REFLECTIONS ON WORLD WAR II
By Allen Dale Olson
“Ole” Olson calls New Mexico home, although he spent his childhood in Indiana and much of his working years overseas.
While the current incursion of Russian troops into the Ukraine may not actually signal another world war in Europe, it does cause this old Veteran to recall his life during the second of those Great Wars to End All Wars.
My Geography class in the very rural Portage Township High School was interrupted on Monday morning by school principal Jesse Ripperdan who announced that we were at war with Japan. I really don’t know why I hadn’t known about it the day before, because my family had a radio that could get Chicago stations. It’s possible we just didn’t turn it on that day. There were no telephones in the mostly Swedish community of unpaved roads and outhouses, so there was not much communication other than face-to-face. Of course, by the time I got home from school that day, my mother had heard all about it, and when my dad came home from work, he was ready to enlist.
I don’t remember if I knew about Pearl Harbor before the Japanese attack, but I did know I was fast approaching draft age and had been told that the upcoming war would be a long one, news that both filled me with dread and with pride. Like my dad, the idea of fighting for my country had a lot of appeal, but like most healthy young guys I found the thought of possibly getting killed was scary.
A combination of age, a steel-producing job in the Gary mills, a family, and a church leader gave the Army reason enough to reject my dad’s effort to enlist, for which I think, we were all relieved.
Little by little we became aware of the impact of mobilization on daily life. My parents signed up for food ration coupons and tokens that doled out how much meat, milk, and dairy products we could buy every week. Because of his job and church work, my dad received a “C” ration card for gas, which allowed him a greater ration than those who had “B” or “A” cards. Since most people got an “A” card, I admit that we took considerable pride in having a “C” card. And it didn’t take long for some in the community to get arrested for attempting to forge false gas ration coupons.
County farmers, most of them eligible for “B” gas rations, decided to pool their rations to get enough gas so a tractor could haul our school basketball team to away games. They rigged up a cattle car, covered it with a canvas tarp, set up kerosene heaters for the trips, and hooked it up to a tractor for a slow, frosty ride to a game. No basketball trip was very far, as, in those days, few teams played outside their own areas. School districts were not allowed to use their busses for anything other than daily runs to and from school. It was easier for our little school than for most, because we didn’t have a football team to haul around.
One by one some of our juniors and seniors left school to enlist. I knew that a couple of them actually lied about their age in order to get into the Army. Quite a number of families welcomed Army service because we were all still mostly in the throes of the Great Depression and the Army offered food and clothing to young men. Others sought and got exemptions from the draft because they were needed on the farms.
As the war moved into a second year, I saw more and more mothers, including my own, finding jobs, mostly in the steel mills but also in the newly-opened ordnance factory in nearby Kingsbury, where my future wife’s grandmother joined other women to produce 105 millimeter howitzer shells. “Rosie the Riveter” had meaning to our sleepy little community.
War news dominated radio broadcasts, except, of course, for the soap operas. Every evening we stopped what we were doing to catch the latest from Walter Winchell, Edward R. Murrow, and occasionally from Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Radio announcers and baseball broadcasters were prohibited from giving weather reports or weather conditions, as those reports could be used by enemy agents.
Major League Baseball decided that playing games would be a morale booster for the nation and decided to play full schedules, even though the best players were either drafted or enlisted. We watched with pride – and sorrow – as Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, and others went off to battle. Feelings were mixed about the players still in the game for the Cubs, the Sox, and the other teams. Some fans thought it a shame those guys didn’t go do their duty, but most of us were glad to have games on the radio or even the chance to go to Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, where fans were asked to return foul balls hit into the stands so they could be sent to military posts. Fans were even asked to contribute cigarettes to “Our Boys.”
Staying in school was often reason for draft exemption, especially as the war ended and college attendance became a big reason for exemption. My draft number eventually came up, but the war had ended, and I did my service as an Occupier of Germany, not as a combatant. But I can recall with great clarity that almost everyone I knew during the World War II Days was engaged in the War Effort.