Gertrude and George Urban
While history may look back on World War II as a time of triumph for the American spirit, the war made life hard on both the home front and the front lines. During battle, there was always the imminent danger of death. On the home front, though, the war was also hard on the women who worried and waited for their sons and husbands to come home. My grandparents were married in 1942, and like many others, their early life together was dominated by the war.
While at Home
Gertrude and George were at a bowling tournament in their church’s basement in Chicago when President Roosevelt’s voice came over the radio with the famous “Day of Infamy” speech declaring the United States’ entry into the war. They were already engaged, and early the next year, George enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was sent to San Diego for basic training, and after a few weeks, Gertrude went west with a friend of hers to join their fiancés in California. She shared an apartment located at Five Points with her friend, and worked at a real estate office while George was training.
Life was hard for women all throughout the war. Rationing of all types of items was common, including food (like sugar, butter, and meat), as well as luxuries like nylon stockings, leather shoes and purses. Nylons were especially difficult to do without because fashion said that women had to wear skirts and heels, and so sheer stockings were required. To do without them, many women used makeup to darken their legs and then brown eyebrow pencil to draw a “seam” down the back of their legs. If you couldn't get real nylons, you at least had to appear as if you had them! Other items like chemicals and metal also “went to war.” For instance, Lucky Stripe cigarettes actually had to change the colors of their packages from green and red to mostly white because dyes were not available, and certain coins, like pennies, were made out of coated metal instead of actual copper. Toys were also hard to come by, and were made out of things that could be found around the house, like cans and old bits of cloth and buttons. Tires were difficult to buy because they were made out of rubber, so instead people made tires from metal frames surrounded with the soles of old shoes.
Mail to Home
In this time of hardship, two of the most important things to women at home were work and the mail. While George was fighting overseas, the mail could contain wonderful letters that she looked forward to getting. All letters from the servicemen were first opened and read by the Navy censors, to make sure that none of the men were sending any sensitive information that could be harmful to the war effort, like how many men there were in a fighting division, or where they were located. There was also a type of mail called V-mail, where the censors would take original two or three page handwritten letters and shrink them down to one-half page so that they could ship more letters. While my grandfather would write to her everyday, it was common for my grandmother to go days without receiving a letter, and then she would get a number of them. Like most women, she was afraid to get a letter from the Red Cross that could mean her husband was injured, or worse, a telegram containing the word death. The only telegram she received during the war was the one he sent when he landed in Los Angeles after the war was over, saying that he was on his way home.
This is V-mail, What they did was they took the original letter, and reprinted it to a much smaller size then it actually was. They did this so they were able to send more letters at once.
Telegrams were the most feared type of letter a person could get in the war. Getting a telegram could mean that your loved one is hurt and in the hospital, or even dead. Luckily this telegram was only a notice from George saying he was coming home on leave.
Even though they had planned to get married in Chicago with all of their family and friends, my grandfather heard a rumor that they were about to be shipped out, and so my grandparents were married on December 26, 1942 in San Diego. Two weeks later, he was sent to San Francisco to be shipped out to Guadacanal with the First Marine Division.
Hard to believe that a war was fought on this peaceful little island .
My grandfather was a Staff Sergeant and he was assigned as a cook and was in charge of the mess hall. It was bad enough to be in danger everyday from the bombing and shelling, but one of the most annoying things about being a cook was that sometimes, once grandfather had worked all day to make a stew or soup for the soldiers, the Japanese bombs would ruin it and then he’d have to start all over. All of the food the fighting men got on Guadacanal was shipped from the U.S., and so the meat was salted and nothing was truly fresh. Only the officers arranged to get fresh meat for themselves. They went out occasionally to hunt, and brought back a deer so that the Captains and Lieutenants could have venison steaks. Sometimes, the officers would also raid the nearby Aussie camps for fresh supplies, since the Australian troops were better supplied than that Americans.
My grandfathers dog tags, and a patch on his uniform from Guadacanal
Family Back Home
Grandfather George was the third son in his family to enlist. Two brothers, Richard and Edward, were already fighting as Marines at Iwo Jima. Towards the end of the war his youngest brother also enlisted in the Navy, and fought in the European theater. Their poor, heartbroken mother was made a “Gold Star” mother for having given four sons to the war effort. She didn't want to imagine her sons’ dog tag in their mouth (when a man was killed one dog tag was put in his mouth to identify the body), but fortunately, all four sons came back from the fighting safe and sound.
My Grandfather George Urban
A Moment of Peace
Although George had occasional “R&R” in New Zealand, he didn't return to the US for two years when he was given a month’s leave to go home to Chicago. People treated the returning soldiers like heroes when they came back from the war on leave. Even though there was rationing, George was able to walk right into a store and get what he wanted without ration stamps, simply because he was a soldier. For example, while his mother would have to wait in line to get her ration of a half-pound of ground beef, her son could come home with some nice steaks for the family.
At the end of his leave, my grandfather was reassigned to Cherry Point, North Carolina. My grandmother went with him, and worked on the base in the payroll department. It was 1945, and he was retraining to get back into shape and learn to operate all the new weapons that had been developed since he’d gone to boot camp three years before. Fortunately, before he was ready to ship out again, the war ended.
Interview with Gertrude Urban (1/4/04)
Gianpaoli, Christina. Women Fight the War from Home. http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/st/~cg3/pageone.html (December 15th 2003)
"The Home Front." World War II Almanac. 2000 ed. (12/14/03)
João Francisco Sombra Os Rebeldes de Guadacanal
http://revistaturismo.cidadeinternet.com.br/guardian/guadacanal.htm (January 23rd 2004)