August 15th, 1945
I was 7 years old when World War II ended, but I remember the day well, mostly, I guess, because we were given a half day off school. The headmaster of our primary school in suburban Auckland called an assembly around midday and told us the war was over, and that we could all go home. Of course a half-day off school was a wonderful surprise and we all rushed to swarm out of the school gates.
As I walked home I saw a solitary fighter plane in the sky, zooming and looping in a solo display of celebratory aerobatics, but I noticed something very strange about that plane: unlike every plane I’d ever seen before, this one had no propeller. That night I told my father about the plane without a propeller, and he told me about the newly invented jet engine.
I remember hearing my grandmother talking to my father about fighter planes. She’d read that the biggest danger for fighter pilots was not so much about being hit by enemy gunfire, but from the horrific burns caused by fires ignited by that gunfire.
Most of the adult conversations I overheard as a young child were to do with THE WAR. There was unfathomable talk about various ‘fronts’. People expressed hatred about Hitler and Germany; praised Churchill, the British, our troops, and complained about wartime shortages and the ubiquitous ration books. A common expression of anger and frustration was: “It’s enough to make you tear up your ration book!” As if anyone would destroy such an essential item with its necessary coupons for all manner of important goods: petrol, meat, tea, sugar, butter and more.
In our neighbourhood games we kids didn’t have “goodies and baddies”; we nominated “goodies and Gerries”. For my seventh birthday I’d been given a toy gun with a target of three bulls-eye panels, each one overlaid with a single image of our arch enemies: Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo.
I suppose it must have been some time after the Japanese bombed Darwin, and a consequent fear that Auckland could be next, that my father dug a deep slit trench in our back lawn for my sister and I plus our parents to shelter in. The trench was never used – I now know New Zealand was never on Japan’s agenda – but one morning we discovered a dead dog lying at the bottom of our trench.
A neighbour’s pet had fallen in over night and probably broken its neck. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything dead, and I can still see the inert black and white body of that terrier lying at the bottom of our trench.
Once the war was over, it seemed as if war surplus shops were opening up everywhere. I owned a pilot’s helmet with built-in headphones and a two-way radio mike. I could put on a gas mask, which came complete with a special gel to apply to its goggles. There was also an army first-aid kit with dressings and a tube of iodine antiseptic.
But the most impressive war surplus moment came when my father, an engineer, wanted to buy aluminium for some castings he was working on. He took me in our car to an outer suburban area where there was a large allotment with several aeroplanes in various stages of demolition, being stripped for their aluminium content. I was allowed to climb into the cockpit of one, a fighter plane, where I could work the joy stick and pedals, push the machine gun button, and make believe I was in a dog fight. Absolute bliss for a young boy!
My father’s brother had been in the NZ army, a Major in the tank corps, and there was great family excitement with the news that he was returning home -by ship to Wellington and then train to Auckland. We all went to the railway station and then adjourned to my grandmother’s house where Uncle Andy unpacked a number of souvenirs from his experiences. We kids were allowed to play with some of these: a German Luger pistol, army badges and a variety of caps from various national armed forces. He allowed each of us to select something to take home and I scored an American GI cap, known as a ‘dress envelope hat,’ which I treasured and wore for several years.
I didn’t see a lot of my uncle during his adjustment to civilian life. He was still alive when I was a young adult and I still regret that I didn’t make the opportunity to question him about his war-time experiences, but like many returned servicemen he may not have wanted to discuss what happened to him during those world-shaking years from 1939 to 1945.
How does this make you feel about your own childhood? Was your upbringing ever affected by broader world events?
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