Family history stories: research is showing that they contribute to a child’s resilience and strength. But what about adults? What can we gain from a family member’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings? I set out to write this article for Veteran’s Day. I wanted to finally get down in writing my mother’s memories of sending off three brothers to fight in World War II. With almost all of her generation gone, my time for getting the rest of the story is diminishing. In so doing, I was touched and strengthened. I gained hope for my generation and future generations.
Veteran’s Day, observed annually on November 11th, is the day that we honor all military veterans. A year ago I wrote about the World War II Veterans in my life. My dad, father-in-law and uncles have passed on. I wish I had more of their stories, but reading Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation,” I realized I had another person to interview, my mother. She grew up during the war. Brokaw has a chapter in his book titled “Home Front.” He emphasizes that it took an entire country’s efforts to win this war. Everyone in the community was affected. I wanted to know more about what it was like for my mother to come of age during a time of world war and how her parents endured the stress of having three sons fighting in the south Pacific. Here is my interpretation of her memories.
A Young Girl’s Memories of World War II
Nan was thirteen years old, soon to be fourteen on the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She remembers sitting with her family at the table eating their noon supper on a Sunday. The phone rang and she jumped up to answer it. The neighbor down the street said, “Tell your Dad the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor.” Nan relayed the information a little garbled, “The Chinese just bombed something” and went out to play. She doesn’t remember what happened next, but I would imagine that her dad immediately turned on the radio and listened to the reports the rest of that afternoon and evening. The family got their news from the radio as well as three newspapers: the weekly Salt Lake Tribune and two daily Burley newspapers. For the next four years, the news would be full of war.
On December 7, 1941, the Kelsey family consisted of parents, Ed and Florence; sons Ted, Bill, and Bob; daughters Helen, Erma, and Nan. All three boys were of age to serve and one by one they enlisted. Ted, 21, had just graduated from college and immediately applied for officer’s training school. Bill, 20, decided to join the Marines. Bob, age 19, enlisted in the Navy. In the four years that her brothers were gone, Nan only saw Bob once when he came home for leave. She didn’t see Bill at all. On his shore leave, Nan was visiting her grandmother in Springville, Utah. Ted came home in between officer training school and his assignment in the South Pacific but she doesn’t remember any of his leave.
With the three boys gone, the next sibling to get into the fray was oldest daughter, Helen. She had been teaching school in Rigby, Idaho and decided she wanted to be part of the war effort, so she moved to San Francisco and went to work in an engineering firm. With regular blackouts and the threat of bombing always a reality, now four of the Kelsey children had entered wartime danger.
Ed Kelsey farmed sugar beets, potatoes, and hay on his farm in Cassia County, Idaho. Because the government needed the farmers to keep producing their crops, he received all the gasoline he needed to keep his farm truck, pickup, and 39 Plymouth running. When others had to curtail their activities because of gasoline rationing, the Kelsey family had enough gasoline to make the eight mile trip into Burley each Saturday night. The family left at home included Ed and Florence and the two youngest daughters, Erma and Nan. When Erma left to spend the school year with Ed’s widowed mother, Selena, Nan was the only child at home.
Florence wrote regularly to her children and they in turn wrote back. Those letters were her lifeline and the only way she and Ed knew that their boys in the South Pacific and Helen in San Francisco were safe. She kept those letters for the rest of her life in her Book of Remembrance, a sign of their significance to her.
Ed needed help running the farm since his boys had shipped off to distant parts and ironically a Japanese family by the name of Mida came to live on the farm and help with the daily operations. They had geese and a parrot that only talked at night in Spanish. Most of the time it swore. The Mida family lived in an old train boxcar that had been moved onto the farm years before. Ed and Florence had homesteaded the land since 1917 and now had a small but comfortable home, a barn, shop, chicken coop, grainery, and fields.
Towards the end of the war Ed hired Japanese workers from the Internment Camp in Heyburn and once a large truckload of Germans from the Prisoner of War camp across the Snake River. He told Erma and Nan to keep away from the Germans, but when the men came up to the house and sat outside on the lawn to eat their lunches, the girls couldn’t resist peeking out the windows to see these “dangerous men.” In reality, they looked just like the locals in their work clothes. Only their language showed their nationality. Most of them were not eager to go back to the horrors that awaited them in a bombed out and starving Germany.
How did parents Ed and Florence manage with three sons and a daughter away from home? They kept busy. Ed with the day to day farming operation, Florence with her garden, the canning, helping with the farm, her service as a War Mother, and membership in the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. Nan just grew up – from a thirteen year old to a seventeen year old. Life during the war was the new normal. The movies began with thrilling war blurbs. War bonds were sold. War news was in every paper. Living far inland, the threat of bombing wasn’t as dire as on the west coast, but Nan remembers a blackout one night. Just she and her mother were home and they had to turn out all the lights, a thrilling but scary experience.
Living on a farm had its advantages. Along with having access to gasoline, the Kelsey family grew their own vegetables, raised their own chickens, sheep, and cattle, and had plenty of food. The only thing that the girls had to skimp on were nylon stockings and elastic for their underwear.
When the war ended in 1945, one by one the boys came home. Ted had accumulated the most points and arrived home first, then Bill and Bob. Having done their part to win the war, they got on with the business of living. My mother went to college and married. My grandparents continued living on the farm. They had been lucky. Their boys all came home.
What did I learn from interviewing and writing my mother’s memories of the home front during World War II? We can do hard things. We can endure trials. We can survive conflicts that we had nothing to do with starting. We can find joy in small everyday things. We can live with hope. My grandparents did it. My parents did it. I can do it. My children and grandchildren can do it.
I loved your story and am envious of you for having learned this from your mother. I never took the time with either of my parents. Now my mother’s memories are skattered, and my father has passed away.
My own father’s story was quite unique. He served in the war and had been drafted 5 months after returning from the USSR where he had lived for 10 years. (My grandparents had moved there from New Jersey after having difficulties during the Great Depression. They mistakenly thought returning to their homeland would be their answer.)
I never sat down with my father like you did, so my discovery of his story was after many years of genealogy research, a trip to the National Archives which led to a jackpot of letters and memos written to and from my father and his siblings, interviews with people who had similar stories, and lots of snooping in my dad’s dresser after he died.
Thank you so much for sharing your mother’s memories. It is a treasure. Your story, along with “The Greatest Generation,” has helped me to get a sense of what life was like then!
Thanks, Karen. I’m glad you enjoyed the story! It sounds like you’ve discovered some fascinating stories of your own.