Lester Marshall was born in 1921 in Washington, D.C. After graduating from high school, he completed an apprenticeship at the Navy Yard in Washington, and went on to work as a skilled machinist for Northwest Paper for forty-one years. As a skilled worker, Lester received a deferment from active service in the military. He met his future wife Jo Ann Marshall in 1942 while she was working a government job in Washington. Lester and Jo Ann were married in October 1943 in Cloquet, Minnesota, and later moved back to Minnesota together. Lester died in 2005.
In his interview, Lester discusses his memories of Pearl Harbor, rationing, and blackout drills. He speaks about his work at the Washington Navy Yard and how the war helped bring people together. He also discusses his family and how he met his wife.
Blackout Drills in Washington
Well, for one thing, they had neighborhood defense units, they called them. Men and women that weren’t going to war, we went around and got everybody to black out their windows or help them put up blackout curtains that one of the government agencies came out with. And we didn’t want any light showing outside after it got dark.
There weren’t any street lights; they were capped except for maybe or two—I don’t know really what all. But the streetcars, I think they said they couldn’t go over twelve miles an hour. Because they were on a track, and they couldn’t use enough light ahead of ‘em to see if there was something stuck in the track. I can’t remember, but I think speed limits within the District were twenty-two miles an hour.
TS: That’s lower than they had been before the war?
No, that was the same. But they only went down at night. I think it was twenty-two at night, and twenty-five or twenty-eight during the day—I’m not sure.
TS: But you remember the blackouts.
We had blackouts, yes. And then they brought hard helmets around for us to wear. Oh, we were important. We had nice—like the jungle helmets.
TS: Like a pith helmet?
Yes, but they were metal and they had a headband in there. And then it had the red, white, and blue flag badge on the front, and behind it said “National Defense.” Well, I was important! [laughs]
TS: And that was a volunteer position? Were you asked to do that, or did you volunteer at a local agency or—?
I think they sent a card or something to every household asking for a volunteer. My dad said to me, “You just volunteered,” or something to that effect.
The German Ambassador and His Family
The German ambassador to the United States lived like a block and a half away from where we were. He and his wife had gone back to Germany in 1939. But his daughter, they left her because she was enrolled to go to college. Of course, when the war broke out, her parents were over there. The Axis declared war on the United States after we declared war on Japan.
Of course, they were outside her door right away first thing in the morning. She said that she didn’t know anything about the war or what that was all about. Yes, she was German, she was the ambassador’s daughter. Now they’ve got a whole street dedicated to the ambassadors, Wisconsin Avenue, but that’s where he lived then. Her name was Kritching [phonetic] Heck of a nice girl. She was valedictorian in my class in high school.
TS: Was she interned, then?
Yes and no. They took her away for about six months. And then she came back, and I saw her and said, “Hey, good to see you back. How long are you gonna be here?” Well, she said, “I’m gonna be here permanently.” She says, “I don’t know. I put your name down as a reference.” I said, “Put my mom and dad down too, because they’ll give you their reference.” Well, she says, “I don’t know your mom and dad that well.” I says, “Come on, let’s go meet them.”
After I turned around and told mom when we went there—mother knew who she was—I says, “This is Barbara Kritching. Her father was ambassador of Germany to the United States. And she had the good fortune to be in this country when war broke out.” My dad said, “Good fortune? Her parents are over there.” “Well, she’s happy to be here, and she’s happy to be back.”
And my mother says—and we had rationing by at time [unclear]—she said, “Are you going to live in that place by yourself?” And Barbara said she’d thought she’d had to, and she’d have to get some rations. But my mom said to her, “Our daughter Enola [phonetic] has gotten married just a couple, three months before Pearl Harbor. If you would like to move into her room and take your meals with us, I’ll register you tomorrow for ration books. If you decide then you want to stay on your own, you can do whatever you want. Stay in the room there—you can do it. But if you’re there, you’re going to have to help me run the house, because I gotta have some help.” And as far as I know, it worked out that way for about a year and a half. And then she disappeared not long after. And I was working other places, so I didn’t really know that she was gone.
TS: Right, but she was there for a while, huh?
She stayed with my folks just about a year.
TS: That’s a very interesting story.
I think it started about—some things were clamped on right away. Gasoline was very tight because it came mainly up the Atlantic Coast by ship. These tankers, like they use now—not near as big as they have now—they used to bring it up from Texas and Louisiana, up the coast. And they had places like pumper stations.
Well, after we got into the war with Germany, then they couldn’t do it anymore because they were sinking the tankers as fast as they got away from shore. Well, they had to carry all that oil—what oil we got, fuel oil and gasoline, came up by train. And most of the tankers, they told me at that time, one tanker could carry as much fuel, oil, or gasoline in their hoppers as three freight trains could carry. So it was only emergency vehicles that had more than a limited supply, fire engines, ambulances. But we did have a good [unclear] system of streetcars and buses.
Making a Deal with the Landlord Before Renting an Apartment
Well, and I had one other thing. I said to Mrs. Coats [the landlord], “If you get the paint, I’ll paint the living room. This is the most hideous place I’ve seen in a long time.” She said, “You got a deal. You go buy the paint, bring me the receipt, and I’ll deduct it from your first month’s rent,” or second, or what. It was $55 a month.
She went to the back, and there was a door there. I went to open up the door, and she said, “Don’t go out there,” she says, “You’ll fall off into the ground. As soon as the weather gets nice”—this is February—“I’ve got a man that’s going to come and build a porch there, and he’s going to put a roof over it. He says it’ll be a nice porch. And I’ve got a swing down in the basement when you go on in.
Aw, shucks, we had a private entrance; everybody else had to go through [the house]. You couldn’t see much from the outdoors without going back there. I said to Jo Ann, “You want it?” She says, “I like the bathroom.” I said, “I like the kitchen.” And I reached into my pocket and I said, “How much you [unclear] want down? When can we move in?”
The Personal Impact of Roosevelt’s Death
Well, he was the man that held the country together. Did you ever hear his first speeches after he was elected to office? He called them fireside chats.
TS: I remember the fireside chat concept, yeah. I’ve heard bits and pieces of them on tapes.
“We only have to fear fear itself. We have a supreme person, or being, spiritual advisor, whether he’s up here or over there, around here. My own belief is that he’s everywhere he needs to be. If we do what’s right, he’ll see us through.” I can remember that so well.
But I was at work. But then it went through the [Navy] Yard that Roosevelt had succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. [pause] I don’t know where she [Jo Ann] was.
When I got to my mother’s—I stopped off there on the way home from work—and she was crying. Little kids were crying on the corners, but they were only crying because their mothers were—they didn’t know why. I rode the streetcar and bus most of the time; there were an awful lot of wet handkerchiefs on that bus going home that night.
I just felt that—I think most people did—there was no question about him running for a third term, or a fourth term. There wasn’t a [unclear] whether Wendell Willkie ran against him or [Thomas] Dewey. But there really wasn’t any confusion in their nomination in the party, or that’s the impression I got, that he would be the man any particular year. He had three different vice presidents. He had John Garner for the first two years [terms], then Henry Wallace for the third term, and then Truman. They tried to get somebody that could get out and stump the country [in 1944], and Truman did it.
How the War Changed My Life
TS: In a larger sense, Lester, how did the war change your life?
Well, I had said to my mother and my dad when I got out of high school, at the first chance I got I was going to get out of the District, because I had sinus trouble bad, and it was terrible country for it. But I wasn’t making enough money to move; I didn’t know any place to go to move.
And then, when the war came on, that put a pretty rigid set of rules up for us. You either worked or you didn’t work. And if you didn’t work, they could put you, lock you up. If they couldn’t [unclear], if you were a draft dodge, didn’t want to go to the Army, or you weren’t capable of it, then they put you to work platoons—you went to work regardless.
They put orange suits on the guys in the District. There were a lot of all kinds of—they weren’t draft dodgers; they just physically weren’t able to do either one. But they put them in those patrols anyway.
How did it change my life? Because of the war, she [Jo Ann] went to Washington. Because she followed the war, I met her. Because of the war, I have a bride of fifty-eight years.