The Washington Post received more than 1,000 submissions
in response to a request to readers to share their most vivid memories
of World War II. The Post has been publishing a selection of those
personal stories since Friday, and additional stories
can be found at www.washingtonpost.com.
Many submissions were edited for space or clarity.
Reality Comes Crashing In
The British War Office sent me to a special branch called "Stars in Battledress." Every one of us had been a professional actor, comedian or musician. Every day we hauled scenery, drove the trucks, unpacked costumes and put up the sets. After performing at bases for GIs and British troops, we went to visit the wounded in hospitals.
I was among the first women who were not nurses to cross the British Channel after D-Day. We landed in Ostend, Belgium. The huge theater on the outskirts of Antwerp was packed with soldiers who had come on 24 hours' leave from the front. We put on our show for a week. We worked extra hard, always conscious that ours was possibly the last show they would ever see. It was good to hear them laugh.
I stood in the wings waiting for the cue to bring me on stage. Suddenly there was an earsplitting bang. Bricks and mortar hurtled down. I was enveloped in putty-colored dust. I couldn't see. I waited for death, started to pray.
One wall of the theater had been blown inward, revealing the street outside. The roof was open to the sky. On the sidewalk, little children with arms and legs missing moaned in agony. I picked my way over concrete rubble trying to find my dressing room. All I found was a big hole. I lost my clothes, shoes, makeup, everything. If I had stayed there 30 more seconds before going to the stage, I would not be here today.
-- June Peel Warren, Bethesda
Out of Loss, a Connection
World War II was one of the most horrible times of my life. Raised in Adamstown, I was 8 when my only brother, 20-year-old Carl Preston "Joe" Gochnauer, enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He was sent to North Africa, Italy and finally England, where he was on the crew of a B-24.
We all hated to see the panel station wagon of the Red Cross driving slowly into our town. When it stopped at our house, we did not need to see the telegram from the War Department to know the bad news it was bringing. Joe was missing in action. After 13 agonizing months, he was presumed dead.
We received a letter from his best friend, who told us that Joe and several of his crew had filled in that day for several sick ones of another crew. He had made his quota of missions and was packed to come home on leave. The date of the crash was May 23, 1944.
Several years later, we received a letter in French. The writer of the letter said that the plane had crashed in his field and that the Germans had beaten him in the head when he went to see whether anyone was alive. He had tried for several years to reach us through the Red Cross or the War Department, to no avail. Somehow he finally got our address.
In 1948, my brother's girlfriend went to see the French family. They had pictures of the crash and some of the crew's personal effects. I will always be grateful to this family for all they did.
-- Eleanor "Fay" G. Shipley, Springfield
Finding Refuge at Vassar
When the Germans were getting closer to England, there was real concern that it could be invaded or at least suffer more bombing. So my parents decided that they would try to get me out of the country.
There was family lore that we were distantly related to Matthew Vassar, who had emigrated with his family from Norfolk, England, to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as a young child and went on to found Vassar College. So my mother telegraphed Vassar College, asking if anyone would give sanctuary to one British evacuee named Christine Vassar. After a few more telegrams back and forth, the president of the college, Henry Noble MacCracken, offered me sanctuary for one year.
This was how it happened that I, along with several hundred other British children, embarked on the Duchess of Atholl on Aug. 8, 1940, and sailed for America.
My foster father came to pick me up on a rainy Saturday afternoon and took me to the family summer home in Connecticut. All the family members were sitting around the living room waiting for the newest member.
The next day, we went to the president's house on the campus, which to my eyes was a very grand place. On Monday, I was enrolled in high school as a ninth-grader.
The MacCracken family very much became my family. They were very good to me, and I am still in close touch with my foster sister and brother. I did not see my own family for seven years. They were able to be at my graduation from Vassar in 1947.
-- Christine Vassar Tall, Cheshire, Conn.
Apprentice Air Raid Warden
Although I was just 5 when I got my "commission" in 1944, my family and all our neighbors in Webster Groves, Mo., knew I was the reason we were never bombed by the Luftwaffe.
My father, crippled since childhood, wanted to be "over there" in the worst way. But as he was 4-F, he signed on as an air raid warden to contribute to the war effort. His job was to go around our suburban St. Louis neighborhood as darkness fell and tell homeowners with lighted windows to pull down their shades and blinds. Since he couldn't negotiate the steep walks and stairs to the homes on our hilly streets, I was drafted to be his aide.
Wearing a "Jr. Air Raid Warden" uniform made by my mom, I raced up to every house showing the least bit of light and sternly warned the person answering the door to "please pull your shades down. The Nazis can see you and we'll all be killed!"
The neighbors always obeyed my orders.
-- Jack Lorenz, Alexandria
One Ship and Three Flags
An American soldier serving with the British navy aboard a French ocean liner? An unlikely scenario, but that is where I found myself in the spring of 1943.
Seized in 1940 in the Far East by Britain after the fall of France, the Ile de France was then converted from luxury liner to troopship. As a member of the Coast Artillery Transport Division, I made 32 crossings of the North Atlantic in more than two years on the Ile de France, manning a 20mm gun tub on the weather deck. We carried U.S. troops, Women's Army Corps members and U.S.-trained Aussie aviators to Glasgow, Scotland. Westward to New York or Boston, we brought more trainees and, sadly, the maimed and wounded.
From Scotland we also transported thousands of German prisoners of war to Halifax, Nova Scotia, bound for POW camps in the Canadian interior. We could virtually trace the war's progress by the condition of the prisoners. At first they were haughty, hostile and in relatively good condition. But as Allied victories mounted -- in Africa, Italy and finally in France and beyond -- the appearance and attitude of the POWs changed. Through the barbed wire below decks, we could see they were successively more disheveled, ill-clothed, despondent. And they were progressively younger, many in their mid-teens, frightened, confused, pitiful.
I like to think that the Ile de France, in some microcosmic way, symbolized the power and synergy of allied democracies. In port, we flew three flags: the British Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes and the Cross of Lorraine, the banner of the French Resistance.
-- Frank O'Neill, Alexandria