A Horrible Past Gives Hope for the Future This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

February 21, 2012
The 1940s followed a time of war that began in the earlier part of the century. Many of the people of the forties were unaccustomed to war times; those who had lived during the twenties, when the first world war began, had spent two decades in peace, far removed from any warfare. When the Second World War began, the American people were unaware of the complexity and intensity of the occurrences around the world. Hitler had gained power and was continuing to persistently gain control of European countries that had not yet been conquered, or had not been conquered for hundreds of years. When the Japanese emperor Hirohito joined forces with the Nazis in Germany and Fascists in Italy, the American government began to feel the need to be involved. This alliance between Japan, Germany, and Italy was known as the Axis Powers. After France fell to the Nazis, the American troops joined forces with the British government in an effort to stop the Axis Powers from taking over all of Europe.


Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a military base on an American territory called Hawaii, the outrage of the Americans towards the Axis Powers climaxed. Every American person: man, woman, and child, helped with the war effort. Family was an important concept back then; family was everything, but families were being torn apart by the Nazis and the Fascists. Fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers, cousins, and friends were sent off to war in Europe without their consent. The men of America were unable to fight the draft, and had no say in whether or not they wanted to fight for their country. Though the Americans finally defeated Hitler and Hirohito, years later patriotism was still a forced feeling. Finally, the American government dropped the draft and, though America has seemingly been involved in wars since World War II, patriotism is no longer forced. Today the military, air force, and navy of the United States all consist of volunteers who want to serve their country.


Interview Q and A:

I interviewed Mr. Don Schneider-Penny, an important man of history who was kind enough to sacrifice his time and energy in order to be interviewed for this project. His experiences as a young man living in an era where war consumed the world have changed his life by their uniqueness and power. In this type-recorded interview, Mr. Penny's responses will always follow my questions. The following is recorded and displayed below.


Q: Where did you live during WWII? Where do you live now?

A: I was born in 1933 and lived in Brooklyn until I was ten. When WWII started we moved to Long Island which is in Nassau County and that's where I grew up. From 1941 to 1945 that was my home. Now I live in Brentwood, California and I also have a home in Palmetto, Florida.


Q: What was your approximate age?

A: I was about ten or eleven at the time.


Q: Did you hold a job during the war? If so, was it related to the war?

A: Actually, no I was in school, but at that time we were all very much involved in the war because everyone had a brother, father, uncle involved directly. But, technically, yeah I had a job: I was an American. My country was at war so I would go searching for tin, tin pots and such that could be sent to the soldiers at war. Equipment was often made from the tin and the other things my friends and I found.


Q: How was communication different during the war?

A: Well, for communication all we really had was the radio. That's how we heard about what was going on around the world and in our own country. Letters rarely came home from our relatives that were at war, so we relied mainly on what the President and the government and the media could tell us through the radio.


Q: How was daily life was different as a result of the war?

A: Well, my life changed, really, on December 7, 1941. That was when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I was about nine years old at the time and I remember walking into my parents bedroom and seeing them listening to the radio. They were listening to reports about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I remember asking my dad, "What is that?" And he said, "Well, we're at war, Son." And I asked him what that meant. "It means another country is attacking us." And it was that day that my life and the life of every American changed. It was then that every American became a contributor to the war effort, because unlike today, the President was asking us all to give what we could. So everyone had a job, everyone had to ration their food (we got ration books), and sacrifices were made immediately for the good of our country. Not sacrifices like the British had been making, since they had been fighting for four years already, but every one made a commitment. But civilians, those days, considered themselves part of the armed forces of the United States.


Q: Did you have any relatives in the war?

A: Yes, yes of course. My Uncle Arty was a liaison pilot with General Paten's army in Europe, and all of my father's brothers, including my Uncle Sid and my Uncle Chick were in the army. And everyone I knew had members of their family, at that time mostly men, in the army. If you talked to any of my friends at the time they would tell you that either their uncle or their father or their brother was out there fighting. And it wasn't just the army; they were in the navy, marines, and air-core too.


Q: What roles did families play during the war?

A: Families worked together throughout the war, pitching in however, whenever, and wherever they could. Children, like myself at the time, collected tin for the army; our fathers fought in the war, our mothers donated their time knitting caps for the soldiers. Everyone pitched in towards the war effort. Together, my family would listen to the radio for any updates on the war each evening.


Q: What were some of the new roles for women because of the war?

A: Women have always played a much more significant role in America than anywhere else. And as I said, my mother carried arms and legs out of a hospital operating room. I had two aunts who were in the women's army core and there were over six hundred women who were pilots; WASPs they were called. They would fly airplanes to England, but they were never given any medals, or recognition or anything, but through and through they were patriots. In many cases, women were more important to the war than men. They were smarter, for instance [laughs]. And they were very brave and harder working than many of our men; they did twice as much in half the time because women's careers at the time were only half as appreciated and half as long as men's. I say this facetiously, but I have always been much more guided by women than men in my lifetime. They have better views, more equaled, unbiased views, than those of men who are full of testosterone and lacking in brains.


Q: Did you have any blackouts in the area that you lived?

A: Oh, yes! My father was an air-raid warden; they wore white helmets with a little triangle on it with red stripes, and they would come around the neighborhood to all the houses to make sure all the lights were out. And of course, we wondered if there was ever really going to be an attack because we were three thousand miles across the ocean, at that point, so far away from Japan. None of us really considered that they would ever be able to touch us. In actuality, there were only two or three attacks on American soil. One was from a submarine off the Pacific Coast; the attack was on Santa Barbara.


Q: What was patriotism like during the war? Was it true patriotism or forced?

A: Well, it was really interesting, Elizabeth, because coming from a Jewish family, we had known about the harassment of the Jews in Germany well before the Second World War had begun. Even in the 1930s the "harassment", if you will, had already begun. My family was an important family; my given name is Schneider, you know, and my family developed Schneider lenses for the Leichid camera. And so we were able to get out of Germany well before the war began, but some of our relatives like my cousins and such chose to stay behind and when it came time that the Nazis started punishing the Jews, not everyone got out safely. My father's family immigrated here in around 1909, but my mother's family was here long before that, during the nineteenth century. So most of my family was safe here, grounded in Georgia and the rest of the south of the country. But to answer your question, we were aware of the war on a much more intense level and we had so many intimate relationships with people that were involved in the war, that it was impossible to ignore it. My own mother, for instance, went to work at Mitchell Field and the hospital over there, and I remember one day a doctor from the hospital coming to our house for dinner. As my mother was preparing dinner, the doctor said to me, "Do you realize how brave your mother is?" And I was completely baffled; I said, "I beg your pardon?" I was about ten or twelve years old, whatever. Well, it turned out that my mother was a nurse's assistant, and when the kids came home from the battlefields, she would volunteer to go into the operating rooms where the amputations occurred. And she would carry out the amputated arms and legs of war victims and dispose of them. That was the first time I realized how very involved all Americans were and of course it's very different now in that Americans are not asked to do anything unless they want to. Back then, the entire military force of the United States was pulled together by a draft, but now everything is made up of volunteers. Men and women volunteer to risk their lives for their country, and that, of course, is very brave.


Q: How was patriotism expressed by the media?

A: At the time the only media we really had came from the radio. The president at the time would come on the radio consistently to discuss the war rhetorically with the citizens of America. He asked all of us to give what we could to the war effort and to be patient and patriotic throughout the many battles our country's soldiers were to face.


Q: Did you observe propaganda related to the war?

A: Oh, sure. We didn't perceive it as propaganda, really. Well, at the time, a director by the name of Frank Capra was creating films about the war, which served as insight for all the people on American soil, waiting for their families to come home from fighting. The films were originally a series of episodes called “Why We Fight”, produced from 1942 to 1945. I think there were seven films in all. The films were mostly based on the Germans and Japanese that were involved in the war; they were about how the Germans and the Japanese were killing innocent people all from all over the world to dominate the world kind of like terrorists are trying to do today. Most of the videos were made up of original film from overseas where the war was being fought.

Q: Do you perceive any similarities between the Second World War and the past two years that we've been in war in Iraq.

A: The similarities are again the fact that our armies are made up of young men and women like yourself who go to war and die in war and the old men that start the wars like Saddam Hussein who are just basically dictators, are being ousted by the people of their countries. People have come to realize, like they did in the 1940s that their leaders must be brought down, and just as we did then, America is there to help them accomplish that goal. In the same way, many Arab countries today, like the Jewish people of Germany in the '40s, are now going through the crisis of wanting liberty and having to pay for it with lives. But people like Omar Kadafi, just like Adolf Hitler, people who are madmen, crazy, will do everything in their power to stop these people who are fighting for freedom from racism and slavery and injustice. That's another story, though, I mean the world has never been run by logical people; just look at Attila the Hun who murdered anyone who stood in his way! Anyway, there is great similarity.


Q: You already somewhat touched on this, but how do you remember Pearl Harbor Day? What was your reaction, and what were the reactions of your family members and friends?

A: Well, I've heard many, many stories; for example, I worked for Mere Griffin, and at one point he told me, because he was just a little boy, that on Pearl Harbor Day they all ran down to the beach waiting for the Japanese to, you know, take over the country from there. That obviously didn't happen, but it was the strangest thing in that America had not been in a war for twenty years. I had several uncles who had fought in World War One and at that point they would tell stories about awful things that happened to the French. It all seemed surreal to me; I remember thinking, “Could men really want to kill each other in the name of conquest, or whatever?” It didn't actually become a reality to me until I listened to a radio broadcast about Pearl Harbor.


Q: Did you ever see military planes flying over the town where you lived?

A: Actually, it's funny you would ask that because when the war was going on, my family and I lived outside a large military base called Mitchell Fields and one morning, Saturday morning, I heard this incredible droning and I looked out and the sky was filled with airplanes, big transports. I realized then that these were flying across for D-Day. I ran into the house as my father was just waking up and I said, “Daddy, Daddy, come quick!” And he saw too that the sky was just filled with these transports! I remember my mother talking to my dad saying, “Who are they? What is this?” And my father said, “Those are all our kids, coming home.” And they were!



At this point in the interview, Mr. Penny became somewhat choked up, remembering the day when the war had come to a close. Don said that this meant safety, not only to him and his family, but to all the people overseas where the American people had fought for their rights as human beings and as free countries.


Q: How would you contrast Roosevelt and Hitler as leaders?

A: Well, for starters, one was a good guy, and the other wasn't. Adolf Hitler was a deranged, truly insane man and as I said before about how Attila the Hun would band people together only to kill hoards of other people indiscriminately, Hitler did the same thing. He used fear against the minorities like the Jews, who he claimed caused World War I, and was able to get a nation of millions of Germans to fight what they considered pests in order to preserve the Arian race, which was what he considered to be the superior race to all races. That's what he saw in the Germans. After World War I, the French had exiled the Germans into solitude where for the next twenty years, their pride would be nonexistent. But when Hitler came out, he brought with him the pride that the Germans had been missing. He told them, “We are the Germans. We are the best.” And to their credit, the Germans were brilliant, in the twenty first century scientifically, but in the twelfth emotionally. It is interesting to me that, despite their brilliance, people like the Japanese forces and the Nazis could not respect life, like the American people did and still do today. That is what puts Roosevelt apart from Hitler, his value for human life. The difference between Roosevelt and Hitler is that Hitler was an insane crazy man and Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, although a politician (got a lot of crazy ones among them, too) was a patrician also. So when he came to power, he was fully educated in being president, whereas Adolf Hitler came to power simply because a lot of the bankers thought he would be good for Germany. Which, in some ways he was. He gave the German nation back their pride and their strength, he organized them into a well-constituted country, but unfortunately, he decided that he wanted to take over the world, too!


Q: Did you hear anything about relocation camps for the Japanese when you were younger?

A: Yes, yes, I did. I know a few Japanese families that had been relocated back in the forties. Some people believed that by imprisoning the Japanese Americans, we were protecting them from true Japanese people who might want to harm them for betraying their home land, their own country. And of course the Japanese American soldiers who fought for our military were very angry and bitter when they came home and saw how their families had been treated by their own government.


Q: Well, that is the extent of my questions, Don. Thank you so much for offering your time for this interview.

A: Of course, Liz, anytime. I just want to leave you with this: I hope you will always go after the things you wish to accomplish, no matter how far away they might seem to you at the time. As we sit here today, you're sixteen. I hope your father and I will continue to be friends, and that you will invite me to your high school graduation, and maybe I'll get to see your first child and you'll tell her, “That's your Uncle Donald!” The bottom line is that WWII prepared me for years later when I would come of age and fight in Korea, and I just hope that you will take all of your experiences and turn them into preparedness for the future use them to better yourself for what is to come.



Don Penny taught me just that. No matter what one experiences, there is always hope and time for that person to move on from that experience, taking it in stride, and using it to become a better person. Don helped me to better understand what happened during World War II, but he also helped me to better understand the American people, and how determined our leaders are to better themselves and to better our country for generations to come. WWII was definitely a horrific event that took many lives from soldiers and civilians, but it was an experience that the United States of America took in stride and used to better itself for years to follow.





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