My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chapter 6: Vallejo

When the country began gearing up for war, my Uncle John, Dad’s next-younger brother,  started  taking aircraft mechanic classes at Reedley Junior College.  The job he actually got, however, was at Mare Island Naval Shipyard where he worked as a machinist in the construction and repair of destroyers and cruisers.  John got the job either just before or just after Pearl Harbor.  He says he got hold of a little homemade trailer house, and he and Hilda packed up and moved to Vallejo.  Linda was born in Vallejo August 27, 1942, which means that the move must have been made earlier in that same year.  Larry and Joanne were just little kids then.  Joanne turned three on April 2, 1942, and Larry turned five just ten days before Linda was born.

Gas and tires were both rationed during the war, but somehow my folks managed a surprising number of trips to see Dad’s family.  Most of those were to Dinuba, but I remember at least one trip to Vallejo with my mom and little sister Nita.  Mom and Aunt Hilda were good friends, and Larry and Joanne were the only cousins I had near my own age.  Larry was four months older than me; Joanne was fifteen months younger. 
            I don’t remember much about Vallejo itself.  What I remember most is hearing the name “Vallejo” and my excitement about seeing Larry and Joanne.  It must have been in the early spring of 1943 because the hills were green with long grass moving in the wind.  Uncle John and Hilda were living in a trailer house in an area set up for the families of defense workers.  Green grass surrounded the trailer houses, and there seemed to be a lot of space between them.  After we arrived, Joanne, Larry and I played outside for a while.  I think we may have climbed a small hill.  I remember eating Kix cereal at the built in table and booth, so we may have stayed overnight.    If we did, that trailer house would have been very crowded.   Mom might have slept on the couch, and Nita and I might have slept on the floor or shared Joanne’s bed.  Crowded sleeping was the norm back then.  It was simply part of visiting.

It was only recently I leaned how scared Joanne was during the war.  I was surprised.  My memories were sunny.  What I felt was excitement, not fear.  But then Joanne lived in Vallejo, right smack in the midst of the vast network of strategic military installations that ringed San Francisco Bay.  This area was the major military command center for the war in the Pacific.  Port Chicago was just a few miles away from Vallejo.  The whole San Francisco Bay area was a virtual bomb with all the ammunition and fuel stored there, a tempting target for enemies.   Uncle John worked in the heart of this military complex.  He would have been very aware of the reality of the war and the threat it posed to ordinary people in the area.  That anxiety was contagious.  

Sometime ago Jo wrote about her memories of Vallejo and the war.  I read the piece and asked if she would allow me to publish it.  She agreed.  


            “I was born in 1939, the beginning of WW2.  We had moved to Vallejo where Dad worked at Mare Island Navy Yard.  At age 3, 4, and 5, I clearly didn't understand what war was.  But what I did understand was that it was scary and could "get me".  During blackouts we would pull the shades and turn out all lights, then sit in the dark.  My parents were afraid, obviously, so that fear became mine.  Fear was an emotion I lived with all the time.

            “We lived in government housing on a hillside.  I would wake up very early and lie awake listening to traffic going by on our street.  There weren't many cars out that early but enough to make me listen and wait.  If a car stopped, it was the war coming to get me.  I would lie there terrified, hoping the car would keep going.  I think that was when I learned how to pray.

            “Early one morning when Port Chicago blew up, it rocked our house.  Larry, Linda, and I raced into our parents’ bedroom and jumped in their bed.  We weren't supposed to do that, but the fear of what was outside was greater than our fear of punishment.

            “Dad took me on a submarine docked at Mare Island.  We were inside it and walked from hatch to hatch.  I knew it was a war ship but didn't feel afraid because Dad was with me. 

            “When the war ended, my parents and some neighbors, got us out of bed and took us to town in our pajamas.  Everyone was celebrating, shouting, laughing, crying.  All of that craziness was almost as scary as the war had been.  One sailor got hit by a car and Mom got hysterical.  Picture complete.”
                                                                                                       Joanna Williams (1 Feb 2011)