Every week for our WWII discussion group I research a topic to talk about, and print out some pictures. Last week I read about a woman named Ruth Gruber who just passed away at 105. She was an amazing person. She got accepted to NYU at 15 and was the youngest person (not just the youngest woman, but the youngest person) in the world to earn a doctorate. She was studying in Cologne, Germany and saw what was about to happen with the Nazis.
She became a journalist and volunteered to be on the ship that brought the only load of Jewish refugees permitted from Europe to the US. They dodged Uboats the whole way but about a thousand people were saved from the concentration camps. Originally, they were only going to be allowed to stay for the duration of the war but Gruber fought to make sure the were allowed to apply for citizenship, and won.
She was asked by the President Truman to witness what was going on with the European Jews after the war. So she got herself on the Exodus, a boat loaded with all nationalities of Jews who were being sent to British-controlled Palestine. They refused to get off the ship and painted a swastika on the Union Jack, which remains one of Gruber's most enduring photographs. Google Ruth Gruber. She was an amazing woman.
But no matter what we talk about, the topic always veers off into something fascinating. Today, one of the residents, and I'm purposefully not using any names, talked about growing up in Iowa and being a teenager when service members would come through town on their way home from a tour.
The USO would work with families to provide soldiers with a shower, a meal and a bed. Joyce (I'm just gonna call all the lady residents Joyce and the guy residents Bob) said the soldiers either ate until they couldn't eat anymore or got into bed and slept well into the next day.
Joyce was 16 and 17 when the USO hosted several dances in her Iowa town for soldiers passing through on their way home from war. She says the soldiers were nothing like what we would expect them to be. They weren't tough guys. They were kids, just a couple years older than her. And she and the other girls had to approach them, take them by the hand and lead them out onto the dance floor.
And for the most part, they didn't say anything. They didn't want to talk. They just wanted to wrap their arms around the girls and bury their noses in their necks, if just for a moment. And Joyce and the other girls let them.
One of my residents showed me some medals that her husband earned during the War. One was a Congressional Medal of Honor.
He enlisted in the Army in March of 1941, six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He wanted to fly planes, but because he was black and the armed forces were segregated, they sent him and a bunch of others down to Tuskegee, Alabama.
They flew escorts to bombers and were so good they were requested by B-17 bombers. And still, in typical American fashion, when they got home these decorated pilots could be denied service at a lunch counter in a Woolworth's.
Jim served the duration of the war, and when he came home he didn't dwell on either the positive or the negatives of it. He went to school and got a degree in Social Work. They raised a few sons and he never talked about the war. His focus was on raising his sons to become educated and contributing members of society.
I read his eulogy, written by several friends and two of his sons. He was a big shot at a major university, but what impressed me most was what one of his sons said-
"My dad called me one day and asked if I wanted to go up to Seattle. He was getting some kind of medal for his service in the War. Apparently, he was a Tuskegee Airman…"
My favorite time of the week is Saturday morning, when I host a history class/discussion group at the facility. It started out being about local history 'cause there are people living here who come from all over the country and I wanted them to be familiar with what a cool city this is.
Then we started talking about WWII and I began to learn firsthand about what it was like to grow up during the war. We have residents who served overseas and residents who built planes. We have a resident who was interned and another who was in Hawaii and watched the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. We've got someone whose father was in the German army, and another who witnessed the Allies bomb a factory in Denmark with Nazi officers in it. The Nazis were using civilians as a human shield on the top floor and the Allies managed to take out the Nazi officers on the ground floor. It was a huge success until one of the planes lost control and crashed into a school killing about 100 children. He barely got the story out before he had to get up and leave.
Another resident grew up in Liverpool. She was eight when the war started and thirteen when it was over. She said there are no pictures of her and her family in that whole time because there was no film available due to the threat of spies. She says there's a five year gap in most English family's history during that dark time.
Her house got bombed twice. The first time when she was ten. It was before they were given a metal bomb shelter that they shared with their next door neighbor. She said the whole back of the brick house was knocked off and it was mayhem. Sirens blaring, planes overhead, bombs exploding.
The Constable, some old veteran form WWI, came over and started yelling at her father to get the light out on the second floor. It was a blackout and now there was a lightbulb visible that would give the Germans something to aim at. He started screaming at him to "Get that light out! Get that light out!!"
Her father couldn't get past the debris to get in and kill the power, so he picked up a brick and heaved it at the light. He missed, so he picked up another brick and tried again. Miss. He tried a third time and missed again.
Her mother yelled, "GODDAMIT GEORGE!" and picked up a rock and hit it on the first try. He swore up a storm while everybody laughed and dodged for cover.
Her father rebuilt the house, and was always a good sport while the family recalled their favorite wartime memory.
I've been working at a senior living facility for the past year and as much as I love being there, I can't afford it. So I gave my notice and reached out to a tour company, where I spent a couple seasons as a Captain, and a friend who manages the city's bridge tenders.
The tour company hired me right away and got me back into training. And then Greg got back to me with a possible temporary position on the bridges that may turn to full-time in a year or so.
I was telling all this to a friend and I thought with all the downtime on the bridge I should probably start up a blog. Maybe call it 'Off My Meds' because how funny would it be to be a bipolar bridge tender who wasn't taking his medication?
But offmymeds.com was taken so I snagged backonmymeds.com instead, which is not only more accurate, but certainly smarter career-wise.
It'll be probably a month or so before I'm sitting up on the University or South Park bridge with enough downtime to start posting blogs about how interesting it is to raise and lower one of the city's five drawbridges. But I'm starting this blog anyway just to push myself because that's what people do, right?
I may write about the amazing people I work with at the senior living facility. People who lived through WWII and are considered part of the Greatest Generation, which is a huge understatement. And I may rant about the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime, donald trump. And I may just tell a couple stupid stories. I don't know yet. We'll see.
Check back in a few weeks.