By Donald Ketzler
In the late ’30’s even a young boy could see the dark clouds of war growing year by year. German and Japanese aggression was always in the news and it seemed as if nothing could stop them from their goal of world conquest.
As the war continued and Britain seemed to be losing their air war, Congress enacting the Lend-Lease program to supply armament to Britain and other allies even though we were not yet at war.
A large part of this program involved our building aircraft and flying them to Britain to aid their air war. We could see the evidence of this by simply looking up in the sky when we heard the engines of approaching planes. On some days squadrons of planes filled the sky over our farm. They were on their way to Canada and from there to cross the North Atlantic to Britain.
For fun I used to lay on my back and look at the planes through a cardboard tube, making believe it was a telescope. This got my family in trouble. As happens in times of fear, people become suspicious and leery. We had a good neighbor who thought they should report what they believed to be spying and aiding the enemy by my observing and reporting the types and number of planes being flown. This spying idea had been enhanced by the fact that although my dad was a naturalized U.S. citizen, he had come to this country from Germany after World War I. Ironically one of the main reasons he came to this country was to get away from German militarism which he hated. He had a hard time understanding how his former countrymen could do the same thing all over again under Hitler in World War II.
In any event, the FBI came calling one day but it didn’t take long for them to realize the situation was harmless.
Once we entered the war military air activity around us increased with occasional practicing of dogfights over the Great Bay area.
I knew when this was going on by the sound of the fighter planes diving and turning. When I heard this I would climb Great Hill as fast as I could and once on top I’d climb my favorite pine tree to get the best view. Then I’d watch the show. I was fascinated. Of course, compared today’s jet aircraft this would look a slow motion dogfight.
Lookout towers were built along the coast because of the threat of U Boats and even invasion. (The latter being a remote possibility in retrospect) Some lookout towers were also built quite a bit inland. There was one on top of Mt. Agamenticus and right up Brixham Rd. on top of Third Hill.
I remember the army engineers clearing the trees and building a road, passable for Jeeps, to the top. After the war the tower became a great place to take in the view for miles around, and the road made for good skiing and tobogganing except there was no tow.
The Navy Yard was now in full swing with 24 hour shifts. Goodwin Road must have been the best route for the workers commuting to South Berwick and perhaps Dover. You could always tell when there was a shift change because, believe it or not, there was rush hour traffic on this once quite road. Every car would be filled with workers,(no single driver commuting because of gas rationing) It was a strange sight at night time seeing these cars with only slits of light coming from their headlights. For blackout reasons you had to tape your headlights closed except for a small slit in the middle.
Mandatory night-time blackout was required everywhere; cities, plants, even little old Brixham Road in East Eliot. You had to pull down light proof blinds in your windows and make sure there was no light coming from anywhere. A warden was appointed (my dad!) to walk the road every night to make sure everyone complied. When you have experienced total darkness everywhere you go it adds great meaning to the war song whose lyrics talked about how wonderful it would be when, “the lights come back on again all over the world”.
Portsmouth was a boom town. Many establishments were open 24 hours. There were four movie houses open 24 hours, The Colonial, Arcadia, Civic (now the Music Hall) and one other with a name I can’t remember. This, in addition to the bars, was what there was for entertainment.
Then there was the draft. Every fit or almost fit male went. My brother was drafted as soon as he graduated from Eliot High School. He trained (in Alabama!) to be in a Mountain Infantry Division and fought in Italy, including the battle to take Mt. Casino.
We heard when the war was over at home on our radio. You could hear the excitement in the announcer’s voice and hear the celebrating of the crowds in the background. I went outside of our house on Brixham Road and played the Star Spangled Banner on my clarinet. Not the same scene as Time magazine’s famous picture of the sailor kissing a girl in Times Square but still it was heartfelt.