Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Military Memories: Basic training and Mom and Dad's visit to Bernie

Mom and Uncle Bernie, Dad's brother, contributing to the War effort.
Fort Bragg, North Carolina, June 1942.


When WWII broke out the Kelly brothers, or at least two of them, went down to Cumberland from little Frostburg in Western Maryland, and enlisted. Dad knew he wouldn't pass the physical so he avoided the rush and waited to be called up. But his brothers got caught up in a patriotic fever and took themselves on down to Cumberland and signed up. Then off they went to boot camp at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, as so many other young men and women did.

The letters the boys wrote back to Dad - and Mom still has them - told a story of boys sheltered by a small town's embrace and then dropped into the harsh reality that was and still is basic training. Up early, marching in formation, and lots of discipline and structure. Let's just say that it didn't sit well, especially with Bernie who was sort of a free spirit who loved a good time.

Fort Bragg has been the home to 5400 service men in 1940 before the war. It had been one of the sites for the Civilian Conservation Corp during the Great Depression. A number of young men from the Frostburg area joined the CCC as a way to earn for their families when so many able bodied men were out of work and Mom's cousins were some of them. But the Fort Bragg population swelled to 67,000 at the start of the war and ballooned to 159,000 at the height of the war. The little southern town of Fayetteville at Fort Bragg exploded to overflowing. And at Fort Bragg there were never quite enough barracks to fit the population and water wasn't sufficient to the task especially in the evening when men needed to wash away the grime and dust of the day.

At the appropriate time when Bernie finished a phase of his basic training, Mom and Dad took the train to see him. Mom still remembers that the train ride was brutal and the train was over crowded and hot that June. Out of respect for the men in uniform all seats went to them so they could rest. Mom and Dad stood all night in the oppressive heat, holding on for dear life.

Fayetteville was full to capacity and all rooms taken. It was lucky for them that they had reservations, even if it was in an old run down boarding house. Mom still remembers that the sheets on the unmade bed hadn't been changed in quite a while, probably since way before Pearl Harbor. They slept fully clothed and on the covers. But they were lucky to have any room at all. The healing powers of time have wipes all memories of the shared bathroom they used on that trip. One can only imagine.

They saw Bernie and had great good fun, living for the moment. You can see it on Bernie's face in the photo below.

Uncle Bernie, Fayetteville North Carolina, 1942.

Mom also remembers that Fayetteville was a very different place than little Frostburg and a lot of it had to do with the treatment of African-Americans then. In particular, she was walking on a Fayetteville sidewalk and an older black man stepped off to let her pass. She didn't understand why he did that, and then after a moment, it sunk in. So sad that he had to do that. And he looked just like some of the older African-American men from Frostburg who walked on the sidewalks as they pleased.

I guess that in the days when the old Jim Crow laws were still in effect, the new needs of a world war was the first glance forward for many white young men. It must have been a real eye-opener. But it wasn't until 1965 that Jim Crow was stricken from the books.

The pictures below are a treasure to me, along with the numerous others in the photo file and not posted here. One can sense the urgency to capture the moment for later, in case. The faces are happy, and the sun was out that June, and that was all that mattered.


Bernie and his then girlfriend, Evelyn.

Dad and his brother Bernie.

Mom's first magnolia.

Bernie, Evelyn, Dad, and Mom, June 1942.

So here was Bernie, about to go on one of the greatest adventures of his life. From here he'd go to Europe and D-Day landing at Normandy, but grabbing a little fun with his girlfriend, his brother and wife before his wild ride. It was a time and place when anything was possible and the future very uncertain.


A special Thank You for this writing prompts for the month of May on the topic of Military Memories, from Jennifer Holik.


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