05 August 2018

The Abrupt End of World War II

My grandfather, Joel Dirlam, during World War II

The 73rd anniversary of the armistice of August 14, 1945 that effectively ended the war with Japan, and, therefore, World War II, is rapidly approaching.  This has motivated me to give further thought to my own family connections with World War II.

Joel Dirlam, one of my grandfathers, served in World War II (my other grandfather had earlier contracted tuberculosis and the loss of part of one of his lungs precluded him from serving) as did Joel’s first cousin once removed, John Baxter Black II.  You can read about the vast amount of information I gleaned from my grandfather’s discharge papers in an earlier blog post here and I’ve written numerous times about our cousin John Black’s influence on my interest in family history.  This is more information about John, who kept a journal (against all orders!) during his time serving in the War.  Although I have not yet reviewed John’s journal, he cites them in his self-published family history.
The Bombe Codebreaker
Machine - citation below

John’s goddaughter, Diana, recorded a video interview with John about his time in the war, just a few weeks before he died in 2015.  Diana’s parents met in England where her father-to-be was serving in the American Army as John’s Commanding Officer.  Diana’s English mother was working at Bletchley Park on Turing’s famous Bombe code breaker machine at the time they met. When they decided to marry, John made all the arrangements for the service, reception and the transport of bridesmaids to and from the ceremony. When Diana was born, her parents named John as her godfather. Recently, Diana asked me for my input on the reading of some of John’s remembrances in the context of a preamble to her video interview.  This prompted me to research what, exactly, John had committed to paper about his wartime experiences.

Years after the war, John had portions of his hand-written journals typed out and his account of arranging the wedding of Diana’s parents was part of that effort.  He sent Diana the account and she was prompted to find out more, so she visited him and videotaped her interview of him about the wedding and other of his recollections.  They talked for about an hour and he spoke of his time in the war, working for her father, arranging the wedding and what life was like in England at the time. The story of John arranging the wedding in wartime England, with blackouts and rationing, warrants a blog post in and of itself.

John Black (center rear, with glasses) and his fellows.
His CO, whose wedding he planned, far left.

John was initially stationed in England and he was then sent to France.  In this interview, he told the story that while still in England, he brought sugar as a gift to the hostess of a dinner he attended, only to find out later that it was really salt – he rang them up, but they had already melded it with their own (very precious) sugar. Given the scarcity of sugar in wartime, it’s not surprising that recollection stayed with him.

I remember a story he told me about his arrival in France, immediately after had been deployed there from England.  He told me about a hut in Normandy that made and sold doughnuts and coffee – the GIs would queue up for an hour or more wait to buy their single pastry and a cup of coffee, the best food they would have that day.  They were in transit to Compiègne, north of Paris, and there was not a lot for the young GIs to do there but stand in line for doughnuts.

I have created a synopsis here, consisting all of John’s words, about his time serving in the War, with a particular emphasis on the surrender of Japan. This is taken from various parts of his self-published family history, in which he quotes his own diaries and provides more context from his memories, but in a different order from their original format.  I do not provide footnotes in the following, but they all come from his book, which is more broadly cited below.  For more detailed information, please see the attached PDF document, which details in full all of John’s recollections of World War II in his family history, with page references.

Cousin Jane and her English groom
in MA, just before moving to Cheshire
18 year old John Black
John obtained a ten-day furlough in early August of 1945 and went to England to spend time with an American cousin of his (and of my grandfather).  She had married an Englishman she met when he was at MIT in Boston and moved with him to Cheshire just before the war.  They were starting a family and she had only seen John and my grandfather out of all her American family for the duration of the war. 

These are some of John’s recollections of the War and the events that transpired when he was on leave in early August 1945. 

Entering the army in a Brown University reserve corps at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, in March, 1943, I had ordnance training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and after several interim months at Camp Kilmer near New Brunswick, New Jersey, left for England in November. 
I crossed the Atlantic on a troop ship – having two ersatz meals a day and sleeping in a large bare cast-iron hold.  The troops slept in two layers in these holds.  The bottom layer lay directly on the cast-iron deck, with a single blanket for each man.  The other was above it, suspended in hammocks.  The two daily meals consisted for the most parts of chunks of bread with margarine and mug of strong tea.  My ship was the former French liner Louis Pasteur, then in the hands of the British.  It left New York on November 26, 1943, and docked in Liverpool, after a stormy crossing, on December 4. 
After three interesting months in Northern Ireland – at Bangor, County Down, and Coleraine, County Londonderry – I was sent in April, 1944, to a camp in Wiltshire, near Warminster, and remained there until November, when we crossed from Southampton to Le Havre and were in Compiègne for the ensuing thirteen months.
The casino at Le Havre, rebuilt soon
after the end of the war. Citation below
When I landed in France, at ten o’clock in the evening of November 15, 1944, on the beach at Le Havre in front of the ruined casino, we spent the first night in a field with floorless tents and no blankets.  Then in the morning we marched five miles and were put into box cars, which took thirty-six hours to go one hundred and fifty miles, during which time we had no food at all.  One is scarcely complaining, though, however much it may sound it.  I am fortunate not to have gone to France with the infantry, several months earlier and under far worse conditions.  I did not have a stint in the front line. 
 My unit from January, 1944, to November, 1945, was the Headquarters Company of the 16th Replacement (later Reinforcement) Depot.  I was a clerk-typist, and rose in these twenty-two months to the rank of corporal. 
The war ended abruptly in August, 1945.  When Germany had collapsed in May and the fighting in Europe had ceased, it had been widely assumed that at least a further year would be required to bring Japan to book.  It had seemed probable, indeed, that an invasion of the Japanese home island would be necessary.  I, with my army unit in France, sat about for the whole of June and July wondering whether we would be sent straight to the Pacific by way of Suez and the Indian Ocean or whether, after two years in Europe, we would go via the United States and have a chance for some home leave.
All at once, on August 6 and 9, 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and everything was changed.  Suddenly the war was over, although its end was of a ghastliness without precedent.  We were at once elated and filled with foreboding for the future.

On August 15, on my way to England for a ten days’ furlough, the news that “the Japanese have surrendered on the condition that they be allowed to keep their Emperor” was rumored at 1.15, when I was lying on a bunk down below, and five minutes later was announced over the loudspeaker system.

Then everyone began thinking about What London Will Be Like Tonight, and paced the deck in anticipatory impatience.  The realization that we really won’t have to go to the Pacific began to spread in the background like a warming, happy glow.

[On arrival] Immediately went out to see the celebrations of London.  Well-dressed drunks were racing out of the doors of the Ritz, chasing girls in evening dress with empty champagne bottles, and there was a communist parade in Trafalgar Square.  From about 1 to 2.30 [AM] I was in Piccadilly Circus.  Many policemen, bright lights, and a few groups of people standing about singing, but mainly just a lot of people standing around talking.  It was very restrained and rather inhibited. 

The war – this war, Hitler’s war – was indubitably over.  I was home and demobilized by January, 1946, after a crossing in a Liberty Ship that took from December 16 to January 4.

Entering the army at eighteen, I was twenty-one at the time of my discharge in January, 1946.
Celebrations in London on August 15, 1945.  Citation below.

Click here for all the excerpts from John's book in which he makes reference to World War II.


A History of the Family of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Blymyer Black of Mansfield, Ohio, v. I and II, John Baxter Black, 1995, Gateway Press

Bombe photo: By Antoine Taveneaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20247599

Le Havre Casino photo: http://lehavrephoto.canalblog.com/

London Celebrations: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//45/media-45159/large.jpg This is photograph D 25636 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24346748

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