Young in a World at War


June 16, 2010  

The following is an autobiographical letter written by Janet J. Asimov to her teenage relatives. It's reprinted in its entirety.       

You who are reading this are young, and thanks to newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet, you are well aware that our planet is seething with problems and wars. 

Maybe it was always so on Earth, but during the lives of your parents, the world seemed less troublesome, with frequent periods of peace and prosperity.  I am a cynic, so I think those periods were a)fake, and b)gave too many people the illusion that the good times would always roll.

I, however, am much older than your parents, which is why I am a cynic. When I was young the planet was indeed seething with problems and war, so it seems to me that in spite of our vast differences (all your technology!) I have a little more in common with today's teenagers than I have with their parents.    

My childhood took place during the Great Depression, when many of my relatives were out of work and some had lost their homes.  Just when the economy was perking up, World War II began in September, 1939, a month after I entered my teenage years. 

For the next two years, we Americans watched as the Nazis conquered Europe.  Soon, only Great Britain stood alone against the onslaught.  We schoolchildren helped send money for food packages, and the U.S. began "Lend Lease", sending ships and planes to help Britain survive the Blitz.  German U-boats torpedoed so many ships to the bottom that the beaches along the east coast of the U.S. were grimy with oil.

Hitler's war was never out of our minds.  We Americans wondered if the whole world would be taken over.  Sometimes, since 9/11 (I remember the smell of burning bodies in the WTC, for I live in Manhattan), I wonder if the whole world will turn into a war zone, but I hope not. 

Back when I was a teenager, Americans were ever so slowly gearing up for the possibility of being in a war.  Then December 7, 1941 happened.  My parents, little brother and I were having Sunday dinner, with the radio on.  The announcement came that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and my father said, "This means we're in the war".  

It seemed as if we'd hardly had time to catch our breath when the Japanese began to conquer everything on their side of the Pacific Ocean, and Hitler had the stupidity to declare war on the U.S.   Our country was fighting on two sides of the planet and, for what seemed a long time, we seemed to be losing. 

We in the U.S. were all scared, and no longer felt protected by the 2 enormous oceans on either side of our country.  We were especially frightened if we lived on a coast, as my family did in a suburb of New York City.  German saboteurs landed in Florida and Long Island from a U-boat, and although they were soon captured, the East Coast beaches began to be patrolled by soldiers. I remember thinking how lonely each sentry seemed, gazing out to sea.

All the rooms in our house had blackout curtains, and although we were never bombed, there were frequent drills, when my father—a doctor—had to go to the hospital to teach people what to do in case of bomb injuries.

The Japanese occupied the U.S. Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, which were not retaken until 1943.  People in the western U.S. were so scared by the possibility of sabotage and/or invasion by U-boat, that Japanese-Americans were taken from their homes and put in internment camps.  This was a mistake in the opinion of many grownups then, and certainly now, for the Japanese-Americans were loyal Americans and many fought in the European war.  

The war news, always bloody, began slowly to get better.  The British prevailed at El Alamein, and the U.S. stopped the Japanese from taking Midway Island (from which they could have bombed our West coast shipyards.) Another of Hitler's stupid mistakes, the invasion of the Soviet Union, ended in total disaster for him, but that war cost over 20 million Soviet lives.    

We American teenagers, eating rationed food, trying not to use rationed gasoline, not buying clothes or toys or much of anything, reading the newspapers and listening to the radio, knew that many of our drafted classmates were dead on Guadalcanal, North Africa, the beaches of Normandy, and many strange places we'd never heard of before.  Some of the older girls took jobs in war factories and I know one who flew planes from factories to the docks.  Women also joined the armed services, and a lot of us younger girls considered it but thought we should get in some college first—some of our male classmates had taken extra courses so they could graduate early from high school and go to college before being drafted. 

By 1944, when I was a senior in high school, many of the boys I knew had already been drafted and a friend of mine died on Omaha Beach, where the U.S. forces had so many casualties on D-Day.  Many of my relatives were in the Army and Navy.  One of my favorite first cousins was a gunner on a small navy ship protecting a convoy carrying food and military supplies around Nazi-occupied Norway to a town in Northern Russia called Murmansk.  He was injured, but came home alive and has grandchildren of his own now.

It now seems insane that the armed services were still segregated by race.  Yet the 1944 elections for student body president at my high school were won by a tall handsome boy who was the son of a local minister.  He was also black.  That one step forward made my teenage self as happy as Obama's victory did in my old age. 

After V-E day (Victory in Europe), we on the East Coast felt safer, and I, having survived the wartime food at Wellesley college in my freshman year, decided to spend the summer at Colorado College, where another Navy cousin was stationed and two friends were taking courses. I intended to take some advanced math course I should have taken to get into medical school but somehow I took landscape painting instead.  We'd go out into the hills to paint, and farther up in the hills we could see German prisoners-of-war working in fields.

[I was lucky.  After graduating from Stanford in 1948, I did go to medical school and became a doctor, in spite of my vacation for landscape painting.]

That summer of 1945, when everyone expected millions of U.S. servicemen and millions of Japanese to be killed in our invasion of Japan, the first atom bomb was dropped.  The results were horrendous, but the Japanese did not surrender, so we dropped the only other bomb we had.  Fortunately, the Japanese emperor decided that the reluctant army had to stop fighting, so V-J day arrived. 

Where was I at the time?  I'd left Colorado College, hitchhiked with a friend to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, got a 2-day job as an extra in a western being made there, and was sitting on the hard board seat of an imitation covered wagon when the radio in Wallace Beery's tent blared out that the war was over.  I had just turned nineteen.

I returned to college, as did most of the G.I.'s, doing our best to get a career, preferably, in my case, something that would help people. Girls were told to stop taking jobs from the vets, to marry them, and have babies.  Most did, but I'm not sorry I was one of the exceptions.

And there you have my teenage years, suitably cleaned up and shortened.  I hope your teenage years see an end to wars.


Janet Jeppson Asimov, M.D., a retired psychiatrist and children's science fiction writer, is the author of twenty books and many short stories and articles. Her latest adult novel, The House Where Isadora Danced, is available from