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My View: Memories of WWII resonate today

By Helene Lee

Earlier this year a friend asked me if I remembered the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. She was collecting memories from many people of that sad day for a book she was co-authoring. I did indeed remember my disbelief and fears, wondering where this horrid happening would lead.

When the book was published and I read the copy, including my contribution, I realized the mind truly retains important events like 9/11, VE Day and others, and as a history buff this led me to Pearl Harbor Day and the day World War II began for the United States. Although I was very young, I remember so well.

My cousin John was home on leave from the National Guard at the time, and while visiting my parents and grandparents he asked my mom for permission to take me to the movies, a local theater, to see an Abbott and Costello movie.

Entering the theater, I recall noticing all the uniformed young men, including my cousin. A half-hour into the movie, the theater darkened completely. Then, amid loud derisions, a single spotlight shined down on the stage, the manager stepped into the light, held up his hands for silence, and quietly announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, America is at war. The president just made the declaration. All leaves are canceled, all serviceman report to their base. God help us.”

Because of the war in Europe, many young men joined the services, willing to defend America if our country became involved in that war. But Pearl Harbor bombed by Japanese? Very few thought this would happen.

The silence was quickly replaced by gasps, calls for God’s help, muffled sobbing, then the sound of heavy footsteps – boots, I surmised – as uniformed young men trudged up the carpeted aisles.

This was Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the day that has lived in infamy. This was a Monday, a holy day, and I had the day off from my Catholic elementary school.

We did not see John for two years, when he came home suffering from malaria, a recurring illness caught in the South Pacific islands. But he did come home, unlike the son of close friends who rests at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Another cousin lies thousands of miles from home. His B-24 went down over Belgium. And another young man we knew, a Marine, came home and tried to shake off the war images by drinking. Then he gave up, running his motorcycle into a tree.

The war brought many other changes, like food and gas rationing and air raid drills. I remember curling up under my desk at my school while praying. My mother bought black material to drape our windows, thereby preventing any light escaping. Street lamps were dimmed. Anyone out at night carried flashlights, if batteries were available. The beam had to be aimed downward.

And everyone was hungry for news of the war. Newspapers like The Buffalo News, Courier-Express and the Polish paper provided updates, but we mostly sat glued to the radio or in the theater, mesmerized by war newsreels.

The price in human life was tremendous. Homes displayed small flags featuring blue stars that meant someone in that family was serving. A gold star meant the family had received the dreaded War Department telegram.

War is truly hell. This our current president must realize. Perhaps if he read and studied American wars, he would tread very cautiously when confronting a foreign government like North Korea.

I truly hope that Pearl Harbor Day is always remembered for what President Roosevelt called it, a day of infamy.

Helene Lee, of Lockport, remembers the day America went to war.
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