Born in 1937, Shearer lived in New Brighton, PA throughout World War II. He talks about growing up in wartime including scrap drives, war bonds, victory gardens and celebrations.
Pearl Harbor and Uncle Paul
I came downstairs on a Sunday morning, and my mother was crying and my dad was holding on to her. And I, of course, said, “What’s the matter with mom?” Dad said the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor. Well that stuck with me all those years, all these years, because I had never seen my mother cry. The thing was that her brother, my uncle Paul, was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed, and, of course she assumed the worst. He survived that, and he survived the war. Actually, he was a kind of a funny guy. He didn’t let anyone know whether he was dead or alive until almost the end of the war. His mother, my grandmother, lived about five miles away from New Brighton; she lived in Beaver, PA. My sister happened to be visiting her. Audrey, my sister, went and answered the door. A man in uniform is standing there, and he asked this little girl, he says, “Is this where Mrs. Wiley lives? That was his mother, (laughs) my grandmother. Here was her son. She hadn’t heard from him since 1941. There was no indication that he was missing in action or killed. I don’t think he was a writer; he just didn’t. (laughs) I have no idea why he didn’t communicate. He never said, and no one ever said. They were just always worried about him. He told us afterwards that he had been shipped from Pearl Harbor out into some island in the Pacific. He and his group were out there, and they spent almost the whole war in this island defending it. Whatever island it was, I don’t know if he mentioned it.
Can Collecting with Mom
We had a very friendly neighborhood like most people did in those days. I presume the newspaper would say we were having a can collection or we’re having a paper collection, and [my mother] would take charge of that in our neighborhood. I had an American Flyer wagon. I guess it would be called a little red wagon, and we would go around and collect whatever we were supposed to collect: bags of cans — they were metal cans, they were steel cans in those days. We didn’t have aluminum. Some other times we’d go around with, I guess, gallon paint cans or something of that order and collect kitchen grease from cooking bacon and things. Everybody saved [grease], and you pour it in. And newspapers, of course, were stacked. I’m not exactly sure what they did with newspapers but I think they made explosives out of the grease.
Coal Mining in Pittsburgh
There was a lot of coal mining around our area, and none of my family were coal miners. There was a man named John L. Lewis, the head of the coal workers union. Seems to me t there was some threat by him to cause a strike because he felt with the advantage of the wartime that he could get his men more money. I remember my family being against him and talking about him. He was very controversial. If you were a coal miner, of course he was your hero, and if you weren’t, he was a stinker, you know? There was some union strife at that time but they put it down very quickly. It was ill advised during wartime to have guys going out on strikes. In our area, I don’t think there was any serious problems like that. Maybe they’d be out for a day at the most. It just wasn’t likely that they would stay out.
Victory Gardens Forever
Oh yes, we had victory gardens. Me, mother, and dad bought a small lot out in the country beside a hill, little bit of a roll to it. We built a victory garden on the levelest place that we could. We grew the usual corn, beans, tomatoes, peas, probably beets. And then on the edge of it, just to set it off, she would plant a couple rows of gladiolus. She loved flowers. She planted these gladiolus around there. One of my grandfathers would come out and help. The rest of us would and hack the weeds out if we could. Yes, victory gardens were very commonplace. In fact to this day if I still had one, I would probably call it a victory garden because that’s just what they called it in those days.
Toilet Paper Falling from the Sky on VJ Day
Later on when the Japanese surrendered, we had VJ day, and that was the big celebration. I remember the huge crowds down in what was actually Beaver Falls, and everybody went there. There were huge crowds in the street. Airplanes dropping, unrolling toilet paper from the airplane and it fluttered down. It was kind of a fascinating thing, I thought that was wonderful. Then Uncle Paul showed up. That was another good thing about it. He married soon after that.
They had what were called War Bonds. Every Monday, I think it was, at school, you would take your dollar or fifty cents, and you would buy, I think four stamps were like a dime a piece. And you had a little book that you’d paste it in, and when you got enough of these little books you’d trade it in for a twenty-five dollar war bond. Well Dad worked, and he bought war bonds himself through work — kind of a requirement in order to help them finance the war. And they accumulated a good bit of these at the end of the war. I can remember my mom and dad talking in their bedroom with these war bonds out on their bed, counting them up. And they had just looked at a house to buy, and they said they had enough money to put on the down payment on this house which, at that time, I think was about a third. It’s a lot different than it is now. But the houses were only about five thousand dollars, if that much. So he bought his first house because of the money he saved from the war bonds during the war. It was very common, very common. But us kids, we would help out. Just like I said, a dime sort of thing, saving stamps. and then that would accumulate eventually. My sister and I during the war, we ended up with at least one twenty five dollar bond. Money was a little tight. Money was worth a lot more too in those days.
Making Newspaper Footballs
As far as ball games and stuff like that, we didn’t have a ball field or anything in our neighborhood, so early on we never learned to play ball [games]… We didn’t have a football. After the war, either your father was on strike or laid off, so there wasn’t a lot of money around. So we would roll up a bunch of newspapers and make an elongated football, then wrap it with electrical tape so it would stay together. Then we would pass it back and forth, back and forth on the streets to play touch football.
Did it work?
Yeah, it probably did. (laughter)