Life on the Homefront During WWII: “Having a Common Cause”
|by Krista Madsen|
Ten women and two men filled every chair in the third floor Warner Library conference room to share stories of life on the homefront during WWII. Though the war ended 70 years ago, their memories are as vivid as if it all happened yesterday – from the constant air raid drills and pulled curtains for blackouts, down to the tiny details of every saved ball of tinfoil and rationed slab of butter. The overall sentiment – perhaps surprisingly – is one of fondness for growing up during this incredible time in American history.
Mafalda Tornello was 13 when the war broke out; her father was an air raid warden and her mother worked at Eastern Aircraft (when GM stopped making cars and started making bomber wings on North Tarrytown’s waterfront). “It was the first time I saw her wear slacks,” Tornello said of her newly working mom.
Emma Serena’s parents also worked at Eastern Aircraft, during different shifts. “The war didn’t affect me really except my mom not being there at noon when I came home for lunch.”
Tornello’s brother joined the Navy and was in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor when it all started, a radio man listening to the artillery in the distance.
She recalled the food rationing and having an “A”, “B”, or “C” sticker on the car window to determine when her family could buy gas.
Caroline Amenta, friend “from birth” of Tornello, grew up in the family bakery and therefore suffered no shortage of gas or butter. But she remembered the things not said. “A slip of the lip will sink a ship,” went the popular saying; the collective mood dictating that no one complain. “It was a great time to grow up.”
Despite having seven uncles in the war, Joan Ceconi agreed. “Everything was about the war, but really it was not a bad time to live because everyone had a common cause.”
Everyone remembered using leftover bits of yarn to knit squares for blankets that would go to devastated people in Europe, buying stamps daily at the Post Office toward a war bond, even contributing cans of leftover bacon grease to make explosives, and overall just being kids: playing freely outside until called home for dinner.
William Maguire said he would leave school on occasion to cheer the older young men marching from the service office (now the municipal parking lot across from Sleepy Hollow Village Hall), down Cortlandt, to the Tarrytown train station where they departed.
School children practiced hiding under desks, and blackouts were routine, if not exactly necessary, as the belief was the darkness kept ships evading German subs in the Hudson Harbor from having a silhouette, or kept your town off the target map. Streetlights went out, curtains closed. You’d even be told to extinguish your cigarette. “But the men found the bars alright,” Maguire laughed.
Much like the assassination of Kennedy rocked the nation decades later, the sudden death of FDR stopped everyone in their tracks, mothers collectively weeping because they believed he would see them safely through the end of war.
Those who didn’t grow up here (attendees also hailed from NYC to Puerto Rico) shared memories of the same songs (“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition…”) and the packaged meat: “Spam and Spam and Spam.”
Locals watched 10-cent movies at the Strand on Beekman or the Tarrytown Music Hall, which began with newsreels from the war – a sanitized version, to be sure, but it gave them a glimpse.
There were regular dances at the Van Tassel auditorium where local girls would have their pick of Staten Island Coast Guard guests to bring home to Sunday dinner.
There was the idea that heroes didn’t come home, so the men who did make it back alive preferred to sneak in quietly so they wouldn’t cause too much fanfare. But at war’s dramatic close, everyone let loose, kissing each other, screaming in the streets, parties, parades. And, while nowadays survivors are pretty open with wounds and can get a post-traumatic stress diagnosis, then it was “no one ever said anything; they just went back to work,” Amenta said.
Frank Cofone said they must have suffered just the same. “Most of these guys never saw a gun until the Army. You kill people and then you’re expected to go home and just forget about it? You can’t do it.”
Listen to the full audio session online at Soundcloud.com/warnerlibraryhistories and at www.thehudsonindependent.com. Next month, we will hear from Sleepy Hollow’s sole surviving Pearl Harbor vet, Chick Galella. Have a local, historical topic you’d like to share? Please email email@example.com.