Thoughts of Home

an oral history of

Gerry Ritchie

3/7/99

by Brian Tomchick


 
 

My interview with Gerry Ritchie was the first of two I was to perform the evening of March 7th, 1999. She was also to be a part of a documentary, along with her husband, that would be completed for my final project in Dialogue of Violence. Although sharing no relation, I have already created a close bond with Mrs. Ritchie; through an acquaintance with her granddaughter. She resides in Macomb, Michigan, and was born in 1929. She attended high school during the time of World War II, and after claiming that she wouldn't remember much, she surprised us both. Following the rituals of me setting up the video camera, and her situating herself on her living room couch, we began with the formalities.

*

My name is Gerry Ritchie, and what I remember is that we were on Harsen's Island [in Lake St. Claire, MI]. And on our way home we had to go Selfridge field in Mt. Clemens [MI]. All these soldiers were running around. My father turned the radio on and we heard President Roosevelt saying that he had declared war. We were in war, and that was that.

The Beginning:

The first I heard of the war, was that we had Hitler and Mussolini. They were fighting over there, and I knew that the United States wanted to get in the war, but they couldn't, there was no reason for us to be over there. Most of the older people had said, the reason we were in the war is because Roosevelt knew that they were going to bomb Pearl Harbor and he allowed that they could declare war and that we could get into it. In those days you supported everything the president said. If the president spoke you banded together, not like they do now with Congress fighting against him [Clinton]. All you really had was radio. Everybody rallied around Roosevelt.
 
 

Life changes:

They had silk stockings, and you had to go to nylon. I was younger, so I didn't have to go to work. They had gasoline stamps, A B or C. You had food stamps. All of your food was rationed. It didn't really bother us. We had more than enough food. I was in high school, I would say. Most of the older kids that we knew, twenty to twenty-two, they were going into the service. That affected us. They were all joining up, or drafted, then you had to go. What affected me most was when the war was over, they were coming from Camp Adabury, Indiana. They were coming to Harsen's Island and their arms and legs were gone; their faces blown away. Then you were seeing the real effect of the war. Since you didn't have television you had to go to the show, and see AThe Eyes and Ears of the World.@ That's how we got our news along with radio. These were young men coming home, and they had to take their legs off to go swimming. I would say that was when they got started on all this plastic surgery that they have now.
 
 

War:

You were writing letters all the time, to keep up the morale. They called it V-mail. It was a long sheet of paper, instead of a ten page letter. If you were going into Normandy or Guadalcanal, if you were going thru that now, you would have Tom Brokaw filming. We didn't have that back then. If the president said this was it, then this was it. If the women had to go to work, then they went to work.
 
 

Movies:

You would go to the movies and you'd see a movie. And see AThe Eyes and Ears of the World.@ You would get all your news from there. You'd see all your fighting from there. That was the only way to do it. You were very excited to see it. Of course they didn't really show you the guys getting shot. They'd show the stretchers with the bodies, but none of the blood and guts. You always believed it.
 
 

Sudden Changes:

Nobody had been in a >war'. My parents were really young then, nobody said much about [against] fighting in a war. The bad part was, it was the Germans, twice, that started wars. But they rounded up all the Japanese and put them into camps. Why didn't they round up the Germans? They [the Japanese-Americans] were born and raised here, especially in California. They had the rose gardens, and the greenhouses. It wasn't really fair. They didn't do much, except that they did bomb the United States. It was the Jewish people that took the beating in Europe. We never really heard about that, until about fifteen years ago.
 


Racism:

Racism is probably worse today than it was then. You had your neighborhoods, as they [immigrants] came over. You didn't have the problems then. Detroit would have been your Polish, and your black people. We got our ideas of the Japanese people from the movies. They always made them out to be bad, like Hitler.
 
 

Movies:

There wasn't John Wayne or anybody like that, because they were all in the service. All of your big stars were gone. You had to rely on Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

Hitler and the Japanese were depicted really badly. The films depicted the fact, that if they [the Japanese] couldn't get to you any other way, they'd dive right into you: Kamikazes. That was the bad part with them. They always had their teeth coming out so that they looked like they had buck teeth. They weren=t really depicted as nice looking people. Any posters you saw would be with big teeth, coming at you, depicted poorly.
 
 

Camps:

I couldn't understand why, when they were born in the US, that they were pushed around so much; putting them into concentration camps. It just was not fair. The only way we knew about it; we didn't really make long distance phone calls because they were expensive; my dad's cousin sent pictures back of the rose gardens and greenhouses. That's the first time we knew about the concentration camps. It was mostly in California that we heard about it. We didn=t hear about other Japanese people around the United States.
 
 

A Government War:

They dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor on a Sunday. If they hadn't dropped the bombs we wouldn't have gotten into it. They had some prime minister over here, to look like they were trying to make peace. That's when we knew it was a setup, plus it was a Sunday, when everyone was off their ships.

The government said very little in those days, except when they spoke you jumped. We had to buy savings bonds in school. We filled a [Savings bond] book with stamps, that was a big deal. My dad did work in Detroit, in a building that the government had taken over, nobody knew why, you just knew it was the government. Nobody asked questions, but these days, they'd be in there asking a lot of questions. They put a fence around Sault St Marie. Nobody could get close to the Sault Locks.
 


Air Raids:

We never figured we would get bombed. We had air raid sirens that would go off. You couldn't even light a cigarette, because they'd see it up above. At night, we would have to go inside. They'd have wardens walking around making sure that your lights were out. One guy did light up a cigarette, and you'd would=ve thought he killed a cat.

Our neighbor thought she never would've made it to the US. She was from Germany and barely made it through all of the bombings at that time in Europe.
 
 

Horrors:

Anytime you see someone come back from war with their face blown away, you never forget. I never forgot what they did to this one guy. I was seventeen. They would roll his skin up, every so often, from his legs up to his face, to keep it alive. The extra skin grew on his face, and they cut out the eyes and the nose in the skin. They reconstructed him the way he was before, but with a large piece of skin around his neck. It's still difficult to see a guy take his leg off to swim.

Everyone was close before the war, so the war didn't bring us that much closer. Everybody knew each other.

We had one [friend], every time a freighter would go by, he'd fly under the table. It was difficult for us. One guy went in the water and lost his glass eye in the sand. We all helped him search for it.
 
 

Current Times:

I don't think that we should be over there [Iraq]. They have been fighting for a long time and they'll continue to fight. We are losing all of our good men, for what? They're going to come and bomb us, because we've got too much nose trouble. We say peace, but are we really there in peace, or are we causing trouble?

I don't think that we have the good men that we used to have. Now we have the news media in the middle of everything. Roosevelt had an affair, and we didn't find out until twenty-five years later. It just wasn't allowed for the news media to have their nose in everything. All I can think of is a bunch of little old ladies on the porch of a nursing home. To me that's the news media talking back and forth, and if they'd shut up everything would be fine. I think television started all of this [gossip], bringing it right into your front room. Today, you've got the president saying one thing, and fifteen other senators saying what he should or shouldn't have done.
 
 

Controversy?:

When Truman spoke, you almost had to go along with him. He just said, drop the bomb. At that time, the war was going on way too long. Germany had surrendered, the Japanese were still going on. They were dirty fighters. He had to do something, I think it was a hard decision. Nobody had thought twice about the order to do it. They say that they saved all those lives by dropping the bomb. They showed how it mushroomed. Later on you saw what happened to the people. They [the US] built it back up and helped as much as they could.

No, I don=t think anyone argued over the atomic bomb, but then again nobody had any use for the Japanese anyway. All we heard about was Hitler, and Mussolini. Nobody heard much about the Japanese, until they came over and bombed Pearl Harbor.
 
 

Today:

Today, I still wouldn't trust the Japanese or the Chinese. They did depict them as very sneaky. If you turned your back, you'd have a knife between your blades. To me, they are over there getting bombs ready. We have to start watching them more.

The media is trying to keep it so that you love your brothers. I think racism is still out there.
 
 

Respect:

World War II got the respect it deserved at first. When the Korean and Vietnam Wars came around it blocked out WWII, and was kinda forgotten.

I don't think that the younger generations have the respect that the older generations have. Then again, the mothers and fathers are out working, the kids are watching Jerry Springer. Back then you sat around as a family. There was no television. Now it's easier to go to the mall on Sunday, then go and see grandma.

I haven't seen any of the recent WWII movies. I've heard of a few men that wouldn't go see it, because it brought back too many memories of it.
 


Memory:

The most memorable thing about the war, was seeing all the boys come back all shot up. And talking to people that got plastic surgery. It's scary to think how close the war came to us. I had a penpal in England telling me about how the bombs were being dropped over there, but you never experienced it.

*

I felt closer to Mrs. Ritchie that day. It was as if I took a part in preserving a piece of history. She had taken the time to verify many of the things that I was currently learning about, but was always afraid to believe.