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THE DIFFERENCE


ROTC

Old R.O.T.C. photo circa 1944, and yes, that is me, front row center, the only girl. It was a serious time, and everyone still here was gung-ho to go. I really wanted to be a WAVE, but my father wouldn’t hear of it, so I settled for an ROTC uniform. So many of our classmates had already gone to war, and more were leaving as their names came up. Dr. Advice, who had not yet become Dr. Advice, would leave for training soon at Coyote Point, and then out to sea in the South Pacific. Some couples rushed to get married, several girls while still in High School, and one boy, a good Catholic, convinced his girlfriend that they needed to get married before he left because he wanted to have sex before he left in case he didn’t come back.

Jamie Brenneis, Viet Nam</a

And there were plenty who didn't come back. Thinking back to that time, I remember those fresh beardless faces who were so eager to join up, but didn’t make it home again. My father, a career Navy man had been gone for nearly five years when the War finally ended in August 1945. He was at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, though we had no way of knowing this.

GGBridge 2

The point of departure and arrival from the West Coast was the Golden Gate Bridge; the first and last thing of home they saw, and the tears fell unashamedly from war weary faces as they stood at attention on the decks of battleships, destroyers, carriers and cargo ships passing slowly beneath the bridge when on the way home.. At one point during the War the San Francisco Bay was covered with a mind boggling number of ships, all awaiting orders to ship out. You had the feeling there were no other ships left, and yet on the other side of the Bay over in Richmond, Henry Kaiser was building a record number of new ones daily. He got the Government contract by convincing them he could not only build great ships, but do it faster. He got the all time record by building one in 4 1/2 days.

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High School over and the War still on, many of us decided to delay college for a few years and went to work. My family being involved with the Matson Line, it was where I gravitated and I was hired as a mail girl at $95 dollars a month. I lived at home and thought it was a fortune! The job was mundane except for the mail being delivered to the upper echelons, and I delivered mail up and down the Embarcadero and also to the American Hawaiian Steamship Line offices where the handsome young pursers checked in upon arrival back from sea. I was promoted to receptionist status which meant I saw them first!

V-J Day came on August 15, 1945, and all Hell broke out all over San Francisco. People spilled out of stores and offices along Market Street, cars and buses stopped where they were, and the cable cars expelled tourists who were getting more than they bargained for in their San Francisco holiday. It put New Orleans Mardi Gras to shame. Horns honked and blared, whistles blew, confetti flew all over us, either thrown by those of us running madly up and down the street or out of upper windows of buildings. People poured into the area from all the side streets to join the the joyous celebration. You were pushed, shoved and hugged and kissed by any and everyone who was nearby, and you did the same. The screams of “The War is over! The War is over!” filled the air while people shook their heads in disbelief, that after all this time it was finally over and all our boys would be coming home. Bottles were passed hand to hand, and I remember someone shoving a bottle of apricot brandy into my hands shouting “Keep it—the War’s over!”

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220px-Oak-knoll Oak Knoll Naval Hospital

The War was over, and now a new phase began—that of recovery. There was a huge rush of weddings and people a few years older than their classmates enrolled in colleges and applied for jobs–any jobs. We were among the newly married, and I volunteered to work at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland where returning veterans recuperated. We read to those without eyes, wrote letters for those without arms, made dish gardens of succulent plants for them to watch grow, and simply talked to those who just needed to talk. I worked mainly in the burn unit.

At my real job as a dental hygienist I answered the phone one day to hear a very nice young man’s voice saying he needed an appointment. I did a mental picture of him because of his voice and pictured him as rather tall and good looking, a returned veteran perhaps needing both tooth cleaning or perhaps a filling. As it turned out, we extracted all of his teeth and made dentures.

His appointment day arrived and I looked up from my desk to face a frightening apparition. His face and hands were massively burned with pieces of his face and ears actually missing. He was from the Mid West but would not contact his family or friends. He was a loner at the hospital, sitting by himself by a window whenever I saw him. He had been a tail gunner on a B-17 Bomber which had crashed and burned over Okinawa. I learned that he had liked chocolate cake so I made him a chocolate birthday cake. It was his 22nd birthday—a year younger than I.

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Part of an unfinished column War Correspondent by Ernie Pyle, who died on the island of le Shima on April 17, 1945:

“And so it is over. The day that it had seemed would never come has come at last. But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men…..Dead men by mass production….We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousand. That’s the difference.”

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14 comments on “THE DIFFERENCE

  1. I enjoyed reading these memories of yours, Kayti. I can’t imagine the mental trauma associated with war.

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    • As many other countries did, we went from Depression to War without a pause in between. It meant that there was no childhood for many people. A big part of normal lives was missing. Perhaps that’s a reason many of the succeeding generation were provided with things the parents couldn’t afford–maybe not.

      Even though I had a happy childhood, it certainly was not normal! Moving annually made me certain I didn’t want to have that life for my children.

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  2. And we always hope it will never happen again—but it does.

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  3. I like it because it is a genuine memory, and not written by someone who thinks s/he knows what it was like. I can only say thank all the gods that American did eventually enter the war, because without you there’s no knowing what would have happened: the Brits couldn’t hold out indefinitely. Pearl Harbour was terrible; but it was the beginning of the end.

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    • I have found it interesting to read through my father’s correspondence with my mother. Beginning long before Pearl Harbor, there was apparently much suspicion among the men that something was cooking. As I’ve mentioned before, the Navy was seemingly “scanning” the ocean regularly.

      On one such excursion, they went to a tiny island called Johnson, and my Dad wrote “I wonder what Johnny has to do with it.” In retrospect I guess it was plenty because I think there were bombs being tested.

      Life in the Navy had been pleasant in spite of the nearly annual moves, and I grew accustomed early on to being picked up by a shore boat and taken with my mother to my Dad’s ship for a Sunday dinner. Of course after the War that ended forever, so I was lucky.

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  4. Heartbreaking; made me cry and count my blessings. I hope that young man eventually came to terms with his injuries and allowed his family to help him heal.

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    • I have thought of him off and on through the years. Especially when the Hospital closed some years ago. He would have found it nearly impossible to rejoin society. The complex sits now, up on the hills of Oakland, turned into a church now I think. I can still see the many boys who came back with limbs missing trying to make it around the complex with crutches, & wheelchairs. I got a first lesson in patience and endurance while there though. I remember rushing over to help some boy who had fallen, and one of the orderlies stopped me and told me to “let him do it himself”.

      So many were damaged irretrievably then without the technology to replace limbs. It is always the memories that science can’t mend.

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  5. Fascinating to read your firsthand account about the ships and the sight of the bridge and the men in the hospital. I’m glad they had you there. The poor young man sitting by himself and Mr Ernie Pyle, killed when he thought he’d made it. “The unnatural sight of cold dead men, Dead men by mass production.” Terrible. May he and his family be at peace.xx

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    • Now when we cross over the Bay Bridge Dr. Advice remarks about when the bay was so crowded with ships you could hardly see the water. Now on a lovely day you can watch white sails skimming across the water. We have sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge a number of times, and it is a strange feeling looking up at the underside, but as my husband says, it doesn’t hold a candle to the feeling he got as he sailed out to war, and wondered what would happen next. He was so young and full of life and the spirit of adventure he says he didn’t worry that he might not come back under it again.

      Now he remembers the men he saw killed, the first kamikaze planes and all the rest of it. It truly IS unnatural, as Ernie Pyle wrote.

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  6. Neither of my parents served overseas. They lived in the Quad Cities — the Tri-Cities, then. Dad worked at John Deere, and mom was a true Rosie the Riveter in an aircraft plant. She and her partner worked both on the fuselage and the nose. She was extraordinarily proud of her work, and dad always said she should have been: she was good at it.

    My Uncle Jack, whom I never knew, died in the Pacific. No one ever talked about him much, or perhaps I didn’t hear it because I was a child, not privy to such things. But a couple of years ago, around Memorial Day, Ancestry.com opened up their military files for free searches. I found him — his rank, his service record, and his burial place, in the American cemetery in Manila.

    Today’s evisceration of our military worries me. I’m no fan of war, but there’s a place for strength in the world. Our WWI and WWII generations were strong people.

    I was so touched by your mention of the succulent plants, given so that the men could watch something grow. It was like placing finches in nursing homes and assisted living establishments today. Sometimes, life can evoke life.

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  7. My Dad and husband both served in the Pacific with my Dad some time in Perth. Sam was in China for some time and also in the Philippines while also prowling around the islands., Okinawa , Iwo Jima. He saw the first kamikaze planes. They didn’t know what they were going to do and then they crashed.

    The Rosie’s did an amazing job. One Rosie in Richmond is in her 90′ and gives tours of the Richmond shipyards. She is quite famous.

    We all need something to care for.

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