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A Boy’s View of a World War

Posted By Peter Bridges On July 15, 2008 @ 10:56 am In Biography,History,Military,Non-Fiction Reviews | 5 Comments

Charles Bridges, Manila, 1939

I was too young to serve in the most recent world war, but as a boy on the South Side of Chicago I could feel the war at one or two removes. Marty, the pre-med student who lived in the bungalow next door, became a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps and flew a number of missions against the Japanese from Guadalcanal. He spent appalling, deadly weeks there and was discharged with combat fatigue. His mother asked me if Marty could borrow my sizable store of comic books, and for a long time he sat at home doing little but reading about Batman and Superman. Eventually he went to work–making models of fighting aircraft for a store in the neighborhood. He never went on to medical school.

My father, Charles Bridges–we called him Gov–was 38 years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. That was not too old to be drafted into the military, but he was exempted by reason of serving in an essential job, as executive of a food-canning company, Libby, McNeill & Libby. Gov had begun to travel the world for Libby’s when he was just 24, in 1927, as a salesman working south from Libby’s New Orleans office into the Caribbean and South America. By 1939 he had become the company’s export manager. That summer the press reported that he was about to become the first American to fly around the world on business. He left the United States in August, westbound from San Francisco on a China Clipper of Pan American Airways.

These Clippers were huge Boeing 314 flying boats that Pan Am had put into service that year. They were the biggest American-made commercial aircraft until the Boeing 747, decades later. They could not, however, fly the Pacific nonstop. Each afternoon the Clipper would land for the night–at Honolulu, Midway, Wake, and then Guam–en route to the terminus at Manila. From Manila my father went on by ship and air to Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia (now Jakarta), and Sydney. He was in Sydney on September first, when Hitler invaded Poland and the Second World War began. No one knew how quickly or how far hostilities would expand. The Australian authorities would not let him continue on his planned way west across Asia and Europe, that would eventually have taken him into Southampton on one of the new flying boats of Imperial Airways. He returned to Chicago. Nothing daunted, he obtained British, French, and German visas and took ship from New York for Southampton that fall.

Pages from Charles Bridges’ passport, with stamps from Singapore and German visa

It was still the “phony war” in Western Europe; the Wehrmacht would not move against France for some months yet; but my father was told not to cross the Channel. He remained in England for some weeks, to concern himself with Libby’s milk-canning operations there. The British issued him a gas mask, and when Gov returned to Chicago that November he gave the mask to me. I was the envy of my friends, none of whom had such a trophy although Dick Dorschler across the street still had his father’s infantry uniform from France in 1918.

The gas mask vanished in the succeeding decades but I have other souvenirs of that time. The Wehrmacht occupied the Netherlands in May 1940. The occupiers forbade any correspondence between people there and the Netherlands East Indies, today’s Indonesia, which was not occupied by Axis forces until the Japanese invasion in March 1942. During that period my father acted as a bridge between the Libby’s agent in Java, H.W.O. Tiddens, and his family in the Netherlands. Tiddens in Java would write his relatives, or they him, and in each case they sent the letter to my father in Chicago. He would put the letter in a new envelope and send it onward. I still have several of the envelopes he received, with the censor’s tape reading Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or, alternatively, Door censuur geopend.

This correspondence helped to bring home the war to me, but what made more of an impression, the year before Pearl Harbor, was going to the Beverly Theater to see A Yank in the RAF. The following year—but we in Chicago did not know this—the Japanese sent Mr. Tiddens to the infamous Changi prison in Singapore, and later to work on the Burma Railway where an estimated sixteen to eighteen thousand Allied prisoners and a hundred thousand Asian laborers died from overwork, malnutrition, disease, torture, or execution. (The 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness, was based on the railway camps. Survivors protested that actual conditions were far worse than shown in the film.) Decades later I learned from Brenda Tiddens in the Netherlands that H.W.O. Tiddens, her father, had been among the thousands who survived. He died, aged 73, in 1983.

We also had, on the coffee table in our Chicago living room, a number of balls several inches across that were made of thin glass and pleasantly iridescent. Gov had picked them up on the beach at Wake Island, when he stopped there on the China Clipper. They were floats for nets used in the Pacific by Japanese fishing boats.

In December 1941, just after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a Japanese flotilla of three cruisers and six destroyers, with two troop transports carrying a landing force, attacked Wake. The island was defended by a single Marine battalion and a dozen fighter aircraft. The Marines stood off the attackers for two weeks, and in 1942 Hollywood made a film, naturally called Wake Island, about the heroic defense of the island. The movie starred Brian Donlevy and Robert Preston and we all saw it. Somehow I did not make the connection with the pretty things on our living-room table.

For four years men and some women went to war—my Aunt Eleanor served in Europe as an Army nurse—and we had rationing at home and I played war games with my fellow Boy Scouts, weekends at Camp Kiwanis in the Cook County forest preserve. We saved tinfoil and paper and gathered milkweed pods for use in life preservers. My father dug a Victory garden in the empty lot behind our house and we raised a lot of vegetables. By the time I turned twelve I had been commissioned as chief gardener and anti-rabbit officer.

In December 1942 my parents took my younger sister Bart and me to New Orleans, on the Panama Limited, for Christmas with our grandparents. New streamlined equipment for the train had been delivered to the Illinois Central Railroad just after Pearl Harbor. It was an elegant journey, and New Orleans was the same green and sweet-smelling city that I always loved to visit; but the war was not far away. During the year that was ending, German submarines had sunk more than forty Allied merchant ships in the Gulf of Mexico, and many more farther south in the Caribbean.

What I recall best about that Christmas is wandering a couple of blocks from my grandparents’ house on Octavia Street, to a poorer neighborhood where I encountered another boy my age. My Chicago accent proved me a foreigner and the fight was on. An old man drinking beer on the steps of a shotgun cottage shouted to my opponent “Kill the dirty Japanazi!” I punched the kid in the nose and ran home.

By the beginning of 1945 Allied victory was nearing. Ten years earlier my father had been a struggling corporate employee in the Great Depression, whose salary was cut 35 percent just after I was born. Now he was a vice president of Libby’s. That January my parents rented a house in the pleasant lakeside town of Grand Beach, Michigan, for the entire coming summer. Gov planned to come out on the train from Chicago each Friday evening, and return to work in the city early Monday morning.

He never spent a night in that house. Germany surrendered on May 7 and the next month Gov and two colleagues were in London. The winter of 1945-46 might well bring mass starvation on the European continent. Both Libby’s and the Allied High Command wanted to ensure that all of Libby’s European canning plants—in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany—returned to full production as soon as possible. The three Libby’s men were the first American businessmen to receive Allied permits to travel to the Continent. They spent most of the summer there. My father kept a journal that was full of business data but also recorded tragic scenes, including the crowds of people walking down Dutch roads, coming back from forced labor in Germany, and the almost total desolation in Hamburg, where Allied bombing raids had killed perhaps fifty thousand people and a million others fled the city. From Hamburg the travelers went on to Leer, a small city near the Dutch border where Libby’s had a milk-canning plant. That was the last stop. They caught a military flight to London and flew back to America.

Gov got home at the beginning of September. The war had ended in Asia after we dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I had just entered high school. My father took his suitcase upstairs, where my mother would unpack it, and he came down again to ask my sister and me how school was going. In a minute or two my mother came hurriedly downstairs to tell Gov that someone had robbed him; the suitcase was almost empty. No, no, it was all right, he said. When he had reached Leer, he found that Libby’s German plant manager had no clothes left but what was on his back. My father had given him his own two extra suits, and most of his shirts and underwear.

One evening the following winter the Gundelfingers came to dinner. Ellsworth Gundelfinger had been Libby’s resident representative in Manila for some years leading up to the war. Gov had seen much of him and his wife during his 1939 visit there. The Gundelfingers were still there when the Japanese occupied Manila at the beginning of 1942 and turned the University of Santo Tomas into an internment camp for Allied civilians. The couple survived three years of internment but when they came to dinner I saw that they were not just tall people but extremely gaunt. They had lost nearly half of their weight in the Manila camp, and months after their liberation had still not regained it all. In succeeding years I would see many photographs of Holocaust victims reduced to near-skeletons in Nazi camps, but I remember best the two victims of the Japanese war machine that I saw in the flesh.

When the Second World War ended my future wife was growing up in Rogers Park, at the other end of Chicago from where I lived. Her name was Mary Jane Lee; her paternal grandfather, Olaf Fagerli, had emigrated from Norway to New York in 1883 and anglicized the family name. In the 1930s, during the Depression, a Norwegian cousin named Birger Daviknes came to America to work for a year, and stayed for some time with the Lees in Chicago. He returned to Bergen, and after the Wehrmacht occupied Norway in 1940 there was no further word from him.

After the war ended my future father-in-law, Andrew Lee, received a long letter from Cousin Birger about life in Bergen during five years of Nazi occupation. Food and clothing were scarce; people were put under house arrest after any sabotage was done; many were sent to Germany and only a few returned; the worst was the torturing of prisoners by the Gestapo. In two cases, prisoners had leaped to their death from the fourth floor of the Gestapo headquarters in Bergen. Birger’s wife narrowly escaped death when the school where she taught was destroyed by a bomb in an Allied air raid; 90 others died, two-thirds of them children. When liberation finally came, he wrote, the people of Bergen treated the local Quisling collaborators properly, imprisoning them rather than shooting them out of hand. (Vidkun Quisling, their national leader, was later tried in Oslo and executed by firing squad, along with two of his deputies.) In 1946, with Andrew Lee’s help, Birger Daviknes came back to America to lecture to Norwegian-American clubs about the occupation.

My own family ended the war with few losses. One cousin died when his plane crashed on the Greenland ice cap. Another came home safely from the Air Corps only to die in a few months of a brain tumor. My only uncle young enough for military service, John Devlin, failed the physical exam and went to India as a civilian to help run a canning plant in Calcutta. There he contracted malaria, that contributed to his death at 42.

Eventually, after the Korean war and before we went into Vietnam, the Army called on me. I had been a student of Russia and Russian for some years, and I hoped the military could use my expertise but the big machine ignored all that. One warm afternoon in January 1956 I was sitting on my duffle bag on the station platform in Nancy, a new private waiting for a train to take me to Toul, where Joan of Arc’s bishop lived once and where I was to live now in the 97th Engineer Battalion. I had never studied French, but I had good Spanish and some Latin, and I bought a copy of L’Est Républicain and sat there puzzling through the articles.

Two Frenchmen in their thirties, one missing his left arm, came walking along the platform and stopped to greet the American private reading the French paper. I said I couldn’t understand them. The man missing an arm responded, obviously saying that of course I understood; I was sitting there reading French. We went back and forth a couple of times, him in French and me in English, until finally, exasperated, I said ya Vas sovsyem nye ponimayu and he replied in equally good Russian Vy menya nye ponimayete? They were Alsatians, who had been drafted into the Wehrmacht after Hitler took Alsace into the Third Reich. They had been sent to the Russian front, and had been captured and spent a decade in a Soviet prison camp, where one had lost his arm. We had a good talk—the only use I made of my Russian in the Army—and I thought of how so many millions had suffered in a war that I spent safely as a boy in America.


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