Born in 1932, Martha Holland speaks about her time spent across the eastern coast of the United States, as well as her life in the Panama Canal Zone. She tells stories about the sacrifices her community gave to the war effort and what it was like being a teenager during World War II.
Interviewee: Martha Holland
Interviewers: Nicholas Coviello, Lorenz Iversen, Liz Wiley
Date of Interview: June 20, 2016
First War Efforts with Magda
We moved to New Jersey in 1938. My first war effort, when I was six – I was born in 1932 – was a very unfortunate one. It was stamping on toothpaste tubes which were then rolled up by our German nurse, Magda Shuman, who then mailed them back to Germany to be turned into bullets. The toothpaste tubes those days had lead in them, for some reason, which may explain why my generation is a little strange. (laughs) But, anyway, that’s what we were doing. She left in 1938, when the war was becoming more and more obvious, and the Germans were going to be not treated terribly well in this country. So she went home, and I was thrilled. I was very glad to see the end of her.
More on Magda
[Magda had] been in the First World War as a teenager, I think, and remembered how they had starved, literally. And she said there were just days when they had nothing but a potato. Any kind of fat, like bacon fat, she wanted saved, and I remember she tried to serve us toast with bacon fat spread on it. She said, “You need to eat your fat.” And I was like, “Ugh! No, no, no, no, I won’t eat it!” Then of course I’d be sent to my room. We saw her after the war. She went home in ’38. She had a mother, and they had a very bad time. She lived in Hamburg which was bombed very badly. They became refugees. I think she had a baby carriage that she had all her possessions in and her mother who was elderly. And just, nowhere to go, nothing to eat. She came back to become the nurse for our local minister. I was very unsympathetic because I didn’t like her, and I hated the Germans. She wanted to tell me about how badly the war had – you know, all those RAF bombers – and I was saying, “Who started the war in the first place?” (chuckles) No sympathy for Magda. Poor woman. Here she’d been through two wars, and you know not any of her choice. But it was sad. I feel badly that I did not have more compassion for her.
Coochie Went Off To War
We had a small black cat, named Coochie. She was constantly in trouble. All the dogs in the neighborhood chased Coochie. My mother somehow found out that ships like cats so she offered Coochie to Earling for one of his tankers. He accepted, and Coochie went off to war. Coochie, interestingly, was on a tanker that was sunk off Long Island in 1942. Not one person was injured. They saved the entire crew. The ship sank, and they saved Coochie too. So we figured probably it worked.
In 1942, my father, whom had been selling mattresses at Hanes, said, “Yippie, here’s my chance.” He’s 39 with four children. And he joined the army as an officer. He was a very good skier. He joined saying, “You can use me in Colorado to train the tenth mountain division.” He went into the army, and everyone said, “Oh, what a wonderful thing.” Anyway, instead of going to train ski troops, he ended up in the Panama Canal zone running a PX, which was one step up from selling mattresses. But he was safe in the canal zone. Every person in the second world war, man, woman, and child, was involved in the war in some way. Immediately, my street, every father disappeared. My best friend’s father joined the CBs; the two people across the street were in the air force; Angus French, who was in my class, his father was in the coast guard; next-door-neighbor was in the navy; my father was in the army. There were just no men; they were gone. And we all worked very hard collecting scrap, of course, like everybody does, stamping on tin cans with the lids inside so that they would be flat, and we would turn those back in.
A PX in Panama
In the summer of ’45, in June, my father got permission for us to come to the canal zone. The war was still going on but it was deemed under control. And nobody – the Japanese – were not going to bomb the Panama Canal. In June we waited for orders which finally came. There were five of us, my mother and the four children. And each of us had a stack of order about this big (motions with hands). I don’t know if you know about the army, but whenever you go in, they rip off a sheet. If you see someone for health, a sheet goes off, and another sheet goes off. So this huge stack of papers arrived. And we flew down – sort of by hops – one night in New Orleans, one night in Guatemala City, and finally ended up exhausted in the canal zone (chuckles) with my father. He had wonderful housing at Fort Davis, which was on the gulf side of the canal. Fort Davis is a very old post. I’m not sure if it is a combined Puerto Rican and American post. My father was in charge of the PX there, and we went to school in Balboa, at Balboa High School. We went in this big, army, brown camouflage bus every day. And they had revolutions about every week, it seemed. Every time there was a revolution, we had a jeep escort with people with guns in the front and back to make sure we weren’t involved in the (chuckles) revolution.
The Yankees Come to Town
In the Spring, unbelievably, the Yankees came to train in the Canal Zone, at Balboa High School. So every lunch I spent by myself, wired to the gate there. Looking out, watching the Yankees. I got all their autographs – Joe Dimaggio, Tommy Hendrix. It was just a wonderful time. (laughs) Of course, soon after I got home, I became a naughty Yankees fan. But that was alright; it was still baseball.
A Peace Treaty Floats By
In 1945, after we were at Fort Davis about a month or two, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and also Nagasaki, and the war was virtually ended. A peace treaty was signed on the USS Missouri, and they brought the whole treaty back through the canal on that boat, on that ship. We went and stood on the canal lot to watch it go through. An enormous ship, it filled the whole canal. We could’ve stepped from the side onto the boat while it was still level there. Just was lined with sailors, everybody yelling, both sides cheering. The sailors threw all their hats to us, and we had quite a collection. They all say USS Missouri on them. (laughs) It was just, it was a wonderful occasion with the Missouri going through. In the summer of ’46 we came back home. My father was stationed in Washington, and we moved up to New York where my grandfather had a farm. I was sent off to boarding school, and still the war wasn’t over. [In] 1946 I went to boarding school, and we did war work. We were trained to be nurses. I learned how to make a hospital bed and do all this fun stuff. When I went to Wellesley in ’49, they still had the victory gardens that they had used to feed the college. The whole acreage was still spread out there. Then in 1952, I went bicycling in England with two friends around to youth hostels. We had to have a ration book. Britain still had rationing in 1952. So, you know, ’45 was not the end.
Jasper Lends a Hand
My grandfather had a big farm in Daytona, New York. And we would go there every summer to spend the summer at the farm. He had 600 chickens, and a huge vegetable garden which was very annoying because they didn’t have freezers in those days. You had to can everything. So this huge row after row of tomatoes had to be canned. And green beans. He had 25 turkeys and these hens that laid a zillion eggs. In the summer of ’42 or ’43, a very nice young man named Jasper Booth, who lived up the road a bit, came to help. He was being drafted into the army but wasn’t due until September so he came to work on the farm. And we all hung out with him. We thought he was terrific. He wasn’t that much older than we were, but oh, he was a great guy. He joined the 82nd airborne and landed in Sicily and then went into the glider corps which was probably a terrible mistake. He landed in Normandy on D-Day and was killed then. So, you know, it happened.
I did have pressure dreams. And every now and then, I do get them because of being young in the war. Parachutists coming down. Or an air raid where I’m in charge of rounding up my brothers and sisters [to] get them to go in the shelter. At the school, we used to have practice air raids. We’d go down to the basement, and we’d sit along the wall next to the furnace. That was cool. Of course, there were no nuclear bombs or anything then; it was just go down in the basement. But the sound of the air raid siren was pretty scary.