Arthur Decamp---Interviewed by Scott Newell
Arthur Decamp is a big man, standing at 6'3" and weighing around 250 pounds. He is an instructor at a community college part-time. Born and raised in Detroit, MI. he spent his childhood during the war dreaming of the day when he, too, could be a soldier. "Those days for me were just like for any kid, we did alot of playing. We didn't play cowboys and Indians, though, we played war. Or spy."
Q. What do you remember about the war?
One thing I remember big time being a kid during the war was the parades. Now it wasn't just a regular parade. They had the Army garrisoned out at Rouge Park and every Saturday there'd be military convoys that would go down Plymouth Road. As kids, ya' know, we'd just go down one block and watch the military go by and it would be jeeps and the whole shot. Yeah, they really had everybody gung ho for the war ya' know, at least the kid We really thought the Nazis were neat. For some reason as a kid, with the Nazi uniform, the Nazi everything, we really thought the Nazis were neat. Not their ideas but their military, and their weapons, and how efficient their soldiers were. My two best friends were named Mueller and Rhinehart. Both Nazis. I don't know what they're like now but at the time they were Nazis, they were future Nazis. They were kind of proud of being German, even though they were American, they were proud of that. I was Polish and a little younger than both of 'em, so I really caught the crap from those guys. When we played war games sometimes we'd play the Germans, the German spies and so on. It's funny, I remember going through that war REALLY frightened of the Japanese and thinking that they were really animals, yet the Germans were alright even though they're the ones puttin' all these people in the gas chambers. 'Course we didn't know about that until the war was ending.
Q. What about the issue of race?
The so called first riots during the war, if I remember correctly, started on the Belle Isle bridge. Some sailors getting uptight and throwing some Black guy off the bridge or some Black guys getting uptight and throwing a sailor off the bridge. I don't know which way it went. But it supposedly started there and it really went, uh (pause) bad. A friend of mine's father he was a higher up policeman, ya know, lieutenant or something like that, and, uh, I actually saw pictures of people hanging by their throats on meathooks down in one of those packing plants. Who did it and why or what? Well, it was all Blacks who were up there so I know why, but who, don't know. That was in '42 or'43. My aunt lived on Claremont near Hamilton (pause) yeah, right on Claremont. Ya' know things were kind of tense during the riots, people were all a little uptight. Peeking out the window we saw this group of Black men gathered on one side of the house a couple doors down across the street. It ended up a carload and several Black men being on one side of the house. They were yelling about something or just being noisy. And the truck, an Army truck came afterwards and just pulled up half way down the block. They lifted up the back and a machine gun shot the black men. Well, my aunt was going a little crazy (laughs) what with the gunshots and the whole thing. Ya know, I was only nine and, uh, (pause) that was something that always shaped my life, cuz' I didn't think that was the right thing to do. 'Course I had little idea why it was going on at that age, but it happened. How many got hurt or whatever I don't know, but it happened. (long pause) Here I was a few miles away from my father, in a house, yet he was in a factory with anti-aircraft guns and search lights and all that, and I was worried about HIM (laughs).
Q. What kinds of things did you do when you were a child during the war?
I remember a junk yard we used to play in that was full of scrapped and wrecked aircraft. They had everything in there. Some of them were bombers, some were fighters and they were destroyed partially and so on. They just hauled it all there. I guess they were in the process of recycling is what it was. Took' em apart and recycled the good things. The guns had been taken out, wasn't any of that, but we were lookin' for them, (laughs) we really were. All we did is find somebody's brains inside of a cockpit. That grossed us all out. They used to have armed guards walkin' around the place, but as young kids, you know that didn't stop us. We got in through the fence and we used to go there all the time to play until we found part of a guy's head all over the side of the cockpit in there. That killed that. (laughing) It wasn't fun anymore. It , war was alot of pictures and radio, and something like that brings it home. Down past Schaefer there, a little west of Schaefer was Kelvinators, they made refrigerators. Then they changed to American Motors and I have no idea what they are now. We used to sneak into there, across all kinds of fields and railroad tracks, tons of railroad tracks back there. We had this caboose we used to sneak into all the time and pretend we were bombing Berlin...Well, they used to test helicopters back there. What they'd do is take up about twelve at once, nose to tail right in row. They'd go up maybe forty feet follow a pattern and drop back down. They saw us ya know, coming there a couple of times and I guess they decided to give us a thrill, and it was. These guys gave us a ride in this helicopter and it was all we talked about for a year afterwards. The guy that was real famous for coming out with the helicopter, Sikorsky, they really played up his name and his helicopters in a big way. 'Course helicopters didn't really get into too much until Korea, but they were makin' em during World War Two, that's for sure.
Q. Were you really afraid during the war?
I was always afraid my dad would get killed. When I visited him at the Dodge Main assembly plant where he worked they were set up for "business," for war. They had the dirigibles (balloons) set up on cables, plus they had aircraft guns, search lights and all kinds of stuff there. To me that was war, even though it was a couple of miles away. I was home safe and my dad was working where the war was. I was afraid my dad was gonna get bombed. Well, of course, everybody was afraid they were gonna get bombed I guess. I remember we had a brick garage. My father put a chimney in it just so that in case the house was bombed we could get warm out there. Everybody was afraid that it could happen. I had one of those air raid helmets. It was white and looked like a British helmet, only bigger, kinda' stupid looking. I collected anything military. I had battle maps because the girl next door used to work at a place that made maps for the government. The war to me was something to play, to act like. Certain gas stations gave out these war pictures. We all couldn't wait to be first to have one. The ways that I was affected in the war.....now my father was making hand over fist being an electrician in the factory. He was working twelve hours a day seven days a week. He bought war bonds. They were always having war bond rallies, even collected from us kids in school. Ya' know, how much can you give for the war effort? They had the teachers do it. They'd get what we had left of our lunch money, or what we could talk our parents to take in and so on...just for the war effort. Actually, you didn't lose anything because you got the stamps. You'd buy the stamps until you got eighteen seventy-five for a twenty dollar bond or what ever the amount was. It didn't seem like a good investment compared to other things you could do.
Q. What about movies, did they influence how you experienced the war?
It seemed to me that back then we would have hardly known the war was happening if it wasn't for the movies. It was the movies that made the Japanese scary and so on. They had us believing that the Japanese were monkeys dressed up in uniforms that liked to rape and kill, ya' know. The Germans were a little better. They were white (laughs). I was shaped heavily by the movies. One I remember was with James Cagney where he was a reporter or something in Tokyo during the beginning of the war or just before and they had all the Japanese in it really evil looking, they would torture people, and they would do this and they would do that. But WE never did that (laughs). I felt the way Hollywood wanted me to. I was frightened of the Japanese. I was frightened of them coming over to this country taking what supposedly is mine, ya know. As a young mind like that you just bought that stuff completely.
Q. Did you see movies alot as a kid?
I went to the movies regularly almost every Saturday. I remember you could go to the movie, see the movie, and get a milkshake for a quarter. There were a lot of war movies, ya know, John Wayne type stuff and a lot of it, we didn't know it then but afterwards it kind of made me dislike John Wayne because of the lies they told us and the lies that he was part of. Ya' know, you do not hold a machine gun by the barrel and fire it. When I went into the military they were using a lot of the same weapons used during World War Two and you do not pick up a thirty-caliber machine gun and hold it by the barrel and fire it. The movies did take a lot of license I found out afterwards. As I got older I found out how much crap they actually fed us. Another falsehood shown in the movies was that you were able to shove a forty-five caliber side arm, which was standard issue in the military, the Americans were big on this gun. The stories went around when we were kids about how to defeat the enemy and so many things like that. If you push the slide then it won't fire. Oh, that was a big story, you were real cool if you knew that one when I was around eleven.
Q. How were you affected by the war?
You know how Americans are so independent. Well back then I think the war actually brought most of us, or least my age group closer together. It gave us something to rally against the so-called enemy. We heard a lot of stuff come back stateside. Like they're killing the Jews or the Gypsies or this and that. Nobody'd believe it. Then in the later part of the war it was yeah, they ARE doing that. I remember rationing. You just didn't get the food you wanted. I remember the white butter all it was was fat I guess but you mixed some yellowing agent whip and mixed this stuff and it made "butter". The good stuff was going to the soldiers. You couldn't get really good food back then unless you knew the black market place to go, of course it was always available there. I remember rationing tokens and stamps. I remember air raid warnings at school, ya' know, get out in the middle of the halls and die THERE (laughs). Just like I remember when they started getting uptight after the atomic bomb, at school ya' know. They had us scared to death. They were writing about how proud we were that "Old Harriet" had stopped Japan, but as I got older I thought maybe we shouldn't have done it, at least not the second one. We got some karma comin' back for that one. China was our good friend during the war then right afterwards they're the bad guy. When I was a kid the Russians were our good friend, too. It's always been kind of hard for me to switch a country on and off like they want us to.
Q. Is there a specific time that you remember that really stands out?
I remember when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I was laying on a bed listening to the radio. I was with my parents over at one of their friend's home. They broke in that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. This seems like it was later in the afternoon. I went in and told all the adults, "hey, know what I just heard "?....they wouldn't believe me. Wouldn't believe me at all. But it was true, they just socked the hell out of Pearl Harbor and that was the beginning.... As a kid during the war I got to know all the airplanes used in the military, all the tanks, all the weapons and I've always been quite a nut when it comes to weapons and stuff like that. At the time the biggy was the Tommy gun, ya know. Tommy was what the British were called. But how or if there's any connection, I don't know. That was the biggy, except for seeing the airplanes go by. Everybody wanted to be able to identify an airplane that was up in the sky, ya' know, whether it was a military plane or a civilian plane. Nowadays a plane goes over and nobody pays attention to it. Back then you wanted to know all about it. You didn't know if it was gonna drop something on ya' or just keep on going. We were very concerned that it would drop a bomb. Oh yes, absolutely, absolutely. I think the only thing that had me more shook up than the war was infantile paralysis. Polio. Polio was something that had us really paranoid in those days. My parents were really frightened and I was afraid to go to a public swimming place, Rouge Park. Which I did a lot when I was young. The newspapers had every day 11 more cases, 20 more cases, ya' know, and it had everyone scared shitless. At least I was scared shitless.
Q. Were there any changes in household, was the daily routine affected?
My mother was one of the first working women, but she wasn't really affected by the war. She was the typical woman in those days, she worked all day at work and then came home and had to do everything. My mother and dad worked so much in those days. My father, he worked at the war factory. Actually made things to go into the war. I actually went into the plant. It was like a family day thing and that's when I saw it. I would have NEVER seen the plant if it hadn't been for that. They had the balloons over it to stop the planes from bombin' it. They had anti-aircraft gun emplacements around it and sandbags and machine guns to keep the saboteurs outta' there. It looked like war, ya' know? That and watching parades on Saturday, where they'd go down Plymouth, is probably for me the closest thing to really being there, ya' know, fighting and all. Back then they used to feed propaganda to people with magazines. Well, they still do, but then it was magazines like MAN, ARGOSSY, MALE, and that's where you really got your information. Whether people admitted it or not, that's where it came from. I read those magazines a lot from early on. Magazines then were pretty cheap and I'd buy used to 6 or 8 of 'em at a time for 15 cents each. I grew up with the draft. I always knew the draft was there and that I was going to spend some time in the military. And I did. I actually loved the military, probably because there was no war (laughs). Nobody was trying to kill me, except the government and my fellow soldiers, and if one was smart enough one could sidestep them (laughs). As a kid, souvenirs from the war, like a medal or a map, was like gold to us. I remember I got a hold of a prize patch. There were movies made about the wars in China and flying over the "hump," ya' know the mountains from China to India and back. It was a regular patch, it had the Chinese star on the one side and then the American star on the other side of the top. This was the patch of the guys who were over in Burma and India and it metal on it so that was a great patch. Some guy after the war bought a "duck". This was one of those vehicles that go on land and in water. He put it out in his yard. After only a short time he had to get rid of it because all the kids in the neighborhood were sneaking into it and playing on it.
Q. What was it like when the war ended?
The end of the war. That was kind of neat. I'll always remember it. We walked down to Grand River. All the way down the road was just loaded with people having a good time. Ya' know, party down, the war is over. That's the one with Japan, 'course the one with Germany ended first. I remember there was a lot of fear in those days, that this or that was going to happen. Thank God it didn't.