”No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“Let’s go into the drug store,” Mary suggested as she and Peggy walked out of the Davis Theater. “We can get something at the soda fountain.”
The sixteen-year-olds hurried across the street and into the store to escape the early December cold. They were surprised to find the store empty except for the owner, who stood grimly at the radio which blasted reports of an attack.
“The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor! Some of our ships have been sunk! It’s a sneak attack!”
The girls were confused. Where was Pearl Harbor? What exactly was Pearl Harbor? And why would Japan bomb it? Clearly, this was a terrible situation. Was this really war? The girls left the shop, wondering what this would mean for them and their country. Throughout the rest of the day, Mary and her family were glued to the radio news reports of the horrific events on the island of Oahu.
The next day was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics, and Alvernia High School girls had the day off. Mary and her family gathered around the radio to hear the President, Franklin Roosevelt, speak to a joint session of Congress. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…” he began. The words were chilling, and war was declared against Japan. Three days later, Japanese Allies Germany and Italy declared war on the United States as well.
War changed things, even for a teenage girl in Chicago, miles away from the battlefields. Mary volunteered as a junior air raid warden, and when Chicago periodically sounded sirens for air raid drills, Mary and a cute neighborhood guy who‘d convinced her to join the patrol walked the blocks checking to see that windows were covered so that no lights were visible from the street. Besides doing her civic duty, Mary took advantage of the opportunity to hang out at night with a good-looking boy, something her mother would not have allowed under everyday circumstances.
It wasn’t long before young men were enlisting in the Army, the Navy, or the Marines. By the time Mary was a senior in high school in 1942, most of the young men who’d graduated from high school were gone. In the Spring of ‘43, when her prom rolled around, she had no boyfriend to invite, so she went with Frank Sherer, the son of a family friend who was like a cousin. Sure, they had a nice time, but he wasn’t the romantic date of her dreams.
Even though Germany was the enemy, the Wolf family was never on the receiving end of any animosity. Chicago was a city of immigrants– German, Polish, Irish, Italians – who were patriot Americans. Mary’s parents, who’d emigrated from a German region of Romania, were staunchly proud of their American citizenship and loved their adopted country. Years before the war, they had been invited to attend a meeting of the Bund, a pro-Hitler organization in Chicago, and went out of curiosity. They never returned. “This is not for us,” they declared.
Rationing affected everyone during wartime. Nylon was used to make parachutes, so stockings were scarce. Like many women of the time, Mary resorted to using leg make-up to hide her legs’ pasty whiteness. Some girls even drew “seams” down the backs of their legs with eyebrow pencil, but Mary didn’t. It was too hard to make a straight line.
Other commodities like meat and sugar were difficult to get, and lines formed when word got out that a store had a scarce item available. The joke was that if you saw a line, you just got in it, not even finding out what the product was at the front of the line. Nylons? Cigarettes? Laundry soap? Just buy what you could, before the hoarders got it.
Everyone pitched in for the war effort. Victory gardens sprung up all over, but this was business as usual at my mother’s house, where my grandmother always grew beans, carrots, cucumbers, and other vegetables. They also collected paper, scrap metal, and bacon grease. While it’s easy to see why paper and metal could be useful, my mother didn’t recall why bacon grease was collected. A little research told me that it was used in manufacturing ammunition because of its “unparalleled incendiary properties.” My mother continued the habit of keeping a jar of bacon grease in the refrigerator, but not for ammunition. Why? Maybe something about not clogging up drains.
During the war, servicemen from all branches were stationed in Chicago. Girls flocked to the Service Men’s Club downtown to meet guys at the USO-sponsored dances. Mary went a few times, and briefly dated a soldier she’d met there. When the city celebrated the the new subway lines in October 1943, Mary and her soldier friend rode downtown for free as part of the grand opening festivities.
For a while, Mary dated a sailor named Bob, a cousin of a high school friend whom she met on a blind date. Bob was a nice enough guy, but nothing special, as far as Mary was concerned. But Bob was completely smitten with Mary. Stationed in New York, he took a train into Chicago on weekends to see her. One weekend he arrived with a gift he’d made for her — a hand-crafted wooden chapel the size of a typewriter. This was just too much, and Mary felt smothered, overwhelmed, and a little creeped out. One weekend, Bob came out to the lake house, but Mary made sure her friend Pat as there, too, acting as a buffer. Mary’s mother loved Bob, a nice-looking guy with a German last name. Grandma thought he was quite a catch for Mary, and she was irritated when Mary brushed him off. No matter; Mary kindly distanced herself from Bob.
Mary’s sister Liz also met a serviceman on a blind date during the war, but she was much luckier in love. Liz’s friend Marge’s sister Helen fixed her up with a good-looking Navy man. My Uncle Al Rogers swept Liz off her feet, married her in November 1945 and whisked her off to live in his hometown Worcester, Mass. As much as my grandmother loved Al, she never forgave him for taking her girl so far away.