written in 1998 by Mary KERR Krentz
Most days he'd nod a quiet good morning to us as we stepped onto his open-sided freight elevator in the rickety warehouse on Piquette in Detroit. His iron-gray hair was streaked with white, and he moved slowly in his old age, but his brown eyes were soft and gentle when he looked directly at us. On this day we stepped into the elevator boisterously singing "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition...." He shook his grizzled old head and said with dismay, "That's sacrilegious!" We hadn't thought of it in that way. We just wanted this war to end so our men could come home from all the far-flung places they'd been sent. We were all heavy with concern about them, although we worked at staying optimistic.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Declaration of War. Four days later he also declared war on Germany and Italy, and the lives of all of us were drastically changed. Most men didn't wait to be drafted into the armed forces... they hurried to enlist. And women, of necessity, began to fill the jobs the men had left behind.
I was 19 and already working by then. I had taken a six-week IBM keypunch course when I was still in high school. The IBM school later recommended me to Chrysler Corporation and I'd been hired. By 1943, more than two million women were working in American war industries. Even my little mother became a part of this cross-country joining of hands and hearts to save the world from disaster. She was a little thing, just 4'9" tall, and she looked like a kewpie doll in her uniform of maroon coveralls as she sorted and counted machine parts on the other side of the building from where I worked in the IBM department. She was 47 years old, and this was the first time in her life that she had ever worn anything resembling slacks. I drove us to work in my mother's 1939 Chevy. A couple others carpooled with us.
Automotive plants had swiftly converted from civilian to war production to turn out airplanes, engines, and tanks. Chrysler Corporation used this old building* as a parts division and a data processing center where rumbling IBM machines pounded out reports 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. The floor trembled as the machines rolled out reams of reports on the quantities of parts being sent overseas to our armed forces.
Even silk stockings disappeared from the stores as the silk was needed to make parachutes. Seamless nylons were offered as a substitute. It wasn't unusual to see a girl run her hand down the back of her leg to straighten a seam that was no longer there. It was a hard habit to break.
No one resented the shortages. We were all eager to end the war, and whatever we had to do we did gladly with that goal in mind. I think there has never been a time, before or since World War II, when the people of our country were more cohesive. We were all working together for a common cause, and it was reflected in our attitude towards each other. I often think how wonderful it would be if people today could understand the importance and joy of that kind of togetherness, without needing a war to bring it about.
In our spare time we wrote long letters to the boys at the front... or shorter ones on V-Mail, a thin onion-skin paper that weighed less and promised earlier delivery because so many more of them could be packed into the mail bags. One of the girls always planted a big lipstick kiss on each letter to her husband. I couldn't help wondering what it would look like by the time it reached him. The letters we received from the front lines were censored. If the men mentioned where they were fighting, the government blocked out the words with heavy black ink to avoid the information getting into the wrong hands.
Is Sgt. A. Dalin the Allen mentioned below? Maybe someday
a reader will answer that question in the Comments section.
(click to enlarge)
a reader will answer that question in the Comments section.
(click to enlarge)
When my friend's husband asked me to add his buddy Allen to my list of correspondents, I agreed. We exchanged many letters, and when he was given a leave for a visit to his home in Maine, he stopped to see me. It was the first time we had met. He was a handsome fellow, six feet tall, dark brown hair, and eyes as blue as the sea. Years later I would recognize his look in the faces of rugged Maine fishermen who weather many a storm at sea. We talked and danced that evening, and I thought what a special person he was and how lucky I was to have him as a friend. When he returned to his outfit he was sent to do battle in the South Pacific. He did not survive that battle, and I mourned the loss of such a fine young man.
Sometimes on Saturday nights we young girls would go to the Vanity or Graystone ballrooms to enjoy the music of the popular big bands like Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown. We would dance the evening away with boys home on leave or those left behind for one reason or another. The lyrics to the songs that were popular at that time had a lot to do with what was going on in our world: Over There, Bugle Boy From Company B sung in harmony by the Andrews Sisters, and the one that got us into trouble in the elevator, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. My favorite was Bing Crosby's White Christmas, which always brought a tear to my eye. The songs of that era still have the power to move me.
In October, 1943, I left Chrysler's to ride the luxurious train El Capitan to California and become a part of the IBM team at Lockheed Aircraft. California seemed like God's country to me with its lush flowers, and palm trees swaying in the balmy breezes. Even the rain was different there... sort of light and misty... I could walk in it and not get wet. No one back home believed me when I told them that.
When my former supervisor from Chrysler's sent me a telegram asking me to return home to help him open a new department, I returned, reluctantly, to Detroit.
I remember so clearly the day victory in Europe was announced. It was May 8, 1945, and Germany had signed a document of unconditional surrender. My co-worker and I had been at lunch in a restaurant on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. As we stepped outside, horns were blaring and people were dancing in the streets. When we asked someone what was going on, they just danced on down the street waving and smiling, thinking no doubt that we must know... hadn't it just been announced on the radio! That was V-E Day. But it wasn't until September 2, 1945, that we won a victory over Japan, and the war was truly over.
Originally published in The Krenz Intermittent (Volume 2, Number 1 - January 1998)
*The building on Piquette which housed Chrysler's parts facility and the data processing center where my mother worked began its life in 1906 as Wayne Automobile Company, which soon became Everitt Metzger Flanders. Studebaker acquired E-M-F in 1910 and used the building to manufacture cars until 1928 when they moved their operations to Indiana. Chrysler later used the building as a parts facility until the 1960s. During World War II, part of the building was used as the U.S. Army's 182nd field artillery armory. In later years, part of the building was used by a few smaller businesses including a meat wholesaler, while the rest of the building fell into disrepair. A fire destroyed the building in 2005, and all that remains now is its footprint. Click here for an excellent pictorial history of the building and a Detroit News story about the fire.
For more automotive history, don't miss the Old Car Factories thread at Discuss Detroit, but be forewarned, this link will take you to the list of Hall of Fame Threads, a huge goldmine of Detroit history. Old Car Factories is about three-fourths of the way down the list, and it could take you days to get there!