Lew Halin was a young, Jewish-American in Philadelphia during the war, and he recalls the many different ways the war affected his life. Lew contributed to the war effort by collecting fat and buying war bonds. He describes his encounters with the realities of the war through interactions with German POWs and his experiences on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Uncle Charles and the Draft
My mother’s oldest brother had what in those days was called a nervous breakdown. And he was recuperating by living in our house. He was a bachelor, and he used to sit on the front porch with a blanket around his shoulders, kind of rocking back and forth. That was his day.
And they called him into the service, and everybody in the family laughed that Uncle Charley wasn’t going to be in the service. And his two younger brothers had to physically pick him up and take him down to the North Philadelphia-Pennsylvania railroad station to put him on the train with all the other draftees to be taken, I think, to Fort Dix for his basic training. And we all laughed. That man could hardly take care of himself. And, oh well, they told us — I wasn’t there but I was told around the dinner table that they were told — the two younger brothers were told that when he got down to Fort Dix that they would of course recognize his condition and put him on the train and send him home. Well, he came out of the service at the end of the war — he had been assigned to the Air Force — and he came out of the war an officer. Somehow, Uncle Charles made it through the war.
Buying Jeeps with War Bonds
One of the things I really do remember are the war stamps. I think they were twenty-five cents. And you got a book, and every week my mother would give me a quarter, and I would take it to school. And there was a man that came around, and you gave him the quarter, and he would give you a war stamp, and you would put it in your book. And when you filled the book — I think it was eighteen dollars and seventy-five cents to fill the book — and then you got a twenty-five-dollar war bond. And in ten years, you cashed it in, and you got your twenty-five dollars. And I remember the quarter and the book and everybody looking, “Oh, I have ten dollars and twelve dollars in the book and pretty soon I’ll have enough for a bond.”
In the paper they always had these war bond drives. And they would have a picture of a jeep, and they said — I forget really the number but it was an amazingly low number —it was just several hundred dollars, like two-hundred dollars bought a jeep. And if you got two hundred in bonds, you could buy a jeep. I remember it was an amazingly low number for jeeps so we were so proud of ourselves [that] we bought so many jeeps with our war bonds. But we were in a different scale of economics then as compared to the prices of today. So, unless you were there, it’s hard to believe.
Collecting Fat for the War
One of my very fond memories is I had an uncle by marriage — he married my mother’s older sister — who owned a hotel. He owned several hotels. He had one in Philadelphia and one in Atlantic City. And at that time, there where drives in the schools. Everybody had to collect fat ‘cause they used fat to make munitions. And everybody would bring in their little containers of fat that they got at home. But I would get on my bike, and I would ride to my uncle’s house which was a pretty good bike ride away. He would bring home from the hotel these great big tins of fat that they collected in their restaurants. So, I was always the winner of the fat drive in the school for whatever that meant.
And they had drives in which they collected aluminum pots and pans. So everybody’s kitchen got a little skinny in pots and pans.
Black Outs and Sand
I remember that we had all the drills. Everybody believed that, perhaps [not] everybody. We were told that there was the danger that the German bombers could come over so everybody had blackout curtains. You had to black out your house, and you were supposed to have a bucket of sand. If you didn’t have an attic, you have to have it on your second floor. And if you did have an attic, you put it in your attic. And that was because [of] incendiary bombs. We were told if you put water on them since they were phosphorus, it would only spread the fire — that the only way to put them out was to have a bucket of sand and cover them with sand. I could just see people covering an incendiary bomb with a bucket of sand, but that’s what we were told to do. And as I said yeah, we had air raid wardens on the street, and they had a badge and a helmet to put on. And when the sirens ran, they would come around and make sure all the curtains were closed, and not a whisk of light could get out ‘cause that would lead the German bombers in.
Danger at the Boardwalk
The big personal thing that I do remember was my Uncle Frank owned a hotel in Atlantic City, and it was right on the boardwalk. Being the owner of the hotel, he lived in the penthouse. And I was about the only child outside of my sister who was an infant in the family at that time. So, I was Prince Galahad. They always took me down to Atlantic City for weeks at a time in the summer. And I lived with my aunt and uncle in the penthouse at the Present Hotel on the boardwalk.
Every night they would dress me up and we would go down to the boardwalk after dinner. And they had one of these rolling chairs, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. They were a wicker thing that had room for two to sit in it. It was on wheels, it had a handle in the back and they always had a man that pushed you on this. You could go out for an hour, or a half an hour. And they had their own chair that sat right in front of the hotel, and then there was man that could push us.
And we would go down, and all the ladies would dress up. And this was in the middle of the second world war. They would dress up to go down and sit on the boardwalk at night, and I can remember my aunt putting on her mink stole in the middle of the summer to go down and sit on the boardwalk. And the lights were, on and the amusement places were open and the convoys were right off of Atlantic City on the way going to Europe. And occasionally, a ship would get torpedoed out there. And I have no real memory of ever watching a ship get torpedoed, but I have definite memories of when that would happen, they would dim the lights as if that would help along the board walk. And you could see the ships burning out on the horizon, and I do remember that. No air raids, and I know there were always these alerts about German submarines coming up the Delaware River, which they never did, I think.
Learning About the Concentration Camps
Did you know about the persecution of the Jewish people?
No, nobody did. That was a well-kept secret. Roosevelt knew, we were told later. We knew nothing, nothing about that. That was not promulgated out into the public until either near the very end of the war or just at the end of the war. My uncle Leon who was in Patton’s group, they did liberate one of the concentration camps. I do not remember which one it was. Many years later, I was an adult when he finally showed to me pictures that he had taken when they liberated this camp. But there was nothing about it. We did hear of the brave underground fighters — seriously, I’m not trying to be sarcastic — in France and other of the occupied countries, but we heard nothing about the concentration camps.
I can remember hearing about them. Actually. I guess the first time I had any real idea of what that was about was every Saturday we would go to the movies, and they had the Movietone News before the main… well, before the Lone Ranger serial and then the movie. And I remember seeing pictures in the Movietone News. I imagine that I saw pictures in the newspaper but I don’t remember. I do remember well the Movietone News, pictures of the concentration camps, the incredible pictures that they had.
Feelings Towards the President
What was the kind of general opinion or feeling in your family towards FDR?
Oh, he was nineteen feet tall wrapped in golden glowing robes. He walked on water, he really did. And I remember the day the news, again it was the afternoon, the news came. I guess I had come home from school, and I remember the women that were home on the streets, running out in the streets. And you’re not gonna believe me, literally crying, “Who is going to save us? Who is going to take care of us?” when he died. It was fantastic. I can just remember that afternoon. I remember everybody crying at night. Literally who was going to lead us? He had been president already for twelve years, and I guess almost thirteen years through the war. And also, wow, he was the only president I ever knew at that point.
When you heard he died how did you feel about that?
I can’t, I’m not too sure… the realization.Yeah, I knew something terrible had happened. You know. My parents were upset; everybody was upset. And, wow, I mean I knew who he was, and I knew that there would be a new president and so forth. But I’m not really sure I had any real deep understanding of Harry Truman, you know, at that time but we sure learned soon after.
Hearing About Hiroshima
I also remember the day that I was coming home from school, and I guess I was a freshman in high school. The school was quite a bit of distance from my house so I had to take a trolley car to get there. It went down to the station where all the trolley cars originated at the end of the run where I got off to go to high school. And I remember coming back in to that station to take the trolley car home after school, and I heard the announcer announcing that we had dropped an atomic. But it was the A-bomb on Hiroshima —that was harnessing the power of the sun. And, of course, a couple days later, they dropped the second one, and then it was all over.
Do you remember what your reaction to that was?
Holy smokes! Of course, nobody really had any idea of what they were talking about,at that time. Of course, the newspapers had crude pictures of things; I mean, they really didn’t know what [laughs]. Nobody knew what a nuclear bomb was at that time.
Encounters with German POWs
We were living in Philadelphia. [Laughs] You had to be in Philadelpha at that time. Central High School was the second oldest public school in the United States, and it sits on top of a big hill. And in those days, you had to take an entrance exam to get in. It’s a small school; it only had about two thousand kids. But right next to it on this wooded area was a small armory, and they had German prisoners in the armory. So sometimes in the afternoon, we’d go down and hurl insults at the German prisoners through the wire fence that they had. To no effect of any sort, you know, [it was] just something to do.
They ever react to that?
Not much that I can remember, not at all. I don’t know whether they were just inured to the whole thing, or didn’t care, or I don’t know what. But we never could get [to them], we tried to. I remember that was the whole idea, but I don’t remember any significant reaction.
Images of the War
One of the things that I think would be remarkable to put in your memory was that early on in the war, they did not allow any pictures or any notice about American casualties. And the first time that they allowed any to my knowledge, I must predicate it with that statement— that the first time that were any public pictures of American casualties was after the invasion of Guadalcanal. And there was a picture I’ll never forget—pardon me — (tearful) of the beach at Guadalcanal with the bodies floating in the water. All these years later it still gets me. Did we know? No, we did not know very much. I guess the adults knew, I have to predicate that I was ten, and eleven, and twelve years old. I was only fourteen when the war ended, so I was relatively young early in the war. But I remember when Life Magazine had that picture, and it was a big thing that was talked about on the radio — the first pictures of casualties that were coming back.
We also built crystal radios so we could listen to the news, you know, when we had to go to bed at night. There is a certain kind of natural crystal that will collect radio waves and rectify them. So if you have a little thing, it’s called a whisker — a little, bare wire — you could put that down, and you went through a coil. And we used to take the oatmeal cartons, the Quaker Oat cartons, and we would wind a coil on the Quaker Oat cartons. You had to scrounge wire, ’cause there was no wire around, and you would wind this crystal and then — everybody had earphones cause you used to listen to the radios with earphones — and you could hook this up to your earphones, and you could actually hear AM radio stations. And I remember the challenge was to make one that could get KDKA in Pittsburg, ’cause KDKA was, I think, the only clear channel radio station in the United States. You could hear all over the United States, 50,000 watts, I can still remember that.