Life, Death, and Fearing an Attack at Home

For the narrators below, the war was synonymous with fear and danger: the shrill whine of an air raid siren, the tension of hiding in a dark crowded room, news footage of a bomb-ravaged London, Life magazine’s photographs displaying American casualties at Guadalcanal. As a child, Francie Miller had dreams of catching bombs falling on her mother’s Victory Garden and of escaping Europe through a trapdoor in her grandfather’s attic. Amidst the horror and death, the war saved Sybil Wolin’s life. After her appendix ruptured, she was treated with penicillin, a drug that underwent accelerated production and distribution because of the war.

Memories of Air Raid Drills—Philip Cicconi

I can tell you that one of the scariest things for us, there would be air raid drills and blackouts. And when the sirens would sound, you know, you had to turn off all your lights, pull your curtains and shades and blinds, and be under a table, and I was terrified. You know, It was really scary. I had no idea. you know? I had no idea at all. I never projected far enough to say, Oh my God, there’s going to be a bomb on my head. It’s nothing like that. It was just like man, I don’t like this. This is really uncomfortable, you know? Hiding, lights out, people whispering, I don’t know what they were whispering for.

Fear from Watching Air Raids on Television—Frank Fiorello

I was always afraid of the air raid because I thought for sure that they would come and we‘d be bombed. Although we didn’t have a TV, we used to go down to the candy store. In the old times, the candy store had a TV, and you would go down there and you would watch the news. We didn’t even have a phone. The phone was in the candy store. If you wanted somebody, you’d call the candy store and they would send one of the young kids up to the house for the phone call. But mainly, the stories I told were of being afraid of being bombed.

KA: You mentioned that you would watch the news at the candy store. Now, was that a very dramatic experience?

Oh yeah, of course. Again, because everybody was there and everybody was in the same boat. We were all young kids and we were all kind of afraid. Again, eight and nine, very impressionable, and then you would see whatever they would show on the TV. If they showed you bombings, especially in London, which was really devastated, you’d see a lot of that and you think, “Oh my God, if this happened here.”

It could have happened in our neighborhood because the borough of Queens, the East River just crossed it—we were right near Manhattan. So Manhattan would be the place they would bomb. They wouldn’t really come after us. But who knew? Yes, we were afraid—very dramatic to watch the TV.

Images of American Causalities—Lew Halin

One of the things that I think would be remarkable to put in your memory was that early on in the war, they did not allow any pictures or any notice about American casualties. And the first time that they allowed, any to my knowledge, I must predicate it with that statement— that the first time that were any public pictures of American casualties was after the invasion of Guadalcanal. And there was a picture I’ll never forget—pardon me — (tearful) of the beach at Guadalcanal with the bodies floating in the water. All these years later it still gets me. Did we know? No, we did not know very much. I guess the adults knew, I have to predicate that I was ten, and eleven, and twelve years old. I was only fourteen when the war ended, so I was relatively young early in the war. But I remember when Life Magazine had that picture, and it was a big thing that was talked about on the radio — the first pictures of casualties that were coming back.

Nightmares about the War—Francie Miller

I have two dreams that are reoccurring still, and they have to come out of the war years. One of them was of myself rushing around in the garden. My mother is weeding, oblivious to the bombs dropping out of the sky. And I’m, you know, catching them, trying to keep her (laughs) from being blown up. That’s one of the dreams that I have had. I don’t have them anymore, but I had them a lot. So obviously there was something going on in the kid brain that was aware of stuff happening out there that I wasn’t sort of processing. I don’t think I have pictures of bombs dropping that I drew in kindergarten or anything. That dream was really something.

The other one involved a trapdoor in my grandfather’s closet, which actually went to our attic. But when I dreamed about it, it went to Europe directly. If I went into, through the trapdoor, I could find bombed-out Europe. And how I knew about it as a kid, I don’t know. It must have been photographs. You know, [it was] newsreels. But I’d bring kids back through the trapdoor to my house.

Then one day I went to sleep, I couldn’t get through the trapdoor anymore, I was too big. Awhh, it was awful. I woke up weeping. But obviously, my subconscious had gotten tired of my thinking that I was going to be, rescuing kids from Europe, so it gave me a good knock on the head.

Penicillin—Sybil Wolin

In 1944, my appendix ruptured and I had a massive bacterial infection throughout the whole peritoneal lining of my body. I was 4 years old and I got the drug. It was amazing. So there were these wild stories going around. I remember my mother telling me that the doctors told her you, you know: “Frieda don’t worry. She’s not going to die; we have this wonder drug.” I knew it as the wonder drug.

And I have memories of being in the hospital. This was not just stories that were being told to me afterwards. I have memories of receiving a blood transfusion. But there was a lot of confusion about who was getting this and why, and you know, my parents were certainly not on any inside track.

I guess because I was a child, and I was clearly dying, and I clearly could be helped. And that appendicitis, and infections from appendicitis, were common, so that if it worked on me, you know then they had a good thing. Because you know it was new, and curing bacterial infections were new . . . and so I got penicillin. And I lived.

The war was for me in this bizarre, ironic way, it saved my life while people were dying. I mean that’s the thing: people were dying. My neighbors’ sons, you know, all over the world – all over Europe people were dying and I lived. Because the war accelerated the understanding and the production and distribution of penicillin.