Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNThe world changed suddenly on 1 Sept. 1939. Like 7 Dec. 1941, it is a "date that will live in infamy," seared permanently in the memory of anyone aware of the world then. At 4:30 a.m., Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe destroyed all the major airfields in Poland, while a German battleship, then on a "visit" to Danzig, opened fire on Polish defenses, and the dread Wehrmacht trampled over the Polish border. By 27 Sept., Warsaw fell; by 1 Oct., the last Polish defense crumbled. World War II had begun.

I recall exactly where I was on 1 Sept. 1939, when I first read the news. I was still on my grandmother’s dairy farm; in a few days I would be back in Bridgeport, ready to resume grade school on Bridgeport’s East Side, not too far from Beardsley Park. Earlier in 1937, the Hindenburg Zeppelin, a symbol of increasing Nazi power, had passed directly over Bridgeport and St. Charles School; we could see it from the classroom. Shortly afterward, on 6 May, it had exploded in flames at Lakehurst, N.J. (Somewhere I have a recording of the unforgettable newscast of the event.)

The Hindenburg’s flaming end – a tragedy of immense proportions – presaged the horrors which the Nazis and the Soviets and the warlords of Japan would shortly thrust upon the entire world. And it also was mysteriously prophetic of how the destructive forces of evil would end in a real Götterdämmerung for the Third Reich and Japan’s war machine.

Before Pearl Harbor (7 Dec. 1941), one of my next-door neighbors enlisted in the army and was quickly posted to the Far East. He was my senior by about six years; his brother, who later entered the navy, was my age. The family had emigrated from Germany before World War II. When Corregidor fell to the Japanese, he disappeared while on the infamous "death march." Although I was still a youngster, I was deeply moved by his death and continue to recall him in my prayers.

Eighth grade and public high school were not what we had earlier envisioned. There was no time to waste; we all had to grow up quickly. Men who turned 18 years of age in high school were subject to the draft; several of my classmates were in uniform before graduation. Monday mornings found most of us in the nearby "Y" pool for required pre-induction swimming class.

The whole country was affected, of course. There was rationing: leather shoes, sugar, butter, food in general, gasoline, fuel oil, etc. Very few new cars were available, and then often without heaters or radios. Rubber tires were scarce.

Those who were too young or unable to go to war served on the home front. I was designated a junior air raid warden – those of us who were Senior and Explorer Boy Scouts were among the first assigned. As a freshman in high school, I joined an adult public speaking panel; we gave talks on radio and in movie theatres about the need to purchase War Bonds. (Unbelievably, I would take the stage between features, deliver a seven-minute talk on bonds, then call for a collection before the lights went low and the curtain opened again. I doubt whether anyone could do the same today.)

Through the War, faith and prayer remained a priority, unabashedly so. As president of my home room, I began every day by reading from the Psalms and leading others in the Our Father. As Assembly Leader, I inaugurated every assembly of the student body (about 1,500) with prayer. No one complained. The G.I.’s asked for prayer and were appreciative.

On the radio and on the juke- boxes, faith and prayer were prominent. Songs like "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer," axioms like "There are no atheists in foxholes," echoed in restaurants, bars and arcades. Churches were crowded; Christmas was openly celebrated as a religious event, with a Christmas tree and crèche and caroling and the Mass. And Thanksgiving Day was chiefly a time for thanking God for what our Wartime President termed the "Four Freedoms": Freedom of Speech; Freedom of Religion; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear.

I kept a diary during much of the War, and recorded my thoughts as the close of hostilities approached; first in Europe, then in the Pacific theatre. Then as now, I hold our G.I.’s in the highest regard; youngsters, hardly out of high school, were flying over Fortress Europa in B-17’s and B-25’s; others were in foxholes in the Pacific or on the decks of carriers, bravely enduring kamikaze raids. Someday, I thought, I might have to be out there with them, those courageous men. And it could have happened had not the War in Europe ended shortly before our graduation from high school – an event which we all celebrated with prayer and thanksgiving. Not too long afterward, the War in the Pacific was over.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of  The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.