Memories of war through a child's eyes

By Paul Putnam | Aug 04, 2012

Sometimes I hear people tell how they remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news about the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. I remember hearing the news, too, but I haven’t the slightest idea where I was or what I was doing. At 10 years old, I was probably laying on the floor in front of the big floor model radio in the living room of our home on Blake Street, listening to Little Orphan Annie, or Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy, and perhaps I was somewhat annoyed at having my programs interrupted by a news bulletin.

Well, as I said, I don’t remember exactly, but I was old enough to be interested and perhaps more to the point, I remember when the toy soldiers stopped being lead and were some sort of sawdust and glue combination. I remember the ration coupons and how we would save our sugar for special desert treats, and how gas rationing limited trips to visit the grandparents, and I remember the war movies: “The Last Man Off Wake Island,” “Guadalcanal.” I remember the Movie Tone News Reels about the battles of Bataan, and Corregidor, Singapore, and Coral Sea; and of North Africa, and Sicily, and Anzio, and Stalingrad.

I remember the air raid drills: the whistles blowing and my father going out as Air Raid Warden to check that no lights were showing on our street. In a time when airplanes were a rarity, suddenly we would see flights of fighter planes from Owls Head, Brunswick and Bangor in formation or singly as they were training and hunting submarines in the area.

Even to a child the mobilization of military and industry was exciting. The shipyards were busy again, and Eaton’s field was full of oak, pine, and spruce logs as well as all the other zillion items necessary to build wooden ships of war. There were fleets of trucks hauling logs from all over the state. Young men, and some older, too, had gone to war, so women joined the work force: my mother and my sister worked in the shipyard, as well as my father and my uncle.

With the manpower shortage I could get a job with the town tar crew, spreading sand over fresh tar the summer I turned twelve. Do you remember the scrap metal drives?  Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts would do it. Sometimes when we had just seen John Wayne kill the last enemy with his bayonet because he ran out of bullets, or some such, the neighborhood kids would canvass the area for scrap; John Wayne needed our help. And each week we lined up at school to buy war stamps with money we had saved from shoveling snow, raking leaves, or if we were lucky enough to have one, perhaps from our allowance.

It seems that the war effort drew the whole nation together with a sense of purpose and vision. Even kids could help, and nobody was idle. That vision did more than win a war; it built character, both in those who fought and those who stayed home. We knew who we were, and we knew what we were called to.

In 1940 with the war in Europe, Carey Bok of Camden and Philadelphia joined with Richard Lyman of Portland and Clint Lunt of Cape Elizabeth to buy the Camden Yacht Railway Company and form the new Camden Shipbuilding and Marine Railway Company to build ships for World War II. That shipyard employed a large work force and turned out excellent wooden mine sweepers, fleet tugs and barges.

As Helen’s Grandmother Piper would say, “It was a big affair” when First Lady Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt came to town in February 1943 to honor the town’s war effort by christening a barge built by the yard. In all, the yard built 30 ships for the war effort; many of them went to England and elsewhere in Europe. Both of my parents, Sterling and Linnie Putnam, and my sister, Estelle Jackson, and one uncle, Jay Eaton, all worked in that shipyard.

There was a double launching that Monday afternoon as Mrs. Helen S. Price of Bath also christened the Naval Auxiliary APC 62. My wife Helen and I, being about twelve years old, remember the occasion well, and were probably more impressed with the Victory Dance performed by a contingent of Penobscot Indians in full regalia with Chief Muskrat and Princess Watawasso than we were with Mrs. Roosevelt.

My dad, Sterling Putnam, who grew up on a farm and was more or less a jack-of-all-trades, left his job as a weaver in the Knox Mill to work at the shipyard. Dad, in his mid–30s with family responsibilities, wanted to do something more directly involved in the war effort. On several occasions he went along as cook when the boats were out for a trial run. He would sometimes bring home a gallon of great lobster stew

He also became an air raid warden for our neighborhood in Millville. Whenever there was a “blackout” drill he would put on his warden’s helmet and arm band and go out to patrol the neighborhood for any light that might be showing.

Well, for all that I don’t remember much about Pearl Harbor Day, I do remember the excitement of V-J Day. All those years of war, both before and after Pearl Harbor, had built a tension that could not be relieved by any victory but the final one. When it came, every thing stopped and the whole nation celebrated. Instant holiday! Dancing in the streets!

Jack Henderson and I went down town that evening to enjoy the celebration. Chestnut Street in front of the post office was roped off for dancing. I don’t remember who supplied the music, but there was dancing, both in the street and on the village green. I remember spending part of the evening with and dancing with Joyce Pettapiece, whom I have seen only once since, but mostly I just remember the excitement. It was as though nobody could believe it was over, and yet it was. It really was over!

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