Authors: Barbara Bretton
Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance
The only thing I’m sure about is that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. General Eisenhower told us on the radio yesterday that the courageous troops are suffering and need “myriads” of supplies. We’re bombing Tokyo and not even that is enough to end the war. But worst of all was a little article buried among the lists of wounded and dead. Up until the beginning of this month, we’ve had 528,795 casualties in all theaters, and 88,245 of our boys have been killed. One of them was Douglas. Now I’m scared one of them might be my father.
Please, please keep yourself safe and healthy.
I love you, Gerry.
December 1, 1944
I am so scared I can barely hold my fountain pen still enough to write this letter. All day long I’ve had this terrible feeling that the worst has happened, that you or Daddy have been injured and I just can’t shake it.
I keep telling myself that maybe my letters just aren’t getting through. The man at the post office says it’s almost impossible to deliver mail to the European front these days, but even though I know he’s telling me the truth, there’s a little part of me that’s so scared, Johnny, that I can hardly think.
Every night I pray to God that my father comes home safely. I can’t even bear to think what would happen to my mother without him. But I also pray to God for you. Please come back hale and hearty, Johnny.
More than anything, I’d like to get the chance to know you better. You’ve come to mean so much to me.
With much love,
THE HOME FRONT
I think that this is as good a time as any... to warn men that when the war is over, the going will be a lot tougher, because they will have to compete with women whose eyes have been opened to their greatest economic potentialities.
Saturday Evening Post
Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior.
No one could pinpoint exactly when it happened, but by Christmas Eve of 1944, it was clear that Catherine was in charge of Wilson Manufacturing.
No announcements were made. No papers were signed. But everyone understood that the buck stopped right there on Catherine’s desk. Lou Alfano, her father’s right-hand man, had retired just after Easter, but the truth was few people even noticed. Catherine had become the heart and soul of the Wilson factory, pushing them on to greater levels of production than even the most optimistic War Office officials could have hoped for.
Even the trouble with the union organizer had been resolved—at least, in a manner of speaking. Tom Wilson had been gone for eighteen long months; the situation he had left behind was not the situation Catherine dealt with on a daily basis. Despite the wartime prosperity the United States was enjoying, the Depression was still fresh in everyone’s mind. It had happened once and no one doubted it could happen again—no matter what the powers-that-be had to say.
“Hey, Cathy!” She looked up and saw Eddie Martin standing in the doorway to her office. “It’s time to give out the Christmas bonuses.”
She rubbed her eyes and mustered up a smile. “Is it eleven already?”
Eddie looked down at his pocket watch. “Five minutes after. The natives are getting restless.”
“Eggnog all gone?”
“An hour ago.” His grin spread from cheekbone to cheekbone. “Bill Danneher dug up an old bottle of rum to spike the punch. You’d be surprised how quick the eggnog disappeared after that.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” She ran a brush through her hair and reached for her lipstick in the top drawer of her father’s battered desk. “With rationing the way it is, an extra pound of butter would be enough to start a riot.”
Eddie struck a jaunty pose as he leaned against the doorjamb. “I guess you don’t want to hear about the ton of butter cookies my mother made, do you?”
Catherine flashed him a stern look. “The black market is going to get you in a lot of trouble, Edward Martin. I’d think you, if anyone, would be smart enough to stay away from it.” Eddie had been struggling for more than two years to get into the armed services. It amazed Catherine that he would bypass the limits imposed by the government.
Since rationing had taken effect, a healthy black market in butter, sugar and the other “luxuries” prized by American homemakers had sprung up in almost every city and town in the country. You could have anything you wanted—for a price.
Catherine was adamantly opposed to black-market profiteering, but she understood all too well the desires that drove men and women to take advantage of the system. Rationing made it impossible to save up coupons for a holiday baking spree; coupons came complete with expiration dates. The motto of the day was Use Them or Lose Them. Housewives were urged to “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” and for the most part, they did. Some enterprising women on Hansen Street, led by the redoubtable Edna Weaver, had pooled their resources with those of single working girls and managed to continue their baking traditions for one more Christmas.
She looked at Eddie’s freckled face and sighed as she swiveled the lipstick back down into its case. “I guess a few trays of butter cookies won’t hurt the war effort, will they?”
Eddie’s dark brown eyes twinkled with merriment. “Especially not when they’re going out with the next troop carrier leaving the pier.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “I should have known better. Your mother is about the most patriotic woman in town.”
“I had you going for a minute, didn’t I, Cathy?”
“I wouldn’t brag about it, Martin. I could still hold back your Christmas bonus.” She looked at him across the desk. “Did the year-end projection come in yet?”
Eddie’s smile turned into a full-fledged grin. “We’re running thirty percent ahead of last year. At this rate we’re providing enough metal parts to build a ship every six and a half days.”
She leaned forward, fingers tapping on the scarred desk top. “Think we can up production ten percent for January?”
“Think you can help me get into the service?”
She touched his hand lightly. “Still 4-F?”
He nodded, the twinkle in his eyes dimming. “You were expecting something different?” He paced the small office, fists thrust into the pockets of his trousers. “I’m still short, half-blind, and too damned stupid for the army.”
“You’re not stupid, Eddie.”
“Yeah, right.” He glared at her as he paced. “Now tell me I’m not short and blind and I’ll marry you tomorrow.”
“Careful what you say, Eddie. I might take you up on it.”
“Hey, look,” he said, spreading his arms wide in mock appeal. “I’m desperate!” He, stopped short, his round cheeks reddening. “Geez, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean... you know I wouldn’t... Cathy, I—”
Her laugh broke the tension in, the office. “I think you need some food in your stomach. The eggnog has gone to your head.”
“Yeah, right. Throw me a bone, why don’t you? I don’t want your sympathy, Wilson.”
She stood. Even in her lowest-heeled shoes, she was able to look him right in the eye. “You’re not going to get it, Martin. You’re too valuable to me right here for me to be wishing you off to war.”
“Thanks a lot,” Eddie mumbled. “Fat lot of good that does me.”
Catherine, who knew exactly how he felt, pretended she didn’t hear him. “Come on,” she said as she picked up the Christmas bonus checks from atop the filing cabinet. “Let’s join the party.”
The truth was, Eddie Martin needed Catherine’s approval far more than he dared let on. They both knew it, but Catherine made certain she never acknowledged the fact. He was proud and she respected him. His job with Wilson Manufacturing was one of two things in his life that mattered.
The other was going off to war.
Both of Eddie’s brothers entered military service not long after Pearl Harbor, sailing off on a tidal wave of patriotism and youthful enthusiasm. Eddie wanted to sail off with them; the thing was, the navy didn’t want him. Neither did the army or the marines or the coast guard. He begged; he offered bribes; he threatened and cajoled and underwent test after test after test until his poor body was as battered and bruised as his ego.
Once a month, as regular as the phases of the moon, Eddie called in sick to Wilson so he could present himself to the powers-that-be down on Whitehall Street and offer Uncle Sam his body and soul.
And once a month they turned him down.
He’d gone his whole life not knowing he had a portion of his spine missing and he’d done just fine. He was short but not too short. His eyes were bad but passable. He could hear a pin drop three states away. He could run, swim and hike, but he couldn’t do a thing about his spine.
So there Eddie was, stuck working in some factory making metal parts for the battleships and destroyers that would go out there and get the job done. There were times Catherine longed to put her arms around him and comfort him, but he was as stiff-necked as most men, and she knew he would have hated the gesture. More and more of the male employees were getting their greetings from Uncle Sam. Eddie said before long it would be just Eddie and thousands of women holding down the home front while the men—the
men—went out and won the war.
Just the other day Catherine had been thumbing through the newspaper and noticed a Lord & Taylor ad for an Eisenhower-style jacket that must have been a slap in his face: “Even if he’s 4-F he can feel like a hero...”
But there was nothing Catherine could do to make his world seem right. Maybe one day he would understand that what he did on the home front was important, too. But judging from the set of his jaw as they made their way through the labyrinthine hallway, the prospect was unlikely.
The Christmas party was winding down when she pushed open the swinging doors to the cafeteria. A haze of cigarette smoke softened the harsh whitewashed walls of the cavernous room while the plaintive sounds of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” added to the bittersweet mood. As usual, the men pretended she wasn’t there, but some of the women waved at her and smiled.
All you had to do was look at the careworn faces of the employees of Wilson Manufacturing to see the toll the past three years of war had taken on the people at home. There was Marie Gianella standing in the corner by the big Philco radio that blared dance music every lunch hour; Marie’s boy Andy had been wounded that distant morning in Pearl Harbor, and now she worked and worried about her two other sons who battled somewhere in the Pacific theater. Was it any wonder her lustrous dark hair was quickly turning gray?
And wasn’t that Ella Friedman sitting at one of the lunch tables, her ubiquitous knitting basket by her side? Ella had been the first woman hired by Wilson Manufacturing—and the first employee to lose a member of her family to the war. When her husband, David, was killed in November, 1942, Ella only missed one day’s work. “Sitting home won’t bring my Davey back,” she had said, her blue eyes wet with tears, “but coming to work might bring someone else’s husband home safe and sound.” It wasn’t until Douglas was killed that Catherine understood the full measure of Ella’s courage.
They were all there, all the men and women who made up Wilson Manufacturing, and in a way they were as much Catherine’s family as her mother and Nancy were.
“Let’s hear it for the boss!” Frank Petrie, one of the old guard who revered her dad, sent up the call from the other side of the room. Not many voices joined him in the cheer.
I wish you were here, Dad
, she thought as she walked to the front of the room. There were so many things she wanted to ask him, so many decisions she needed to talk over with him. It had been months since anybody had heard from Tom, and while she continued to worry about him, she hadn’t let the company’s progress slow down one whit.
Tom Wilson wasn’t there to make the decisions; his daughter Catherine was. And although this wasn’t the life she had imagined for herself, it was the life God had chosen to give her, and she’d be damned if she gave it—and Wilson Manufacturing—anything less than her best.
She picked up the bright red basket piled high with envelopes. “Come on, everyone,” she called out gaily. “Gather ’round. This is what we’ve all been waiting for.”
Of course, playing Santa Claus was always fun. No wonder her dad had always looked forward to the Christmas Eve party. By noon the Christmas bonus envelopes had been given out, the fresh turkey from Sampson Farms in New Jersey raffled off, and the last of the eggnog enjoyed. Everyone joined voices in a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells”, then some of the older employees gathered around Catherine to wish her a merry Christmas.
“Have you heard from Tom lately?” asked Wally Arnsparger, from the shipping department. “I thought of him the minute I heard about what’s going on in the Ardennes.”
Catherine swallowed hard. The vicious battle in the Ardennes forest near the German border had been uppermost in her mind for days. “I’m sure he’s fine, but the mails have been a little slow lately.” She had to struggle to maintain the composure she was known for. Ten days ago when Glenn Miller’s death had been announced, she’d openly wept. She couldn’t do anything so foolish again.
Wally nodded. “Heavy casualties,” he said, ignoring the crowd of well-wishers waiting their turn to greet the boss. “Frank O’Brien thought he saw his son’s name on the KIA list and started bawling over his morning coffee.” He shook his head sadly. “Turns out Dennis wasn’t on, but his nephew Georgie was.” He pumped her hand heartily, then said goodbye.
“Did you know George?” Eddie whispered as Wally disappeared through the cafeteria doors.
“Not well.” Catherine conjured up the image of a tall lanky boy with dark hair and eyes. It disappeared as quickly as it had come. “I think he went to school with Mac Weaver.”
“That reporter who joined up?”
“That’s the one.” Mac had come home a few weeks after Douglas died, only to enlist in the army. He was somewhere in the Pacific now, doing something very hush-hush.
“Lucky dog,” mumbled Eddie.
“Fool,” said Catherine. “The draft had passed him by. He could have gotten his quota of excitement covering the war as a reporter.”
“That’s not why a man signs up, Cathy.”
“I know why a man signs up.” They turned to see Bill Collins from accounting. “The whole point is to kill the enemy before he kills you.”
Catherine excused herself and hurried down the hallway to her office. Eddie caught up to her at the doorway.
“You’re crying,” he said.
“Say one word about it and I’ll fire you.”
“You know your dad’s fine,” he said with an admirable display of bravado. He took her hand. “They wouldn’t put a guy his age in the front line.”
She laughed despite her fear. “You’re a great comfort, Martin. You should try volunteering at the hospital.”
“You’ll hear from him soon.”
“You’re right,” said Catherine squeezing his hand. “Any day now.”
She lingered awhile to finish off some correspondence. The factory was deserted. Not even Maury, the cleaning man, was anywhere around. She hurried through the gate, head ducked against the snow, and made it to the subway in record time, glad to leave the empty building behind. The train was filled with last-minute shoppers with their holiday packages peeking out of paper shopping bags, and her spirits lifted as a little girl in the next car sang Christmas carols at the top of her tiny lungs.
The subway steps were slippery with icy snow and she hung on to the railing for dear life as she exited onto Continental Avenue. “Going to be a beaut of a storm,” said an old man waiting at the corner to cross the street. “You take care getting home, girlie.”
He disappeared into the swirling snow. He was right about the storm; Catherine had to bend low into the wind in order to keep from being lifted off her feet by the vicious gusts. Not only were they going to have a white Christmas, it looked as if they might have a blizzard.
Finally she turned onto Hansen Street and made her way to her house.
“Anybody home?” Catherine hung her cloth coat on the rack in the hallway and draped her snowy scarf over the banister. “Mom? Nancy?” She sat down on the bottom step and yanked off her rubber boots and shoes.