Freedom is Not Free
Mrs. Ann Clark Porcellini, the wife of a 29th Division veteran, sent us this story about freedom and all the things we have to be thankful for. Her submission reminds us of the sacrifice, not only by soldiers, but by all the masses of British people who were in harm’s way. Thank you, Mrs. Porcellini for this telling account!
My husband Mario and I are senior citizens. Mario was in the 29th Division, E/116th under Major Howie. He made the first wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach, and was met by incredible combat fire from the Germans up on the cliffs. Many, many young men even before they got out of the water to dry beach were stopped dead in their tracks, so literally, the surviving soldiers were treading on a carpet of dead soldiers. There is no horror movie could scare you as war does.
I was born in England. I remember quite clearly sitting by our beautiful, hand-carved large radio. We knew war was coming but that night we heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast that Germany had invaded Poland and then England declared war on Germany, September 3rd, 1939. We all sat and looked at one another. Being only 15 years old, we could not possibly comprehend what war really meant. To us, it meant soldiers fighting just between themselves. No matter what we instill in the future generations, reading history about WWII will hold their interest for awhile, but to be locked in that time in actual war conditions no one but no one including grownups can possibly understand the cruelty of war. I soon learned.
The next day, my father set to work on digging an 8 foot hole, 12 feet wide, reinforced with corrugated steel with steps leading downwards, wood seats were set in and a corrugated top was placed on to cover the shelter. That night, we awoke to the wail of the air-raid siren, slipped on our clothing and shoes, which we had neatly placed on a stool in preparation. We grabbed our government-issued gas masks and down the long garden to the shelter we ran, covered by a foggy mist. I recall my mother screaming, making us all put on the gas masks because in her panic she thought it was gas. I then quickly ripped mine off, trying to comfort her and my little brother as my Dad ran to slip off the top of the shelter. I thought of my school history at the time and to mind came the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade and I saw Dad as the General, charging onwards, “Come on you lot,” he yelled. I just managed to see the back of him slip down the small shelter steps and then heard a great splash, apparently the hole had filled up with water and thick mud and my Dad was floundering around like a slimy eel, with the help of us handing him a four by four and pulling him out. That was the end of our homemade shelter.
Within days, the government sent out men to plant corrugated steel shelters in every front lawn, so we set up small planks of wood to sleep on. I recall a few nights later hearing German planes and the sirens at the same time always at 6:00 suppertime. We would grab our food and head into the shelter and then night after night, the air raids became more heavy and frequent, so very scary that every bomb and bullet that came close our breaths seemed to stick in our throats. We were put on food rations and clothing rations almost immediately. That meant 1 pad of butter a day, no sugar, 4 oz. Tea, 4 oz. Meat a week, 4 oz. Cheese a week, powdered eggs, maybe oatmeal and bread. My grandma had to queue in line for hours for a loaf of bread and this went on and on. Rationing became worse and worse as the war became more intense.
I saw my first war casualty after an air raid, a bomb came down just up the street from my grandma’s house. I was on my way to school and that’s when I realized this meant everyone was at war, not just soldiers. A block of houses lay in ruins, fire all over the place. And as I watched in horror, firemen were bringing out a young woman with her small baby burnt beyond recognition. That’s when I ran back to grandma’s just literally throwing up uncontrollably.
While the civilian population was going through the battle, the English and French tried to get the Germans on the run at Dunkirk. The French were overtaken while the British soldiers tried to fight on, their weapons totally destroyed. A few armed with pistols began to aim at the enemy strafing the beach with their machine guns. Nowhere to hide, the soldiers clung to sand dunes for shelter. They did get a message to Dover and so the British civilians sprang into action, setting out with pleasure boats and row boats to help bring back as many soldiers as possible. They made the journey time after time. Soldiers who could not fit in the crafts just hung on the sides and drifted with the boats as long as possible. Many made it to the Dover or Folkstone beaches, totally confused and appearing half dead.
I recall my friend’s father who had experienced Dunkirk. He kept his uniform, hung it up to dry and the salt from the sea impregnated the material so that his uniform was stiff as a plank of wood and no way could it be folded or bent. Now England began to take in free-French soldiers, Polish soldiers and many others who escaped from the Germans. This was a terrible time for England, a small island standing all alone, Europe eaten up by the Nazis. And so the battle went on –the German Luftwaffe bombing London, thinking that if the capital was flattened, England would succumb to the German troops already prepared to take England over. I can assure you the Anglo-Saxon will to survive at all cost has always been there and always will be.
I cannot begin to go deeper into England’s time with Hitler and the Battle of Britain. At 16 years old, most young people were called upon to work in the munitions factories 8 hours a day. Once inside, all doors were locked until your working hours (8 hours) were finished, an easy target for the Luftwaffe. I refused and joined a women’s outfit called the “Women’s Timber and Land Army Corps”. We were there to relieve the able-bodied young men to go to war. We were trained to chop down quite large trees, 40 to 50 inches in circumference with a 7-1/2 lb. axe. No modern tools — all had to be done by very meager tools. We loaded them on to trucks, 6 to 8 girls for one tree. Then down to the railway yard and again loaded each one onto a rail car. It was so very hard. After a year or so I was sent to work on the farms, you see we had no time to be a teenager, we missed out on that part of life. We had to be adults overnight and act the part, as there was no choice. The war was getting out of hand by this time and in 1942 we received the news the Americans were coming over and so they did in the nick of time for if England had gone down, America would be the Last Standoff.
It was strange to see these large Army trucks rumbling down the country roads, these smiling loud young men waving, making wisecracks, all we could do was look in disbelief. I thought what a beautiful sound, to hear laughter, which we had forgotten to do by now. So these were Yanks. At last someone came to help us, bring with them a new way of looking at the war. They helped us in many ways. Bringing us canned fruit, soap, candy and once in awhile silk stockings. Stockings and clothing we never had through the war years, and they knew we were so hungry. Our one meal a day consisted of potatoes, squash and one slice of spam, each day we took with us two slices of bread and grated a carrot and that was what we had to work on. Thank God the Yanks would throw out of a passing truck a sack full of k-rations, at least we got cheese, chocolate and a cigarette out of them.
As time went by, the Yanks were being made into ship-shape soldiers along with the British and with time off, they would go to the pubs. To have a beer — always winding up with fights, I saw many a soldier go through a glass window, but then again that’s part of war.
Now I recall 1944 June 5th, we were having a very bad storm, it rained so hard we couldn’t see a hand before us, but we heard the drone of airplanes passing overhead. We knew by the sound of the engines, they were ours. The German planes had a certain knocking sound in their engines. So you learn many things during a war. Later on we learned the British Paratroopers — all volunteers — June 5th, 1944 were the first men to attack the enemy, seated in large gliders attached to a large plane, 6th Airborne Div. They took off quietly to take on their objective, 156,000 men, British, Canadian and American. Upon landing these gliders many men were killed as the gliders released from the planes, most lightly broke into pieces upon landing, anyhow their objective was taken. And so the next day was June 6th 1944, the Day – “D-Day.” As the storm became more intense, the word came from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and staff, it was on, the word, Go, Go, echoed around every soldier I do believe. Troops boarded the ships to go across the frightening, churning North Atlantic, into the landing craft on nearing the objectives, the Americans – Omaha and Utah Beaches, the British and Canadians — Gold, Juno and Sword Beach heads, and so the Chess game began.
Mario was wounded four times, the last time back in England. The land began to fill up with wounded, seasoned troops, not young boys no more – their eyes told you the story of this God-forsaken part of our history. There are many, many stories to be told about my generation and more people should open up. Someone of today’s generation should consume all this history and try to learn what people can do to one another with war so to pass it on. I did marry an American Soldier during the war, we both know the hardships one goes through for the gift of freedom.
Last year the Board of Education invited us to tell about WWII and these 8,9,10 year old children were truly interested. But telling one time is not going to be enough, I do believe it should be part of their Education. These children of today simply do not know, so therefore do not care of yesterday’s history, and it’s all so very sad. I mean also the baby boomers. I had a son in Vietnam who could never talk about his war because of the people in America. My last words are that everyone loses in a war, one way or another, babies, women and so on, no one escapes because everyone here feels so safe, and most believe nothing big like a war could happen here. But for sure next time and I do think there will be one, no one will be around to enjoy freedom, and so stories have to be told.
—Freedom is Not Free
Mrs. Ann Clark Porcellini