by Stephen McNamee
Kathleen McNamee, my grandmother, is 83 years old. She is the mother of eight children and a teacher to countless others. At 83, my grandmother still has a sharper memory than Ill ever have.
In this interview, I used the letter Q to signify when I was speaking and the letter A to signify when she was speaking. Any words that are boldfaced are words that I could not make out or places that I did not know how to spell. Also there are a couple of blanks for words that I did not understand at all. The interview begins with my grandmother talking about the start of the war.
The war in Europe started in September of 1939. I was 24 years old. We got into the war in December of 1941. Grandpa went in the war in July of 1942; I was 27. He started out in the Medical Corp. and he was at Camp Robinson in Missouri. For his basic training he was promised a commission after basic training and I went to visit him down there over the Labor Day holiday. I was pretty green I guess. I didnt realize when I went to make a reservation for passage, by train then, over Labor Day that that was one of the busiest holidays of the year, which was compounded by all of the GIs and their families traveling.
The travel agent with whom I had some business got me a reservation to Chicago and an overnight stay in Chicago and then on to Missouri. I took MaryKay with me who was then 20 months old.
When we got down to Little Rock, Arkansas and Grandpa met us, he said it was almost impossible to get a room there, that rooms had been reserved for over a year by people who were in service. He had tried every hotel and motel around. He went to the USO Facility, an enlisted man, and the man there told him that he didnt have anything available and then he remembered that there was a woman who had been a nurse who had offered a room in her home to a GI who could not afford another accommodation. Well of course we could afford it and Dad (my grandfather) offered to pay, but finally this man talked her into letting us have the room and in as much as I was bringing a small child and everything. We went there and this couple had laid out a bowl of fruit in the bedroom and they had decided to go away to Hot Springs for the weekend and just leave us the house to ourselves. They didnt know us from Adam and I often think of what a wonderful work of charity that was. We stayed there both Saturday and Sunday and we left on Monday.
My first time there we ran into discrimination. We went to a restaurant in Little Rock, nice restaurant and hotel, and they wouldnt let us sit in the same Dining Room where the officers ate. We had to sit in the lower class room.
The people we stayed with got up Labor Day morning and prepared a huge southern breakfast for us. We told them that we had intended to eat on the train. They told us that we had better eat before we went. So of course we were very grateful latter when we got on the train, which was the oldest air conditioned car. The air conditioning consisted of ice packed into the top of the train, which leaked all over the place. It was like we were having a steady rain all the way to St. Louis. Because they had so much, there was so much stock rolling, they had put every old car available in service. We got packed in so we couldnt get out of our seats. As the people got on at each stop on the way, they were all bringing baskets of goodies from their home towns back to St. Louis and they would all give MaryKay cookies or anything else they had that she could eat because she was so hungry. Again I thank God for them. We arrived in St. Louis I think about 6:00 at night, we left at 8:00 in the morning, all wet and dirty and we boarded the train which we just had minutes to make it there. We had a sleeper and as soon as they turned the water on I took MaryKay in and washed her up and then some salesman offered to watch her while I went in to wash up. The man was certainly a brave sole because neither of us were able to get to the toilet all day and they didnt turn on the water of course until we were half way out of St. Louis. Then we went into the diner to eat but there wasnt any place to sit at a table for us until some other kind gentleman offered to move over somewhere so we could sit at his table. When we hooked onto another train there was an awful jolt on the train and 20-month-old MaryKay was holding her glass of milk and did not spill a drop, she didnt want to waste anything because she was so thirsty. That was quite an experience I will never forget.
Q: "How old was grandpa when he entered?"
A: "It was 1942, he was 33 going on 34."
Q: "So he didnt have to join the army."
Q: "So what did you think when he said he was going to join?"
A: I was willing because he was very unhappy in his work and I knew he wanted to make a change. There was a lot of excitement then. People were feeling very patriotic and they wanted to do there part and he felt very strongly about that. So he volunteered, but only on the basis of getting a commission so that I would be provided for.
At Camp Washington where he was in officer training school, they had very, very intensive training. Furthermore someone got some kind of disease and their barracks was quarantined for a couple of months of the time they were there.
He finally graduated in the following May, I think it was.
Q: "So after boot camp he went to officers training?"
A: Yes, and he got his commission in May. I went down to Washington for the ceremony. We had a couple of experiences there where we were getting out to the camp in the morning because that was quite a long haul. We had to take a boat to get there. We made it.
Then he had leave for about two weeks I think it was. He was assigned to Camp Carson, which is now Fort Carson outside of Colorado Springs in Colorado. He was in Colorado in 1943 and then I followed after a few months, I dont remember the exact dates, I think it was June. When I got there, again I found that everything had been rented for months. I stayed at a hotel and they told me about people that had been there for a year or a year and a half looking for places. Again God was with me and I found a real nice house. The selling point or the reason the woman rented to us was because she fell in love with MaryKay, who by this time was two and a half years old. We were there for 10 months and we had a very nice life there. It was a small headquarters and grandpa was the personnel officer, which was not what hed been trained for. His colonel said when he got there, well you will be, and in a couple of days he was.
It was a small headquarters and we did a lot of socializing when the men were available and the people were very good to me. We didnt have a car so those that did would take us, at least me and MaryKay, with them where ever they were going. The following spring in 1944 there came an announcement that they were going to move all those officers who had been there too long and it was such a nice spot in Colorado Springs, which was also a great break for us. We werent put down in some hole down south were we would be bugged to death.
I was carrying Margie shortly after Easter. I came back to Detroit to stay with my parents expecting to rejoin Grandpa when he was stationed elsewhere. Well Margie was born three weeks after I got back. When Grandpa was transferred, he was transferred from Colorado Springs to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Q: "In Colorado, often the Japanese Americans from the West Coast, they were often moved to places like Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona."
A: "They werent near us, oh we did have a Prisoner of War Camp there and we used to pass it sometimes and think gees this cant be such a bad war, they were out playing basketball. They really had a nice encampment there."
Q: "Was it European Prisoners of War or Japanese."
A: "This was German."
When grandpa was on his way from Colorado to Mississippi, they gave him quite a bit of time to make the trip so he was able to stop home to see his new daughter who had been born when he was away at camp. That was in September. But when he got there he found out that they were going overseas almost imminently in September of 1944. Then they didnt move from there until the latter part of November 1944, so I left the baby with my parents and went to New York to meet him. We had devised a code that I would say that I was going to visit his Aunt Maggie and Aunt Susan who lived in New York. Then he would be able to meet me there.
Q: "So the code when you wrote to him, why did you need a code?"
A: "Well because we werent suppose to know where they were going, but he wrote and said that he hoped hed be able to see his Aunt Susan and Aunt Maggie.
Q: "So thats how he got around the censorship?"
A: "And here after being so secretive about it, he wouldnt tell me where he was shipping out from or anything. When I was down in New York saying goodbye to him, one of the Red Cross Officers came along and said, "Hi! Steve, are you going to Fort Dix too?" It was all secrecy.
Q: "So when he would send you the code where was he, in Virginia?"
A: "No, it must have been in Mississippi and he wrote to me and said that he hoped that wed be seeing him. They didnt actually ship out until a few days later. It was the early part of December. I was fortunate that my father had some customers in New York that he had been dealing with who decided to entertain us and they took us to, my sister, Peggy had gone with me to take care of MaryKay, and they decided to entertain us at lunch at the New York Athletic Club. They then purchased tickets for us and I think it was for "Mexican Hayride". The only thing I can remember about it was that the tickets cost $6, which I thought was terrible and it was at Radio City Hall.
Q: "Was grandpa with you?"
A: "He had to go back to camp and my sister, MaryKay, and I went. Then we came back and I stayed at my mothers until the following April when my sister, Josephine, had a baby and her husband was over in India. He flew the "Hump" during the war."
Q: "What is the Hump?"
A: "The Himalayas. They were carrying cargo into China."
My brother was in England on the coast where there was quite a bit of bombing and Grandpa eventually went to Germany. He went in advance of the rest of his division which was the 69th Infantry Division. He went in advance of them with a small cabaret of non-commissioned officers, because they were relieving the 29th which had been desolated in the Battle of the Bulge and when he was still in England, they were in England for quite a while, they were there at Christmas time and the English did treat them nobly he said. They had a ball for them on Christmas Eve or something, but the day after Christmas he was sent into London. He was stationed in Winchester. He was sent into London to get supplies for the army, I think they were stationed over where the fighting was going on. He was so mad because it was Boxer Day and none of the stores were opened and no one would give him any service, he was furious, like "Dont they know that there is a war going on?!"
The rest of the troops joined them. Of course the Germans were pretty much on the run, especially after the Battle of the Bulge, and they were sort of a mop-up group, but they did see quite a bit of action. However, there first casualty was a captain who inadvertently stepped off a curb and looked the wrong way; they drive on the opposite side of the road, and he was hit by a car. This was their first casualty.
Q: "And Grandpa, do you know what his rank was?"
A: "He was Second Lieutenant, and at some point he was made a First Lieutenant and he was due to get his Captains Bars when he got out. They tried to persuade him to stay in and he said no."
Q: "How long was he in Europe for?"
A: "He was in Europe from December and the sailed on the Old DeFrance. Beautiful ship, they were impressed. After the first night on board, they were taking the northern passage and only he and about six other people were out on deck, well some of them were not allowed out on deck, but everybody else got violently sick, he didnt fortunately. They had to change their route and go to the southern waters. He described it as being beautiful, the trip. He said of course they werent allowed to light a cigarette on board or anything on deck that may be visible. He said the moon was so bright that they were sitting ducks. The submarines could have seen us from anywhere. Id forgotten exactly where they had landed, but they sort of followed through. They crossed on the Ramogen Bridge and they followed a train and he said that when they were on the road they were like sitting ducks, he said they were bumper to bumper where as they had been trained and taught in Officers Training School that you must have one vehicle separating them. Well there was no room for that, they were bumper to bumper. So many of the things they were taught went out the window.
When they got into combat, his job was to go out and identify the soldiers that had fallen in the field, and then of course he had to write the letters to their families at home. He said that was a tough assignment especially if you knew them. At one point, he and his driver got behind the enemy line, they got confused or something, and pretty soon the Sargent said to him, "You know Lieutenant I think were in the wrong place." All he could tell him was, "Well tell it to the chaplain." But they got back safely and he never had to shoot his gun. The only time he thought he might have to was when some old gentleman was riding a bicycle after curfew and he yelled at him to halt. He didnt know if the man understood him or not and he just kept on riding and he gave him three warnings. So he cocked his gun and when the man heard that he jumped off the bicycle and ran. He said that he was grateful that he never had to use it.
Q: "Did you have any communication with him when he was in Europe?"
A: "He wrote to me everyday and I wrote to him everyday. I dont know how often he would get my letters, I would get his in batches and sometimes not in the right chronological order. He told me to save them for a record when he came back and they were all in his footlocker. When I gave them to Aunt Patricia recently she opened them up and he mustve torn up all the letters and left just the envelopes. All the envelopes indicated was an APO address. So he couldnt tell were he was."
Q: "Do you know why he tore up the letters, was there any reason?"
A: "He mustve read them over, torn them up and destroyed them. There wasnt a letter in there. He wanted them I guess for his own records."
Q: "Now where did you get the information about the war, like all the different battles?"
A: "Mostly from the newspapers. Sometimes from the news reels. I knew he did indicate, of course his letters were censored, for me to watch for what happens on April 25 and of course we didnt find out until later that they had been there for some big ceremony that took place there. They got through; their division was the first one to meet the Russians at the river. It was a mistake, they all had their orders to hold back because they wanted to be there for the ceremony. They didnt know they were so close to the Russians and when some of the men went out wandering around, they met a bunch of Russians doing the same thing. So they swapped some stuff with them, the Russians were paying them money for their watches and things. He said, "You know, when you meet them face to face, they are just like you, theyre poor guys that got roped in."
He did not find the French to friendly. They stayed in abandoned convents, part of them were still in use. They stayed in almost anything they could find and they slept on the ground sometimes. He said that it was so cold that winter in Germany, but he did find the Belgians quite hostile. He was surprised at this, not everywhere but some places they stayed. In some instances they would take over the homes, although they usually let them have someplace to sleep. He described one place they stayed in Belgium where they were sleeping on the kitchen floor, and the door to the barn is right next to it. This house wife who had evidentially someone in the German army would leave that door open at night and the rats would run across. But he said that the rats were so well fed because there was so much cattle dead in the fields, they didnt bother them.
Another thing that struck him funny at the time was one day in the pouring rain in Germany when they went out he saw this woman out scrubbing her stoop. That was about all she had of her house and she was scrubbing it even in the pouring rain. So their fighting practically stopped long before peace was declared, well until they met the Russians at the end of April. When they met them, there was no place else for them to go. He said there became kind of a battle with boredom, they would go out and maybe shoot some deer and he said they liberated some German wine cellar where they had put a lot of champagne, good French champagne I guess and they would pick a lot of wild strawberries and mix them. He would always talk about how that mixture was good.
Because his division was pretty well done with their work, they would give them leave. He went to Paris at one point and toured Paris. He went to all of the museums that were open that he could go in and he went to the Louvre but it really wasnt open but I guess he bribed the guard with some gum and cigarettes to let him in. So he got a guided tour all by himself.
Another experience he talked about when we were talking about the rats was that we were reading here how the cigarettes were so short because the Red Cross was sending them all overseas and sending them to the soldiers, well then he said they never got any. In fact, he didnt have much use for the Red Cross because they stayed so far behind the lines, they werent any good to them. I had just sent him some and he had just received a whole carton of cigarettes and he was in his glory. That night the rats came in and ate through all of the cigarettes in the carton. That was useless. I had a hard time getting a carton together over here.
He got leave to go to Ireland. He went to visit his relatives in ______ Gulf. On his way back he thought hed take a run down to Orlly Field in France where my brother was then stationed. When he got there, Jim (my Grandmothers brother) told him that the 69th division was shipping out. The 69th was all packed up to go to the western front. They were going to Japan, the Pacific anyway. He had to have so many points in order to be discharged, so he had just enough points, he had a wife and two children, his age, the length of service, and extra points for service overseas. So he had enough. But to get out of Orlly Field then, because there was all this commotion about the peace treaty. He was there when the peace treaty was signed in Europe and then the war was over and they were all going to Frankfurt, Germany. Well, he had to get back to Frankfurt to get back to his division, which was then I think at Hess near Lipesinc. Jim, who was a meteorologist in the Air Force couldnt get him transportation until he finally put him on as a crew. I think that was the first time Grandpa ever flew, but he got him on a crew and he just kept praying that nothing would happen and they wouldnt need his services. He said that he got to Frankfurt and there were all these big shots there. He just managed to get back to camp just as they were going to put someone else in his place and he would have had to stay there, so he managed to get on the transport. Then they went to Lamar to ship out. They had to sit there and wait for quite awhile.
I have often said between the three of them, my husband, my brother, and my brother-in-law, they had been in various fields and various forms of combat, the worst thing that happened to any of them was my brother-in-law, Don. He was scalded in the shower when he was in India.
After Josephine and MaryJo (my Grandmothers sisters) came home, I moved back to the East _____ in the bungalow we were renting and my sister stayed with me until Steve came home."
Q: "Now you said you saw newsreels, was that at the movies when you got information about the war?"
A: "Yes, you got some."
Q: "Do you remember the movies?"
A: "I had never went to the movies."
Q: "So where were the newsreels?"
A: "I would see them if I did get there, I would see them occasionally. But most of my information was coming from the newspaper."
Q: "S do you remember any movies?"
A: "I remember movies from that era, I remember one I saw with Robert Mitchum was in it and it was about the war. I dont remember the name of it. It certainly did not make you feel very cheerful or hopeful."
Q: "Do you remember how the Japanese were portrayed in the movie at all?"
A: "They were very compliant, you know yes sir yes sir, you know."
Q: "Do you remember their features at all?"
A: "One thing I remember particularly about the Japanese is the arrogance of their leaders, they had these suicide missions, and they were ever so dedicated. I dont know, I never completely approved of dropping the Atomic Bomb for sure, but when I think of how their mentality appeared to be fight to the finish, we would have been fighting the war for a couple of more years. So I dont know, that was Trumans reasoning.
I knew a couple of young men who were killed over in Iwo Jima. Some of my friends were in the Navy but none of whom were injured. You know they didnt talk much about it when they came home. That has always been a complaint that the veterans of WWII never wanted to talk about it very much. Well the explanations seems to be that the horrors were so awful. More of them are talking about it now and I am waiting to get the book "The Greatest Generations" to see what Tom Brokaw found."
Q: "Do you think that the Germans and the Japanese were portrayed differently in the papers?"
A: "I think that the Germans were portrayed as the more intelligent, both were very hard and determined, although Grandpa said that the ordinary German soldier, when they started and of course they started not just the soldiers but the civilians, they started to surrender in groups. He said that it got so they couldnt take any more, especially they couldnt handle any more displaced people. They did at some point cut off the soldiers sea rations to give them to all these displaced personnel and they put all of the American soldiers on some other kind of a ration, which wasnt nearly as tasty. He said the SS were very arrogant right to the end, they still thought they were the superior race and he said it was really quite a difference between them and the Japanese. They would not surrender and the Japanese appeared to me, from what I remember, they seem to be more like sheep. They told them to do this or do that. The common ordinary soldier, their leaders of course had this divine mission and idea. Hirohito, they considered him a god or something, well he did finally sit down. As I say, I didnt have much knowledge of the Japanese. Then Grandpa came home on the first group to get back. They hit New York on September 16, 1945. I remember it because it was his birthday, he said it was the best birthday gift he ever got was to see the Statue of Liberty. But when you hear about all of the ticker-tape parades and all of the wonderful welcomes, they came in the dead of night and were taken to a processing place in Pennsylvania, I guess, and they were shipped out to their various destinations. He had two weeks home I think and had to go back for final discharge, no he wasnt home that long, and when he came back he was going to take some time off but the Edison Company called him and asked him to report the following Monday morning. Thats when he came back for good.
I guess our experiences here were mostly with ration stamps, shortages, you had to be very careful as to how much you used of anything."
Q: "Was the commission enough to support you and the others?"
A: "I went to work while he was still in basic training, at Denton and Anderson Company, which was a small place up on the boulevard. Mrs. Duffy who was an old friend of the family was really looking for a place to live, so she came and stayed with me and took care of MaryKay during the day. We had a car when Grandpa left, but I didnt drive at the time. I had a few lessons and I had a license since I was sixteen, but nobody ever asked me if I knew how to drive. I would just renew the license, of course I didnt have any tickets or any accidents so I had a perfect driving record."
Q: "What did they do at the plant that you worked at? Were they building things for the war or was it ?"
A: "They were more brokers, they owned a couple of plants, Taylor Winfield Company, theyre all commission now, but they built parts. We were the sales office and we used to get so many calls, you know we never got supplies to people fast enough. Salesmen would tell me to tell them that it was on its way or that it was in transit or something. After a couple of times I said, "You know that its not in transit, Im not going to tell them that. If you want to tell them that, you go ahead. Im not telling any lies like that."
Q: "People in your neighborhood, were they all supportive of the war or was there a time when people were less supportive?"
A: "Most of the people that I knew were supportive, of course so many of the men were in service although a lot of them asked for deferments.
I can remember distinctly being at a football game before the war ever started and hearing a group sitting behind me talking about it, boy they werent going again. Their sentiments were identical with those at the time of Vietnam."
Q: "What time was the football game at? Was this during the war or before the war?"
A: "This was before the war even started and there was a lot of isolationism. People thought wed been sucked into WWI. The minute we declared war, in that respect the Japanese did us a favor by bombing Pearl Harbor. I think all those sentiments exploded."
Q: "What did you think about Pearl Harbor? Where were you when it happened, and do you remember any of it?"
A: "I remember distinctly when I heard about it. Grandpa and I were driving, MaryKay was about 11 months old. It was on a Sunday evening and we stopped at a drug store to get something. Grandpa went in and we stayed in the car. He came out and said, "I dont know whether I heard right, he said that he heard something about a Japanese bombing. I dont think it could be true." Well we stopped at a friends house and oh yes it was all over the radio, of course we didnt have television then, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. This was about seven oclock at night when we heard it. It was like we couldnt believe it. I think we were definitely anticipating going to war in Europe and getting pulled into it. I think we held out for quite a while and then I think everyone was very much afraid of it. We werent expecting anything from the Japanese. I think intelligence had some knowledge of it. We, at least the people I knew, werent concerned about that. We were all concerned about the war going on in Europe. "
Q: "Now the Japanese Americans, did you know about the interment? What did you think about that?"
A: "Well we didnt know much about it. I mean what little we knew, we thought they were only pulling in some subversive ones; we later on learned that they were pulling them all in. The concentration camps I guess I have to admit that we didnt give to much thought to it. We werent very concerned about really what was happening there. We sort of pictured them when you asked me about how we viewed the Japanese, more as sneaky and so we didnt really trust them at all. We figured they were out to get things by any means."
Q: " Where do you think you came up with that, from movies or just from articles in the newspapers?"
A: "Probably both, but I think before that they were portrayed even in film as all of being subservient. They were still kind of, they didnt seem to be trustworthy for some reason, maybe because they looked different."
Q: "Do you think then the government it censored basically about the interment camps so that you didnt realize until after that they took everyone?"
A: "I dont think you realized at the time there was not too much publicity about it. In fact there was very little. I suppose out in California there was more. I wasnt at least that much aware of it. I certainly was reading up on the war all the time. Now if they had actually sent Grandpa and his outfit over there, Id have been very much more concerned with it. As I say, we knew a couple of young men who died over there. One we saw just shortly before had been to a football game with us and he was single. A friend from my old neighborhood was over there and he said they went for forty-two days without a bath. I thought oh my glory. I should think that theyd kill the Japanese just by getting near them. They probably smelled the same way.
Anyway it was when I went to work and then when I decided to quit work when I went out after Grandpa got his commission and I went to Colorado to stay with him. I didnt work anymore after that. I was suppose to get $50 a month when he was an enlisted man and then after he got his commission, I dont remember exactly how much they made but that covered rent. They gave us the housing allowance I guess because we couldnt get housing on the camp."
Q: "Throughout the war were you always supportive of it, you personally, or did you have doubts at any time?"
A: "Well of course I hated Hitler and there were times, I must admit, I felt like what the heck are we doing over there. But I think my main concern was worry. I think I was optimistic, I would think what if he came back without a leg or severly damaged. I guess I had a lot of confidence in God although a lot of other people must have and they still were injured. Maybe I was fatalistic about it. I just thought what ever will be will be."
Q: "Do remember, since you lived in Detroit, the Detroit riots?"
A: "Oh yes, I remember those. I remember particularly the, lets see it was in 1943 and it took place just before I went out to Colorado to join Grandpa, but the Army people out there had been reading about them. You know they thought the whole city was up in arms. I said no, it was quite confined. Of course that was mainly a matter of race. That really didnt have to much to do with the war, but I guess when violence is accepted in one area its probably more prevalent in other areas too. So it was maybe easier for people to erupt. No I remember all of that."
Q: "Lets talk about the rations."
A: "When I talk about the rationing of gasoline, sugar, butter, and meat, we use to go down to the corner butcher shop practically everyday to see if they had any meat.
I remember when I was out in Colorado and became pregnant with Margaret Ann and I went to the doctor and he said that I was anemic and that I should have plenty of good red meat. I was then planning to come home, back to Detroit for Christmas. I said, "Oh my mother would be happy to see me. We would have to have steak and I dont like liver so I wouldnt eat that. However I had a ration book for myself and Grandpa and MaryKay. Well MaryKay didnt eat much, she was only two. Grandpa would eat out at camp quite often because he would be on duty. We had extra ration stamps, so I brought them home that compensated for my having to have all this rich food.
One time I baked because my husband admired some kind of a pie with a graham cracker crust that a friend had served us once. I thought that I would try making it. I used some of our precious ration stamps to make this graham cracker crust recipe she gave me which called for butter. I followed the recipe religiously and when I got through and served it, he ate a little bit and said, "Oh this is awfully rich, isnt it." I felt like throwing the rest of the pie at him. She said I dont use that much and I use margarine, I dont use butter and she didnt put that much sugar in or something. Anyway because this was the recipe she gave me, I followed it. I used to bake a lot of pumpkin pie and I had a good reputation for my pumpkin pie which was very popular with the officers when wed have parties. When any of the other officers wives in our little group were expecting company, theyd ask me if I would bake some pumpkin pies for them. However, they would give me ration stamps to do it because a can of pumpkin called for 18 ration stamps. I found a book of ration stamps a few years ago and I thought oh my glory, I had forgotten all about it."