What Was Life Like During World War II?

by Ancestry® Team

World War II was an exceptional time in human history, when millions across the globe faced the challenge of their lifetimes. What was life like then? For the soldiers, and for the loved ones they left behind?

Here are some of the fascinating firsthand accounts and family stories that Ancestry® members have shared.

The war touched their lives even on the home front.

Joan Riker and her civilian family lived at Camp White during the late spring and summer of 1942.

“Memory jumps now to the spring and summer of 1942. The United States was at war, and my dad got a job as a civilian guard at the Army camp – Camp White – just north of Medford…Our living accommodations during the late spring and summer months of 1942 at Camp White were a weird kind of tent – the floor and base of the walls were built of wood to about 3 feet high, then the remainder of the shelter was canvas walls and ceiling…

My mother’s next to oldest sister…Maude…moved a small camper into a space in front of our tent. I’ve no idea of how long she stayed, but I remember spending a lot of time with her because my mom was busy (doing what I’ve no idea).

Maude liked to bake pies, and she had an oven in her little trailer, something I doubt very much that we had in the tent, and she was frequently baking. At least it seemed frequent to me, although with all of the rationing, it is doubtful she really did very much.” —Joan Riker

They gathered scrap metal for the war efforts.

“I was seven years old when we entered the war. We at home were encouraged to gather metal for the war effort. As I solicited the neighborhood for scraps I was given a cannon shell that had been sent home by a sailor. His parents donated it back to the metal drive.” —Phyllis Hopper

They survived against incredible odds.

Ferrel Bybee had close calls as a forward observation driver.

“A day that I will never forget is March 28, 1945…I was second in line in my jeep. The road had already had about an hour or an hour and a half of our truck traffic so we considered it clear for our travel. As we began to slowly move up the road, the jeep immediately in front of me blew up. He had hit a landmine.

That would be about 12 pounds of TNT, big enough to knock out a tank. When that happens you are hit twice, once by the initial blast that comes straight at you and, then, by the stuff that falls out of the air. The explosion killed everyone in the jeep, except the driver, and he was unconscious for 24 days. As a result of the accident he lost an eye and a lung.u

The traffic was stopped and they brought in the mine sweepers but they were not successful in finding any more mines. Because they were not making much progress with the mine sweepers, they started the line again. My jeep was now in the lead. We were all more than a little nervous. The passengers in the jeeps preferred to walk at some distance from the vehicles. We, as the drivers, had to continue to move our jeeps up the road.

We had not gone far when the jeep behind me blew up. As we watched, the driver was blown 20 to 25 feet in the air and he landed on his feet on a dead run in the adjacent field. He received only minor injuries.

We decided that the mines had been buried very deeply, deep enough that the mine sweepers did not find them. The larger truck tires, both in diameter and width, passed over them without triggering them. The jeep tires were small enough to hit with more force directly over the mine.

I certainly counted my blessings that day after losing both the jeep in front of me and the one behind.” —Ferrel Bybee

They were saved by guardian angels.

Charles R. Schweinberg was saved by a man he never saw before or since.

“As I laid there the advance continued, I still had about 80 rounds of ammunition. So I propped up my knees, placed my rifle on top and started shooting, at anything and nothing…When I ran out of ammunition I got up and started toward the rear and medical help.

As I started back up the hill, I came to a wall that ran to width of the hill and was about five feet high. With only one arm the carry my rifle, I had no way to climb the wall.

…As I stood there trying figure out how I was going to climb the wall an American soldier that I had never seen before came to the wall’s edge. I asked him for help, he agreed and I handed him the muzzle end of my rifle.

He grasped the muzzle and pulled me quickly up the wall. Not until I was safely up did he show me his hand. The muzzle was still very hot from all the ammunition I had fired and it burnt his hand very badly. We went on to the rear and medical help together.

When we located the Medics, they took my rifle and placed me on a stretcher for the Doctor to treat. When they cut my jacket off my arm, there was the bullet that struck my Bayonet ring and hit my arm. It was stuck in the fibers of my shirt. They gave it to me and I placed it in my pants pocket and lost it somehow. I never saw that soldier again.” Charles R. Schweinberg

They lived “ordinary” moments between the surreal.


The USO provided wonderful entertainment at home and abroad [shown here Buck Sergeant Victor A. Solimine on violin at left].
“For the next couple of weeks, Bob flew some practice missions and then developed an ear infection that kept him grounded for a couple of weeks. In that time he lost his bicycle, found his bicycle, visited the nearby town of Peterborough, played snooker and gin rummy, went to a USO show, inspected his squad’s barracks, and tried to stay busy.

When his ears cleared, Bob flew a couple of practice missions. Then, on May 29, 1943, Bob flew his first combat mission (Group Mission #6) to raid submarine slips at St. Naziere, France. His squad of seven planes returned safely, although one plane from another squad went down.

The group was grounded by rainy weather for the next couple of weeks, during which time Bob traveled to nearby towns, ate well, wrote and received letters, played softball, and gambled. By the end of May he had won more than $500 playing poker.” —V-Anne Chernock about her father, Major John Robert Blaylock

They supported the war efforts from home.

Here’s an example of industrial support on the home front: Assembly line production of fighter aircraft near Niagara Falls, New York.

“My uncle Donald Webster was not in the military.  He tried to join several branches but because of polio as a youth one leg was affected.  A recruiter told him that while his dedication to join was commendable he needed to understand that his leg could affect the outcome of others in a combat situation.

He then told him that the country needed able bodied people to produce war materials.  My uncle did that rising to be a foreman in a Detroit steel mill. Long hours and extended shifts without time off. He never complained.

The crane in the plant was faulty but operational so production was kept up.  Making his final rounds one shift the crane operator yelled out a caution. The steel load was going to drop. Workers knew to scatter to the outer walls where there was overhead protection. All did so except for one new hire who froze and looked up.

My uncle body blocked him into the safety zone but the load of steel did fall clipping the back of my uncle’s head.  He died 8 hours later…He may not have fought on foreign soil but he gave his life for the war efforts of his country.” —Mark Zink

They had brushes with famous figures.

Katherine Brister shared this photo.

“My Uncle Elbert Homer Wood was a driver for General Patton. The picture is General Patton in the back seat with my Uncle Homer Wood driving. ” Katherine Brister

They inspired Hollywood with their stories.

This is the recovery of one of the artworks, the Ghent altarpiece, from the art depot in the Altaussee salt mine, 1945.

“My great Uncle was James J Rorimer who was one of the Monument Men.  Matt Damon was my uncle in the movie The Monument Men.

Before the war he worked as the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art specializing in European Art. Because of his expertise he was recruited to form a group of men to find and recover the art stolen by the Nazis. Uncle Jim is the one who found the buried gates from the Monastery  in Italy and saved the art that was to be moved from the Louvre.” —Lindsay Serrell Mergelman

They looked out for their brothers.

Edward, Herb and Bob Nigg: All three brothers were on the USS Oklahoma on Dec 7, 1941 and all three survived Pearl Harbor.

“My Father, Robert F. Nigg and his two brothers Ed and Herb all from Browns Valley, Minnesota…were on the Oklahoma Dec 7, 1941…All were assigned to the Oklahoma by chance. That was before the Sullivan brothers and the Navy still allowed brothers to serve together on the same ship.

Dad said; ‘I remember Dec 7, 1941 very well.’ He said, ‘It was about 7:55 a.m. when we were hit. I was helping the chaplain ring for church, (who was later killed). Our ship was one of the first ones hit and it didn’t take long – only about seven minutes and the ship was over on its side.

We were ordered to go over the side. We had on life jackets and the water was warm, but messy with litter and what not. I swam over to the battleship Maryland. I didn’t know if my brothers made it until we came together several hours later at an Aid Station on Ford Island.’

…The three brothers were then reassigned to the USS Northampton – a heavy cruiser with 8-inch guns, but faster that the Oklahoma. The ship patrolled the Pacific for a year, went through Battles of Midway and the Coral Sea. It was one of the escorts for the aircraft carrier, The Hornet, when Gen. Dolittle’s bombers raided Tokyo.

During a night battle in the Solomon Islands, (Tassafronga), the Northampton had a surface hit and in several hours it sank. There were 1300 men on board and all made it off the ship except 52 enlisted men and 5 officers. It is an eerie feeling falling over the side at night.

‘We had on life jackets and swam toward the light of a destroyer. We were in the water until nearly daylight, when we were picked up. I had no idea if my brothers were alive until we all met on the destroyer on our way back to port at the Island of Espiritu Santo,’ he said. The three brothers survived.” —Robert A. Nigg

They went to war in their brother’s place.

“…When the US entered the war, dad received his draft notice to report for duty in the US Army. His older brother Willis was just a little too old to be drafted into the military, however, he felt that a newly married man should not have to go to war…so he went to the draft board and told them he was going in my dad’s place. They accepted his decision and allowed my dad to stay home with his new wife.” —Dr. Dwight B. Reimer

They used their translation skills.

After being an interpreter during WWII Leroy Alexander became a high school teacher

“My father, Leroy Alexander, DOB 8/22/1923 served in WWII. He interpreted for his bosses in French. My father was African American. After the war he went to Hampton University and graduated with a degree in Industrial Arts. He taught Tailoring to many black students for 30 years at Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He died in 1995.” Margaret Carter

They had one-in-a-million chance meetings with family.

 

Adolph Schlak knew his brother was in the Pacific but not where‒until he drove past him.

“My father Adolph J. Schlak was born and raised on a small farm in Royston, Michigan. He was drafted into the army probably in early 1941…He did not know where his brother was in the pacific, but he did know his brother’s outfit number and apparently while driving down the road in Japan, he by chance, spotted his brothers outfit number on some military equipment and met his brother in Japan.” John Schlak

Their American uncle ended up guarding their German great-uncle.

“My mother Margaret M. Pfeiffer was born in Dresden, Germany in 1924, immigrated to Wisconsin in 1926. My father Santiago ( James) Castillo was born in Bastrop, Texas in 1912. My father was an American soldier stationed at Truex Field in Madison Wisconsin. This is where they met and fell in love. My parents we married and moved to Bastrop, Texas in 1943…

…My mother still had family in Germany. Her uncle, Otto Pfeiffer was a soldier in the German Army. He was captured in Africa and sent to Camp Swift near Bastrop, Texas. My father’s brother, Vincente (Bill) Castillo, was still in the army and assigned to guard German prisoners  of war at Camp Swift.

My German uncle kept hearing American soldiers call my American uncle’s name, Castillo.He knew my mother, his niece, had married an American from Texas named Castillo. He finally asked my American uncle about his brothers wife. Yes,  she was born in Germany. My AMERICAN UNCLE WAS GUARDING MY GERMAN GREAT UNCLE !!

My mother was allowed to visit her German uncle at Camp Swift. After the war, my German uncle was sent back to Germany and lived his life behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.” —Nancy Castillo

They came across their uncle on the island of Iwo Jima.

Robert Thorpe, his mother, and his Uncle Douglas Kanoff: the two men met by chance on Iwo Jima.

“…Dad joined the Marines in 1943 and trained in Hawaii for the battle of Iwo Jima. Dad was trained as an engineer, mainly operating a bulldozer and supporting the troops. One day while operating his bulldozer making paths on the tiny island of Iwo Jima he comes upon a familiar aroma of cooked food.

He stops to talk with a group of Army soldiers nearby. Dad finds out it’s his uncle’s regiment and his uncle is close by! Dad’s uncle, Doug Kanoff wrote to his mother (dad’s grandmother) telling of the meeting and this made the local news…” —Stacey Davis

They were quiet heroes.

Claude Edwin Heath was awarded a Bronze Star for heroically saving a comrade but didn’t speak about it.

“I never heard my Dad, Claude Edwin Heath, speak about his experiences in WWII. I knew he had a jeep blown out from under him was the reason he never drove while I was growing up. He had served in North Africa and Italy.

As I grew older, and sometime about 1990 I started researching Dad’s military records from the National Archives and asking family members what they remembered of my Dad’s service. He was a Private First Class in the 88th Division ‘Blue Devils’ and the 2nd Battalion of the 351st Infantry Regiment in the U.S. Army.

From his service record ‘For heroic achievement in action. From 23 September 1944 to the present time, Private HEATH, a lineman in the wire section, Headquarters Company, 351st Infantry Regiment, in spite of grave dangers from enemy fire and the inclemency of the weather, performed his duties in a highly exemplary manner.

On 30 September 1944, in the vicinity of Mount Cappello, Italy, completely disregarding his own personal safety, Private HEATH went forward against barrages of enemy machine gun fire and rescued a severely wounded companion. His swift, courageous action undoubtedly saved the life of his wounded comrade.’

He was awarded the Bronze Star. He died in 1998 and was buried with a military funeral.” Dennis Heath

Their families never knew of their heroic acts until reporters came to the door.

Eddie’s family had no idea of his heroics until a reporter showed up to do a Sunday Exclusive on Edward Murphy the war hero.

“When I was little, I knew Uncle Eddie as the exceptionally handsome albeit quiet uncle. Here’s a part of his WWII story as told to me by my mother…While joining the US Army, in 1943, Eddie found himself in the fledgling US Air Force. He became a bombardier in a B-17 over Western Europe. During his deployment, no one heard much from or about Eddie. After the war…His mother, Irish born Grandma Annie, was just happy to have her youngest child home from Europe, alive.

Many months passed; until one day, a reporter from a NY newspaper came to visit Grandma Annie. Suspicious of all strangers…she refused to let him in until he mentioned Eddie. The reporter was doing a Sunday Exclusive on Edward Murphy The War Hero, and he wanted to learn as much about Eddie as possible.

Grandma Annie was gobsmacked. She had no idea what Eddie did in the war beyond flying in B-17s. The reporter explained Eddie was quite the courageous flyer and fighter. He went on the regale Grandma Annie with several stories concerning Eddie’s heroism.

One such story involves his B-17 over Germany being riddled with anti-aircraft fire and flak. Everyone in the crew had been hit, most notably the pilot and co-pilot, both of whom – as the story goes – died. Eddie was able to crawl into the pilot’s seat and safely land the plane thus saving the lives of the rest of the crew.

Edward Murphy never spoke of his experiences in WWII, at least not that I am aware of. Eventually, he married, got a job as a manager in Western Union, and ended up living the rest of his life quite successfully in Honolulu, Hawaii with his wife, Aunt Ruth and their two adopted children, Mary Ann and Matthew.” Lisa O’Connor, M.D., Major, NJNG, Retired

They sent and received some of the most important letters of their lives.

The family of Sargent Donald C Brundage waited 2 weeks to hear he was alive after Pearl Harbor.

“Sargent Donald C Brundage was in the Army and stationed at Pearl Harbor a few months prior to the December 7th attack. The attached letter…was the confirmation that their son was alive after this horrible attack. The letter is dated ‘4th day of the war’ and likely took 2 weeks to get from Hawaii to New York – I think of this in the day of instant communication and personal videos that many use from the far ends of the earth.

What was it like for my grandparents to receive this letter? What was their reaction? What were they feeling not knowing anything until this arrive in their mailbox?…While Donald passed away in 2000, I now keep (and cherish) this beautiful artifact of personal family history.” —Richard Brundage

They had love stories that not even a war could dim.

A GI sent his new bride flowers every month on payday via a standing order with the florist.

“This is not a story about heroism on the battlefield during World War II but just quiet devotion between a newly married husband and wife during those trying times. The Los Angeles Evening Herald newspaper had a column named ‘War Romance Clinic’ and sometimes carried stor[i]es about unfaithfulness between husband and wife. However, on April 20, 1945 it carried a letter from a mother of a GI serving in New Caledonia.

The mother wrote about how her son would send money each month on payday to a florist in Los Angeles near where the bride lived. The florist, following instructions, would then deliver a beautiful gardenia corsage and roses to the GI’s new bride, the mother’s daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law would in turn send a letter daily and sometimes two letters daily to her husband in New Caledonia – 1733 letters in all.

She kept a log of the letters in a bank book, as well as the flowers received from her husband. The mother writing the letter was my grandmother, the GI in New Caledonia was my father and the daughter-in-law was my mother. May I show that kind of devotion and love to my wife to the end of my mortal life.” —Lyle Hill

Find Your Family Connection to World War II

What are the World War II stories in your family? With Ancestry® you can find and honor your ancestors who served in World War II.

Or  you can find a snapshot of your family in 1940, just before Pearl Harbor. Uncover details like what their names were, where they were born, what they did for a living, the highest grade level they completed, and more.

Get started with a free search of the 1940 Census.

 

 

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