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, November 26, 2011
Saturday, November 19, 2011
“Souvenir War Album”: Special Extra Edition of the Dinuba Sentinel” (Nov. 11, 1943):
“Edwin Jacob Willems, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob C. Willems, 147 Milsap Ave., Dinuba, entered the navy February 13, 1942, and was sent to San Diego for indoctrination before being transferred to Jacksonville, Fla. He was assigned to aircraft mechanic of the naval air unit, and is rated as Aviation Machinist Mate second class. In October 1943, he was stationed at Pensacola, Florida.”
“Frank J. Willems, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob C. Willems, of 147 Milsap Ave., Dinuba, entered the army in November 1942. He first went to Pittsburg, Calif. From there he was transferred to the Hawaiian Islands where he has been stationed with an anti-tank company as a private first class.”
When I was very little Grandma and Grandpa Willems lived in a house on Milsap Avenue on the eastern edge of Dinuba. The house was on the west side of the street facing vineyards that stretched out to the foothills at the base of the high Sierras. I wasn’t aware of the mountains then, but I do remember the vineyards and citrus trees along the east side of the road. The houses on that street seemed far apart with fields and orchards separating them. I have only a dim sense of those other houses though, because when we drove down Milsap I was busy looking for Grandma and Grandpa’s house, one of the white shiplap-sided bungalows set narrow end to the street that one found on farms and in older neighborhoods throughout the Central Valley.
A long dirt driveway went down the south side of the house all the way to the back yard, and when my dad turned into it, he drove all the way past the house to the back yard where he parked beside the unpainted wood garage. The car finally at rest after the long drive down from Stockton, we would climb out, gather our things and walk across the packed, bare dirt of the yard, passing by a big chinaberry tree—big that is for a chinaberry, trees whose branches were cut back to the trunk each year or two. My folks considered chinaberries junk trees because of the stinky, messy beige berries they produced—and they definitely were not my idea of a real tree. But to me, not only was any tree better than no tree, that chinaberry tree spoke “Dinuba.” It was homely, but it was green. It cast welcome shade in the hot summer—plus those stinky berries were fun to squish under toes when I rolled them with my bare feet.
A screened porch extended across the whole back of the house, a porch with splintery steps and a rusted screened door that squeaked when we opened it. The porch was deep, full of things that I cannot see when I try to look into its recesses. I know, though, that somewhere in there, off to the left as we head for the kitchen, is a toy electric stove that got hot enough to actually cook something and a toy electric iron that got hot enough to actually iron something. These were “pre-War” toys. War-time toys were cheap things. The play stoves and irons would only get warm, not hot—not just because of war scarcity, but because of child-safety concerns, for which I had nothing but contempt. I desperately wanted that stove and iron, which had belonged to my dad’s youngest sisters, Anna Jane and Clara, who were only seven and nine years older than me, but I never did get them. I think they were eventually given to my cousin Joanne, but am not sure about that. I do know that was what I was afraid of, that they would be given to Joanne and not me.
The kitchen, the first room we entered when we walked into the house, was a dim room that left no imprint on my memory except for a green electric mixer sitting on a counter top, a shade of green that I immediately think “1930’s” when I see it on pottery and old kitchen utensils. It may have been a fairly small room, a place not conducive to gathering because we always seemed to go straight through to the dining room, a big room with double windows facing south making it the brightest room in the house. A large dining room table was placed close to the wall opposite the windows. Grandma’s big pendulum wall clock hung on the wall opposite the kitchen door, between the French doors that opened into the living room and the wall with the windows. Underneath the clock was a rocking chair where Great-Grandma Zimmerman sat, a tiny old woman dressed all in black.
I have no memory of the bedrooms or bathroom in that house, just an impression of a door in the back wall of the dining room opening into darkness. The only other room I can see as I look back is the living room. This room did not seem as big or as bright as the dining room, but it was still an inviting room, the setting of two long-lasting memories:
In one memory the living room is full of people and laughter. My folks have brought a lug box of Bing cherries with us from Stockton, and my dad’s sisters are throwing cherries up in the air, trying to catch them in their mouths. They seem to be having so much fun. I wish that I were big enough to catch cherries in my mouth.
The other memory is from a Christmas visit. It is dark outside. The only lights in the room are Christmas lights, colored lights shining on the ornaments hanging on the Christmas tree. One of the ornaments is a funny Santa made of cloth, a skinny Santa with a long coat who hangs from the tree by a string at the end of his pointed hat. A Christmas tableau is on a table by the front windows—a glittery pasteboard village with lights that shine through colored cellophane windows in the little houses and church. It is a snow scene, the buildings and little evergreen trees set on cotton wool. Enchanted, I kneel down, try to enter into that little world with my eyes, pretending that I am tiny enough to live in the village, enter those houses, that steeple topped church. I tell myself that when I grow up I will have my own little Christmas village.
Grandma, Grandpa and all seven of my dad’s sisters moved into the house on Milsap sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1941. Helen and Mary were both working, and the younger girls were all in school—Elizabeth, Martha and Rosie were in high school, Clara and Anna Jane in elementary. A total of ten people lived in that three bedroom house during the three or four years the family lived on Milsap Avenue—all seven of my aunts plus Grandma and Grandpa, as well as Grandpa’s mother, Elisabeth Boldt Willems Zimmermann. I have a faint memory of my great-grandmother, an old lady dressed in black, sitting in a rocking chair by the windows in the dining room.
There is no distinct memory of any particular aunt. My dad’s sisters were simply “the girls”—a hazy collective. The only time I “see” any individuals is in the back yard. I am looking down the driveway toward a black car stopped beside the house. Several of my aunts are standing around it, and one of them has her foot on the passenger side running board. She is bending over to look into the window and talk to whoever is inside. As little as I am, I can tell she is flirting, so are all the other girls standing. There were boys inside that car.The girl with her foot on the running board may have been Liz. She met Marlan Kliewer at an ice cream parlor where she worked during her senior year at Dinuba High School. She graduated in June of 1942, and they were married the following November. She says that they rented a little place out in the country, “It was just a shack, but we had such fun!” She said that their friends would come over on Saturday nights and they would visit and party. A couple of times those friends put Liz and Marlan’s outhouse up onto the back porch. The next morning Marlan had to get someone to help him put it back where it belonged.
~ ~ ~
copyright: Loretta Willems
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Saturday, November 5, 2011
“All ammunition intended for the Pacific was funneled through Port Chicago on the Carquinez Strait north of San Francisco, midway between the cities of Benicia and Pittsburg.
“ … On the night of Monday, 17 July 1944, shortly after ten o’clock, a horrendous explosion racked Port Chicago as two Liberty ships, a fire barge, and a loading pier disappeared in a blast that was equivalent to five kilotons of TNT, which is to say, an explosion comparable to that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima thirteen months later. An Army Air Force crew flying overhead at the time reported a fireball that covered approximately three miles and sent metal fragments nine thousand feet into the air. Three hundred and twenty men—202 of them black enlisted stevedores—lost their lives in an instant. Only fifty-one bodies were recovered sufficiently intact to be identified. Another 390 military and civilian personnel, including 233 black enlisted men, suffered injuries, many of them serious. It was the most significant home-front catastrophe of the war." Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams; California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2002).
My cousin Joanne lived in Vallejo during WWII, just a short distance from Port Chicago. She heard and felt the disastrous explosion at the facility. The memory of it is what comes to mind when she thinks about WWII. My family, however, lived inland, away from the Coast. I have absolutely no memory of that or any other big explosion. For me the war was far away, “over there,” across the ocean. I had no idea how close it really was.
For me the war was sugar rationing and the need for coupons for new shoes. It was Victory Gardens and War Bond drives, cleaning and crushing cans for scrap metal collections. It meant no rubber doll for Christmas and waiting until the war was over for my first taste of a banana split. But none of this was onerous or scary. Unlike Joanne, everyone around me seemed upbeat. All I felt in the grown-ups who populated my world was confidence—“of course we’ll win.” There is a memory of my mother reading a letter and crying and my asking her what was wrong. She replied that Uncle Frank had been wounded, but assured me that he was going to be ok. I believed her and didn’t think about it anymore. If my mom and dad felt fear or anxiety, they never handed it on to me.
Eventually war did become real to me. I began to fear it. But that actually was after WWII was over, when we began to see newsreels about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hear about what an atomic bomb really was. This was something that could not only wipe out a city with one bomb. Even if you survived the initial explosion this bomb could make you sick and kill you years later. Suddenly those old-fashioned WWII bombs felt somehow clean. If you survived those bombs you could rejoice. You knew you’d survived. With the A-bomb, there could never be that relief. The effects would linger and linger. And I was angry. Why would anyone make such a bomb! It shouldn’t be allowed. And I was afraid, because unlike the fighting in WWII, this was not something “over there.” We were no longer protected by distance and oceans. This was something that could happen here, in this country. I was no longer safe simply because I lived in North America.
The A-Bomb not something I talked about with anyone, nor did I think about it very much during the day. This fear, this anger, belonged to the night when I lay in bed in the dark. It belonged to feelings that surfaced just before sleep, which often took a long time coming even when I was a girl. I don’t want to overstate my fear. I didn’t lie awake every night worrying about the bomb. It did not set the tone of my days. It was just a shadow in what was basically a sunny landscape.
My fear of the A-Bomb came quite a while after the bombs were actually dropped. There was no television to instantly bring pictures of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into our homes. All we knew was that six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, on August 15, Japan surrendered. The war was over and the men could come home. For the military personnel stationed in the Pacific that surrender meant that that they would not have to participate in an invasion of Japan, an invasion that was expected to be brutal and hard with a high casualty rate. The military knew that the Japanese would be defending their homeland, and there was fear that fighting there would go on and on with no real surrender. Uncle Frank was one of the men waiting in Okinawa, waiting to board ship for the invasion of the Japanese homeland.
“I was sworn in on October 27, 1942, and reported to the Presidio of Monterey on November 11. After a couple of weeks there, we went to Oakland from where we got on board a ship and went to Oahu, Hawaii, where we got our basic training. After basic I was assigned to the Anti-tank Co., 105th Infantry, 27th Division. We received extended training in Hawaii before we went into combat. It was while getting this training that our first son, Joe, was born on April 7th, 1943.
“We sailed for Saipan in either April or May of 1944. On this campaign I drove a Jeep pulling a trailer hauling ammunition for the anti-tank guns. Even though we didn’t get into any tank battles we did have some difficult times. Our biggest danger was that we drew a lot of artillery and mortar fire. Sleeping in open fox holes in heavy rain with artillery fire didn’t make for much sleep.
“I believe it was on July 7, the day the island was secured that we ran into a heavy battle. The Japanese made a desperate Banzai attack. Since we had dug in for the night after dark, the placing of weapons was not well organized. We set up our guns to cover a good area and crawled into our foxholes with men on guard. After we were settled, another outfit came in and parked their equipment in front of our guns making them useless. Thousands of Japanese soldiers came swarming down all liquored up in a final attack. If we could have used our guns we could have done a lot for that day. We had anti-personnel ammo that would have made our anti-tank guns into giant shotguns. As it was, we got driven back to the beach. That was the day I got wounded, but the Island was secured.
“We left Saipan for some R&R on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. While we were there we got training on bigger guns. We went from 37mm to 57mm guns, from jeeps to 1 ½ ton trucks. Again I drove the ammo truck. After a rest of a few months, we went to Okinawa. Here we got more shelling because our bigger guns were taken for Artillery. I didn’t get any wounds here. I only lost a lot of weight from what was scared out of me.
“We had secured the island and were back at a rest camp packing our bags for an assault on Japan when the Atomic bomb was dropped. Talk about a bunch of happy people when we heard that we weren’t going to Japan! The war was over. Around the first of October we set sail for home. We landed in the States in Seattle, Washington. After physicals and shots we got on a long slow train for California. When we got to Camp Beale we got more physicals and finally our discharges. I phoned Jack who was then living in Stockton. Velma was there to meet me. We drove back to Dinuba that night. It was September 24, 1945 when I got my discharge papers.
“I had reported to the Army on October 27, 1942 and got out September 24, 1945. In that time I got to see Velma one time before we shipped out, and I didn’t see Madeline from the time I left till I got out. The first time I saw Joe was when he was almost three years old.”*
*A Short History of Frank J. Willems and Family of Hillsboro, Kansas (March 24, 1997). Uncle Frank was one of the soldiers processed through Camp Stoneman, which was practically next-door to Port Chicago. The rail stop was Pittsburg, about forty miles northeast of San Francisco where the San Joaquin River flows into Carquinez Strait. “For three years, Camp Stoneman remained one of the best-kept secrets of the war. All in all, a million soldiers were processed en route to the Pacific through Camp Stoneman between 25 May 1942 and 11 August 1945. Covering one thousand acres, Camp Stoneman…billeted an average of thirty thousand troops each day of the war” (Kevin Starr).
____Copyright: Loretta Willems, November 2011