David Sussman lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey throughout the war. Born in 1934, David discusses his experiences growing up during the Second World War. He talks particularly about the changes to his community after the war had ended, detailing the emergence of multiple army surplus stores and the housing shortages that resulted from soldiers returning home. He discusses rationing and scrap drives, and details the ways in which the atomic bomb was explained to him as a child. David also speaks about his two uncles’ service in World War II and his service in the Air Force after the war had ended.
Army Surplus Stores
My one uncle, Philip, who is my father’s brother went into the war surplus business after the war. He had this huge garage and he had boxes and boxes of surplus this and surplus that. And whether he made any money at it, I don’t know. He very rarely made any money at anything. But I remember [that] he got cases and cases of a magnifying glass that had a little stand on it and a little arm that came out. And I took some to the local hobby shop and the hobby shop dealer wanted some. So he bought ‘em. I didn’t get a commission.
Another thing my uncle got [was] thin sheets of probably acrylic plastic that would be good for model use. I took those to the hobby shop and he bought those. That was about it. He also had a huge drum full of little microswitches that I don’t know what he ever did with, but I had a handful of ‘em and I played with electronics, you know, after the war. I probably got rid of the last one of those microswitches when I moved here.
War surplus was a huge business. And as I was interested in electronics from the end of the war on, there was a huge area in New York City where they had all the surplus electronic equipment. And I would go in on the train and browse through all these shops and buy an occasional this or that. My first ham radio was a surplus Air Force radio that had a little book that told you how to convert it into ham bands.
Every town had one or two of ‘em, the war surplus stores. They’re like, clothing, footwear; get a helmet if you wanted, mess kits. Mess kits were big. All kinds of stuff. Every town had one. The little store that had all this surplus stuff. And through the years, they either went out of business or they morphed into something else. The same Dollar Stores, Big Lots. Same thing. I mean, they are basically dealing with stuff somebody wants to get rid of.
All of the surplus stores, I’d say eighty-five percent, had a bomb in the window. It was probably a 200 pound practice bomb or something. Because they all looked about the same. You know, the bombs we carried were leftover World War II bombs, but they were much bigger.
So there was always a bomb; might have been a gas mask, a helmet, some other things in the window. Then, inside, clothing was a good deal if you didn’t mind khaki clothing. But I used to go into ‘em and I can remember buying a few things. I bought a signal flag once. You know, like I need a signal flag. And a tank of compressed carbon dioxide. Because I had a little steam engine and I didn’t have any way of making steam so this was; I could do this. I ran my little motor. I was probably about twelve at that time.
Post-War Housing Shortage
Oh yeah, I do remember one thing: there was a terrible housing shortage. And my mother’s sister, my Aunt Frances, and her husband, Herb—he was a chemist and he was one of these essential civilian jobs. And when they were married, they lived with my grandmother when she still had a house. My maternal grandfather had died somewhere. I mean, I remember him vaguely.
Then, after the war, they started building houses. And they built one of these subdivisions—for lack of a better word—of these teeny, little wooden houses that you could put up really fast. And they did that right in the same woods where we found the gun. So I watched them build these little houses.
And my uncle tried to get on the priority list so he could get a house and get out of my grandmother’s place. But being an essential civilian didn’t move you very high on the priority list. I think they found an apartment and then for a year or so, they lived in our attic. But housing was-was tough back then.
Bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki
One thing I remember, another one of these very vivid things, is when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I was in camp, in Massachusetts, at a camp I had gone to a couple of times. And the counselors tried to explain what an atom bomb was.
I remember how they were describing an atom. We were around a campfire and somebody was walking in a circle around the campfire saying, “This is an atom; this is the center.” And I look back now and I realize they had no idea what they were talking about. They might of known what an atom was, but they had no idea.
I mean, these were probably kids your age. They had no idea that, you know, it wasn’t the atom that was the issue, it was the energy released if it was split.
Nazi Invasion of Poland
But I do remember when Hitler invaded Poland. That’s a very vivid memory in my mind. My family used to rent a summer home in Bradley Beach, New Jersey. I guess we rented it for the whole summer and different families came down at different weekends.
And I guess it was over Labor Day we were still there. I don’t know if it was on the first of September or maybe the second of September, but all the uncles got in the car to listen to the radio because there was no radio in the house. The program was, you know, Hitler invading Poland. That I remember very vividly. And then, a little background talking about going to war. Not us, but Europe.
I think I was five and a half. That was scary because there’s all the uncles piled in the car listening to the radio, and the wives were wringing their hands and fists.