One’s age influences what we think of when we observe Memorial Day. Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, freshly dominate in the memories of many of us, but to me, the special day is all about World War II. I was seven years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 and 11 when we celebrated V-J Day.
In my row house corner of Baltimore, the war was personal. Teenage boys on Cator Avenue and around our tight-knit neighborhood hurried to recruiting offices and lied about their age to join the fight. Yesterday they were our playmates. Suddenly they became young men, soldiers, sailors and marines, neat rectangular banners displaying stars in their parents’ front windows proudly declaring their service. When it all ended four years later, all but one made it safely home. Roger, a Marine who lived on Dumbarton Avenue, two blocks away, lost his life early in the fighting.
One sailor, my cousin Richie, served on a mine sweeper in the Pacific during the war’s latter stages. When his ship returned to a West Coast port, “It looked like a sieve,” he said. Dangerous work on that ship, finding and disarming submerged mines that threatened Allied ships in Asian waters. Richie saw a lot of action.
At home, our city swarmed with activity and workers as we mobilized to manufacture ships, airplanes, military clothing, even weapons to serve what we called the War Effort. Workers from surrounding states descended on Baltimore’s abundant employment market and crammed into the city’s housing. Many families, including ours, took in boarders, renting out bedrooms emptied by the absences of sons at war.
Our dad was too old, and I was too young to join the military, but my older brother Jack was able to get in after the fighting ended. Assigned to the Signal Corps as a special services photographer, he was sent to Okinawa to help to mop up and try to help restore its residents to some semblance of pre-war normalcy.
Jack and Richie are dead now, but of natural causes, many years after the war had ended. They had returned safely from their military service to rejoin their loved ones. When he returned, Jack wasted little time marrying his sweetheart Nell, and they settled into postwar civilian life and raised a family of five.
Those proud banners bearing stars on a white field are gone from the windows in my old neighborhood. All of my childhood neighbors are gone, too, but not my memory of the war that dominated my childhood and the lives of our neighbors. Not on this special day or on any other.