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Being Afraid in War

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Recently I reviewed a book entitled Retribution, a story about the Allied powers forcing Japan to its knees to bring an end to the Second World War. To me, images and pictures seem to add interest and a bit of reality when inserted in a review. Online I found several pictures, one of which is shown here.

Although this particular photo was probably taken in Iraq, it is haunting because for some reason, it summoned up my own terrible fears of being dead as a young six-year-old boy during those horrific war years even though both conflicts were thousands of miles and oceans away. The picture’s pathos is extremely unnerving because one does not know if the soldier cuddles a live or dead child, or if the soldier is crying.

Although I was only six-years-old, I can remember the dread I had falling asleep at night during World War II after mom or dad turned off my bedroom light. I truly believed that my small neighborhood in Pittsburgh called “Homewood” could be attacked from the air at any time. So Air raid drills that terrified me were a familiar event. During the years 1943-45, Pittsburgh was a major steel producing city—one that would be surely bombed by the Japanese. A darkened city would make it hard for enemy bombers to find targets.

In a way I could understand, my parents had explained that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor which in my young mind was some part of the United States. I remember people singing, “Let’s remember Pearl Harbor,” although my family did not have a 78 rpm copy of it. Little did I know that the harbor sat far out in the Pacific Ocean on the Island of Honolulu, Hawaii. My gut feelings told me that if some part of the United States was attacked, then surely even “Homewood” could be attacked.

I knew that really bad people started the war. I used to lie beside my dad on the living room couch while he leafed through the daily newspaper. I remember seeing a gross picture of a large horizontal grave where bodies laid askew, draped grotesquely atop one another, waiting for a bulldozer to cover them with dirt. When I asked dad about those people, he quickly turned the page telling me, “They’re all dead; they’re going to cover them up.” I asked if their heads would be covered too and he replied, “Yes.”

During daytime, I was brave. My buddies and I talked about what we would do if all of a sudden, a group of attackers came down the street. With cap guns, toy rifles, and even sticks, we pretended to be confronting the enemy, easily out maneuvering and capturing them. At times, when any small plane droned overhead, we would locate it in the sky and because it could be a bomber, we’d pretend to shoot it down.

I recall a particular night when my aunt and her husband had come to visit via trolley car. My parents were entertaining in the living room of our small rented row house when, suddenly, air raid sirens sounded, screaming their terrifying shrill sounds into the night.

Within a few moments, every person in that room near a light—turned it off—all except a night light inside a large Sessions clock standing on the mantle. The clock was an imitation of the front of a silver airplane with large wings; Its face so designed that the hands represented a propeller. Just above sat the plane’s cockpit still lighted. It gradually appeared bright in the dark room even though it housed a very small bulb. The timepiece was about four inches in depth.

Everyone grew rather silent until there was a knock on the door. I couldn’t tell if the grownups reacted but that sound made me jump. After all these years, I can still remember how scared I was when my father answered the front door. There stood a ghostly looking man holding a flashlight who told dad to shut of the clock light—immediately. Without question, he did. Darkness was now complete. I could see only shadows with voices. Streetlights were off. Automobiles stopped and shut off their headlights.

After what seemed like a long time, in reality, lasted only twenty minutes or so. Then the sirens squealed again signaling the end of the drill. Although I was glad it was over, the faces of my parents and relatives showed they were glad—almost as if they, too, held some deep remote alarm inside. The group continued gabbing about my older cousin who was a fighter pilot during the war and had, so far, survived.

It amazes me that Retribution and that single Internet picture flooded me with such frightening memories. I cannot begin to imagine what kinds of images float through the minds of fighting women and men who returned home from Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. And the children of war—is it any wonder they grow up psychologically troubled—disturbed for a lifetime? It is my fondest hope that all those who serve will soon bring sanity back to the world and its impressionable little children.

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About Regis Schilken

  • Regis

    Bryce, not a day passes that I don’t think of that picture. I think it’s because I spent my life teaching children and loved it. When I think of the countless number of kids faces I faced over the years–all so hopeful, all so impressionable–all so alive that picture just blows me away.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    “There is nothing half so terrible as a battle lost…as a battle won.” I think it was Robert E. Lee who said that.

  • STM

    My mother recalled playing in her street a hop skip and a jump from the giant Vicker’s aircraft factory on the outskirts of London in 1940, with German bombers overhead being attacked by British fighters as a huge air battle swirled high above in what she remembered as a bright blue summer sky. A stick of German bombs fell down the length of the street, exploding one after the other in a perfect line.

    Houses were destroyed and many families left homeless in that and many other attacks by the nazis. Yes, many people in the neighbourhood and surrounds were killed.

    She told me that it was quite surreal, as that summer was full of warm sunny days and they were always out, looking for fish down in the river, etc, and then up in the sky there were lots pretty white vapour trails as men fought for their lives in silent battles barely seen from the ground.

    As a child, I found myself in the middle of a coup in Baghdad, with bombs and rockets and anti-aircraft fire going off nearby, and small arms fire going on through the night as rebels tried to capture the government broadcasting station.

    I was pretty frightened but my parents had seen it all before during WWII and never batted an eyelid, even though I’m certain they understood very well of the danger unfolding all around us.

    From memory, like most kids no had no real concept of death. I was more worried about being separated from one of both of my parents. That was the real fear.

  • Your comment, Peter, was very well taken. I was born in 1939 and remember well the war years. I remember all the small insignias pasted in the window of families who had sons or daughters in the war effort.

    I remember well, the day the war ended. Too small to really understand, I recall my dad walking me through “Homewood,” the magnetic hub of our small neighborhood. Huge barrels had been set aflame in the center of intersections. People were milling about yelling and cheering. I was definitely afraid and begged to go home.

    I remember the sadness of Mr. and Mrs. Collins in the next row house. Their son had sent me a stuffed soldier boy and for whatever reason, a small stuffed red horse. “He would never be coming home,” my mamma said.

    I remember my uncle Charlie who served in the Navy. On leave during the war in the Pacific, he sat at our tiny kitchen and talked to my mom, his sister, while enjoying a cup of coffee. I remember his hands trembling out of control–his hands shaking, trembling, trying to put a spoonful of sugar in his cup of coffee. His hair had grayed but he still looked so sharp dressed as a sailor.

    When he left, my mom explained that Uncle Charlie’s destroyer had been sunk and he and other sailors had to transfer to another ship while under fire. She told me war is a terrible thing and that it changes people.

  • Peter

    Your touching article reminds me of the fact that there is absolutely no winner of any war. Not only the obedient servants who follow their call of duty participating in a war but also the civilians suffer unspeakable anguish during any war.
    I remember my parents who were born 1940 just as the second world war started and 1945 at the end of the war. It’s hard to imagine what they went through during their earliest years on earth. Both are still alive more or less happy but nobody can tell how they were impressed in their early childhood by this general atmosphere of fear through their parents and neighbors.
    Whether it does matter where these little children have lived at the time, be it in a direct neighboring country of the nazis, in it itself or on another continent, i don’t know. But for sure, fear is not the right environment to nurture a healthy growth of innocent children and it is said that the fear of the “unseen” has a greater impact than the fear of the seen.
    Your article reminds us that there are millions of reasons we can be thankful for, especially if anyone was spared from having to go through such hardship.
    Hopefully, this can also awaken a new sense of compassion with our fellow men and women.

  • My father was a small child who lived in Poland during WWI. He could have easily been a dead 6 or 8 year old, killed by an artillery shell or a stray rifle bullet, much like the boy shown in the photo.

    He told interesting stories about his experiences, some of which I put to paper after he had died so my children would know the grandfather they would never meet in this world.

    He mentioned – once and once only – that one of his brothers had died in Poland – and said not a word further about the topic. I have to wonder how much was hidden behind what my father didn’t say.