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Tucson memories of World War II

Frank Burch and a buddy taken during World War II.  Both Seabees served in the South Pacific islands.
Frank Burch and a buddy taken during World War II. Both Seabees served in the South Pacific islands.
unknown photographer from World War II

World War II is still known as “The Great War,” in spite of the many wars since; perhaps because it brought about many changes in civilian life and military tactics. This Memorial Day, PBS KUAT TV aired a 2006 documentary interviewing Tucson men who fought in Europe and the Pacific.

Frank Burch was one Tucson man who volunteered for the Construction Battalion, named Seabees, because of his construction experience. For those who don’t recognize Seabees they were the men who went in under fire and built runways for the planes, pontoon bridges for the tanks and trucks, pipelines for gasoline, warehouses, and buildings for the men.

Some Seabees went in with the first assault. Frank Burch was stationed in the Pacific, where men were shot at by snipers, bombed by “Two O‘clock Charlie“, and contracted dengue fever and jungle rot.

Waiting at home was a wife and 6 children - plus a baby born after Frank deployed. Home was three miles from grocery stores, 2 miles from feed stores for the family cow and chickens. Grace had to learn to drive and face gas rationing. Shoes for the six children were rationed, sugar was rationed.

Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson housed pilots and crews, and asked residents to invite them in for holidays and weekends. The UFO downtown held dances, which the older Burch girls attended. The Burch house became a haven for young airmen waiting to go off to war. The news came back: young men, friends of the family, were killed in action, others reported missing.

The younger Burch children held “wars” - tossing clod grenades at the enemy neighbor children, singing Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Over There, and Those Caissons go Rolling Along. Annie, aged 3 to 7 during the war years, became frightened that Tucson would be bombed. Norma and Wanda explained that the war was far away -- over the mountains and across the sea. Annie’s mind pictured flying over the Catalina Mountains and across a river encircling Tucson. She was horrified to learn not all towns are surrounded by mountains. How could they be safe? She later learned that the ocean was far larger than the rivers of the Arizona desert.

Movies were of war and returning wounded veterans. One war movie caused an outburst of, “I wish they would all die so Daddy could come home!” Grace’s calm reply: “They all have children waiting at home for them, like you.” It was a seed planted: one must accept others as equals.

Before World War II, young married couples moved in with their family until they could afford a home of their own. Often, a wing was built onto the house for privacy. Roosevelt’s GI Bill of Rights provided home loans for veterans. Tucson began to grow like a weed. All of America expanded, and a home tradition changed forever. Also, according to military history, Decoration Day, begun after the Civil War, was renamed Memorial Day to honor all soldiers. Southern states that did not observe Decoration Day adopted Memorial Day.

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