The on-air interruption was, of course, breaking news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. McDonald, 98, remembered, “This (event) changed the rest of our school year quite a bit.”
Writing in the 1942 Windham High School yearbook, Editor-in-Chief Louise Manchester wrote, “Our country is now involved in a second great World War…We, the youth of today, realize that it is our duty to share the responsibilities that accompany our fight for democracy…One of our most important projects has been the training of all high school boys and many girls in the study of First Aid. Many girls have completed courses in Home Nursing…”
McDonald remembers buying U.S. Defense Stamps, “for pennies.” Later, the stamps would be turned in for a $25 War Bond. By the spring of ’42, the students were calling for scrap metal to be dropped off at the school. “We had a huge pile of donations: old, unused farm equipment, tea kettles, plows, harrows…anything made of metal. It got melted down and made into something to fight the war with; the U.S. was ill-prepared.”
School buses could no longer transport students to after school activities, however those who had cars provided conveyance. The yearbook also reported, “This year, because of the demand for more food, the boys of the Future Farmers of America Club (a school sponsored group) are having more and larger projects. Members of the boy’s 4-H Club participated in a “Food for Victory” project while the girls Hi-Y Club made white shirts for the Red Cross.
As a young lad, barely 17, McDonald was called upon to help out with the war effort by manning an aircraft warning tower situated on a high point of land at the intersection of Chute and Webb Roads. His job: Keep eyes on the sky and listen. His tools: Binoculars and a phone. His shift: 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. one day a week. He cannot recall if he was ever late for his first period class at school.
Rationing of critical resources such as gasoline, rubber, sugar and even cigarettes soon followed. Folks who were “holding down the home front” learned to get along with less. McDonald recalls one of his neighbors, Arthur Cobb, who lived on the corner of Gray Road (Route 202) and Gambo Road. “His nickname was pipe because he was always smoking a crooked corn-cob pipe; he would always brag about saving gas by shifting his car into neutral when going downhill. He’d leave his house going toward South Windham; when he got to Grant’s Corner (Binga’s today) he’d coast until he crossed the railroad tracks. Another time, there was a crash at that corner and the car started leaking gas. The fellow who lived in the brick house ran across the road (to the disabled car) and put a milk pail under the wreck to catch the gas.”
Perhaps the most grievous and disheartening effect of the war was the impact on family roles. Husbands, dads and brothers went off to serve the country; grandparents, wives, moms, sisters and children willingly and diligently assumed new duties – in some cases on a learning curve.
Kenneth Griffin was 8 years old, living with his mom and dad, grandmother, two brothers and a little sister on the family farm on River Road, when the radio soap opera "One Man’s Family" he was listening to was suddenly interrupted with the disturbing news of Pearl Harbor. “I went from childhood to early adulthood that day in 1941,” recalled Griffin, “A few minutes later my father (a machinist’s mate in the U.S. Coast Guard) drives into the yard. He rushes into the house and runs upstairs. In no time he’s back in uniform kissing Mom goodbye and drives away. I couldn’t grasp what was going on, but life for the Griffin family changed that day.”
Griffin’s brothers soon left school to work in the “new” shipyard in South Portland; by 1943 they would leave home to serve in the military, but not before teaching young Kenneth how to run the farm. “I was almost 11 by then. We had two cows, 25 chickens, one pig and a John Deere tractor complete with tow bar, hay mower and plow.” He was now “man of the house.”
Now, age 91 and living in California, Griffin emailed a few memories of those war years. “The plow lever was so heavy that I had to stand up on the tractor and use both hands and legs to pull it down or lift it up. Fortunately, our (vegetable garden) rows were long so there was time between the exercise. (My brother) was a fine teacher and gave me good instructions before he left.”
The following year, Griffin’s dad would be missing in action, “…and the checks stopped coming!” Mom would find work in Portland where she found living accommodations and work at a five-and-dime store. Back on the farm, 12-year-old Griffin and his grandmother would keep the fires burning. Dad would eventually be located, recuperating in a Halifax hospital.
Lloyd “Buster” Gilman of Windham says he was about 10 years old and lived on Gambo Road when the war impacted his family. “We had a big garden: cukes, tomatoes and potatoes. There was a neighbor who used to sneak into our cellar and steal potatoes. We raised chickens and my mother would can them. They were good in those jars. I remember eating a lot of hot dogs, poor man’s food.” Gilman said the abandoned Gambo Gunpowder Mills, located near his home, had a canon that was once used to test the gunpowder. He said it disappeared – scrapped for the war effort. Gilman’s mother, Alice, kept a diary. Her entries are revealing regarding the burdens and concerns of the home front in Windham during World War II.
Feb. 23, 1942: Listened at 10 p.m. President Roosevelt talk.
May 5, 1942: Got our sugar rationing books, each (family) allowed ½ pound a week.
June 23, 1942: Took all our old rubber and tires to salvage. Got 1 cent a pound. We had 88 pounds.
March 29, 1943: Started rationing meat, butter, fats and canned fish.
July 13, 1944: Army bomber crashed over at South Portland into a lot of trailer camps, killing 16 – injuring several.
April 17, 1945: Put up clothes for the relief of war victims in Europe.
May 8, 1945: The war is over in Europe. A great day for everyone.
July 7 and 8, 1945: No eggs anywhere in any store. Butter has gone up to 89 cents a pound. In Portland charging over $1.
Aug. 14, 1945: They announced over the radio that war ended with Japan. Everyone celebrates. Built fires in the streets, threw tons of paper, Everyone happy. I was so happy not only for my boy that is fighting, but for all others too, and their mothers, wives and sweethearts.
Another Windham resident named Gilman who also remembers the sorrow and hardships of the war years is Hazel Gilman, who has lived nearly all of her 104 years in the same house on River Road near Grant’s Corner. Hazel holds the town’s Boston Post Cane and says life in Windham during World War II “changed immensely.” She married Kenneth Gilman in 1941 and no sooner had they started a life together when he was called to the war in the Pacific. “I had a hard time getting used to the idea that he was gone.”
Hazel and Ken did not have children but were helping to support members of their family. As a result, Hazel determined she would have to find work. “We simply didn’t have all the things we needed and things were scarce, especially meat and sugar. We depended on ration stamps. We didn’t go anywhere – there was just not enough money.” She found work a short walk up the road at Thayer’s Store.
Ken was in the Navy on a sub tender. Hazel would check the newspaper every day hoping to learn the location of his ship. They would write to each other nearly every day, but often his letters were held up until five or six would arrive at the South Windham Post Office on the same day. When that happened, she recalls that the letter carrier would drive to her house after hours so she wouldn’t have to wait an additional day.
“Everybody had someone they were worried about – a husband, brother or nephew.”
But there was a bright side to the period, she recalls. “People helped each other out. Some large families had more ration stamps than they really needed, so they’d drop the extras off at the store and we’d give them out to folks we knew needed them.”
Hazel chuckled as she remembered the time a shipment of cigarettes, which were rationed, arrived at the store. “We had to hide them because people would try to steal them.” It seems a young store clerk received the shipment and immediately shoved the cartons under the counter, out of sight, but right beside and on top of packages of mothballs. The mothball flavored smokes resulted in many irate patrons. Store staff, however, couldn’t help but find some amusement in the bungled butt blunder.
This column wishes to extend deep respect and remembrance to all lost in war on this Memorial Day. And special thanks to the reader of this column who suggested we highlight and remember “the folks back home,” before the memory fades. <