Friday, September 2, 2011

September 3, 1939--Headline from the Day World War II Begins

Articles from the San Francisco Chronicle, saved over 70 years ago by my father-in-law Wilson Slater, when he was a young history major and California National Guardsman at Stanford University, reveal how the world-shaking but hardly unexpected events of the previous few days had changed the world.

My father-in-law expected that America would be in the war, sooner or later. He was not alone in this opinion.
The paper cost 5 cents daily and a dime on Sunday. This was an extra edition probably on the streets of the city being hawked by news boys a scant couple hours after Neville Chamberlain's BBC address declaring the war had begun. Already in the paper it was reported children in London were started to be evacuated, babies were being issued gas masks and some English people were reportedly killing pets to spare them from a rumor that pet food would be banned for the duration of the war. Both England and France pledged to support President Roosevelt call not to use bacterial gas or fire on non-military shipping of Germany for a time. The Duke of Windsor and his wife were returning to London.

But in other ways, life in America went on. There were also articles in the Chronicle this day on New Yorkers being enthused over new General Motors and Ford cars coming out for 1940. The great radio and film comedian Jack Benny was coming to San Francisco to perform with his violin and his comedy routine at the Pacific Exposition at the man-made Treasure Island, a de facto World's Fair in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Seven million people had already visited the many sites there featuring expositions sent from all nations, including Czechoslovakia and Poland. The comics page was printed as usual, people were urged to visit Buenos Aries, Argentina, for the Fall in a travelogue section, and there were ads for everything from blood pressure medicine to "studios of oral expression" for public speaking tips.

Just another day, like the one two days before:

September 1, 1939
by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.


  1. Most welcome Doug this hear is a tremendous read and poem. And the story itself is a nice surprise to say the least. I remember writing back during this but I can't find it. It was history and much comes to mind...

  2. I wonder if Auden was a fan of Social Realistic Russian poetry? His style reminds me of a number of translated Russians, including Mayakovsky, who spent time in the USA.

    I'd say more but I'm having real trouble with Multiply at this moment. I shall come back later.

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  5. I was only 6 years old, so wasn't really reading the papers then. It must have been shortly afterwards though that I can remember we were walking up to my school and a plane came across low overhead which had big black crosses on the wings.

    Funny thing is that I don't remember the sirens going off before that.

    They did bomb my school some time after that and we got a week off.

  6. I just did a search and this page says it was our cloak room that got hit -

    You need to drag the map down slightly to see Cannonbury Avenue. Right over to the right of the picture would be about where we were when I looked up and saw the German aircraft.

  7. I couldn't find any information on the hit, but what always strikes me most profoundly, are the deaths and injuries of the innocent....

  8. Doug, I've used quotes from that poem before to introduce more than a couple of articles, both casual (blogs) and professional.

    Good to see someone else remembers Auden!

  9. It's a powerful poem for a troubled time.

  10. I wouldn't be surprised, Oakie, given Auden's political activities (pro-Loyalism in visits to Spain, et al) ,in the 1930's, but someone with a more information than I on his literary influences would have to answer that one.

  11. Well said Lucija. It seems like all these acts of state-sponsored terror bleed the treasuries of nations that could use them so much better for better living within borders.

  12. That's a remarkable personal anecdote Calum. All the old newspapers and books and documentaries I imagine can never recapture that sense of imminent peril. We did "duck and cover " drills at school when I was six and seven years old. But just imagining enemy aircraft so close seems unreal to me.

    I wonder how you felt as a child when you first saw the German plane?

    The bombing of a school plays a key part in the movie "Hope and Glory" that John Boorman made about his own wartime experiences. I amazed in reading how right from start so many civilians refrained from slipping into panics and just carried on.

  13. It looks like such a beautiful place from above today, with lots of greenspace and all.

  14. Yes, sadly, just two days into the war there were reports in this editon of the San Franscisco paper of Warsaw being bombed mercilessly.

  15. I may have been inspired by you there Will. Most of the poem I had encountered in school, but not the full impact.

  16. I didn't really know what it was all about at that time. I did know that it was something bad - if only from the attitude of the two adults with me.

    I can't ever remember any fear that we could be invaded. Don't think that possibility was ever mentioned - well not in front of me. There were always serious moments when adults got the latest news about a friend or someone they knew.

    There was a lot of anx going on when Aunty Mary hadn't heard from my Uncle Dick for a long time - he had been taken prisoner in North Africa - Durham Light Infantry, 1st Army. He was taken to Italy and was a POW there. Then after many months the news came through that he was in a German camp. He had escaped and nearly made it into Switzerland when German patrol caught him.

    Apart from the serious moments and the horror of the raids which did die down by 1944, we made a game of a lot of it. The tunnels under the parks - air raid shelters - with their wooden bunks and heavy metal escape hatch - became a submarine.

    There was a lot of talk about D-Day, but I never really understood what it was all about until we got stuck one side of the road at Little Chalfont because of a long convoy of trucks that just seemed to go on for ever and ever. We did have fun playing with road signs - swing them round and thought about trying to move one of the barriers that lined hedgerows out and across the road. Then the skies were full of aircraft - all with the three thick white bands on each wing, and everyone was saying, 'it's on'.

  17. Yes it was, and I suppose still is. Further down Cannonbury Avenue there is a huge park. We had our allotment there, and when I look down on it now on a Google Aerial Map, I can still make out where Dad's allotment was. You can just make out the discoloration in the grass. I hated having to troop along beside his barrow full of bags of manure, shovel and other garden tools. He made the barrow out of my old pram, by making a wooden box and putting it on the wheels. It was boring because there wasn't much for me to do when we got there.

    Other times in the freezing cold winter we had to walk with the same barrow for two miles to the South Harrow gasworks and queue for what must have been an hour, just to get coke for our boiler. Then the long walk home - past the POW camp - full of Italians, but later in the war it became a Stalag.

    That reminds me of VJ day. I was holidaying with friends at Barry (where Julia Gillard comes from) and we cycled one day to Ely near Cardiff to see some of their relatives. Then I got a puncture. There was no sign of habitation - just fields to one side of the road and a thick woodland on the other. Next moment a whole lot of Italians came running through the trees, jumped the fence and before I knew it, they had fixed my puncture. They were free to go where they liked at that time. We got the news that the War with Japan had ended when we got to Ely.

  18. Thanks for sharing that Calum. Your Uncle must have been a resourceful and brave man.

    I always wondered about all those tunnels and such and how they came to be used when they were no longer necessary. I can easily imagine any group of kids havibng a ball with such opportunities for make believe.

    There's a large section in the headlands north across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. It was used by the Army in World War II for Coastal Artillery batteries. The "pillboxes" once manned for a Japanese naval attack that never came are now obsolete and rusty hulks. The equipment and the mine stations are stripped out.

    I'm sure there are kids playing on them right now this Labor Day Weekend. Fort Baker and Fort Chronkhite are now part of a National Recreation Area. I'm seen them on other days when I was down there. How great if all such military outposts could fall into disuse.

  19. Boy, that was something about the Italian POWs.

    Situation normal!

    Thanks again Calum.