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From San Diego's 41st Street, Japan was a more odious enemy than Germany

My life on the ground in WWII

A classmate at Central Elementary near University Avenue brought in a Japanese sniper rifle. To prove its authenticity, he proudly pointed to 19 notches carved into the butt.
  • A classmate at Central Elementary near University Avenue brought in a Japanese sniper rifle. To prove its authenticity, he proudly pointed to 19 notches carved into the butt.
  • Image by Mark Zingarelli

I may be the youngest San Diegan to remember the Second World War, especially the time immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. If I get lucky and live to be a hundred years old (who knows, by then 125 years might not be unreasonable), I could be the last surviving San Diegan with memories of that period. And then the newspapers and magazines would seek me out for interviews, all of which would be bothersome for such an old man. So why not avoid the trouble by starting on my memoirs right now? Certainly I don’t want to wait as long as Mark Twain or Harry Truman did to write theirs. Twain used to say that the older he got. the better he remembered things — whether they happened or not. And some of Truman’s recent “oral” biographies have been at variance, strictly speaking, with actual events. My own recollections are still relatively fresh in my mind; they begin just a week short of my third birthday.

My parents had taken me to visit friends on Thirtieth Street in the Golden Hill area. All of a sudden, though I wasn’t sure why, everyone started scurrying around the room to turn off the lights, and soon the entire house was pitch black. The neighborhood also turned off, except for one yahoo right across the street from us. I vividly remember my father opening the front door and yelling in a furiously loud voice, “Turn out those lights, you son of a bitch!” I didn’t have to know precisely what his epithet meant to realize that he was terribly upset, even after the neighbor compiled.

The ride home in my parents’ ’37 Chevy sedan was equally harrowing. We stopped several times to turn out the headlights, and when the streetlamps also went out, I really became confused and frightened. At that time air-raid blackouts didn’t mean anything to me. but all kids are afraid of the dark; it was bad enough to have to lie in bed in a dark room, but to cower in the back seat of a car in a dark world — that was truly scary. If my parents hadn't been in the car along with me that night, I'd probably have been warped for life.

As I grew older I began to understand about the war in San Diego, or at least what was going on in my neighborhood. All of us kids were crazy about the fighting, of course, and instead of playing cowboys and Indians, it was always GIs and Japs. For some reason, perhaps because of our proximity to the Pacific campaigns, there wasn’t as much animosity on my block toward the Germans as there was against the Japanese. We knew about Hitler and how his armies were carving up Europe — for example, you’d go down to the merry-go-round in Balboa Park with your grandparents and throw brass rings at the little dummy with the black moustache and hair combed over the forehead — but most of our fantasies were about the Japanese who attacked people for no reason and without warning, and who always looked sinister in the movies we saw at the local theater. (We were too young to realize why we didn't see any Japanese-Americans around, but unconstitutional as it was to force them into the internment camps, if we kids could have got at any of them with our wooden guns and bayonets, there likely would have been a slaughter.)

We always made the youngest or littlest kids on the block play the enemy, or the kids we liked the least who were also small enough to push around. One time we formed an early version of the Green Berets, smudged our faces with dirt and covered ourselves with eucalyptus branches and lay in ambush, not just for the kids playing the enemy but also to see how long we could lie there in an alley hidden from grownups. After a few hours, filthy and smelly but satisfied we were ready for Guadalcanal, we emerged undetected by friend or foe.

This was the same alley in back of our house on Forty-first Street where one day we rigged up a time bomb to knock off unsuspecting passing enemy troops. We half-filled a small glass medicine bottle with Alka-Seltzer, added water, screwed down the cap tightly, and placed it on a post. Enemy troop after enemy troop walked past, but nothing happened. By the time the pressure had built up inside the bottle to something like the equivalent power of a stick of dynamite, a little old man came walking by, headed directly for the post. He was dressed in a suit, and I remember hoping that the flying glass wouldn’t shred his clothes too badly; then they can just bury him in what he’s wearing. To this day I thank God that he got safely past without being blinded or maimed or worse. When the bottle still hadn't gone off after half an hour or so, I approached it (having been elected by my fellow soldiers), gingerly grabbed it. and chucked it as far as I could down the alley. It exploded into about a million fragments just as we had expected, but nobody got hurt.

Hatred for the Japanese reached such a pitch in our East San Diego neighborhood that we’d do almost anything to show our contempt. One time some kid at Sacred Heart school right down the street from where I lived got hold of a Japanese flag, the one with the big bright red sun in the center that we jeeringly called the “meatball banner,” and sold chances to spit on it for three cents, a considerable sum of money to a grade school student in those days. We all lined up (I’m not kidding; the line went across the playground), paid our money, and spat on the flag with a genuine sense of satisfaction. For all I know, the little entrepreneur put himself through college with the proceeds.

It was about this time that a classmate of mine at Central Elementary near University Avenue brought in a Japanese sniper rifle, perhaps a Nambu, which his father had brought him from the islands. To prove its authenticity, he proudly pointed to nineteen (jeez, nineteen!) notches carved into the butt, each one representing a kill made by the sniper. I can still see those notches in my mind and feel the anger they stirred in me. I mean, maybe he would get one or two before the Marines unloaded on him, but nineteen. . . . (Curiously, one myth promoted by World War II Hollywood films was that the Japanese soldier couldn't shoot straight, perhaps because half of them seemed to be wearing glasses. My friend’s rifle sure settled the matter for me.) Even after a neighbor kid called us all over to his bedroom one day to show us a German helmet with a hole shot cleanly through it, this time by an American sniper, I can still remember how happy I was that my school chum’s father had shot the Japanese soldier before he could brag to his friends that he got an even twenty of our boys.

Occasional trips downtown with our parents confirmed to us kids that San Diego was playing a big role in the war effort. One day my mom took me down to the harbor to watch endless lines of Marines, in full battle gear, board ships to go away to the war. Half of them were probably no more than teenagers, and I remember how young their faces looked, even to me. I was only four or five at the time, and they seemed to be just lucky big kids who got to sail off to the real fighting. I honestly don’t remember, but I’ll bet my mother clutched my hand a little tighter that afternoon when she, too, noticed how young the boys looked.

I also recall staring at the camouflage netting over the buildings downtown, the defense and aircraft plants, and the funny striped dark colors the buildings were painted. This made the likelihood of a Japanese invasion even more real to me, and when my dad revealed that the place where he worked downtown (Station B at the foot of Broadway, SDG&E’s smokestacked beacon to enemy submarines) had issued him a shotgun and .38 revolver to defend the premises, I was even surer that an attack was imminent. We kids couldn’t read the papers and for all we knew, especially after we saw the gun emplacements on Point Loma, the Japanese were halfway here already.

There was a lot of talk about rationing, and we all knew about the shortages of such things as meat, gasoline, tires, and nylon stockings. We used the little blue and red coins to buy certain groceries, and our parents valued them so much we had to pledge our lives not to lose them on the way to the market. One time we were driving downtown when I saw a building with a dark storefront and right away I knew I had seen my first black market. It was a suspicious-looking place and I was secretly glad that my dad kept driving so we wouldn’t stop there and get involved in any illegal deals that might hurt the war effort.

One day we heard at school that the war in Europe had ended. We were disappointed because now our teacher wouldn’t let us draw ships, tanks, or planes with swastikas on them anymore, but at least they didn't interrupt our radio serials with days of funeral music, like they did when President Roosevelt died a short time earlier. Now, late in the Pacific war, we used to listen to correspondents’ radio broadcasts directly from the fighting, where you could hear real gunfire in the background. I still don't know whether the programs were recorded or were live from the combat zone via radio hookup, but they were thrilling to us. We would imagine that the shot we just heard may have gotten at least two or three enemy soldiers, and that an explosion maybe had wiped out an entire Japanese platoon.

We also got news of early peace talks and false armistices, I guess in August of 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped. We were all in my front yard playing soldiers again when a lady walked by and remarked, “Well, you can stop your fighting now, children, the war’s over.’’ Boy, were we relieved to hear a little later that she was premature, the Japanese hadn’t asked for terms yet and we could go on make-believe ambushing them. A few days later, of course, the real surrender occurred and a big part of our lives was gone forever. Not only would we never have a chance to fight in a real war with real guns and bullets, but now our parents might not even let us play war anymore.

By coincidence V-J day fell on my best friend’s birthday and I can remember the party he had at his house a little off El Cajon Boulevard. We could hardly stay inside to enjoy the cake and ice cream for all the hullabaloo out on the street. Horns were blaring, people were jumping up and down and hugging each other, things were thrown all over the street and sidewalk, and there was a lot of whooping and shouting along the boulevard.

An era had come to an end for San Diego and for us youngsters. But childhood impressions are always the strongest, and for those of us who grew up in San Diego during the big war, our experiences will always remain more than just kids’ stuff.

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