I was almost a year old on December 7, 1941, so I really don't have a first-hand recollection of the shocked reactions on the faces of those around me. I'm pretty sure no one in Troy's Little Italy even knew where Pearl Harbor was, or what it was.
They just knew that it had been attacked, our Navy was in ruins, and that we were now at war – a war not just with Japan, but with Germany, too. A war against two countries, a hemisphere apart. Today, it's remembered and commemorated as an ancient and honorable victory over two evil empires, won at great cost to much of the world and to virtually every American family.
But try to imagine what it meant to those families – the instant change in attitude, in purpose, and the life-changing decisions facing the young men and women of the time.
World War Two was every American's war – even those whose grandparents had come from the very countries that were attacking us and our allies. Little Italy, especially the enclave of Tory Hill, which encompassed the part of Liberty Street across the railroad tracks, St. Mary's and Havermans Avenues, was a pretty closed community back then – but the Italo-Americans who made up the great majority of the population had to go outside its imaginary walls to shop, work and go to school.
Of course, it was easier for people of European backgrounds to blend into the general population. We didn't know anyone of Japanese extraction back then, but the wave of ugly propaganda was especially hard on them, and, frankly, the resulting focus on their incarceration in the western states probably brought some sense of relief to my relatives, as well as to those of German extraction.
Not that it was easy, even for a family whose name had been “Americanized” from Caserta to Case. Even though it had been an innocent enough change, there were people who suspected that the name had been changed to facilitate spying for the “Old Country.” Any communication with relatives in Italy – or Germany – was now suspect. Social clubs that had been founded to help equalize the ethnic communities were mistrusted and even reviled.
Despite that, the Case brothers helped rally the community and used their talents at organizing and producing plays and musical reviews to continue their efforts, redirecting the proceeds of their shows to the USO, the United Service Organizations.
Begun with foresight in February of 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The USO was – and is – a private, non-profit organization created to provide on-leave recreation for the rapidly growing United States armed forces. In response to the increasing world crisis, U.S. troops grew from 50,000 to 12 million between 1940 and 1945! USO clubs all over the world provided a touch of home – a place to dance, to meet, to watch movies, to find solace, to write letters home, and to enjoy free coffee and doughnuts.
Before the war would end, over a million and a half volunteers would work on the USO's behalf. Everyone in Little Italy pitched in. People who once played, sang and danced just for family gatherings, now brought their talents to the stage for the whole community to enjoy, and contribute to the war effort.
Everyone seemed to pull together back then, under the commonly heard phrase, “For the duration.”
Backyard gardens suddenly became “Victory Gardens,” and with rationing of tires, gasoline, meat, butter and other supplies needed for the war, cooperation was the watchword.
Blackouts were common, and men and women who were unable to fight became neighborhood Wardens, patrolling the streets at night, making sure no lights could be seen and used as targets by possible enemy aircraft. Children were trained to recognize and identify aircraft by their silhouettes, and to report any suspicious shapes in the sky.
Summertime lemonade stands now supported the USO, as did the traditional backyard “circuses” that the neighborhood kids put together, with performing pets and acrobatics. Breaking news of the war came from our radios, war action film was shown in newsreels at the movie theaters, and detailed reports of the fighting – as well as lists of the dead and missing in action – came from newspapers.
No one who was in the neighborhood at the time, in early 1942, can ever forget the screams of a mother on Havermans Avenue when she was told of her son's ultimate sacrifice in the very country she had left many years before to escape the hardships of life.
Her wailing sobs struck deep, and awakened the fears of every family with a member in service, or about to be.
©Copyright 2010 Frank LaPosta Visco
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