Oral History

An Interview with Joe Bonito

by Joseph E. Bonito

 

This is a transcription of an interview that occurred on March 2, 1999, over the phone from Ann Arbor to Port Huron, MI. The interviewee is my father who was born in August 1933 in Erie Pennsylvania, where he grew up. His parents, my grandparents, were Italian immigrants and he grew up within a very ethnic and close-knit community. He was a young child during World War II, which I hope will give a more unbiased recollection. His older brother Carmel, my uncle, was in the Navy in the Pacific at the time and is referred to a number of times during the interview as a stepping stone for various memories and issues. My grandfather, and Joe’s father, owned a small grocery store next to their home. Joe now resides in Port Huron, MI. He has been retired for three years from teaching and has a Masters degree in History. I have made every attempt to faithfully transcribe what was said but have had to, in some cases, hone his responses in order to provide grammatical clarity, while never straying from the greater truth within the statement. Our conversation went as follows.

Bold Text: Myself

Plain Text: My father, Joe Bonito

 

Where were you when the war broke out and how old were you?

The war started when I was about seven years old living in Erie, Pennsylvania. I was in about first grade.

What is the most prominent memory you have of the war from when you were young?

My older brother Carm being a part of the war in the Navy.

Are there any things you remember in general, experiences about the homefront?

I remember the older kids in school would get out early to work second shift at the GE because of the manpower, labor shortages. I remember things like all the people that had sons or husbands in the service hung these little flags in their windows with stars on them for how many people they had in the service. Often times at mass they would have a special little prayer for the men who were serving. They also used to have a radio program, I can’t remember what it was but they used to end it with that they were going to send, I think it was one of the cigarette companies sponsored it, and they always mentioned the veterans hospital at Battle Creek, Michigan. They must have had a big vet’s hospital there. We also had scrap drives, to kind of boost the moral of the homefront I guess. They would take a day and advertise it and people would bring all their scrap metal and dump it in a huge pile behind the school on part of the playground.

What type of stuff would you take?

All kinds of metal stuff Joe. And rubber and stuff like that. But mostly metal things. It was all kinds of things and anything; people would bring old pipes and even toys made out of metal. They would also bring the tin foil that they got from gum and wrappers like that, they would save it. I remember we used to save that in big balls until they had a scrap drive and they would bring that too. At the scrap drives us kids used to play on the stuff. They wouldn’t collect it right away, because it was right out back of the school there. Kids would go over and look through all the stuff they dumped there. They used to play in all of it you know, we wouldn’t take any of it but we would pick up stuff and play with it. A couple times they had an old barber chair somebody must have dropped off there and we would pretend we were in an airplane and kneel on the seat, the two pipes that came off the back of the headrest were our machine guns and you could spin it around. That was another thing, we used to play a lot of games like that that involved war because of all the publicity and things going on at the time. When I was a kid GE used to test their electric guns on a platform on a bluff overlooking lake Erie, and when they got done we would dive for the shells, we would collect the slugs. We collected baseball cards and during the war we also had gum cards that depicted various different events of the war, on the front it would have a picture of it and on the back would be the story like of Bataan or Iwojima. I can remember that in school we had defense bonds, savings bonds for defense purposes. I can remember people, kids would pay for them. And then you used to buy stamps, kids would and then when you would fill up a book you could take that and turn it in down to the bank or the post office and they would give you a twenty five dollar defense bond. Kids would save their dimes in order to buy stamps. I remember all the posters they had all around town with Uncle Sam on them, you know saying, "I Want You", or different patriotic things like that. They were all over the place, at the post office especially.

What about rationing and such, do you have memories of that?

Oh yeah. Canned goods were rationed, butter was rationed, cigarettes and all tobacco products were rationed, and meat was rationed. Girls couldn’t even get nylons at all, so they would put makeup on their legs and draw a line up the back of their leg to make it look like they were wearing nylons. You would get these booklets from the government with stamps in them and you were allowed so much of things like that every month I guess it was, and when you would buy things at the grocery store they would have stamps that you would have to use. In addition to your money of course. They would also have little tokens as just another form of rations. I remember that gasoline was rationed too, and rubber, like tires and things like that. You were only allowed so many. Same went for shoes, even shoes you had to have a stamp to buy, leather shoes.

I don’t recall how many cause I was a kid but I remember the stamps because Dad had the store and he would accept stamps from customers along with their money.

He would accept the stamps too?

Well yeah, he had too, I wasn’t in place of money, it was in addition to money Joe.

Oh okay, I understand. Did you used to get letters from your brother Carm?

Oh yeah, let’s see, before the end of the war I was 11 or so and I used to write him. Occasionally I would get a letter; he would answer my letters.

Do you remember when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and if so what were your memories of that event?

The only thing I remember about Pearl Harbor was I went to school the next day, it was a Monday I think and I remember the older kids, we had all grades at my school kindergarten through twelfth. The older kids came to school talking about it, what happened. Some of them were talking about joining up and things like that.

How old did you have to be to join up back then?

Well, I think you could join up at 17 with permission, I think.

Without permission was it 18 then?

Yes, I think 18.

How did your parents feel about the war? How did Grandma and Grandpa feel?

Well they had two sons in the war, but Tony didn’t go until later, he didn’t go until a couple months before graduation, in the Air Cadets. Uncle Carm went in ’42, I think he was at college when the war broke out. I think he finished that year. They were proud to have two boys in the service. Pop bought, he was very patriotic, he bought all kinds of war bonds or savings bonds, hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth as time went on. Pop was proud to be an American, he didn’t reject his Italian culture but he made a choice and came here and he had opportunities here he probably wouldn’t have had, life was a lot better for him here.

Did you ever feel any danger of inland attacks on the U.S., like after Pearl Harbor was attacked?

Not really at that time. There was some fear along the West Coast. And even along the East Coast I remember reading about the antisubmarines and such. We did have blackouts, oh yeah, we had a civilian defense core. There were certain people in town that had volunteered to be wardens and they had blackout drills where everybody would turn out their lights. All the lights would be turned out in town and you would practice and close your drapes so no light would show in. They had those periodically.

This was all after Pearl Harbor?

Yes.

Do you remember there being any buzz among older people about these drills and the safety of the inland?

Oh yeah, a lot of people had kids in the service and there was a lot of it. There was never any doubt as to the outcome of the war though Joe. As far as I could see with anybody. I remember the kids, General Electric used to make the electrical components and parts for tank turrets and that and they used to come up Station road from the GE all the way up Station road up to the country to test some of those tanks. When we were kids we would show up there and watch, they would be going up the middle of the street with these big tanks. Every once in a while you would here a military airplane go over, you could tell it was military because of the real loud buzz and it was real fast for those days any way, something like a P-47 Thunderbolt or something like that would come streaking across the sky and every one would come out and look. That was another thing, when a plane flew over everyone would run out and take a look at it.

Wasn’t uncle Carm’s ship hit by a Kamikaze, could you tell me anything about that?

Yup, in the battle of Okinawa.

Do you remember hearing about that at the time?

They didn’t tell us about that till later on. That was classified stuff till after the war. The ships used to have these communicators, they would print up like little newspapers for the guys and then sometimes they sent those home. But generally you didn’t hear of specifics most the time unless they were major ships like carriers or something like that.

Do you remember seeing stuff about the war when you would go to the movies or in papers, or cartoons?

Oh yeah there were a lot of cartoons that would show. They would always show the cartoons prior to the movie and this was before television so they would always have a news of the day thing where they would show the fighting in the Pacific, Europe, or North Africa. They would have a short piece showing the progress of the war. Generally it was the good things that happened. Cartoons often showed the three Axis leaders, we called them the three stooges, Tojo, Mussolini, and Hitler. Slapstick type of stuff.

Tojo with the big bucky teeth, Mussolini with the big chin always sticking out, Hitler with that Charlie Chaplin mustache. The war movies that we saw, sometimes they were frightening, There was a lot of propaganda in it too, and maybe some of it was true, but they were often times shown, the enemy, in the worst way. A lot of it was true especially where the war in the Pacific was concerned.

Do you think that government propaganda played any role in the confidence of the people?

Somewhat, as time went on, but the confidence was there even in the beginning.

What specifically stands out in your mind from what you saw?

Well, the barbarity of the Japanese. They weren’t signaturers of the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners and things like that, they never signed that and they didn’t abide by that so they treated prisoners cruelly.

Would they show that in the newsreels?

Oh yeah, well not in the newsreels as much as they showed it in the movies that Hollywood was producing. And all the movies about the other way like in Europe, they showed the German Gestapo, they were like a federal police. They showed their cruel tactics and torturing of prisoners and interrogation methods.

What type of things did they show with the Japanese?

In the battles of the Pacific like Guadaal Canal, tactics like using prisoners for bayonet practice, and of course movies about the fall of the Philippines, the death march, the Bataan Death March which were factual. Hundreds of American and Philippino soldiers were killed on the way from the Bataan peninsula to the prisoner of war camps.

 

In the different representations of the Axis leaders were there any differentiation between them in the minds of people at home? Were all three seen as equally dangerous or was one portrayed as worse than the other, i.e. Germany was worse than Italy?

Well they used to emphasize the barbarity of the Japanese more than the Germans because they were a different culture and everything, where basically the Germans in a western civilization had a lot more things in common with us than the Japanese. Things like music and literature, you know what I mean, and religion too.

So these representations emphasized the difference of the Japanese culture which made them worse?

They made them more fiendish. And of course a lot of times their policy wasn’t to take prisoners, especially in the Pacific Island fighting. And don’t forget that there were hundreds of thousands of Americans of German and Italian descent.

That’s true, I hadn’t thought about that much.

So I mean, not just new immigrants like my dad but people that went way back to the 1700’s, a third of the population of Pennsylvania was German. A lot of Italians and Germans still had relatives in those countries.

Are you familiar with the Japanese internment camps?

Yes. I didn’t know too much about it at that time, I was too young, but I read about it later. But you know, probably the most highly decorated outfit in the 2nd world war was Japanese Americans, Nichii they called them, who had volunteered to fight in Europe. I think it was the 442 Regimental Combat Team.

I wasn’t aware of that.

Yeah. They called them the Buddha Heads. But they were American kids though, just of Japanese descent. They didn’t let them fight in Asia for obvious reasons at that time because of physical appearance. So they sent them to Europe, they had about a hundred percent turnover, in casualties and kills.

I know there was a lot of fear that the Japanese Americans would turn against us and side with Japan.

That’s why the internment took place with the west coast Japanese, many of them were immigrants or first generation and they put them in camps in places like Utah and Nevada and Colorado. They didn’t do it in Hawaii because there was such an abundance of Japanese that they actually needed them to run things.

Were there any feelings like that towards the German population or the Italian population? Or was it harder because they didn’t look different?

There might have been some. But not a great deal from what I can remember as a kid. Most of these people had sons or even they themselves were serving in the armed services.

When you were a kid do you remember anybody in your community or anybody that you had heard of that was against the war?

When I was a kid I remember this one guy used to come in the store all of the time, he was a friend and community member. He was kind of lukewarm about the war. I remember hearing some conversation and hearing later some comments about his attitude. I heard also there were some people who, because of the labor shortages, they were getting rich- well not getting rich- but they were working steady and had plenty of money and were paying for their houses. Some people even, some people, it wasn’t a very nice thing to say, but they mentioned the fact that they hoped the war wouldn’t be over too soon because they almost had their house payed for. And that really made people, who had kids in the service, it really made them mad you know.

I imagine.

There were people who took that attitude, which was stupid, but you got to remember that we were coming out of a depression just prior to the war too. I remember that my dad had a rental house next to ours, and because of the Office of Price Stabilization he couldn’t raise the rent at all and he rented to these people who made really good money at the GE and they were paying peanuts for it practically. It was to prevent gouging I guess but in this case they were getting almost a free ride.

 

Do you remember when either Nagasaki or Hiroshima was bombed?

Yup, that was 45. Everyone was glad and everyone was happy about it and nobody had any second guessings about that Joe. Most people felt that it brought the war to an end and saved not only American lives but they felt it saved a lot of Japanese lives as well. That was not the first consideration, Japanese lives, at that time. They had caused so much havoc throughout Asia with their brutal treatment of people that nobody really had sympathy for them at that time.

Not only Prisoners.

Yeah, look at the Rape of Nanking, the way they treated the Koreans, the Chinese…

And the Philippinos as well?

Yeah, they tried to portray themselves as liberators of the Philippines, but the people of the Philippines didn’t see it that way.

Do you remember how you heard about the bombings, through newspaper, your parents or other people in the community?

It had to be the radio. Then maybe the newspaper.

I forgot about the radio.

I think it was the radio first. Then you saw newsreels of it too when you went to the movies, which we went to the movies quite often back then.

They showed the explosion with the mushroom cloud?

Yeah, nobody understood at that time the radioactive fallout and things like that.

Did you listen to the radio a lot?

All the time.

Over the air would they give recent accounts of the war?

Yeah and there were programs too. There were regular radio programs like you have television programs today. I remember this one they used to have all the time it was called "Commando" or something, it was about British commandos who would raid the coast of Europe, they did this periodically, but this was a fictionalized radio show.

They had others too about the war and some about the homefront as well. A lot of patriotic songs too.

Do you remember any of them?

There was one they called "Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me", it was about a guy going off to war and he wanted his girl to wait for him. There was also "Johnny Zero", about a kid who didn’t do to well in school and went off and joined the air force and became a crack pilot and he kept getting zero’s but this time they were Japanese zero’s. And you know "When the furer says we is the master race" was also a funny one.

What about "The White Cliffs of Dover"?

Yeah, Okay " There will be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover" I’ve got a lot of those songs on tape.

Do you remember hearing about the Japanese attitudes toward the occupation forces after they surrendered?

From everything that I had heard and have read it was generally a surprise to the Japanese. See, their propaganda depicted the American soldiers as barbarians, they thought they were going to kill and rape their women, and everything like that. But the occupation was quite peaceful from what I remember. I have talked to people that had been there and had been part of the occupation and they never had any problems.

Once uncle Carm came back did he ever tell you any stories?

Sure, he told my about the battle of Okinawa and about the night that his ship was part of a task force that made a torpedo run into outer Tokyo Bay there and caught a Jap convoy coming out at nighttime. They ran a lot of the ships aground and sunk some. It was an all torpedo attack, no firing or anything, so the Japanese didn’t know where to fire, they thought it was an air attack.

This may be a dumb question, but do you remember how uncle Carm, or any other soldiers you knew, felt after coming back from the war, was it relief that it was over?

Ahh, yeah, at that time Joe, most of the guys I can remember, they were just glad to get home. I remember one friend of your uncle’s, he was standing around telling the guys a story, I was listening to him. He was so happy to be out of the service, he was on a B26 Attack Bomber, he says he took his dog tags and tossed them in the Potomac River when he got mustered out, he didn’t want to see anything or have anything to do with it ever again. But most of the guys were just glad to get home. I can remember that. When a lot of guys came back that summer, baseball was a big thing, each little town had a team. Every once in a while down Route 20 if you were there at the right time there would be a truck full of German prisoners, POW’s that they would bring in to work on the farms out east of town towards the New York state line. You could see them come by in the back of a big covered truck. Once in a while they would wave at you, and you’d wave back. They were lucky ones, they had it made. I also remember that one of our neighbors, they got word that their son was missing in action, he was your uncle Carm’s best friend. He was in the Navy on a sub chaser along the Atlantic coast somewhere. They never knew what happened to him, when it happened everyone was really upset, he was a good guy, good family.

 

Were there any other stories or anecdotes that you would like to add?

I know as kids we used to play war a lot. And there were a lot of war movies at the time. The Sands of Iwojima, etc.

What was your favorite one?

Well they had Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo about Jimmy Dolittle’s raid early in the war there. Everybody was talking about that.

Are there any closing statements you would like to make?

I also remember that some of the older people weren’t even familiar with where Japan was at the time the war broke out, I can remember that as a kid and then years later I thought, boy that was dumb they didn’t even know where it was, you know.

It was a different time back then, a lot slower, and a lot of people didn’t have education, but I never remember there ever being any doubt among anyone about the outcome of the war, ever.