June 6, 1944: D-Day.
For my generation, this is one of the dates that prompts you to remember where you were when you got the word.
It was the most gripping news we had heard since Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, thrusting our country into a world war that would shortly be fought on multiple fronts.
This day in 1941 was not an abstract point in history for us. We knew the boys involved. They were our brothers, our friends, some fathers, and young men who had delivered our newspapers and carried the ball on the DeLand High School football field.
Later generations may look to other events that changed our lovely town: the building of Interstate 4, the creation of the Walt Disney entertainment empire near Orlando, the organization of the MainStreet DeLand Association.
All were important influences on our town’s development. But, to my mind, it was World War II that started the ball rolling. Why? Because, for the first time, a tide of folk flowed into our town who likely had never heard of DeLand, Florida, and certainly never had intended to come here. But, they liked what they saw, and many later returned to make this their home.
World War II brought us the Naval Air Station on the DeLand Municipal Airport, along with Capt. Turner and thousands of other naval personnel. Our streets were suddenly transformed with the appearance of sailors in their bell-bottomed uniforms, and pilots — stunningly handsome to my young eyes — in their “pinks-and-greens” with those gold wings on their chests.
DeLandites’ lives were upturned with new challenges. For the first time, and perhaps the last, cultural, racial, religious, gender and economic hostilities or biases were sublimated to a mutual purpose with one goal: defeating a common enemy.
Everyone — from the smallest child to his or her grandparents — was involved in some united capacity. Rationing was a great leveling device, since no one got more than his or her allotted share of sugar, meat or gasoline.
To compensate for the meat shortage, Mr. Ziegler, who lived in back of us on South Clara Avenue, built a chicken coop, and the residents of West New York and Clara avenues became used to waking to the crowing of a rooster at dawn.
Even as a kid, I was inspired to dig up a piece of the backyard and plant a Victory Garden, filling the rows with carrots, peas and radishes, as I recall. Mother raised chicks, and Dad put in a crop of sugar cane in the grove.
There was a farmer out on Highway 11 with a stone grinding mill and a mule that would walk in circles, grinding the sugar cane until the juice poured out. That is how we got our syrup, and I am still partial to cane syrup because of that early experience.
The war was the precursor of the women’s movement. As men left their jobs, studies and offices to enlist, women filled the void, taking jobs never before deemed reasonable for females.
“Rosie the Riveter” became a celebrated symbol. My mother and sister Patti became bus drivers, taxiing sailors back and forth from the Naval Air Station to town.
Dad and his friends became air-raid wardens; women became Red Cross volunteers, working out of a room in the basement of a building on West Indiana Avenue.
Both men and women became airplane spotters, while the young danced the nights away with the sailors at the USO, which was in the Chamber of Commerce building, which stood where DeLand City Hall is now. Many a match was begun at the USO.
Across the street, the Cypress Room in the Putnam Hotel became all but an officers club, as a place to relax from the stresses of training. We became used to seeing the Navy MPs walking Woodland Boulevard. Over at the beach, we held close together at night as we watched the flashes when a torpedo struck a ship.
But nothing evoked a greater sense of community than the little red-and-white flags that began appearing in windows across town, with blue stars for each member of that household serving in the military. If a star turned to gold, our community grieved for the loss.
The elegant College Arms Hotel was turned into a rest-and-recovery facility for returning troops, and Pug Allen gave free golf lessons to the men recovering from the war. So did many of the women of DeLand, and there were more than a few who were outstanding golfers.
We brought the sailors into our homes for home-cooked Sunday dinners, and I can still see sister Patti jitterbugging with them to music on a record player in the living room. They sweetly tolerated me as a reminder of the kid sister back home.
We clung to the news and to each other like never before. Evenings were spent around the radio. President Roosevelt’s voice was an important link to the war.
Our movies at both the Athens and Dreka theaters largely had patriotic themes that ran the gamut: war-bond musicals, Pacific island warfare, German spies, and heartbreaking dramas like Mrs. Miniver. Weekly newsreels brought us films from the fronts.
Every child collected war-bond stamps that we pasted into a booklet, 10 cents a stamp, until we reached the sum of $18.75, which could be turned into a bond that would be worth $25 in 10 years.
We got the stamps by collecting paper and metal and turning it into the drives. I turned mine in at Wisconsin Avenue School, toting my loot in a wagon from my home at the corner of Clara and New York avenues. Needless to say, lifelong collections of Life magazine and National Geographics, not to mention stacks of cherished comics and Big Little Books, disappeared from homes into those drives.
All of what I have written is from the eyes of a very young girl. I was but 9 when World War II broke out for the United States, but 9 to 13 are very impressionable years.
I was in Jacksonville the day the war ended in August 1945. The city erupted into thousands of people streaming from the stores into the streets, all crying and shouting.
It was a time like no other.