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In Memories: Resident Recalls WWII

Wartime Memories

By Phyllis Johnson

Phyllis Johnson, who was born and raised in Illinois during WWII

Early 1930s

The somber tone of their voices grabbed my attention. I was playing on the sunroom floor, not yet five. Grandma Anna Max was talking to a friend who had recently returned from a visit to Germany. Grandma had on the usual long sleeved, lightweight cotton, flowered dress and dark cotton stockings. Not yet adapted to the American custom of wearing a bra, her breasts were formless under her dress.

 “It is terrible, Anna,” the visitor said. “Carl and his son, they fight all the time and shout at each other.”  With their serious faces, they now had my complete attention. Many years later I realized the son had joined the Nazi party and it was creating a schism in the family that was having an effect even on family across the Atlantic.


Phyllis Johnson as a child


Cousins Marian and Junior and sisters Marge and Shirley and I were walking home from Aunt Ella’s. A paperboy, with newspapers in a shoulder bag under his arm, came down Prospect waving a paper shouting, “Extra, extra, Hitler invades Poland.”

Junior, 11 years old, immediately reacted, racing the two blocks to our house. “We’ve got to tell Aunt Sophie,” he yelled as he ran. With grandparents having close relatives in Germany, there must have been dinner table conversations, not hushed, about the possibility of war. Even at nine, I grasped the importance of the news.

Dec. 7, 1941

I was playing with Patty, who lived across the street. Something about the conversation in the dining room just wasn’t right. I sensed something was happening. Taking a few steps into the dining room I saw the rest of the family clustered around the brown, shoebox sized radio. I heard the unmistakable voice of Roosevelt. 
Someone turned and quietly said the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. We are at war. I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was. Patty went home.

Vignettes of the 1940s

 Geography ceased to be something in books. Geography was a living discipline. Places in Africa, Italy, France, England and the Pacific became as familiar as the farm towns circling Peoria.

Window Banners

 We all walked to school, a fluid group of giggling, chattering early teen girls. On every block several houses had banners in the front windows. The white, red-bordered banners had one or more blue stars to indicate a serviceman’s home. By silent consensus the chattering and jostling stopped when we passed a house with a gold star signifying a husband, son or father had been killed in action. We walked silently, past those gold star houses, barely glancing at them as if to avoid the grief inside.


 Dad had never stayed away from home, but he took a job supervising concrete work at a munitions plant being built in Dixon, Illinois. From Monday through Friday he lived there, and Dick, his foreman, and Mom ran his construction company. As far as I knew, Mom never had done anything except cook, clean and wash and iron clothes for a family of eight. I can picture Mom and Dick sitting across the desk in the basement office working on a bid for a job. Nurse. Grade school teacher. Secretary. Housewife. Not necessarily. A world of vocations was cracking open for women during WWII and we 13-year-old girls didn’t even realize it was happening.

Letters from Germany

 Late in the war I came home from high school to see diapers, needle and thread, packets of seed, precious rationed coffee and cigarettes on the dining room table. Mom and her cousinswere packing. A letter from Germany had come it was explained. The baby had no diapers, they need clothes and they don’t even have thread to mend the ones they have, food is scarce and there are no seeds. The cigarettes and coffee? To trade on the black market. Coffee and cigarettes were being wrapped in foil so the “machines” couldn’t tell what was being sent.

I silently wondered if Mom and the others could get into trouble doing this. 

They didn’t seem at all worried. 



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