Pride, Purpose and Worry

The flag in the front window of my Polish immigrant grandparents' home in Providence, R.I., had five stars, one for each son in the service. Frank was in the South Pacific, Eddie was part of the Normandy invasion, Joe was on an LST (Landing Ship Tank) in the Adriatic, Hal was in the Battle of the Bulge, and Dad, a career naval officer, was in the Philippines and Australia. Mother's brother Worthy, also a career naval officer, was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands.

We lived in New London, Conn., a Navy town. I used to watch the submarines head out to sea from the sub base and wonder which ones would return. When a classmate didn't show up at our elementary school, we thought first of a father killed in action, only second of an illness.

The blackouts, the air raid drills, the air raid warden's "All clear," the black window shades, the rationing, the newsreels, buying war bonds -- all are still so fresh in my mind. There was no television; we devoured newspapers and radio, and went to the movie theater to "see and hear" the war, boo the enemy and cheer for the Allies. After school, we rolled bandages and knitted afghans to be sent overseas.

And we wrote letters, so many letters. Mother wrote to Dad every single day he was away, no matter what. I can see her, sometimes bleary with fatigue, scribbling away cheery thoughts from the home front.

Memories of the war years are strong and enduring. How easily I recall the fear, the fun and excitement, the unity, the pride and sense of purpose, the patriotism and, above all, the worry, worry, worry.

-- Mae Zabilsky Scanlan, Washington

Safeguarding a Famous Visitor

I was a 25-year-old Army captain in a mechanized cavalry regiment behind the shallow beachhead held by the Allies in Normandy shortly after D-Day. Early one morning, I was designated to command a group of armored cars to provide security for an important but unnamed person who would be arriving by air at noon at a grassy airstrip near Cherbourg. We were to meet and escort him to an abandoned German missile site in the vicinity.

A small, unmarked transport aircraft arrived, circled the field and landed. At the door of the plane, a familiar figure soon appeared with arm upraised and fingers forming a V. It was none other than Winston Churchill, the British prime minister.

We were quickly on our way to the missile site with my vehicles positioned front and rear of Churchill's. I rode in the last armored car. As we were proceeding at a good clip through Cherbourg, Churchill's car suddenly stopped. As I ran forward to check, all sorts of horrible possibilities went through my mind, the worst being an attempted assassination.

Upon arrival at the car, I was greatly relieved to find that Churchill himself had stopped it. He couldn't light his cigar in the breeze caused by our rate of speed!

-- William R. Kraft, Sterling

Patriotism in Every Stitch

In 1942, the social agency for which I worked shared office space with the local chapter of the American Red Cross. Every week, a small Japanese woman came in with a shopping bag full of hand-knitted mittens, scarves and watch caps, which she exchanged for a supply of blue-gray or khaki yarn.

The exchange was wordless, since she spoke no English. It was clear, however, that knitting these warm accessories for servicemen was an important expression for her. We thanked her, she smiled and bowed and was gone until the next week.

One day, someone told me her name. Immediately I realized that she was the mother of one of my brother's friends. He was American-born and named after an American president. He was in the Army overseas. The father had been interned as an enemy alien, although it turned out that there was no basis for this except that he was born in Japan.

Her lonely but powerful statement still touches my heart.

-- Eleanor I. Jones, Worthington, Ohio

For One Nurse, Two Close Calls

In September 1943, my Army surgical team was assigned to the British hospital ship Newfoundland at Salerno, Italy. The Geneva Convention stated that hospital ships were off-limits to bombing. But one night a German pilot ignored international law and bombed the fully lighted ship. Surrounded by smoke and fire, most of us were able to get off by descending rope ladders into lifeboats.

Our team treated wounded troops in field hospitals near Naples. We lived and worked in tents, enduring air raids and enemy shelling nearby. We dug foxholes in the mud under our cots and slept there to avoid shrapnel.

As the Allies advanced on the Anzio beachhead in January 1944, our unit moved to the British hospital ship St. David. The ship had moved 20 miles out to sea one night when the Germans bombed it.

It sank in three minutes, and I was thrown deep down into the water between the ship and a lifeboat. I thought it was the end. Then I rose to the surface so fast it felt like I had been shot from a cannon. Both the St. David and the lifeboat were gone.

I yelled for help and heard someone yell back, "Ruthie, is that you?" Off in the distance was a ship's officer. We swam toward each other and, with one of the patients, held on to a log.

Finally another hospital ship, the Leinster, approached us. A small lifeboat found us and we climbed a treacherous rope ladder onto the Leinster.

We later learned we had been in the water almost four hours. That same night, a German plane tried to bomb the Leinster, but I slept right through it.

As dangerous as the front lines were, I felt safer working in tents under threat of enemy fire than on the ships.

-- Ruth Hindman Balch, Arlington

Amid Death, Gratitude for Life

Wars bring grief, unbearable pain and even death. But for me, World War II brought a gift of life.

In January 1940, I was arrested by the Soviet NKVD (later known as the KGB) in my native Ukraine and incarcerated in the Brygitki prison with about 10,000 others like me. I will not go into details of the physical and mental agonies each of us endured during endless nocturnal "hearings." The ones who survived the torture were brought back, unconscious, on stretchers and literally thrown into the cell.

Fresh prisoners arrived, bringing with them the news of the German occupation of France. They hinted that Germany might attack the Soviet Union.

It was dawn on Sunday, June 22, 1941, when we heard the first bombs falling on Lviv. Somebody whispered, "War." The walls shook with each explosion, and we were giddy with the anticipation of freedom.

Oh, how premature was the joy we felt. That same day, in the afternoon, the NKVD started herding the prisoners into groups and taking them down to the cellars below.

We listened with horror to dull popping sounds. It was hard to believe that a state would dare to liquidate thousands of defenseless political detainees, but it was true.

The death machine was working day and night. On Friday evening, I observed bodies falling into a huge pit after being shot, one by one. By Saturday, there were only 12 of us in the cell. We heard the boom of cannon fire, and we started praying that the Germans would occupy the city soon.

That day, the NKVD fled. Men from the Ukrainian underground broke down the prison gates. Of the 10,000 prisoners, about 500 to 600 came out alive. I was one of the lucky ones.

Unfortunately, the Gestapo was no better than the NKVD. The Jewish population was liquidated, and the Ukrainian political activists were publicly hanged or shot dead in the middle of town. I thank God I lived to see it end.

I am 88 years old and happy to be in the United States.

-- Bohdan Kazaniwsky, Bethesda

A photo of Mae Zabilsky Scanlan during the war, a cartoon she drew at age 10, her school health certificate and medals belonging to her father, John Zabilsky.