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VETERANS DAY: On the home front

Evelyn Hill, 90, smiles sweetly and a little apologetically as she produces a bundle of old letters, her late husband's World War II love letters. "There isn't any mad longing or anything too personal," she says, carefully removing a rubber band....

Evelyn Hill, 90, smiles sweetly and a little apologetically as she produces a bundle of old letters, her late husband's World War II love letters.

"There isn't any mad longing or anything too personal," she says, carefully removing a rubber band. "He knew someone else would read them."

The military censors may have given most of their attention to the colored-pencil cartoons and South Pacific scenery that Gene Hill drew to illustrate letters he composed on Guadalcanal, at Bougainville and in the Philippines. On one, Bugs Bunny cavorts on a palm-studded beach. On another, hula girls sway in the tropical breeze.

"Isn't that cute?" Evelyn asks about the shapely hula girls, and it's clear she never once felt threatened by them.

The war was a seminal event for nearly everyone who took part, whether fighting overseas or carrying on at home, enduring restrictions and the extended absence of loved ones.

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The soldiers didn't have e-mail at Anzio or satellite phones on Iwo Jima. They might have been in uniform "for the duration" and away from families for years without leave.

They relied on the home front to sustain them - through letters and pictures, scrap drives and bond sales and rationing. They relied on memories of what was and promises of what might be.

"I do so miss you, darling," Gene Hill wrote on May 17, 1944, "and I long for that day when I can take you into my arms and tell you so. There's none like you, darling, and you're mine. Gosh, I don't deserve such a swell gal.

"About time for church. Wish you could go along. I'd hold your hymn book and we could hold hands while singing. I'm sure God wouldn't mind."

Stamps for shoes

People who experienced the war at home remember fear, loneliness and uncertainty - and rationing of gasoline, meat, sugar, tires, shoes, coffee, diapers and bubblegum. The Herald ran a daily "Rationing Rules" feature, and ads appealed for restraint.

"My dad's calling me up tonight," a toddler says in an ad for the telephone company. "I haven't seen him for some time. If you are not in the service, would you mind going easy on long distance between 7 and 10 tonight so his call can get through quicker? Pop and I will be mighty grateful."

You needed red stamps for meat, butter, cheese and canned fish, blue stamps for canned fruits and vegetables. People planted victory gardens to ease pressure on farmers, and they banked on victory: In the Sixth War Loan drive, Grand Forks County raised $3.84 million - 176 percent of its goal. Polk County did almost as well, raising $1.86 million, or 155 percent of its target.

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A "Life's Like That" cartoon published in the Herald early in 1945 shows two women walking out of a shoe store, empty-handed and leaving two irritated clerks standing over dozens of opened boxes. "They'd probably be madder yet," one woman says, "if they knew we didn't even have a shoe stamp."

A "Neighbors" cartoon from Jan. 16, 1945, shows a mother at a desk, her young son watching nervously as she composes a letter to the boy's soldier father. "Mom," he asks, "isn't there enough trouble in Europe without sending my report card over to Dad?"

When victory was declared in Europe on May 8, 1945, the power company's siren sounded in Grand Forks. People trooped into Central High School for a convocation. Churches held special services.

But the war wasn't over in the Pacific, and the continuing casualty reports had a subduing effect even as people celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Herald reported that Pfc. Charles J. Cicha, of Conway, N.D., had been killed in Italy on April 14, 1945, and Sgt. Willys S. Gensrich, of Northwood, N.D., had died on Okinawa on April 24.

On Aug. 12, 1945, just days after the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Herald editor M. M. Oppegard wrote of the awful power of the new weapon:

"It is difficult to visualize its horrifying effect, for apparently it reduces to powder that which it does not fuse, and in the broad center of the area it hits, no evidence remains of what once was there.

"Certainly this destructive agent points with new emphasis to the futility of future wars, for its implications are boundless, including even the actual destruction of our planet. It almost provokes a wish for a return to the horse and buggy days before anything more devastating than hail came raining from the skies."

Days later, Japan surrendered, and people filled the streets of Grand Forks for a torchlight parade that began at 9 p.m. "and was still going at midnight," the Herald reported.

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Ted Jelliff, 71, remembers. "The power company's whistle blew, and we kids all rode downtown on our bikes," he said. "People were snake-dancing through the bars.

"And then I remember that everyone came home, and there was a great feeling of relief. My mother and all her friends were so relieved that they didn't have to worry anymore."

Also returning: metal toys and favorite candy bars. One Grand Forks grocer still had a large stock of the ersatz candy bars that were sold during the war, and "he tied a new one and an old one together," Jelliff said. "You had to buy both. He knew how to get our nickels."

Jelliff was 9 when the war ended. An uncle had fought on Guadalcanal, and a cousin with Patton.

Another cousin died in the Normandy landings.

"Most of the movies we saw were propaganda, even the cartoons," Jelliff said. "We had no other thought than that we were going to win. But I do remember the gold stars in windows. Every once in a while, there was a real shock."

Quieter in the country

Gordon Iseminger, 74, a UND history professor, was 12 years old and working on a threshing crew near his home in southeastern South Dakota when a woman came into the field with momentous news: Japan had surrendered. The war was over.

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"The fellow up on the thresher thought for a minute," Iseminger said. "He said, 'I suppose we should shut the machine down.' Then he looked around and said, 'But it is a good day for threshing.' "

Iseminger still carries the sharply detailed memory of an older boy named Forest Walquist leaving the schoolhouse and jumping onto an unsaddled, unbridled horse to ride home for chores. "It has nothing to do with the war," he said, "except that Forest Walquist later was the first boy from our county to be killed in the war.

"I was a farm kid, so the 'home front' was different for us," Iseminger said. "We had our own meat, cream, butter and eggs. We never lacked for anything - except sugar, and that was hard because mother liked to bake. For supper, there was supposed to be pie or cake."

Gas rationing wasn't a great problem "because dad still did a lot of work with horses," but it was a challenge to keep tires on the family's 1929 Model A. "We carried three spares," Iseminger said, "and it wasn't unusual on a 14-mile trip to town to use all three." His weekend chores included fixing the spent spares.

He saved bacon fat and paper, took care to extend the life of his shoes and policed two sections of farmland for scrap iron. He also scoured ditches for milkweed pods.

"We were told they were used for buoyancy in life jackets," he said, though he has wondered ever since whether "it wasn't just to make us feel we were doing something."

Wooden bumpers

After the war, gas rationing eased and "Fill 'er up!" came back into the language. It took longer before restrictions on meat, butter, sugar, shoes and tires were lifted.

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The hunger for new cars was so fierce that the '46 models flew out the doors at Goebel Motors in Grand Forks even though they had arrived at the showroom without bumpers; metals were still scarce.

"People didn't want to wait," the late Jerry Franklin recalled for a Herald story in 1985 on the 40th anniversary of the war's end. "So we went out to the lumberyard and got wood planks about the right size. We bolted those wooden bumpers onto the cars and hoped that would take care of them until the factory sent the regular bumpers.

"People busted them pushing or running into somebody. We just went out to the lumberyard and got another one."

People who remember World War II marvel at the contact soldiers serving in Iraq have with their loved ones at home through e-mail, blogs and phone calls. Blanche Schley, 82, of Grand Forks, had a brother who served in Europe, and she remembers the toll the long separation took on her mother.

"She was always looking for the mailman, for the letters from Henry," she said. "And she was always fearing the telegram that might come saying he had been hurt or killed. Everybody feared the telegram."

Henry came home from the war. So did Jimmy Schley, a printer from Aneta, N.D., who later married Blanche.

Jimmy died a few years ago. He didn't talk much about the war, Blanche said, but he brought home a map that shows his unit's triumphant march across Europe, from the French coast to Austria.

Blanche still looks at it occasionally. "I like to see where he was," she said.

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War and change

Eugene Hill died four years ago, after 58 years of marriage to Evelyn. She still tries to get to reunions of his 164th Infantry buddies, and she subscribes to the veterans' newsletters.

They met at UND in 1937 and dated the next few years. After Gene enlisted and went to war, Evelyn taught at schools in Thief River Falls and other Minnesota towns.

"He fought and I taught," she said, probably for the thousandth time.

"The Depression was good training for the war. We knew what was what. Were we afraid? Oh, sure. I was afraid about whether we were going to win the war until things started going our way. And I worried about my brothers, my friends - everyone who was in the conflict."

Gene proposed in the fall of 1944, still overseas. Members of his family took the engagement ring to Evelyn. She accepted.

The war ended, Gene came home and they were married on Oct. 1, 1945.

Back in April 1944, Gene had responded to a concern Evelyn expressed in one of her letters, a concern felt by many who served overseas or on the home front.

"Yes, Hon, I suppose we will change," he wrote. "And, as you say, I hope for the better. I'm not worrying about you - just hope I can live up to your expectations."

Evelyn smiled as she refolded the letter. "That's the kind of guy he was," she said. "I wasn't too worried that he would change in a bad way. Yes, they had to learn how to kill. But I knew he was a pretty stable guy."

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