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 is publishing a selection of those personal stories today through Sunday, and additional stories can be found at www.washingtonpost.com. Many of the submissions were edited for space or clarity.
The Shock of Juno Beach
On June 6, 1944, I was a gunner on a landing craft tasked with unloading British soldiers on Juno Beach. While I was standing in the gun mount, I was blown into the air, clear of the boat. We had struck a mine.
I have no recollection of the explosion. I only remember a surreal feeling of looking down on the boat from high in the air. My hands, arms and shoulders were damaged when I fell into another, nearby boat.
After landing in the second boat, I went into a state of semi-shock, a feeling that continued in the days after the invasion as we undertook the grisly task of fishing the bodies of dead soldiers out of the harbor and loading them aboard ship under a tarp for later identification and burial. The injury to my arms was later found to be permanently disabling, and I was fitted with leather-and-metal arm braces.
It is very hard to talk or even think about my experiences and my friends lost in 1944 because of the sense of sadness that follows.
-- Elroy B. Lovett, Rockville
So Eager to Get Into the Fight
The year was 1943, and I had just graduated from high school. Unlike most of my male classmates, who had marched out of commencement and into the Army or Navy, I was barely 17 years old -- too young to be drafted or even to volunteer. I could not stand it.
Then I was told by another "too young" friend that the Merchant Marine was so desperate for people that they did not look too closely at recruits.
The two of us got some ink eradicator and changed the dates on our baptismal certificates -- we were much too afraid to change our birth certificates -- and headed for the nearest recruiting office in Baltimore. An imbecile could have seen that the documents were forged. I did not have the sense even to use the same color ink.
Everything went smoothly. The recruiter accepted my forged document, albeit with a smile. I was examined briefly by a doctor and passed, but with one small hitch. To be taken, one had to weigh 130 pounds. I weighed 129. "Kid," said the doctor, "down at the corner there is a grocery store. Buy a half-dozen bananas, come back here and eat them."
I did as he advised, he weighed me again, and I was now 130. I was in the Merchant Marine.
-- Richard W. Stephens, Fairfax City
An Invitation to Gen. Bradley
I was only 3 years old when the Germans stepped over the Belgian border. There were 11 of us: seven adults and four children, including my 6-week-old sister. We packed what we could into three cars and started driving. We lived in Normandy until the Germans caught up with us and ordered us back to our village south of Brussels.
My clearest memories are the happy ones, especially the liberation that, for me, came in the summer of 1944. I can still see the American tanks, trucks and jeeps, each with the big star of the U.S. Army, rolling down the streets of my village. The bright young faces of the American soldiers smiled down at us. They threw chewing gum, Life Savers and chocolates. In return, we gave them whatever we found in our garden at the time. I remember handing them lots and lots of plums.
Our village became a temporary headquarters for Gen. Omar Bradley, who found housing above a local tavern. My father, who had gotten his master's degree in Pennsylvania, was one of the few villagers who could speak English and thus became the go-between for our village and the general.
One day, my father sent my brother, my sister and me on a mission to invite Gen. Bradley to dinner at our house. We went up the stairs of the dark tavern and entered the front room. We found him sitting in a chair with his feet up on a desk. We had been taught to admire and revere this man. We kept thinking if he was allowed to put his boots on the desk, he must really be the most important person on earth. We left quickly, leaving the written note from my father.
I became an American citizen in 1972. To this day, I am grateful to the American soldiers whose bravery allowed me to be free and to become what I am. I hate war, but I know that at times it can be necessary to attain peace.
-- Francoise Henderson, Kensington
A Lesson in Living With Fear
I was 8 years old during the summer of 1942 in beautiful Tirol, Austria. My mother and I were visiting the old family farm, where my uncle still lived. He had two French prisoners of war to work in the fields -- one of them a priest, the other a young man with red hair. In the evenings, they would sit with my cousins and me, on the slopes behind the house. We would laugh as we tried to make each other understand with our hands and learn each other's language.
In the fall, my mother and I went back to the city where we lived, and the two prisoners went back to the POW camp.
As I was walking home from school one day, I saw a group of men being marched down the street by German soldiers. Suddenly I heard my name being called out: "Isabella, Isabella." I recognized the red-haired Frenchman from my uncle's farm. Just then one of the guards started beating him with the butt of his gun, again and again. I started screaming and ran across the street after they had passed, up the hill and down the street to my house.
I burst into the house, sobbing, and told my mother what had happened.
The first words she spoke were: "Did anyone see you and did they know who you are?" I was so angry at my mother. She did not seem to care about what had happened to the young man.
It took me years before I realized what she was afraid of.
-- Isabella McCracken, Piney Point, Md.
Timing the Tides of Invasion
I began work at the Coast and Geodetic Survey of the Department of Commerce in Washington in August 1942. One of my assignments was the operation of the tide-predicting machine, at that time the only one in the world. It was very large, filling its own room, and consisted mostly of gears that could be adjusted for different locations and times.
This machine could predict high and low tides for any port in the world. The operator sat at one end and turned a hand wheel. A pen traced a sine wave on a roll of paper while the operator recorded the times.
We furnished tide times for the landings in North Africa, Guadalcanal, Sicily, Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and many other Pacific Islands, as well as for the D-Day landings in France. We always knew where and when the next invasion would be.
Of course, our lips were sealed.
-- Vesta Cassedy Thrasher,
How the Band
Got a Bass
Before induction in the U.S. Army, I had been a stand-up bass player with a dance band. At the time of V-E Day on May 8, 1945, I was in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, and several of us wanted to form a band to celebrate and entertain the troops. Some managed to find instruments, but there was no bass to be found.
I learned of a village way out in the country where instrument makers lived. I borrowed a three-quarter-ton truck from the graves registration department, and one of my buddies and I drove up there.
The houses had signs showing what kinds of instruments were made inside. I found the bass maker, and he had two left. Using sign language, I explained what I needed, and he indicated he did not trust me.
However, after I played the bass for him and gave him all my food and cigarettes, he allowed me to take the instrument.
Back in Pilsen, we formed a Dixieland dance band and took over a former pub. Then we got permission from battalion headquarters to go to Prague, and we put on a concert at the Prague opera house.
When I received notice to ship home in July 1945, I again borrowed a truck and returned the bass to the village. The bass maker could not believe the bass was returned.
In thanks, another member of the village, the violin maker, gave me a perfect miniature violin, which I still have.
-- Bill Graham, Mount Joy, Pa.
Loyalty's Trial by Combat
I am second-generation Japanese, born and raised in California. In September 1941, I was drafted and inducted into the U.S. Army and had just completed basic training in field artillery when Pearl Harbor was attacked. In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, after which I was discharged along with 2,000 other Japanese American soldiers and reclassified 4C, an enemy alien ineligible for service.
After my discharge, I briefly returned home to help my family move to Poston Relocation Camp in Arizona on a few days' notice and with only what we could carry.
In January 1943, the War Department authorized the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit for Japanese American soldiers, and reclassified us as eligible to serve. When the recruiters came to my camp, I was among the first to volunteer. I wanted to prove that I was a loyal American, I wanted to defend my country, and I felt it was the only way to get my family out from the barbed wire.
In the final days of the war, my unit was detached from the 442nd RCT and sent to Germany. We were one of the first Allied forces to liberate the Jews from a sub-camp of Dachau in late April 1945. I will never forget that camp and the Jewish prisoners, barely alive from malnutrition, the cold weather and despicable treatment by the Nazis. I remember seeing their temporary barracks surrounded by barbed wire, and it reminded me of my family incarcerated in Arizona.
When we liberated the Jews from the camp, I wondered to myself when my family would be free, too.
In 1942, the Japanese Americans had few friends. But now I know that we as a nation have learned from this history so that it will never be repeated and that no community will ever be forced to stand alone as we were.
-- Joseph Ichiuji, Rockville
In and Out of Air Raid Shelters
At dusk, Mummy secured the blackout curtains before putting on the lights. "After the war, it will be brightly lit outside," she told me. "And we'll eat sundaes. And the King will let Daddy come home." It didn't mean much to me. I scarcely remembered my father, who was serving in the Royal Air Force in India. My little world was war-torn London.
At night, I clambered into bed in my cozy playhouse in the living room -- the Morrison Shelter. This was a heavy metal cage with wire mesh sides, pushed against a wall and draped with a thick cloth to disguise it as a table. Later, my mother might join me there, but if the sirens were warning of an imminent raid, she snatched me out of its snug interior and carried me swaddled in a blanket to the underground shelter in front of our house.
It must have been terrifying for my mother, but she never let me see her fear. We hurried into the shelter, along with other women, children and old men. Men and boys slept on one side of a partition, women and girls on the other. Our beds were narrow, double-decker bunks of canvas stretched over a frame. My mother and I slept head to head, her hand protectively reaching up to hold mine.
Sometimes we heard bombs fall nearby -- a whining sound, eerie silence, then an explosion. Once we went home to find all our windows shattered, the bathtub full of jagged shards.
Some time later, the all-clear would sound and, depending on how much of the night was left, we returned to our own beds or stayed in the shelter until daylight. It had a distinctive, musty underground smell.
Now, more than 60 years later, when occasionally I go into a damp basement, a whiff of that same smell evokes memories and, once again, I am a little girl, back in the air raid shelter.
-- Jill Roessner, Washington
The Lights Go On Again
I flew on B-17 bombers with the 8th Air Force at Mendlesham Station in England. On the afternoon of May 7, 1945, I was in London on a two-day pass with several of our crew. There were rumors that the Germans were surrendering, and people packed the streets, train stations and pubs. We knew it was going to be a giant celebration, and we debated whether we should go back or stay in London. Being soldiers and under orders, we got on the train. And so we rocked along, somewhat drunk but not saying much because we were so disappointed at missing the big party.
Then we saw the lights -- little flares at first, here and there. We were mystified. It couldn't be antiaircraft or ground fire. So accustomed to blackout conditions, we didn't even recognize house lights spilling from windows. Then flames appeared on the horizon. Farmers were burning their haystacks, making huge, leaping bonfires. After six years of darkness, England just lit up in victory and celebration.
You can always talk about the planes that went down or other terrible accidents. But that moment -- knowing how happy those wonderful English people were, and how happy I was that I wouldn't be flying any more missions -- has stayed with me.
A very popular song in those days included the words: "When the lights go on again all over the world." I got back to London several times before I left England for home, but nothing could compare with that dark night on a train in East Anglia when the lights did indeed "go on again all over the world." And I was there.
-- John E. Donaldson Jr., Falls Church
A Brave Boy at the Border
A visit by three German officers to our house in German-occupied Warsaw prompted me to plan a trip to France, where the Polish army-in-exile was being formed.
One of our friends worked for the City of Warsaw and had access to stationery, seals and other paraphernalia. After learning of my plans, he brought me what looked like an official letter requesting that I proceed to Cisna, which was very close to what was then the frontier between Poland and as-yet-unoccupied Hungary.
The initial leg of the journey was easy, a second-class seat on a train going south to Krakow. The rest of the trip had to be on foot -- a distance of approximately 50 miles.
I started walking. Then two men joined in. I did not know who they were and did not ask any questions. Neither did they.
By the time we got close to the frontier, there were 26 of us. We stopped to regroup and figure out how to continue the last segment, the most dangerous one.
At this very moment, a young man, almost a boy, emerged from nowhere. "I know where you plan to go," he said. "I know the region. I live here. You cannot go alone. German patrols are all over the place. They have dogs and high-powered rifles. Will you let me lead you through safe ways?"
He did. We landed safely on the Hungarian side. The boy, who never gave us his name and refused to accept any reward from us, led former soldiers to safety for many months thereafter, as we learned later. During one of his trips, a sniper killed him.
The unknown, heroic boy remains in my memory as someone to whom I owe my life.
-- Zygmunt Nagorski, Washington
The Agonies of Internment
My mother, my younger sister and I spent 31/2 years in Japanese internment camps on the island of Java in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies and is today the nation of Indonesia. We were among the 70,000 women and children of Dutch background who were imprisoned there.
I was just 10 when we were summoned to the church grounds in Bogor, where we were processed for shipment to the first of the five camps -- each worse than the other -- that would be "home" until the war ended.
My father had already been taken away to a men's camp, and my two brothers, Will and Rob, would soon follow to another camp. My mother was faced with a hard choice: hold onto Rob, the younger one, until our captors deemed him too old to remain with us; or send him with Will, on the chance that both might survive in each other's company. She let him go. She cried for days afterward.
We were liberated by the British. I had a halter and a pair of panties for clothes and a hole eaten through my ankle by jungle rot. My mother, who had once been the gayest of women, had lost her joie de vivre. My sister had stopped growing. My father, with whom we were eventually reunited, had turned inward. My two brothers had indeed supported one another, but the horrors they had seen in the men's camps had aged them beyond their years. Yet together and apart, we had managed the near-impossible; we had all lived, able to begin life over again.
-- Emilie Halewijn Brown, Alexandria
A Victim of Survivor Guilt
I was 5 years old when World War II ended. My mother was a German Jew who happened to meet my American father in 1937 in London, and he brought her back to New York City, where they settled and we lived. She never saw any members of her family again.
I can remember hearing my mother crying and sobbing late at night when she thought I was sound asleep. I was told the tears were because she kept sending CARE packages to her mother and father or other relatives in Germany and the Red Cross had written back that the packages were undeliverable and her family could not be located.
After the war, my mother spent much of 1946 to 1954 running around Europe, visiting displaced persons' camps and any other place she heard about that had refugees. When Israel became a state, she went there, too. She spent nearly eight years looking for anyone -- her mother or father, aunts and uncles and cousins, and ultimately school friends. Any familiar face. She was unsuccessful and became more and more withdrawn and depressed.
On Sept. 6, 1954, at the age of 38, she took a bottle of pills. The phrase "survivor guilt" had not been invented yet, but that is what she died of.
The war in Europe might have ended in May 1945 and the war in the Pacific in August of that same year. But to me, World War II ended on Sept. 6, 1954.
-- Wendy Held, Sterling
A Better, Less Segregated Navy
On July 27, 1943, I was sworn into the U.S. Naval Reserve at a Navy induction center in Washington, D.C. The Navy had just opened the seamen's branch to Negroes, as we were called then. Until that time, we had been accepted only into the stewards' branch.
Although the Navy operated many service schools where specialized training could be obtained to further one's career, they were not an option for us unless it was cooks and bakers school.
My first station of duty was Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle, where I worked in a unit cleaning aircraft parts for painting. Some of us were later shipped to the Naval Submarine Base in Bangor, Wash. Without any real training in the safety and handling of explosives, we loaded and unloaded boxcars containing torpedoes and small arms.
My next duty station was the Bremerton (Wash.) Navy Yard. It was here that we were finally offered extensive training, provided by civilian stevedores under the watch of naval officers. I was fortunate to become a ship crane operator, which meant that I worked on the decks of ships, loading explosives into the holes.
In retrospect, I would say the Navy's experiment with opening the seamen's branch to us was a success, if for no more than the fact that the Navy got a good workforce when it was badly needed to get supplies overseas. We were eventually well trained in our jobs of cargo handling and were awarded the Navy "E" for excellence flag, which we proudly flew.
-- Raymond Springs, Washington
That GI Genius for Improvisation
American servicemen have to be the most ingenious in the world. While serving with an antiaircraft battalion during the battle of Okinawa, I saw our men salvage the rails from a narrow-gauge railway and weld them together to form the framework for a motor pool garage. For the garage walls, they used rusted tin sheets taken from destroyed buildings.
Other examples of ingenuity included cooling beverages with gasoline and compressed air and making a palatable brandy from fruit bars.
My favorite was the washing machine. It consisted of a garbage can, a four-bladed paddle and the gearbox from a downed Japanese bomber. The machine was attached to a jeep's front bumper, and a shaft attached to the jeep's engine. The gearbox had been cleverly reworked to obtain several revolutions to the right and then to automatically reverse for an equal number of revolutions to the left.
This machine served our 700 officers and men. It was so popular that our commander kept a schedule of times and places for its use.
-- Robert E. Craddock, Alexandria