Born in 1929 right after the Stock Market Crash, Jan Brandon was a fourteen-year-old high school student in Mount Vernon, New York, during World War II. Her experiences were shaped by the fact that her parents sheltered her from the worst of the war. Nevertheless, she was aware of the “far off” specter of the conflict through the various drives, air raid drills, and other community activities. Jan speaks of her pen pal from London, England, with whom she would exchange gifts like nylon stocking with. She also discusses the ways in which she was involved with the war effort.
How You Get Recruited to the Navy
Four guys from Brewster, New York, went to Atlantic City to have a jolly weekend. And while they were down, walking the beach, and drinking and smoking and punching each other, a recruiter came out—a Navy recruiter—and said, “You look like the kind of guys the Navy could really use. How about signing up here?” And they all did. You know, they were all a little out of it.
The other three did not get in. They failed the physical. I don’t know [for sure], but mine did. And then, when the war occurred in ’41, he was a hospital corpsman. He was in the Navy forty-three years; made it all the way to captain. And he was in the Danang; total military career. And they said, “You had to have radiation effects of the bombing.” Because they’re in the hospital ship picking up people who were injured in the bomb. Very few were alive. But there still were people moaning and groaning, and they had to have radiation exposure.
From the atomic bombs?
Yes. So that was interesting. But he must not have had enough of it. As I just told you, he was in the Navy forty-three years.
Times Square Adventure
So they did have stuff in Times Square. And a lot of sailors and stuff were down there. And I don’t know, I can’t imagine my parents actually allowed my sister and me to take the train down to Times Square, which was full of sailors.
And one sailor said, “I’m going to take you home, make sure you get in your house.” And I never told my parents and my sister was shocked. She was the only one that knew and she was totally sworn to secrecy, But I actually did that. That’s pretty bad isn’t it?
British Pen Pal
Actually, I had a friend in England—a girl friend. We wrote for many years. And they didn’t have anything over there. So one of her letters was, “I would like to have a pair of nylon stockings.” They were just invented. And I actually sent them to her and she was thrilled. It was like a million dollars to her.
Did you talk to her throughout the war?
Throughout the war, yeah. And even after that. I did have one conversation. This was well after the restrictions were removed and you could talk.
A funny thing happened: a lot of the G.I.s would meet girlfriends, like a German girlfriend. And then, he was back but the gal was still over there. So you were allowed to talk. Limited, monitored amounts of time.
So I did talk to her. But that was after the war.
Wrapping Packages for Soldiers
Well, you had parties. Everybody was having parties to raise money or do something for our boys in service. That was what it was. Every event, I don’t care what it was: your church, even the school. Oh, and I know another thing: we were wrapping packages to send to them. I did a lot of package wrapping. They had that in school. Your relatives from down the block or whatever would gather stuff, put it in a thing, and wrap it. That was kind of a thing you knew you were gonna do: sending packages overseas to servicemen or to persons that they knew that were over there in Europe. Anything dry and nonperishable. Not cans.
So they created some kind of a composition material that wasn’t metal. But it would preserve not just cardboard, which could be eaten by bugs and stuff like that, like a cereal box. I don’t know what it was made of—dry stuff. Coffee, and on occasion, you could send them whiskey and beer.
You see the commercials, like Budweiser. The commercial world participated in the war effort. They would make sure the stuff was donated, make sure it got to the destination. All you had to do was give the names of who and wrap the thing, and it would be picked up by whoever picked it up. So the public in that way was involved, as well as industry and so forth.
I knew a lady whose husband was drafted and he was a great piano player. He used to play not in nightclubs, but [at] casual social things. And you never knew if they were dead or alive, by the way. So she was always picturing him playing the piano in Europe or wherever he was. But he was killed. But she didn’t know it until after the war was over and they released a list of who survived. And his name was not on it. And I remember seeing her face of total, like, “Don’t tell me this really happened.”
Talking about was the fact that during the war, everything was rationed because of the troops. Wanted to make sure they had food, this and that. And the biggest thing of all was meat. The supply of meat was restricted so like you had chicken but not beefy stuff until Sunday. (laughs) And that’s when I think the Sunday dinner idea really got started. And many people would come over if they lived nearer to you, not neighbors, but your relatives. We didn’t have suburbia yet, at least not where I was living. So a bunch of relatives kinda lived near you and they’d come over for Sunday dinner, and you’d have beef like a roast. The rest of the week it was chicken, fish, cans of tuna, things like that.