My mother, Claire Mildred (Cunningham) Murray, would have turned 100 this past January. She lived through many trials and tribulations, including a severe glandular infection in her neck when she was in grade school. She almost died that year, and the setback of missing almost a year of school was furthered by the loss of some nerves and muscle movement, complicated by an angry scar along her jawline. She was grateful in her later life for the nuns who insisted she do public speaking and work on muscle control so she could speak naturally. However, her confidence was forever dampened, although we, her 8 children, did not learn that until our adulthood. At 5′ tall, she was a diminutive yet fierce mom.
Claire Mildred (Cunningham) Murray, 1921 – 2003
I recently discovered a handwritten 2-page document–notes for a presentation she was asked to do for a public school group in Newton, MA, in the ‘90s or thereabouts–that addressed some of her memories of World War II. It seemed fitting that for Mother’s Day, I share this with my readers.
Brackets [ ] indicate information I added to smooth out the reading, as her presentation was verbal, not written. Even as talking points, her notes were well written and largely grammatically correct. She was a stickler on that with us. We had to speak properly even in the house!
In most places where she underlined words or phrases for emphasis, I hyperlinked to additional relevant information. I selected links you may not have visited before, rather than Wikipedia or other popular sites typically referenced. I also added details on a few other things relevant to her memories of that period.
I suspect she used those underscores as markers to add personal comments, her paper being a guide rather than reading from it verbatim. It’s interesting that this is how I have done speeches and presentations throughout my life, yet never realized my mother had done so as well. My eldest brother Bill (there are so many “Bill’s” in our family tree) won a full scholarship to Suffolk University for extemporaneous speaking (a limited prep-time competitive debate form requiring research and original analysis). My mother’s brother Bill became an entertainer after the war, switching to comedy when he realized how much more it paid than cabaret singing. Family dinners were always a bit of one upmanship over who could tell the best joke with the best delivery. It’s clear which family line my brother’s and my public speaking talent comes from. (And several of my other brothers and sisters have quite a bit of that talent, too.)
The title of Mom’s presentation is a quote from John Milton, taken from memory of her childhood reading, thus the one missing word. She was in her 70s at the time.
Thank you for inviting me to share with you some of my memories of World War II.
They also serve who stand and wait.*
We did wait, but we did very little standing around. The attack on Pearl Harbor hurled us into action, and we all tried to help in various ways to help in the war efforts. But we had become accustomed to seeing the news reel in the theatres of German’s tremendous and frightening takeover of her neighboring countries. Newspapers and radio broadcasts kept us aware of the sufferings of much of the world. Fighting on both oceans was indeed overwhelming, but it did not discourage us. How long it would take we did not know, but we would win. That was the prevailing mood, at least among those whom I knew.
All the young men old enough to enlist did so. My brother Bob took accelerated courses to become a pilot in the Air Corp. My younger brother (Bill) was still in school, but he joined the Navy after he graduated. My husband (Bill, we were not married at the time) also joined the Navy the following year.
Life goes on war or no war, but things did change. My cousins and some of my close friends all got engaged over the period of the war and we all shared our news with one another, and when any of boys were home on leave they often had to take a group of us when they had a date.
I was working and did try to get into defense work but that didn’t work out. My boss kept telling me we had a job to do as well. He was the chief chemist in a clothing mill so we were doing government work.
Rationing became a way of life. Meat became scarce and we became very familiar with Spam, canned corn beef was on the table now and then but my father always said he had had enough of that in World War I. That was the only thing I ever heard him object to eating.
Butter was scarce and we were introduced to oleomargarine. It came in a white block and you had to mix the yellow coloring into it. That became my job. How I hated that job. My mother melted the fats. Saved for Winnie. [Winnie was her brother Bob’s wife and a nurse throughout WWII.]
Gas was, of course, hard to get. We had coupons and we tried to save them to go somewhere specific. Big Bands had been very popular and we were always going to dances but that became difficult. Nylons had come out about that time and we all wanted them. Painted legs with tanning lotion … [Women painted their legs with tanning lotion and other products in lieu of nylon stockings]. The parachutes were made of nylons and many brides had their wedding dressing made after the war.
Early on, the Fire Chief of the city [Lawrence, MA] asked me to form a group of girls to man the message center as part of the Civil Defense group. Our job was to get to the Police Station when the Air Raid Signal was heard and take the calls as they came in about casualties or trouble spots. Thankfully we never had a real one, but it was scary walking alone across the bridge over the Merrimack River in [the] middle of the night. After [that] the Chief picked me up as we lived near one another. My fiancé [Bill Murray] was an Air Raid Warden until he went into the Navy.
* John Milton, Sonnet 19:
When I consider how my light is spent
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
[Note: My mother and father married during the war, before dad shipped overseas. Bill M., Bill C., Bob C., and Winnie C. all served in the North Atlantic Theatre.]
To give you an overview of the people mentioned in Mom’s notes, I provide the following:
Both my father and my uncle Bill served on destroyers in the North Atlantic. The aft section of my dad’s ship (USS Nelson) was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Twenty-four sailors lost their lives, nine others were wounded. The crew made rough repairs and the ship limped to Ireland where further repairs made it seaworthy enough travel to Gibralter and lead a convoy of broken ships home to Boston. After getting parts replaced, it returned to duty in the Atlantic. The account of this can be found in the book, Tin Cans.
The near-fatal incident left an indelible mark on my Dad’s outlook on life. Like so many of America’s “Greatest Generation,” he seldom spoke about his time in the war and when he did he tried to keep it light. I know he had just left that end of the ship minutes before it exploded, and his medical role meant he tried to save his shipmates yet sadly saw several die.
I never heard my uncle Bill speak about his time in the service, but he and my Dad left the Navy when the war ended. Uncle Bill went into the entertainment industry. My Dad worked in the Quincy, MA, shipyard, went to night school, and became a draftsman and then designer. Later, he went into sales.
My uncle Bob remained in the service for many years, rising in rank from 1st Lt. to Major to Lt. Col. His tours of duty included living for several years in Japan to help with restoration. After he retired from the military, he could be found flying small commercial planes out of or into the Lawrence Airport as he transported goods between the US and Canada.
I hope many of you consider my mother’s words and her choice of title. There are many who do not see active service, yet serve in their own way. In the early 80s, I worked alongside women who were treated as if they had no brains and did not matter in the “big scheme” of the engineering firm that hired me. In working with them to get their resumes written (new company policy), I learned that some had run their husband’s businesses or had some other incredible jobs during WWII, while raising children and keeping the peace at home. Yet they were now denigrated to “just a . . .”, put in whatever role was considered menial and designated for women those days.
Our mothers, and those of you who are mothers, probably have many untold stories that reflect sacrifice and a bit of wisdom and knowledge that others have never heard. If you can, get them to tell their stories and tell your own, lest we are relegated to repeating the mistakes of the past and not recognizing the worth of all women in whatever role they live.
Thank you, Mom, for your service.