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My Turn: How WWII changed the neighborhood

Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor

Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into war; Frank P. Russo remembers the fallout in his Astoria neighborhood. Credit: AP

At first, to a 10-year-old kid, the war meant those neat picture cards with the exciting war scenes showing enemy planes going down in flames, or some big ship of theirs with its bow pointed to the sky as hundreds of their sailors jumped, or were blown overboard, before going beneath the water.

We soon started to hear phrases like "war effort," "ration cards," and "ration stamps." And then the big one . . . "The Draft."

What the heck was "The Draft"? We soon found out as guys from the neighborhood were leaving home, going places in the United States we never heard of. For that matter, what was "Pearl Harbor"? Where was Pearl Harbor? Those were the questions we 10-year-old kids were asking that Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked.

I remember there was a stillness in the air as if everyone went numb. It seemed as if everyone spoke in whispers instead of

good-natured shouting and loud talking. "The neighborhood" -- 14th Street in Astoria -- was usually filled with street games and

sidewalk activities. The shouts and laughter ricocheted off the houses, as was the norm, because of all the kids in the neighborhood. The streets were very narrow then.

But now our neighborhood was in the war. I could tell because now some of the "big guys," as we used to call them, were in the service. They seemed to slip away in the night and then reappear in their uniforms, looking fit and trim. It was fun to hear their

stories about boot camp and the new friends they had met from different parts of the country. Boy, we thought this was great: neat uniforms, travel, meeting girls.

But they all said the same thing: they missed home and the old neighborhood. It really didn't mean much to a boy to hear the phrase "the neighborhood."

The war was about two years old by now, and the reality of it was becoming more evident every day with news of those

"killed-in-action," or "missing" or "wounded."

It was the flag ceremony that I can't forget. A grandstand had been built and a microphone with loudspeakers was in place, and all the acknowledgments had been made to the hundreds of people in the street. This crowd was the neighborhood.

When they asked the mother of two of the big guys who were killed in action to step up to the microphone and address the crowd, they went silent. Really silent. She put one hand on the microphone and could not utter a single word. She just choked and sobbed. The silence of the crowd was soon broken by the open sobbing of all the men and women. I was frozen, and tears welled in my eyes, and in those of my friends.

Now, it seemed as if we were all one, monitoring the whereabouts of the big guys as they went into the service and wondering what part of the world they were

fighting in. We couldn't believe it. Nobody ever left the neighborhood before. It just wasn't done.

It seems amazing now, as I look back, how easy it was to get a crowd together. Like the time Big Anna (everybody had nicknames) actually came running through the streets screaming and crying that Sylvio had been wounded at Iwo Jima. Sylvio was one of the big guys. In fact, his kid brother and I were school buddies.

Our Sylvio, wounded? He's from our neighborhood! It can't happen! But it did. He had taken a head wound and had a metal plate put in. And so, it was here. The real war. Not the picture cards or the movies we first saw.

I was going to school and heard that one of our school chums would not be in today. The family had received "the telegram." The telegram or telegram boy became a dreaded sight in those days -- it usually meant death, or someone was missing or wounded.

We began to understand the power and need of prayer. It seemed all at once the kids in the neighborhood were growing up. It seemed everyone was aging, and things started to change. I

remember going to a relative's house because some cousin we hardly knew was returning to duty. We knew this goodbye meant going overseas and into combat.

Grown men embraced this soldier with tears. The elderly aunts and friends sniffed and asked God to bless him and watch over him. The soldier did not know everyone in this house, but he knew they were wishing him well.

They said the world changed from World War II. The 10-year-old kids were now teenagers, and the big guys weren't hanging out anymore. They started getting married one by one. Some moved out of state, never to be seen again. I guess we were growing up. It was then that I finally realized the world really did change, and so did the neighborhood.

Frank P. Russo, Port Jefferson Station

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