Wilma Hughes: A World at War

Excerpted from Wilma’s personal journal which she wrote in September 2002 and May 2019. I have reordered her entries so they are chronological, and have edited for flow and clarity. My additions are in [brackets].

December 7, 1941

This Sunday morning was warm for December. Carol Shellenbarger and I were playing house on her back porch. Dick and Bill McAuliff and several other boys were playing a baseball game called 7-Up. Bill, the older of the two boys, went into the house and came out shouting that Pearl Harbor was being bombed. I knew where Pearl Harbor was and so did Carol. She got upset and I said “It’s just a game they are playing”. She decided to go inside, and I went home.

I asked my parents about it, and they had not had the radio on. Shortly after that, newspaper boys flooded the city with the newspapers and shouted “Extra, Extra, Pearl Harbor Bombed, War Declared”. (Hawaii was still a territory at the time and would not become a state for several more years.)

We were at war. President Roosevelt immediately initiated the draft. Men 18 years and older had to register. Those who had jobs involving the war effort, or who had families or health issues were exempt. My Dad was classified as “4-E” and did not go into the military. He was a father, managed a business (a grocery store) and was 37 years old. Dad was appointed as an air raid warden. He had to inspect homes at night to make sure all windows were covered with black-out paper, porch lights were turned off and car headlights were covered, with just a slit in the covering so drivers could see at night. I learned that a plane could see a porch light from 2-3 miles away.

We lived about 2 hours away from Fort Lewis, WA. There were a couple of plants in the area that produced materials for the war, including aluminum.

For me, the War Years were the most exciting time. Sure, sacrifices had to be made on the home front, but people pulled together. My family would invite a couple of soldiers from the area to have dinner with us once a month. We also made arrangements through the USO to host a couple of servicemen at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dad would give them each a carton of cigarettes and Mom would send a box of candy, cookies and fruitcake with them when they went back to their units. I never did find out where the men were stationed.

In school we talked a lot about the war. We learned and sang patriotic songs and bought stamps for 25 cents each, which we put into a book. When the book was full ($18.75), we turned it in for a War Bond which would pay out $25 after 10 years. (I later used my War Bonds to buy a Hollywood style bedroom set, which made my Mother unhappy.)

There were all sort of War Bond drives. One Saturday the pump & ladder fire trucks from Kelso and Longview came to an open field in West Kelso. A pair of 20-year-old twin girls dressed in white shorts would take one step up their assigned ladder for each war bond sold. It was a competition between the two cities but I don’t remember which city won. There were also Army jeeps there, and for every child who bought four war stamps, they got a ride in a jeep. I managed to get two rides.

The schools worked on writing letters to members of the military. We learned to knit squares which the Red Cross ladies sewed together as afghans to be sent overseas. Kelso was also a debarkation center for the military. Men were trucked in and boarded the train. The Girl Scout troop would bake cookies and take down to the departing soldiers. When school let out at 3 PM, we would run like mad to get to the train station by 3:45 to wave to the soldiers and sailors as they headed out for deployments. The train would have military trucks and tanks on it and always headed south.

By this time, a large number of men in the city had either enlisted or had been drafted. Nearly every house had a Blue Star flag in the window, showing a son or husband was serving in the military. Some flags had more than one star. In a few months some Blue Stars changed to Gold, showing the loss of a son or husband.

I was teased a lot in school because I wore home-made and hand-me-down clothes. I beat a girl up in math class because she kept taking my eraser and throwing it across the room, and spent an hour in the principal’s office. In the Spring of 1942, I was almost expelled from grade school. A girl called me “a dirty yellow Jap” so I cornered her in a bathroom stall and beat the crap out of her. I spent the rest of the day in the principal’s office and was lectured on tolerance and anger control.

The government ordered all Japanese gathered up and sent to confinement camps. One day, soldiers came into the classrooms and pulled the Japanese children out. This was so sad, as several of my friends were Japanese and the poor kids didn’t know what was happening.

[Wilma graduated from Catlin School in 1942, complete with a little Memory Book constructed of blue construction paper, mimicking a high school commencement program, complete with Class Colors (white and blue); Class Motto (“If you never begin you will never finish”) and three class officers (President, Secretary and Treasurer) It listed a graduating class of about 30 students. Wilma held a B average in grade school.]

By 1943 there were more shortages of many things, and rationing of sugar, coffee, and meat. We used a lot of honey in baking and substituted chicken and fish for meat. Chocolate was very scarce and butter was in short supply. Coffee grounds were used over and over – the wet grounds were spread on cookie sheets and dried, and eventually mixed with chicory.

Somehow, my mom obtained a Nucoa (margarine) route. At that time, margarine could not be sold in stores, and it could not be colored. It came in one-pound packages with a color and flavor packet which had to be mixed in to the Nucoa. A supply was delivered to our house on Friday afternoons by Railway Express, and Mom would deliver the orders on Saturday mornings before going to work. She took orders in advance and was paid on delivery (like Avon is now).

Shoes were limited to 2 pair a year, and silk and rayon stockings were hard to get. Women would line up for blocks to buy stockings. Some women used leg makeup and drew a seam line down the back of their leg with an eyebrow pencil. By late summer, rubber products were very scarce. Women’s underpants had drawstrings instead of elastic, and girdles were hard to get. One day when I was walking home from school, my drawstring broke and my underpants fell to the ground. I just walked out of them and didn’t pick them up. The kids around me were laughing, and I got yet another beating when I got home.

Gasoline was also rationed and at times was impossible to get, as were tires. Dad had a boat trailer chained to a telephone pole in the front of our house. It had 2 good tires on it and Dad was offered $100 per tire, but refused to sell. Rubber products were very scarce and things like elastic and girdles were hard to get.

Dad managed the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in West Kelso. The store was only a few blocks from home so he walked or rode his bicycle so we could use our gas rations for Sunday drives in the country. We would go to Castle Rock (about 15 miles from home) for triple scoop ice cream cones. I really looked forward to both the drives, and the ice cream.

Earl Hughes at work at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Kelso, WA

It was difficult to hire men for jobs, so women took over. Some women moved to Vancouver, WA to work in the shipyards. Some worked in the aluminum plant in Longview, as well as the paper pulp plant and the lumber industry. Others built planes and military vehicles. Mom went to work in the butcher shop in Dad’s store, and for a change, Dad was the boss. Mom worked for Lester Lowe, who taught her how to cut meat. She was the only woman to be certified as a meat cutter in that union, and in the entire county.

The butcher’s counter at Piggly Wiggly in West Kelso. Mom’s mother Mildred Hughes worked there
during WWII as the only female certified meat cutter in the union.

Dad hired two women to help in the grocery store. After awhile, Mom became jealous and made Dad fire one of them. Mom quite the butcher shop and went to work in the grocery store. Lester Lowe had his wife Sally, start working in the meat shop. She took care of selling the meat but not cutting it.

With Mom working, my job was to do the cooking and cleaning. I had to leave straight from school, stop at Dad’s store to pick up whatever Mom wanted me to fix for dinner, and then come home to start the wood stove. One day Mom gave me veal steak. I had watched her cook steaks and after browning them, she would put some water on them to finish the cooking [braising]. After cooking the steaks, I covered them with water, not knowing Mom only put a small amount of water on them. For years, Dad never let me forget how I served “boiled steak’ for dinner that one time.

On every third Saturday, a load of planer ends (wood scrap from the lumber mill) was delivered, which I had to stack in the garage. It was mostly in one-foot lengths, some were smooth while other pieces were splintery, and you could always count on finding at least one dead, flat mouse in the load. Oh, how I hated Saturdays. And for all of this, I still got only 50 cents a week allowance. I continued the cooking and cleaning until the end of the war, but managed to keep up with my homework. [She would continue to carry a B average through junior high school.]

Published by August-Phoenix-Mercantile

I'm a self taught hat maker, working in rescued textiles and found objects. My designs are inspired by my travels and historical studies. Learn more about me and my hats at https://augustphoenixhats.com/.

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