Gerritsen Beach and 
"The War"

by Artie Richard

Dedicated to the Greatest Generation

 

After December the 7th 1941 the Great War, the war to end all wars, became World War I. Now we had a new war, World War II. 

The European fight had gone global. FDR was chomping at the bit to get into it but the pro-German segment in the US was very strong. The many Irish-Americans were very anti-British. Added to them were the numerous "don't get involved" groups. FDR had to content himself with giving England 50 destroyers. Certainly there were other things done secretly. US PBY flying boats were spotting German subs for the British destroyers. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked by aircraft from six Japanese carriers at the same time that two of Japan's diplomats, unaware of what was to happen, were in Washington, D.C. Italy was allied with Germany and Japan in what came to be known as the Axis Powers. 

What followed were four years of war that shaped the future of the world. The pro-German and the anti-British groups became irrelevant. We were in it. Science and technology were at the point that, spurred on by the conflict, strides were made that would not have been possible in peace time.

There is an old cliche that goes: everybody remembers what he was doing when such-and-such happened. I have a vague memory of something really bad happening at a place called Pearl Harbor and it had to do with Japs, bombs, and battleships. 

In those days families gathered around the radio. I remember my family paying much closer attention for the next few days. At the tender age of seven I was about to spend half of my formative years at war. Our family was very fortunate in that there were no casualties. My grandmother's brother Jack was in Moscow with the State Dept. when it happened. Her other brother Jim, who lived with us, became a night watchman at a military installation in Sheepshead Bay on Emmons Ave. I remember him dropping a .32 cal. automatic in the pocket of his pea coat before going to work. Jack's son Jackie went into the 82nd Airborne Division and brought home a gold-colored parachute for my grandmother Molly because she could make anything out of any kind of material. Her sister's husband Bill went into the Navy, who pulled all his teeth. He became one of the See Bees (Construction Battalion) and was in the New Hebrides and Fiji Islands among others. The Navy had given him a complete new set of dentures. As he ducked his head to go through a hatchway on a Liberty Ship. a bomb landed nearby and his teeth were blown out of his mouth and shattered on the deck. Not being able to eat the rations on combat missions, he was restricted to the ship. That's probably why he came home in one piece. I remember a photo of him dancing in nothing but a grass skirt and combat boots. My mother's cousin Billy was what he referred to as an "Army combat cook."  They all came home. Not everyone in Gerritsen Beach was so lucky.

For a while it looked pretty bad. We were not ready. The Japanese, with a superior type torpedo, were on a rampage in the Pacific. We all know the names of the Islands that fell because Hollywood made movies about them almost before the dust had cleared. The few old U.S., British, Dutch, and Australian cruisers and destroyers in the region were sunk in bloody, one-sided battles. The British were kicked out of continental Europe with great loss of life. Japanese soldiers landed on Attu Island in the Aleutians. All this grim reality escaped me. With a child's natural optimism I never doubted that we would win. It seems now that Japanese Admiral Yamamoto agreed. He told the Imperial War College that if they did not defeat us within six months they would be beaten. They did not and they were.

In Gerritsen Beach there were paper drives and everybody was saving newspapers. There was gas rationing at a time when not everybody had a car. There was sugar rationing and I still remember some of the awful sugar substitutes. Tin cans were saved and recycled. There were bond drives and blood drives. Millions of packages were sent to the fighting men no matter where they were. There was the mail written on stationery like tissue paper and sent to an anonymous APO box. Then the replies from the front, also on tissue paper, with certain parts blacked out. There were the blue stars in the windows of many houses. Sadly too many changed color and became gold stars

As America's industrial production geared up and a new bomb sight accounted for the destruction of much Nazi real estate, things began to look better. The Normandy landing in June 1944 was the turning point. If it had been thrown back I shudder to think what might have been the result. Small two inch square maps began to appear each day in the Daily News. They were a visual record of the losses and gains in Europe as our boys pushed toward Germany. I clearly recall the black arrows denoting the advance of this regiment or that battalion and the shape of "the Bulge." I started saving these little maps and keeping them in a book. As the two sides slugged it out back and forth across western Europe time dragged on seemingly forever. 

Suddenly all the newspaper headlines were alike. Daily News, New York Mirror, NY Post, Herald Tribune and Journal-American: V-E DAY. Victory in Europe. Everybody went wild. Now we can concentrate on those Nips. Concentrate we did. None of us was even remotely aware of what was going on out in the dessert of New Mexico. The "good guys" had won in Europe. Ah, if only it were that simple. It was decades later that I heard from my German-born wife Hanna about what happened when the Russian (really Mongolian and Tatar) "good guys" entered Berlin. The Soviet field marshal, knowing that the native Russian troops would not be cruel enough to take revenge for Leningrad, spearheaded the advance with the brutal, semi-civilized units from the Central Asian steppes. But there was no sympathy for the enemy and the war in Europe was over.

Now it was time for what came to be known as "island hopping" in the Pacific. All the islands that had been lost were retaken. At home we got a geography lesson on places that had been just names. At sea there were other victories in major battles that cost the Empire of the Rising Sun all their carriers and battleships including both super Dreadnoughts sunk by aircraft. At last the only thing left was the invasion of the Japan itself. It had become the Empire of the Setting Sun. After seeing how hard these Japanese held on to nameless spots of dirt in the ocean it could only be imagined how they would fight for the homeland. And what would happen to the POWs in their hands

From out of the blue came the second major headline appearing in all the newspapers. ATOM BOMB DROPPED ON HIROSHIMA. I remember meeting with some of my cronies on Eric Nordgren's front stoop. It had become our "war room," our "strategy room." The bomb had been incorrectly described as "football sized" when what they probably meant was "football shaped." It was here that we regularly briefed each other on the proper tactics foe "the war." We discussed the situation in detail. We wondered, first of all, what the hell an Atom Bomb was. Undeterred by lack of information we went on for hours discussing what had been done and what should be done in the future. "Let's drop one on Tokyo. Let's drop two or three." Believe it or not it took another A Bomb to bring the Japanese to the peace table. Thank God they did not know we only had the two. Man, you don't mess with America.

Major headline number three: V-J DAY IT'S OVER. Victory over Japan. Parades and confetti followed. Who has not seen the famous photo of the sailor kissing the girl? The veterans of Europe were now freed of the burden of starting over in the Pacific. Euphoria spread across the land. Surplus Jeeps were selling for $50. How could any of us know that Utopia would be so short-lived? We did not know about the dark days that were waiting for us. Some of the very same men who survived the carnage of the war would be called on to die in a cesspool of humanity called Korea, fighting in a struggle that would not even have the dignity of being called a "real war" but a "police action."

Some say that it was wrong to drop the bomb on Japan. They say it was racist. Many who argue this were not even born at the time. Some say we should have just demonstrated the power of the bomb by dropping it on some deserted island, even though we had only two. They cite the numbers killed and maimed by the bomb. But they were not among the soldiers getting ready for the bloody invasion of Japan. They were not among the POWs who had already survived torture and savage beatings. They have never examined the casualty figures of what happened in Japan due to conventional bombing. 

I don't know about you, but I find it hard to understand how the same people who committed the acts of brutality in China, Bataan, and many other places could so soon become such polite, well-mannered people and who are among our closest allies and trading partners. I will have to think this mystery over while driving to the post office, to mail this piece you are now reading, to Marret. While driving in my Honda CR-V which replaced our Toyota Tacoma pickup.

 

Last changed: June 28, 2002