By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Because I was born in the closing days of the Second World War, it’s no wonder that so much of my play during childhood was about that conflict.
So it was that our upright piano was a perfect launch pad for my toy aircraft (both fighters and bombers). The doors of the piano opened wide and the planes, in my imagination, attack the Nazi positions – usually under my mother’s coffee table. Imaginary parachutists landed behind enemy lines and took care of any Nazi bunkers and tanks.
That, by the way, was pretty tricky. The Panzer Division of Gen. Rommel – “The Desert Fox” – needed to be defeated. It was on the carpeted floor behind our sofa. And defeated it was!
The infantry was made of metal soldiers, both those formerly belonging to my older brother, Jerry, and others that were purchased in the toy department of the G.C. Murphy store in downtown New Castle. Whoever was buying a gift for my birthday or for Christmas knew that a painted metal soldier would always fit the bill.
For the life of me, I don’t know what happened to my box of metal soldiers that won the war for me so many times in my childhood so very long ago.
Two uncles fought in the war and came home with injuries. Uncle Chuck Zona was shot in the side by a Nazi sniper and Uncle Jim Hiler had shrapnel injuries when a Nazi grenade landed close to his position.
My cousin Carmen Perrone not only fought in George Patton’s army but, when the war was over, he was soon drafted again into the Army, serving in the infantry in the Korean War. These great family members never spoke of their war experiences although Carmen sometimes made reference to buddies killed in Korea – a war he particularly hated.
While war stories were popular immediately after World War II and Korea, taking the form of movies, radio programs, comic books – even musical scores – so much of what came out was dark, to say the least. There were events, though, that expressed humanity within the ugliness of war.
Going back to the First World War, there’s the famous incident of the Christmas Eve 1914 truce neither government sanctioned. It was a temporary end to hostilities between British soldiers and their German enemies. For one special evening, all was quiet except for the singing of Christmas carols between adversaries.
A truce, an evening of peace, happened between soldier and soldier. As if by a miracle, the German soldiers began singing “Silent Night” and the British on the other side of the line joined them. It must have been one of those rare moments when we humans are compelled to ask ourselves: Why does war have to exist?
The horrors of the Second World War inspired many brave Americans to join in the war effort, including famous Hollywood stars such as Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Clark Gable and Henry Fonda. Sports legends such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial served proudly.
I once heard Joe DiMaggio being interviewed. He spoke of his service during the war when off days in Korea meant a baseball game or two with his fellow soldiers. He remembered that Japanese soldiers would be perched in trees watching the Americans playing baseball. And of course, baseball became Japan’s favorite sport and Japanese players are today very much admired and playing for American teams with great success.
I grew up on a street where eight or nine neighbor boys, all the same age, could invent games to play. Again, World War II was still fairly fresh. Most of the made up games that we played involved war. When I think about it, we all had toy guns, some of which fired caps.
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I received a cap machine gun for Christmas that gave me many hours of fun. We were fortunate to live near a creek, woods, a junkyard, and even large pieces of equipment that we could crawl in or climb upon. It was a perfect environment for war games as we hid in weeds, waded in water and climbed machines as part our games.
We defeated Hitler many times. What caused a problem one day was when my neighbor Bill decided to bring his father’s rifle, which he had confiscated in Europe during the war. When my mother looked out the window and saw Bill handling an actual weapon of war, she called Bill’s mother and that was the end of the war game. It was fun while it lasted!
My brother, Jerry, was drafted during peacetime in the early 1960s. He ended up in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he worked in the art department of the Army. His principal responsibility was to work with the medics. He painted wounds on soldiers for the medics to determine their nature and what was necessary to treat the injury. It was a perfect role for Jerry and those two years in the Army became the happiest time of his life.
I do regret telling my friends in the neighborhood what Jerry was capable of doing with paint, gel and a piece of bandage. So when Jerry came home for a couple of days, the kids lined up to ask Jerry to paint injuries on them. But wouldn’t you know it; they ran home screaming that they had been hurt, pointing to their fake injuries.
Jerry and I apologized to the folks in the neighborhood for what would have been a perfect April Fool’s joke, had it only been April.