Chester Martin Remembers World War II Times In Chattanooga

Sunday, December 20, 2015 - by Chester Martin

I have recently been listening to various authors discussing their new books about WWII. The memories of those times come flooding back when I hear the names of all the generals, admirals, presidents, prime ministers, and diplomats of the period, plus the names of all the far-off bloody battles. The bravery of all those Americans involved must never be forgotten. President Roosevelt's calm voice on the radio reassured us that "we are going to win the war," though many doubted.

It is this doubt that we have forgotten!

I was only in grade school at the time, so could not fight. We boys sat in our classrooms drawing ships and tanks when time permitted, fully conscious of a national "war effort." We learned to sing patriotic songs - both from the current war and also from WWI. We marched to our chapel programs to the tune of John Philip Sousa marches which resounded through the hallways of Anna B. Lacey School in East Ridge. The ancient acoustic "Victrola" had a strong voice which could be heard throughout the entire one-story school. Some of our chapel programs were re-showings of already old "Our Gang" comedies. In second grade (1941 and '42) we practiced air-raid drills along with the more customary fire drills. It was scary! School principal Ms. Ethel Stroud sometimes had us repeat the 23rd Psalm or the Lord's Prayer while we waited in line. (Yes, it was "Prayer in the Schools"!)

 Scarier still than air-raid drills were the stories we heard from our next-door neighbors who were from Florida. Their friends and relatives still living there were telling them about German U-boats being spotted off the coast, and the press did not verify these reports until after the war was over!

But downtown, and on weekends, "The Boys" from nearby Fort Oglethorpe descended on our city, WACs (Women's Army Corps), included. Town was full of uniformed troops looking for a short respite from their duties of soldiering. The Central of Georgia Railroad provided  free transportation service between the fort and Chattanooga. Once, my dad and I were driving through "Fort O" on a weekend, along the "old" US Hwy. 27, and found a literal ocean of pup-tents stretching across an open field to the east as far as the eye could see. Some young men  were scrimmaging with a football up near the road, and I still think of them every time I pass that way again, wondering if they survived the war. And once while returning home one night we were stopped by armed Military Police who asked if we had seen "anything unusual." We had not, and were allowed to proceed home. No explanation.

Christmas was an especially sensitive time of year for everyone; there were the homesick soldiers at Fort Oglethorpe, and the guilty civilians in our comfortable Chattanooga homes. One year (about 1943 or '44) I recall that the churches of the city all agreed to co-operate in an effort to give every soldier Christmas dinner and a few hours in a private home. My family wanted to invite one or two servicemen to our house, so we went to the appointed place (Warner Park) - and waited. Somehow, arrangements did not work out, and we missed our connection. It was a dark, cold day, and it would have been warmed by having a Christmas guest.

Rationing of certain foods and commodities had to be put in force to ensure that the boys on the battlefield had plenty. You had a sticker on your windshield with a letter which indicated how much gas you were entitled to buy each month, and meat was rationed by a "point" system, where so many red points would allow you to buy "X" amount of this, and blue points would get you so much of that. No one complained, as everyone understood that war needs came first. But we all dreamed of steak!

Rationing extended into the realm of children's toys as well. Bicycles, tricycles, wagons - everything normally associated with childhood that was made out of metal suddenly evaporated from store shelves...and few cars or trucks were manufactured during those war years, as well. Paper, wood, and cardboard replaced metal objects where possible. Toy guns would be one example. My mother was able to find me some great presents, though, by looking in pawn shops! She found a pre-war microscope and a metal stereoscope with several albums of pictures which delighted me at the time - and are still in good condition.

Our school had scrap-drives, as did most schools across the country. Tin cans were especially in demand, even for the small amount of tin they contained, and milkweed was sought after for use in parachute cordage. Orphan Annie, in the comic strips, headed a "Junior Commando" team that dismantled a disabled and rusty steam engine for its scrap metal - perhaps intended to be a role-model and inspiration for real kids in real towns.

My mother belonged to the "Letter Carrier's Auxiliary", and she and others of that group donated many hours to the selling of war bonds in the post office on Georgia Avenue (between 9th Street  and 10th Streets). There was a movie theater, the "Dixie," directly across Georgia Avenue from the post office (where Miller Park is today), and I would go there to perhaps see a "Pvt. Hargrove" comedy, designed to bolster civilian courage and make us laugh. Hollywood certainly "rose to the occasion" during the war years.

Many POWs were interned at Fort Oglethorpe and were (legally) put to work at various civilian tasks. A story in the Chattanooga Times at war's end related how a detail of German POWs had been assigned to work in the Sale Creek peach orchards. They were dismayed when the war suddenly ended and they were sent home before being able to see (or eat) the fruit of their labor!

It was very common to find small banners displayed in house windows which denoted one, two, or more boys from that house were soldiers. White stars on a blue field meant that they were living...but then there were gold stars also. A bright red band surrounded the other colors.

We are forever grateful that the war ended and the boys came home. But it is sad that the spirit of those years also ended, as there had been a real spirit of co-operation and of working together that soon went away. Those young men who put their lives on the line for America should never be forgotten.  I had three first cousins - one the husband of a first cousin, actually, plus family friends who did their part. These included, Jimmy and Harold Martin, Louie Starnes, Herman Ernst, Bill Jackson and Mayo Mashburn.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

 




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