Part Eight: War Fever | Essay | Chicago Reader

Part Eight: War Fever 

A Serial in Twelve Parts

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The night after Pearl Harbor was attacked there was a torchlight procession through the streets of Edwardsville and a rally in the town square. The speakers exhorted the men of the town to enlist. The next day, lines of young men snaked out from the recruitment offices and passersby were stopping to shake their hand. The lines were longer the next day, and the day after that, and pretty soon any able-bodied man in civilian clothes found himself harassed on the street by neighbors demanding to know why he wasn't in uniform.

My great-uncle Eugene watched the fever sweep through Edwardsville with a brooding lack of interest. He'd only recently come back to town for good after years on the bum, and he still moved around the streets like a stranger. Even at home he was an elusive presence. He kept to himself and would not discuss his time on the road. He fixed up the attic as a bedroom and furnished it with an ornate brass bed he'd found at a junkyard. He forbade anybody else to go up there. At the dinner table he kept his head down, shoveled his food into his mouth like a man rescued from the desert, and rarely spoke. When I asked people who'd known him in those years for a sample of his conversation, all anybody could think of was "Pass the potatoes."

He'd lucked into a job--he was an electrician's helper at the enormous Shell Oil refinery in Wood River, a few miles northwest of Edwardsville on the Mississippi. The refinery was in a frenzy of expansion and was hiring every man with the feeblest hint of training or experience. But Eugene wasn't sure how long it would last. Like every other man in Edwardsville he'd registered for the draft, and he expected to be called up at any moment. But the weeks and months passed. When he finally appeared before the draft board he was told that his job at the refinery was critically important war work and he was exempt from military service. That was fine by him. He went back home.

Eugene spent his free time tramping around the deep countryside with his hunting dogs. (He kept two of them then: a regal, dignified mutt named Bingo and a testy collie named Poochie who was Helen's darling--the first in a long series of mean, unlovable dogs that she doted on.) He might have passed the whole war that way if it hadn't been for his sister Hilda's new boyfriend.

Around the corner from the family house was a grocery called Wehrle's. It was a little storefront of gray clapboard with a Coca-Cola sign out front. The Wehrle's family lived upstairs and they took turns running the store. It was a dim, cluttered place, with unvarnished wood floors and rickety storage shelves stacked to the ceiling with dusty boxes: Oxy and Lux, Ivory Flakes and Silver Snow, Rinso and Dreft and Purex. There was a battered round table on the back wall where the neighborhood regulars sat. They were old men mostly, drinkers and idlers. They earned their keep--or at least old Wehrle's grudging acquiescence--by running messages. Wehrle's had the only telephone for blocks around, and whenever a long-distance call came in, one of them would fetch its recipient. My mother, Dorothy, remembers playing in the front yard one summer afternoon when a Wehrle's regular came up breathlessly with the news from Chicago that she had a new baby sister.

Chief among the regulars was a small, loud, relentlessly humorous man named Earnest C. Martindale. He had bristling brown hair, a thin face, a mouth that seemed eternally raised in a grin, and bright, birdlike eyes. He was a jokester, a tale teller, a spinner of rumor and innuendo. His mind was a bottomless well of groaners, wheezes, knee-slappers, and rib-pokers. He was serious only for as long as it took to pass on some lurid new bit of gossip about a neighbor. Nobody ever thought the name Earnest suited him, so everybody called him Marty.

Marty was from an Indiana farming family. He'd hated the farming life, though, and never gotten along with his father, so when he was a teenager he ran away from home. This was during the First World War: he lied about his age and enlisted in the navy. But he'd hated the navy, too, and confessed his lie in order to get discharged. The navy sent him home to his father. A few months later he ran away again and reenlisted, and when he tried to get out again his father told the navy to keep him. That was how he ended up as a grease monkey in the submarine corps. He liked to tell horrible stories about his time in combat, though never when another veteran was in earshot. In any case, he stayed on in the service a while after the war was over; he learned the rudiments of electrical engineering and rose to chief petty officer. After his discharge, he spent a couple of aimless years working odd jobs at factories around the midwest before hiring on as an electrician at the Wood River refinery.

He lived in a rooming house off Troy Road and spent his mornings before work and his weekend afternoons hanging around Kruger's. He liked Saturdays best, because that was when the women in the neighborhood dawdled over their shopping. He flirted with everyone, but on weekdays he reserved all his attention for Hilda.

She came by every morning to buy a bag of fresh-baked sweet rolls for breakfast. She pretended to ignore him, and when she couldn't keep that up she snorted in disgust at his risque jokes, but she seemed to linger a little longer each day by the pastry counter.

Hilda was in her late 20s then, but she looked and felt much older. She was worn out by her years of caring for Franciska and Agnes. Her life was a perpetual trudge through chores and errands and favors and visits--her only real diversion came in the summer when her nieces and nephew visited from Chicago. She longed to have children and a house of her own, but since her wild years as a teenager she'd almost never been alone in a man's company. So when Marty asked her to the movies she surprised herself by saying yes. Soon she started inviting him over for Sunday dinner after church.

Those dinners were still the high point of the household's life, but most of the neighborhood regulars had drifted away, missing Bosh's hospitality or Agnes's cooking. Hilda laid out an enormous spread, but her taste ran to the overboiled and undersalted. (The household spent the rest of the week plowing through the leftovers--beef stews and beef hashes and cold beef sandwiches on white bread.) And because she disapproved of alcohol, she'd given away all of Bosh's old wine. Marty's arrival came as a shot in the arm. He always kept the table lively--and soon some of the old crowd was back just to see what he'd say next. He was a real artist at needling, never happier than when he had the entire table laughing--except for his red-faced, furious target.

One time he subjected ten-year-old Dorothy from Chicago to a feeble wheeze about pickles growing on a pickle tree, and for weeks afterward he'd nudge his dinner companions and point at her, saying, "Dorothy thinks pickles grow on trees." Telling me the story 60 years later, Dorothy got angry all over again.

It wasn't long before Hilda was the only one there who could stand him. Agnes was suspicious of him, Helen loathed him, and the other guests grew sick to death of him. But nobody ever dreamed of telling him he wasn't welcome.

Marty and Eugene detested each other from the beginning. Eugene broke his silence at the dinner table one afternoon by threatening, with no provocation anybody could detect, to punch Marty out. Marty grew cautious around Eugene. But he wasn't the sort of man who could forgo malice altogether. It just took him a while to find a way in.

The Wood River refinery, where both men worked, provided the opening. They were assigned to different shifts and rarely saw each other, but that didn't keep Marty from implying, and sometimes openly saying, that it was only through his influence with management that Eugene had been hired. It was a brilliant stroke. Eugene detested being beholden to anyone; the thought that people might believe he owed anything to Marty was almost too much for him to bear. At Sunday dinners from then on Eugene was so livid he could barely bring himself to look in Marty's direction, and whenever their eyes did meet Marty would beam with satisfaction.

But then there was the topper. Early in the spring of 1943 Marty showed up for Sunday dinner in a navy uniform. He announced to the table that he'd reenlisted. Even though he was in his 40s and had been granted the same exemption from service that Eugene had, he said he couldn't sit idly by when his country needed him. So he'd joined the Seabees, the navy's new construction battalions, as a chief petty officer. Everybody was impressed. Helen and Agnes grudgingly admitted he was a hero. The whole neighborhood came to his send-off, and before it was over Eugene had to shake his hand and wish him luck.

That was the last straw for Eugene. The next day he enlisted. He applied to and was immediately accepted in the Seabees--electricians, even electricians' helpers, were in desperately short supply. By the middle of spring he was on a train headed for a new Seabees base in California.

The train swarmed with fresh-faced soldiers. Most were nervous and some were terrified. As they passed through the black, empty country west of the Mississippi the car was filled with a ceaseless racket of anxious talk and panicky laughter. But none of that bothered Eugene. If there was one skill he'd mastered in life, it was how to sleep soundly on a loud moving train.

At the height of the war, travelers passing through Union Station in Chicago were greeted by a strange apparition. Above the swarming chaos in the great concourse, where thousands of soldiers and sailors and marines jostled and queued and laughed and hailed each other; above the lurid posters that warned of eavesdropping spies ("LOOK WHO'S LISTENING!"); above the enormous War Bonds banner; above the riot of flags representing all the Allied nations from India to Norway; way up in the echoing air beneath the arched ceiling, immense nets held thousands and thousands of toy airplanes. These massed squadrons symbolized the government's announced goal of building a hundred thousand military aircraft a year.

To the three Sehnert kids, the sight was like a gateway into the war. Their own lives hadn't changed much since Pearl Harbor. Their father Clarence had a war-related exemption because of his job at the post office, and he'd felt no temptation to enlist. Mostly the kids were aware of the war as a series of shortages and disappearances, of men around the neighborhood departing unexpectedly, of stars popping up in windows like lanterns to announce that someone in the house had gone into the service. One year there was no chewing gum, and the kids chewed the softened tar that bubbled off the streets on hot days. And there was never enough gasoline for the car--which is why, when it came time to go to Edwardsville each summer, they traveled grandly by train.

On their way through Illinois they saw a countryside swarming with the war's energies. There were frequent unscheduled stops in small towns to take on waves of uniformed passengers, and interminable waits on meadowy sidings so that trains with a higher priority could roar past. Everywhere the old derelict factories had reopened, and the mines and mills were beehives of new life. The Hoovervilles had all emptied out, and so many of the homeless had come in off the road to work that there was nowhere to put them. Tent cities were set up to house the overflow employees; people called them New Hoovervilles.

Edwardsville was consumed by the war. There were parades and drives--rubber drives, tin drives, brass drives, paper drives, blood drives, even drives to collect used cooking fat (to manufacture glycerin). At the climax of one scrap metal drive, the veterans of the Great War towed the cannon in front of the American Legion hall across town to the collection point at the dump. Another time a traveling military show arrived bearing a great prize, a captured Japanese miniature submarine, and it was paraded around the streets. In the city park, a big flag-festooned sign went up naming every local man and woman in the service; Helen sometimes took the kids to admire Eugene's name. Even the house on Second Avenue had the look of a military outpost: Helen hung an enormous map of the world in the dining room, and each morning after going through the newspapers she would ceremoniously push in pins to mark the sites of Allied victories.

The kids did their part. They tended neighbors' victory gardens and on weekends rolled bandages at the Red Cross. But their main job was to answer the letters from Eugene. Nobody had really expected to hear from him at all, and yet he was writing constantly--the letters bunched up in transit, and the postman would sometimes, with a sort of mock disapproval, present Agnes with a wad of five or ten of them rubber-banded together. The letters quickly exhausted Agnes's ability to respond, and Helen ran out of things to say even faster than that. So the task was turned over to the kids.

Mainly Eugene wrote to ask how things were back home. He inquired constantly about the family and the household, particularly his dogs. The kids wrote back that everybody was fine and that the dogs were doing well (in fact Helen was spoiling them outrageously). Eugene also wrote about what he was doing, but he seemed to assume they knew all about it already; they couldn't make any sense out of his talk of dredges and generators and landing strips. Sometimes he made vague references to his fellow soldiers. "There are a lot of funny guys here," he'd say. "Ones from San Fran and ones from De Moines and ones from New York"--he seemed to think that being from anywhere other than Edwardsville was in itself funny. Other times he recorded progress toward cryptic goals: "Well today we layed cable down to the gas farm. Well it was hotter than anything but we got the juice going." Only once or twice did he say anything at all about what he was feeling: "Its awful lonesome here but like they say we got to get the job done."

One other person was missing from the household in those days: Hilda. But she never wrote and was never discussed. When the kids arrived in the summer of 1943 she was simply gone, and nobody would say where she went. Agnes bristled whenever she was mentioned and Helen looked despondent. Gradually the kids gathered that Hilda was in Virginia working at a shirt factory near the big navy base on the coast. They vaguely assumed it was some special war-related job. But one evening when they were sitting on the front porch, Helen lost interest in their game of movie stars and at last told them the truth. Hilda had gone to Virginia to be with Marty. That was how the children and the rest of the family learned that Hilda and Marty had gotten married.

Eugene's first sight of the island of Bougainville was as the convoy approached from the west. It was a low line of mist-shrouded greenery rising up to a broken mountain range; along the range were two active volcanoes that perpetually belched vast billows of brilliant white smoke.

The Seabees were put ashore on a narrow strip of sand between the ocean and a brackish swamp. The interior was an impassable tangle swarming with mysterious life: rainbow-brilliant birds swooped in and out of the dense tree canopy, poisonous snakes slithered through stagnant pools, and swarms of unnamed insects rose in waves of mist and bit like fire. The underbrush was so thick that when a plane went down a hundred yards from the beach it took the search teams five days to find the wreckage.

For weeks the Seabees pounded their way inward. They dug canals and dammed the streams; they dynamited the trees; they poured dirt and rocks and tree trunks into the stagnant ponds and bulldozed them over. It was miserable work: every afternoon torrential rain fell, and the nights were bone-chillingly cold. But in a month the crews had cleared and graded enough land to lay down the metal netting of an airstrip.

Two weeks later a crippled fighter used the strip for an emergency landing and that night the camp held a riotous party. Eugene wrote home that it was the proudest moment of his life.

The weather broke soon afterward, and work on the base accelerated. By New Year's Day of 1944 there were two functioning airstrips, one of them for heavy bombers and more than a mile long. Roads had been cut all around the airfield to the docks, and the bay was being dredged for a permanent harbor. The tanks of a fuel farm held 10,000 gallons apiece, with pumps running to the hangars. Rivers diverted from the interior brought fresh drinking water. And in the original jungle clearing stood barracks, a mess hall, officers' and enlisted men's clubs, and a movie theater.

Up until then Eugene had paid almost no attention to the Japanese. Everybody knew they were on the island: they had an air base on the other side of the mountains. Every few days one of their planes would buzz the American camp like a stray horsefly, but otherwise they were invisible. (After the war it was learned that the Japanese initially ignored the American presence on the island because they didn't think anybody could survive in the swamps.) But sometime after New Year's, Eugene was roped into a crew delivering supplies to the patrols on the perimeter.

It was trackless country, out beyond the last Seabee road. The trucks got mired in the mud and Eugene and the rest of the crew had to lug the rations and water barrels on their backs. The patrols they were resupplying were dug into the foothills of the mountain range. Everyone suspected that Japanese soldiers were somewhere above. But the weather had turned foul and fog shrouded the jungle; nothing could be seen up the slopes but weird dim silhouettes melting into gray. Just as Eugene's crew got ready to head back to the base there was a noise they'd never heard before. It was a rattle like the first stirrings of an avalanche. Men started yelling in panic. Bounding down the slopes, out of the fog, came a cascade of live grenades.

After that the Americans were perpetually on edge. But the big battle didn't come till weeks later. An immense Japanese force slowly crossed the mountains and surrounded the American base. Eugene spent the night before the expected attack in a foxhole behind one of the airstrips. The forward patrols swept the line of jungle with searchlights, but nobody could see anything other than a frenzy of darting shadows. The night was humid and close, with clouds hanging down almost low enough to touch.

Toward morning somebody had the idea of turning the searchlights up at the clouds. The trick worked: the reflected glare off the underbelly of the cloud cover illuminated the depths of the jungle and revealed the Japanese artillery positions. Then the firefight began. Eugene wrote home that his foxhole was so well constructed all the other guys wanted to hide in it.

That was his last letter for months. The next anybody heard from him was at the end of the spring of 1944. He'd left Bougainville; his battalion had been rotated behind the line but he'd been transferred to another battalion and was now in the Marshall Islands. In the middle of summer he wrote to say that he had been transferred again and was now on the island of Saipan. There were no more letters from him after that.

The war ended the next year. Hilda and Marty returned to Edwardsville in the fall and moved into Eugene's old room. It was only temporary, Hilda explained, until they found a place of their own.

At the end of 1945 Agnes got an official letter informing her that Eugene was in a navy hospital in Australia. The following spring another official notification arrived: Eugene had been transferred stateside to a hospital in California near Yosemite. He was suffering from war-related mental illness. He was not allowed visitors and was unable to answer letters. Agnes told the family he had malaria.

Next week: Nobody Would Ever Guess.

Previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.

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