Over the Hill

Memories of World War II are slowly fading away

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

In the early 1970s about three-quarters of the members of the U.S. Congress were World War II veterans. Now Congress is expected to soon have no World War II veterans at all.

A story in Monday’s Tribune said the Senate already has no World War II veterans, while the House of Representatives has just two, and they won’t return next year.

These days fewer and fewer people (veterans or others) can personally remember World War II. Those four years of total war are gradually sliding from living memory.

I was 11 when World War II started and 15 when it ended. I still just call it “The War.” It doesn’t need an adjective like all our subsequent hostilities get, such as Korean War, Vietnam War, Kuwait War, Iraq War and Afghanistan War.

One of the first things I remember about The War was that soon after it started, we kids were sent out from our rural, one-room school to gather milkweed pods. The fluffy stuff in those pods was supposedly needed as stuffing for life vests. They had formerly been stuffed with kapok, but Japan had captured the kapok-producing areas in Southeast Asia.

I also remember our government rationed many of the scarcer necessities such as gasoline, tires and foodstuffs. I still have some ration books containing unused ration coupons.

I lived at that time in rural, western New York state. I don’t think we felt quite as threatened as the people on the West Coast did. I don’t remember worrying about enemy air attacks. I also don’t remember any volunteer airplane spotter stations like the ones outside Paso Robles and elsewhere.

And San Luis Obispo County was more geared up for war than our township was. The Army built Camp Roberts and Camp San Luis Obispo. It also built the Salinas Dam to create Santa Margarita Lake as a water supply for Camp San Luis Obispo. That camp never used the water, but the city of San Luis Obispo does.

The War was good for the economy. After all, more than 16 million Americans served in the military services. Civilian jobs went begging. When I was in high school, we students and our teachers went out for a few fall days two consecutive years and helped harvest the carrot crop.

But wartime prosperity came at a high cost. My high school was small with about 250 students. But The War killed 16 of its former pupils. One was the 1944 valedictorian, Mario Pomponio, who was killed in France seven months after graduating.

He was a shy, accommodating young guy who tried to please. I’ll never forget him, but I won’t live forever.