COMMENTARY: Remembering the ‘Greatest Generation’


September 8, 2014

I was 10 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. All of our lives changed on that December 7th day, 1941. We had air raid drills at school where we went to the basement and stood with our heads in our arms against the wall lockers. My father taught all the town’s teachers first aid in case we actually had a raid and needed help. Air raid sirens could go off at any time, and if at night all lights had to be made not visible. Gasoline was rationed and you had to display a letter in the rear window of the car or truck with an “A” letting you buy three gallons per week if you had the money and the ration coupons. The speed limit was 35 mph to save gasoline. The top half of the headlights had to be covered with black electrical tape.

Dad trained the soldiers from Fort Monmouth how to be firefighters, and their fire engine came to our drill tower weekly for instruction. After getting the town ready for war, equipping and training the Civil Defense firefighters and working with the Red Cross, Dad tried to go back into the Army but was too old. He then joined the Navy! When the local judge heard what Dad had done we met him on Sunday outside church and he remarked that he would never do such a thing.

Now Mom and I were alone, and at age 12 I was the man of the house. Mom went to the ration board and picked up two books of coupons, one for each of us. When she got home and opened the books all the meat coupons had been stolen by a worker at the board. For the next six months we were not able to legally buy any meat.

While there were a lot of patriotic people, there were also a lot of low-lifes. Many young men joined the military and many others waited for the draft. But there were many who we called “draft dodgers” and “slackers.” There were all manner of ways to avoid the draft. Some men with one child hastened to have another baby, figuring men with two or more kids would not be drafted. Some bachelors quickly married a woman with children. Some moved to Lakewood, NJ, and took up raising poutry. Some put blotters inside their shoes to give a false pulse reading. And there was the black market where things were sold at high prices without ration coupons.


Many who served honorably and hit the beaches at Normandy, etc., really had no choice. They were drafted, sent to basic, put on a ship, and then were part of the greatest military action ever undertaken. When it comes to “greatness,” all those at Valley Forge were just as great, as well as all who were in Korea and every other war and place where American blood was shed up to the present day. You only have one life to give for your country, and as Hillary says “what difference does it make?” Men got killed in training accidents and even in car crashes trying to get back to their base on time. No matter, they died for their country.

Back on the roads the NJ State Police were on motorcycles and were looking for speeders, etc. The troopers looked like yellow jackets ready to sting with their yellow stripes down their riding britches and their motorcycle boots. They might pull you over and ask, “Is this trip necessary”? They struck fear in the hearts of their countrymen!

At school we gave our teacher quarters and were given coupons to put in a book. When we filled the book it was worth $18.75 and we could buy a war bond which would pay back $25 in 10 years. We brought in squares we knitted or wove out of wool and they were assembled into patchwork quilts for the troops. We collected tin, tin foil, and newspapers for the war effort. In music class we sang patriotic songs and ALL the verses of the National Anthem. All of us hated the Japs and the Germans. We would make slant eyes to make fun of the Japs and we would put our comb under our nose to look like a moustasshe, raise our arm in a Hitler salute, and make a vulgar noise like passing wind.

Many thing were rationed. Shoes, butter — and forget about buying tires. At the shore all the lights facing out to sea were turned off. After many ships were sunk by U-Boats we realized the ships were backlit by lights on land and by navigation lights. The pure white sand of the Jersey beaches was now an ugly black tar, and walking without shoes your feet were black with all the oil. As a kid I saw Barnegat Light House with its oil lamp and a certain timing of different colors to tell ships at sea where they were. That light went dark and is now a 50 watt or whatever light bulb.

All my life I had lived near US Highway 9, but then we moved to a base in California where we lived in a motel on the side of Highway 99. From a large city school I was now in 8th grade in a two room school house with an outside boys and girls lav. My teacher was the principal and taught grades 5 through 8. It was nothing fancy and I’ll bet the school with the two teachers didn’t cost the county more than $10,000 a year. No gym, no shops, no cafeteria, no auditorium, but we got love and a great basic education. Current events was the noon news on a radio over the blackboard, and one day we heard that FDR had died. We all went out the front door to the flag pole and lowered the flag to half mast. The school was on the side of Highway 99 and we walked on the shoulder back and forth. Again we sang all the great patriotic songs.

At times I would go with Dad to the Navy base and have free run of the place. Dad was fire marshal and the men let me back the engine into the fire house. What a thrill for a 13 year old! I got my driver’s license at 14 and drove home to New Jersey after the war. They had German POWs doing farm work and working on the base as they did at Snow Hill for 80 cents a day and I would speak German to them. They were good kids — just in the wrong country at the wrong time, and in the Navy cafeteria they would pile it on my tray.

After Dad had gone overseas I would hang out at one of the town’s fire houses where I had 15 substitute dads. Firefighters and first aiders are the greatest people in the world. If my bike needed fixing, one of the men would fix it. I would go to the third floor and slide down the pole to the engine floor. On the second floor I would sit with the dispatcher and hear calls coming in. There was a large console and he wouls set all the knobs and the air raid sirens would go off all over town.

In church we had prayers for peace and patriotic songs. In California life was great for a kid. I had a river and built a raft. There was a Liberty Ship and I was pals with the chief and 3rd mates who let me have the run of the ship. A dog got off a ship and adopted me. We went off into the hills and I was let loose with my .22 rifle. No one worried about me. I always found my way back to the car. We would cook a steak on redwood where a gold dredge had gone through. We saw a herd of sheep being driven down to summer pasture and had to wait an hur until they got past. I remember seeing an old hotel in a mining town with bullet marks in the steel shutters.



3 Responses to “COMMENTARY: Remembering the ‘Greatest Generation’”

  1. Tony Sacco on September 8th, 2014 11:10 am

    “Remembering the Greatest Generation” is a great commentary by Andy Zahn, and I would like to read more about my generation.
    I came home from church on December 7th and Stepmother was crying. I asked why; she said her brother was in the Marines and he was in Hawaii and maybe getting killed because the Japanese bombed the island. I was 16, and all my older friends were in uniform. I went downtown to Brooklyn to join the Marines. Denied — I was too young. In 1943 I turned 17, found my real mother, and the Marine recruit after completely filing out the application wanted proof of guardianship. By law she was not to contact me until 21 so she backed off. Stepmother wanted to get rid of me so she went to sign me in but this time only the Navy recruit was there. We asked about the Marine guy and he said he would take care of it. Three weeks later the Navy told me to go to Grand Central Station in NYC. I found out I was in the Navy. Two weeks into basic I get a letter from my stepbrother telling me the Marines from Washington came to pick me up, but were told he is in the Navy now. I went to the commandant to request my transfer and he told me no. I was left behind because of dental work while my buddies from boot camp loaded a troop ship for a landing in a Pacific island. After the war I met one of my buddies and he said half of our boot camp buddies were killed by Jap fighter planes while disembarking from the ship. I was assigned to the USS Hornet as radar because I was one of 200 that went to high school. In the Depression all were out of work; the war started and everyone was working. It took a war to get people to find a job. One other haven for those to avoid combat was the Coast Guard. It was then called the Jewish Navy because they were afraid if they were captured by the Germans they would be treated differently.

    A lot to tell at a later time. One other thing — we were over 18 million in uniform; today we are less then a million and dying at a rate of 1,200 a day. Our average age of that war in uniform is 92 years old. Today I am 87.

  2. Andy Zahn on September 8th, 2014 1:15 pm

    Tony Sacco’s comment is beautiful! It brings tears. I hope he writes a lot more of his story. I knew veterans of the Spanish American War and I remember when the last one of those HEROES passed away. My father joined the NJ National Guard as they were being mobilized and was in the 113th Engineers in WW I. They had reunions and one by one they died off until there were no more. He had a gold pocket watch which I can’t find engraved “To Lt. Zahn from the men of the 113th Engineers.” The man across the street from me belonged to the Veterans of WW I, and Dad joined. One by one they all passed on and now they are gone. All in my family who served in WW II including my dad are gone and there are not many from that war left. My bunch from the Korean “Conflict” are on their way out also. To me the greatest tragedy is that the best of our breed has been killed off in all these wars and we have really been at war almost constantly since 1941 and what we have in Washington are basically the poorest of the breed with BIG mouths. For those who want more I will write a Part 2.

  3. Tony Sacco on September 8th, 2014 4:35 pm

    Yes Mr. Zahn, can’t wait for Part 2!