Monday, February 03, 2014
The following is an except from Chapter 2 of Lester Brown's autobiography, Breaking New Ground, Early Years: The Great Depression and World War II.
We were settled away on a good farm and doing well. Then on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the United States was at war with both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. At age thirty-seven, with a family to support and a large farm to operate, Pop was exempt from the draft. But the effects of the war were pervasive. We had air raid drills, where everyone gathered in the school because it was the only large brick building in Stow Creek Township.
As children we looked forward to these drills because once we were assembled we each got a Popsicle, either a chocolate-covered vanilla or an orange-ice-covered one. I usually opted for the latter. At school, we began putting money aside to purchase U.S. savings bonds, a quarter at a time, until we filled seventy-five slots. Costing $18.75, the bonds could be redeemed in twelve years for $25. Metal became scarce and we recycled everything we could find. Gasoline, tires, and sugar were rationed. Farmers were in a favored rationing category, having special access to gasoline and tires, because producing food was such an essential part of the war effort.
Meanwhile I was enjoying school and reading voraciously. Once class assignments were given, I would rush to finish them so I could read books in the library. This was widely recognized by my teachers come report card time. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Tomlinson, wrote, “His reading and choice of reading material, especially historical books, is outstanding. … The thing he needs to do most is to slow up.” The sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Van Vliet, wrote, “He does his work ‘too fast.’ This leads to carelessness.” This was true, but I was willing to settle for a slightly lower grade because I was learning so much from reading.
During at least one school year, I read over 100 books. I found biographies intensely interesting, including those of our founding fathers. Others I particularly enjoyed were about Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, and George Washington Carver. By the time I graduated from eighth grade I had read almost every book in Stow Creek School.
Since we were rather isolated on the farm and since neither of my parents had ever read a book, our dinner table conversations were limited. Biographies opened the world to me in a way that my parents could not. Thus at an early age my sense of self was being influenced by my fascination with these political leaders and scientists. They had addressed the major issues of their time, and I wanted to do the same.
Jim Wood, an older farmer down the road, noticed that whenever we dropped by I would look for their newspapers and then sit quietly reading them while the adults talked. He suggested that each day after school I come by and pick up the two newspapers from the day before—the Philadelphia Inquirer and Bridgeton Evening News. This quickly became part of my daily routine. Since the newspapers were a bit large for me to hold, I spread them out on the living room floor reading them on my hands and knees. Fascinated by the reports on the war, I followed the North Africa campaign with intense interest. The newspapers used maps to show the advances or retreat of the Allied forces. They showed where Rommel’s army was located and described its strategic goals. I learned names of cities like Tripoli, Bizerte, and El Alamein.
Closer to home, one facet of the war was being waged just off the U.S. East Coast. Once at war, we literally had to build thousands of ships, including battleships, destroyers, aircraft carriers, freighters, tankers, and troop transports. Steel for the ships produced at the nearby huge Philadelphia shipyard came from Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant near Baltimore. The steel was shipped down the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, into the Atlantic Ocean, up the East Coast into the Delaware Bay, and up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. Unfortunately the United States had little capacity to deal with the German U-boats. Plying the waters off the U.S. coast, they picked off the U.S. ships one by one as they moved between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Although it was not public knowledge at the time, eighty-six U.S. ships were sunk off the East Coast during 1942, many of them along that stretch of coast between the mouths of the Potomac and Delaware rivers.
The response to these attacks was to avoid going out to the ocean by using the inland canal that connects the upper Chesapeake Bay to the lower Delaware River. Some twenty miles in length, the eastern end of the C & D Canal was only fifteen miles up the river from our farm as the crow flies. Eventually, the U.S. Navy began to thin the ranks of U-boats with much more effective weapons technologies, including destroyers, radar, and depth charges. In 1943, the number of U.S. ships lost off the East Coast dropped to eight.
After nearly two years of the ebb and flow of battle between Allied and Axis forces in North Africa, the Germans and the Italians, who were running out of supplies, were decisively defeated in May 1943. Some 275,000 troops were surrendered to the Allies. Hitler, occupied with mounting problems on the eastern front with Russia, was forced to pull back from North Africa. It was an early turning point in the war.
By this time the air raids on Germany by fleets of U.S. and British bombers, escorted by fighter planes, were rapidly increasing. Then one day the bold headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer said 1,000 Allied planes had crossed the English Channel the previous night. We knew then that the tide was starting to turn.
In early 1944, Pop learned of a forty-acre farm for sale in the western end of Stow Creek Township, roughly four miles from where we were living. The owner was asking $2,500. For Pop, the early war period had been years of both good harvests and good prices. He had saved enough money to pay cash for this smaller farm. Mom, however, enjoyed the Dixon farm neighborhood and friends there, and she was reluctant to move. It was one of the few times she demurred when Pop made a decision. The bottom line was we’d have not only a farm but also a home of our own. The soils, though not as uniformly fertile as those on the Dixon farm, were nonetheless quite productive.
This farm, which had electricity but no indoor plumbing, came with seven acres of asparagus. The asparagus beds, which can produce for up to twenty years once established, were aging. But for the first few years on the farm, we cut asparagus beginning in mid-April and continuing through the end of June. The asparagus went to the P.J. Ritter cannery in Bridgeton, New Jersey, roughly ten miles from the farm, for 9¢ a pound. Cutting asparagus is hard, backbreaking work, but there was a good market. We also grew peppers and tomatoes. This farm on Sandwash Road was to become the family homestead, the Brown farm, where our parents spent the rest of their lives. And it was here that our little sister, Marion, was born in 1945. There were nearly three years between me and Carl, and nine years between him and Marion. The farm is still in the family, now owned by my brother and me.
During the summer of 1944, when I was ten, we took our tomatoes to the same P.J. Ritter cannery that processed our asparagus. Much to my astonishment, when we started handing the baskets of tomatoes from the truck to the factory hands, I realized we were handing them to German prisoners of war. They all wore khaki jumpsuits with “PW” hand-stenciled on the back in large, black letters. They were among the troops who had surrendered to Allied forces in North Africa. When given a choice of staying in detention camps in the desert or coming to the United States to work, they chose the latter. With some 600 German soldiers living in our community, the war that I was following so intently in the newspapers suddenly felt very close.
Then in 1945 the war came to an end and the country gradually worked itself back to a more normal existence.
To read more of Lester Brown's life, purchase a copy today for our special sale price of $15.00.
Reah Janise Kauffman
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