regular schedule. We didn’t hear anything specific about the bombing of Hiroshima at that time. When we learned that the emperor was going to announce the surrender and end of the war, we tried to listen to it on the radio…but all we got was static.
Soon after, the American forces arrived. The first soldiers were those who had been prepared for the invasion but they were soon replaced by those trained for occupation. The first ones carried loaded guns and one day I saw some come by in a jeep. They were drinking beer. They stopped in front of our house and walked to the river bank where there was a goat tied to a post. They put a beer can on the post and started shooting at it…they missed with every round.
The occupation troops were different, they maintained a low profile and their guns weren’t loaded. My mother learned that one of my uncles from the U.S., an interpreter for the army, was coming to see us. He arrived on a bicycle. I was disappointed, I expected him to be in a fancy American car.”
Frank explained that, because they were Japanese-Americans, they were in an awkward position both in Japan and in America.
“During the war, Japanese government officials would come to check up on us and ask our neighbors about us. They wanted to know if we were a threat to Japan, but a widowed mother and two young boys posed no threat to Japan. After the war, the U.S. government was also suspicious of us. When we applied for new passports at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, we were told to bring affidavits from our neighbors certifying that we did not aid Japan in the war against the U.S. As soon as we were able to communicate with my mother’s family in the U.S., we discussed the possibility of returning to California. My mother had sold some of our property in Japan to get money for our living expenses; she had even sold our American clothes and household goods on the black market to help sustain us. By the end of the war, my father’s investments and properties in Japan had become almost worthless and the Japanese economy was in shambles. Before the war the exchange rate was 2 Yen per dollar; after the war the rate was 360 Yen to the dollar. My mother’s family in the U.S. had returned from relocation camps but their properties had been taken from them and they needed time to reestablish themselves. Our trip back had to be paid with U.S. dollars and they couldn’t afford it and neither could my mother. My uncle who ran the goza factory had been drafted and sent to Korea during the war. The factory had been closed since then so there was no income from that. As a result of all these problems, it took almost three years for us to get back to California.”
Frank explained that it was a difficult ocean voyage back to the U.S. Their ship, a converted troop carrier, stopped at many ports around the pacific region. On board, males were separated from females at night so he could only see his mother at times during the days. Below decks they slept on bunks like the soldiers had only a few years before. When they finally arrived in Los Angeles they lived together with their relatives in a small, crowded house.
Frank went to school in Los Angeles, earned a degree in engineering at UCLA, and had a very successful career in aerospace. He took care of his mother until she died. Frank and his wife, Elaine, live in Westminster, California. He rarely speaks about his difficult childhood in war-torn Japan.
ELEONORE WEBER — CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Eleonore was born in 1939, in Niklasdorf (Mikulovice), Czechoslovakia. Her parents were German and she spoke German at home. Ni-klasdorf is in Sudetenland, a territory in former Czechoslovakia that was claimed by Hitler in 1938 on the basis that the population was mostly ethnic German. The life she describes there as a child was not so terrible, even though it was near the German/Russian battlefront in the latter period of the war. The difficulties she and her family encountered became perilous after the war, as you shall see. I asked Eleonore to tell us about her childhood in Niklasdorf.
“My understanding was that Niklasdorf, although in Czechoslovakia, east of the German border, was German territory. The name was German and we spoke German. I learned a little bit of Czech language but have forgotten most of it. We lived in government housing because my dad served in the German Army trucking supplies to France and Russia. My grandparents lived nearby, less than one hour’s walk from us. We didn’t have a car; we either walked or rode a bicycle, or took the train if we had to travel long distances. We didn’t have a movie theatre and I don’t remember having toys. My mother made our clothes, that’s the way life was in the small villages in those days. We weren’t starving during the war because, although there was food rationing, the farmers around us would help out.
I don’t remember when, exactly, but at some point we moved in with my grandparents (my dad’s parents) in their house. Later, they were forced to give up most of their house to soldiers. They only kept two rooms so we all lived in those. It was crowded but it was fun for kids.”
I asked Eleonore if she saw much evidence of military actions in the war:
“No. I didn’t see much bombing, only near the end, then I saw some flames from the bombing. We didn’t see my dad often, only when he stopped by on his way to deliver materials to the war zones. We had relatives in the military. One of them was captured by the Russians and spent nine years in a Siberian prison camp.”
I asked her what happened when the war ended.
“In 1945 we were forced to relocate to Germany. First we went in a wooden wagon to a camp in the forest named Muna. From there we went by train to the town of Hof, in Germany. We were crammed into a cattle car for nine days… 33 persons in a car with no bathroom or place to lie down. It was horrible. At stops, we were fumigated and soldiers guarded us with guns. We were given a wooden box to use as a toilet and the soldiers would watch us. From Hof, we moved by train to the town of Lauda/Bad Merkenheim, near Wurtzburg. Our family lived in one room with no furniture. We slept on Army cots, but we were happy to have cots… we had been sleeping on straw. Food was scarce.
From there we moved again, this time to a place where my dad was working called Korn Westheim, near Stuttgart. First we lived in Army barracks, then moved into a government house. It was nice. I lived there until I was 18 years old. U.S. soldiers came to town and gave us candy and cookies. That’s when I fell in love with America… food creates friendships.”
Although she didn’t speak English at the time, Eleonore subsequently obtained a work visa and found a job with a family in the U.S. who sponsored her. They treated her well and she was thankful to have escaped the misery of post-war Germany. Eleonore met and married John Theus when she was living in New Jersey and they moved to California.
Eleonore and John Theus
I don’t think Eleonore realized why her family and she were treated so badly during her childhood, but Hitler’s acquisition of the Sudetenland in 1938 had been violently opposed by Czechoslovakia. When the war ended, thousands of Germans were imprisoned and beaten by the Czechs. Many died. She was one of the fortunate ones who were allowed to escape. When the spoils of war were divided, the Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia and the Czech’s again lost control of their nation. Today, they are a free republic once again.
JOHN THEUS — GERMANY. Eleonore’s husband, John, was born in Leverkusen,
Germany, in 1934. During the war he lived in Stammhein, a suburb of Køln (Cologne),
surrounded by farms. There was, and still is, a large Bayer pharmaceutical and fertilizer plant nearby. (We know Bayer mostly for the aspirins and other pharmaceutical products they
manufacture that are popular in the U.S.). Køln was heavily bombed during the war but John’s neighborhood was spared most of the intense bombing that Køln suffered. His home was on the other side of the Rhine river, only a few minutes walk away from the Rhine, but a few miles from Køln (about one hour’s ride by streetcar). There was a Ford Motor Company factory across the Rhine river from his home that, surprisingly, was never hit by bombs, nor was the Bayer factory.
I asked John what life was like for him, as a child, during WW II.
“It was not bad. We lived in my grandparents’ house. They had a kitchen, two bedrooms and a living room, plus a cellar, so we didn’t have to use the bomb shelters often. We needed rationing stamps to buy food but we had a vegetable garden and nearby farmers also provided food.
Butter, milk and meat were scarce but we had chickens, rabbits and sheep, so there was plenty. We either walked or rode a bike for transportation, or took the streetcar for longer distances. Shoes were in short supply, but I remember,” he said laughingly, “my grandfather visited Holland often and brought back wooden shoes. I wore them and they were comfortable. We didn’t have a radio or any other form of entertainment. I enjoyed spinning a “top.” I played soccer with my school chums in summer and hockey in winter.”
Køln was a prime target for our 8th Air Force so I asked John if he remembers the bombing.
“I watched the bombs fall. Our town was only hit by a few. The main targets were a few miles away so only stray bombs hit our area. Neither the Bayer factory nor the Ford plant was ever bombed; I don’t know why. Maybe the allies knew those factories would be needed after the war. I don’t remember being afraid. When the alarm sounded at school, we would go home or to a shelter. When the bombing was intense, we stayed in the shelters, cooked there and slept there. I remember seeing large bomb craters on the path from school one day when I returned home. If I had been on that road during the bombing I would have been killed. My uncle, my dad’s brother, was killed in the war, but I don’t know where, or how.”
I asked John what it was like when the war ended. He was still a young boy then. These are some of his recollections:
“My friends and I enjoyed playing with the guns and munitions we found nearby. There was plenty of it just left there. We built a fort in the forest where we played with the cannons and ammunition we found around our neighborhood. We put munitions on the train tracks so they would explode when the trains ran over them. We made rockets out of discarded grenades and also burned them in an oil drum just to see the fire and explosions. But then two of my friends were killed when a grenade exploded in a drum so the Americans came and took the grenades away from us. There were buried tank mines in the roads. We didn’t know they were there but we didn’t weigh enough to set them off when we walked over them. Later on, my dad and our neigh-bors dug them up and the U.S. soldiers came and took them away.
The worst problem was the Czech and Polish prisoners of war. They were released when the war ended and they would roam through the towns and rob people at gunpoint. Finally, the U.S. Army set up check points and started patrolling and demanding identification. The U.S. soldiers were all nice. They were like saviors. They brought white bread we had never seen before; it was like dessert!”
I asked John how he got to the U.S. His story:
“My grandfather had a friend who sponsored me; we called him uncle. He arranged my passage and I went to Orange, New Jersey, and got a job as an apprentice machinist. I watched Westerns at the movies to learn English. The English in those movies was simple and easy to learn from. I also found that I could learn a lot from children. They used simple sentences and were patient with someone who was trying to learn their language. I met Eleonore there, in New Jersey, when she was working for a family. They had a beautiful house and she had her own room and bath. She was very happy there, but still a bit homesick. I don’t remember being homesick. Coming to the U.S. was a good decision for me. Life here was good from the beginning, and still is.”
John and Eleonore have a beautiful home in Fountain Valley, California. He recently sold his machine shop where he made plastic injection molds. He maintains a small garden (perhaps similar to the one his parents had in Germany). Both he and Eleonore are avid tennis players.
BERNHARD DRAEGER — GERMANY. I met Mr. Draeger when he was visiting Lyon Air Museum with his son who was home on leave from his job in the oil fields on Alaska’s north slope. I asked Mr. Draeger to submit to an interview and he was kind enough to agree. He invited me to his house for coffee and cake so I could conduct the interview there. I think I acquired a new friend. Here is his story:
Mr. Bernhard Draeger
Bernhard Draeger, born in 1940, was too young to now remember details of the bombing of Berlin, only vague impressions and stories his mother told him afterwards. However, life in post-war Berlin, especially its dangers and difficulties, left an imprint that is still vivid today.As an infant he lived with his older sister and his parents in an apartment building on the outskirts of Berlin. The building was owned by the machinery company across the street where his father worked. A Mercedes-Benz aircraft engine factory next to it was an important target for the British. As the bombing intensified the Draegers were evacuated to Kolberg, East Prussia, an area that is now in Poland, and were placed with a farming family. (Only an infant at the time, he still remembers the pigs). Eventually they returned to an apartment where they lived with another family until, in 1944, that family was moved and they got the apartment to themselves. Every night they would go to the basement to seek refuge from the incessant bombing. He remembers the house shaking, “like an earthquake,” when the bombs hit. Miraculously, their apartment was never damaged but the nearby Mercedes-Benz factory was about 80% destroyed. The factory where his dad had worked also survived because, he believes, the British wanted it after the war. Because of his special skills and his age, his father had escaped the draft, but that year, 1944, he was called into the Army. He was 35 years old.
In 1945, young Bernhard, at only five years of age, was already experiencing events which left permanent visions in his memory. At his home in Newport Beach, near Corona del Mar High School, I asked him to describe some of these events:
“I think it was in May of 1945, the Russians were entering Berlin from the east, the Americans and British from the west. A vehicle, like a Jeep, came through the neighborhood. A voice from a loudspeaker ordered everyone out of their houses. We were told we had only 30 minutes to get out and we were to take nothing and to leave the houses unlocked. At this time, my father, had already been captured by the Americans and handed over to the French who had put him in a prison camp. So my mother put me and my sister on her bicycle, the only transportation we had, and we rode to my grandfather’s house. There were 30 or 40 people sleeping on the floor. We stayed there about two weeks, then returned on the bicycle. All of the apartments had been ransacked and plundered, except ours. My mother disregarded the order and had left the door locked. There were marks on the door where soldiers had tried to enter, but were unable. I don’t know if they were Russians or Americans, but I suspect Russians.”
He recalled several encounters with Russian soldiers, none of them pleasant. For example, one of them, obviously drunk, handed him his pistol to play with. This could have resulted in a disaster. He also described how Russians came to his grandfather’s house looking for money or anything of value. They attempted to hang his grandfather from a beam inside the house, putting a rope around his neck and over the beam. They were drunk so he managed to escape. He ran into the forest and hid there.
I asked Mr. Draeger to tell me about relatives who were in the military. He said:
“My father remained a prisoner in a French labor camp for three years, until long after the war was over. They treated him terribly. When he came home he was very thin and missing many teeth. When he recovered he was able to get his old job back because the factory was still there. He would never talk about his imprisonment.
An uncle was captured in southern Germany in 1945 and given to the Russians. He was put on a train to Siberia. It was just a cattle car, not a passenger wagon, and he and another prisoner managed to make a hole in the floor… and they escaped. They hid in the forests in daytime and only traveled at night. They made their way back to Berlin, mostly walking. He found a job working for the Americans at Templehof Airport.”
Mr. Draeger sat silently for a few moments, apparently thinking about the irony of his uncle’s experiences, first with the Russians, then with the Americans, then he just said: “It’s strange how things work out.”
He described what he later learned about the German troops coming back from the Russian front:
“Hundreds of thousands were captured, most never returned home. Those that escaped told of their desperate conditions at the front: cold, no food, no gas for vehicles, no ammunition. It must have been horrible.”
I asked Mr. Draeger to describe conditions after the war. I have a feeling he could have talked for hours on this subject, all of it interesting. Here are a few of his remarks:
“Food and fuel were very scarce. Because people were desperate, there was strict control of weapons. No guns or even knives were allowed. People with weapons would be shot on sight, so disarmament occurred quickly. There was rationing of everything. Even if you had money, you still needed ration stamps to buy food. Women and children were allowed 500 calories a day; people working at hard jobs could get 800; heavy labor, 1,000. (Note: One McDonald’s Big Mac is more than 500 calories). Throughout the city there were mountains of rubble, the remains of bombed out buildings. Women worked at cleaning up the rubble to earn food stamps. They used brooms and shovels; there were no machines. The highest point in Berlin today is a hill called Teufelsberg, in a forest park. It is about 80 meters above the surrounding grounds and is a mound of rubble from the bombing, now covered with dirt and grass.”
What about the division between East and West Berlin?
“East Berlin became Russian territory. They dismantled all the factories and took everything away, even pipes and wires from underground. East Berlin became a desolate place compared to West Berlin, not because the people were incapable, but because the Russians took everything they would produce. In contrast, the recovery on the Western side was amazing. It changed so quickly. I think most Americans didn’t understand the Marshall Plan; they viewed it as welfare given to a former enemy. The real reason was to prevent the Russians from taking over West Germany. If Germany were left to starve, and the Americans and British weren’t there to protect them, the Russians would surely have moved in and taken everything.”
Do you remember the Berlin Airlift in 1948?
“Of course. I was not allowed to go there because it was too far away. But my friends and I would watch the planes flying over. We were about 3 miles from there. That was also when the currency was changed. In one day, the German Reichsmark was changed to the Deutsche Mark. People who had saved their money lost it. Soon after, East German currency was also changed. People on the eastern side of Berlin became very unhappy with Russian-style rule. By 1961, two thousand people per day were leaving East Berlin; the Russians had to put up a wall.”
Mr. Draeger explained how he happened to be on the east side when the wall went up which, at first, was just barbed wire with soldiers patrolling. He had a girlfriend at the time who wanted to visit her grandmother. They returned to find the border closed but fortunately he and his
girlfriend had proper identification and were allowed to pass. Later, he saw a woman trying to escape under the barbed wire so he ran to help pull her through. A young soldier ran up and pointed his rifle at him.
“I was scared and I think he was too, so he didn’t shoot. I was 21 years old and I think he was much younger. I kept pulling until she was out. At that time East German and Russian soldier’s uniforms looked almost alike. I didn’t know at first if he was German or Russian. If he had been Russian, he surely would have shot both of us. From then on there were always people getting shot for trying to escape.”
After coffee and an excellent piece of chocolate cake that Herr Draeger baked, he explained how he managed to get a visa and come to the U.S. It wasn’t easy. He got in just within the quota for Germany and, even so, had to pass a physical, a background check to prove that he had no crimi-nal record, prove that he had money, and that he had a skill that was on the approved list.
He is dismayed at how people are coming in now with no education and no skills and are immediately given welfare benefits. He received nothing but was able to immediately find employment as a tool maker in a machine shop and begin contributing to the economy. He is now retired and enjoying life in Newport Beach and his favorite sport, tennis.
Postscript: These are just a few of the millions of stories that can be told of children in the time of war. These all ended with the best of outcomes: They each survived without physical harm and all found new homes in America. It is sad that so many others became victims of war in those times…even sadder that so many children continue to suffer the ravages of religious, territorial and political conflicts… and misguided leadership.
Article Written by David C. Wensley