World War II was a war that enveloped the whole society. Growing up in the 1940s made us all part of that war—even those ofus who lived in the U.S. miles from the fighting and the bombs. When I was growing up we were always conscious of cousins suffering bombing raids in Southampton, England and other cousins fighting in the American Army, but to children it was a war of small things.
We sent food packages to our relatives in England for as long as we could. Trips to the post office were part of our patriotic duty. So was stomping on tin cans in the kitchen so that we could send the flattened metal to aid the war effort. My father got up at 4:00 in the morning every Thursday to go stand on a rooftop in Jamaica and scan the skies for German airplanes that might be coming in to bomb Long Island. And my sister and I sat in a quiet classroom after school addressing envelopes to local merchants to let them know they could raise the price of some item in their store. I remember sending out a flood of messages about raising the price of filberts—a word that meant nothing to me—but the OPA (Office of Price Administration) had decided the price could be raised. More disturbing, I remember buying the newspaper after school and my friends and I looking through the lists of casualties to see whether anyone in our neighborhood had been listed as missing.
But five years after the war had ended, we had long since thrown away our ration books and memories of the war were fading. Despite the delirium of V-E day and even more of V-J Day, which we saw with our parents as we walked through a crowded Times Square after celebrating their wedding anniversary, we were quickly able to put aside the war. By 1951 the life-changing experience of college had made the war seem long ago and far away. Then we went to Europe.
In 1951, Europe was still recovering from the war. We were among the early groups of student tourists, guided by the Campus Christian Association at Cornell University to see Europe. Janet and I, along with our friend Jane Sawyer and a group of about twenty students from several different colleges along the East Coast went by ship from Montreal to the Netherlands. We were instantly recognizable as Americans by the nylon skirts and blouses we wore. My mother had made the two of us navy nylon skirts, which carried us through almost three months in Europe—wash and wear was an exciting new concept.
This journal and the black-and-white photos that go with it, photos taken by Jane Sawyer, are the souvenirs of our trip. We were ignorant, naïve students surprised by the lingering devastation in Europe and awed by the ever-present reminders of a long history. Without thinking much about it we absorbed some sense of what the war had meant in Europe, although not nearly as much as we probably should have.