On the Home Front
with teacher Helen Osley
I graduated from Rhode Island College of Education in 1941, the year
the war started. I remember Pearl Harbor very plainly. I had gone somewhere that afternoon
with a friend of mine. We were coming back from Wakefield, at the intersection just past
the bicycle shop. The car radio was on and the announcement came on. We were just plain
excited. That's all anybody talked about.
I didn't know much about the war in Europe and Asia. We would discuss
it in college in our history courses. I read the papers and magazines. But it still seemed
very remote and very removed. Because we were right on the water, everyone did have a
feeling that if anything happened, we would probably be one of the first to know,
especially when they started building Fort Greene. That was a big fortification down at
Point Judith. We were in a bad situation. We had Newport across the bay and Quonset right
up the bay. I knew my husband would be going. He probably wouldn't have had to, except he
wanted to. Everybody felt it was their duty. The work he was doing at Fort Greene was
deemed important enough not to be called. He had a couple of deferments, but he refused
the last, and he went in. We were married two months before he went to Officers Training
School and soon after he went to Scotland.
I taught at Narragansett Elementary School. I hate to tell you what we
were paid, $17 a week. So, that's your big pay for teachers in those days. I truly think
it was awfully hard for the teachers who bearded in town. By the time they paid board,
they didn't have much left. When I first went to teach, that was in the fall of 1941, I
had a list of my students, and there were probably about 25. Soon there were over 40
students. This was because of Fort Greene and Quonset. Quonset was booming. Construction
was going on everywhere. Many, many people moved into town. These were children of
transient workers, really. I had children from all over the country. Their parents were
either in the service, or they were working at Quonset. I think that that was good for the
children, too, to meet somebody from outside the community. Because of supplies, food was
rationed. You had stamps for everything, clothing, shoes, things like that. It was sort of
a job, juggling all this. Also, gasoline was rationed. You had these little books for
everything, good for a certain length of time . If you ran out before that, too bad. So it
was kind of fun figuring out what you were going to do. Sometimes the store would get a
bunch of stuff in, but you were only allowed to take so much. There was a lot of hoarding,
and a lot of black market stuff going on. People made some kind of deal under the table
and would all of a sudden come up with a few steaks. We never went without. We never
starved or anything like that. My mother was a very smart shopper.
When rationing was first announced, I worked on the Rationing Board.
All the teachers were asked to do this. People had to come and give their names,
occupations and addresses to pick up these books.
How did people show their patriotism ?
Mostly by going along with civilian defense protocol, obeying all the
different rules and regulations. You had to take some kind of course for any of the
civilian defense work. I worked as an air raid warden for quite a while and that was kind
of fun. You could go out and stop cars. Order people off the street. It's silly when you
think about it. We had a good time.
They had air raid drills, like fire drills at school, except this was a
total town thing.'i"ne siren would go off. We wore helmets and had these belts and a
billy club and a flashlight. People were ordered off the streets, to go to a safe place if
they possibly could. Cars had to come to a halt. I had to patrol on Narragansett Avenue.
Whenever we heard the siren go off, I strapped on my helmet, belt, and billy club and took
off. At the old town hall, there was a huge switchboard connected to Newport Civilian
Defense, that had to be manned all the time. I put in a couple of hours a week. Every once
in a while, a light would flash there and you had to say, "Narragansett
Headquarters," and they would say, "Just checking." And then every once in
a while they would pull a fake alarm. When this buzzer fell or whatever would go off, I
had to get in contact with every person on the Civilian Defense Board to notify them that
there was an attack imminent. They would say an attack was within ten minutes and I had to
get everything coordinated in that time. I was scared to death! Blackouts were another
thing I did during the war. I would go out one night a week with this woman who lived a
couple houses down. We had a certain area that we had to walk to make sure that there were
no lights shining on the east and on the south - towards the water.
How did you spend your leisure time?
I would go back and forth to friend's houses. There was a good bit of
that during the war. Somebody would call up and say, "We're going to have a pot luck
dinner. Bring something." And all of us would meet over there and everybody would
bring something. It was fun.
I wasn't particularly happy when my husband went overseas, especially when I found out I
was pregnant. He didn't see his first child until she was almost two. I was able to send
pictures. He didn't get all of them. We used the V-mail. It was an envelope and the
writing paper at the same time. It was very, very thin, and you had to write quite small.
Then you could fold it up and down again, and mail that. That was, I think, because there
was so much mail going it helped on the weight. Our mail was censored. You had to be
careful about what you said, and they had to be extremely careful about what they wrote
Every other day, we went to pick up mail and to mail our letters to our
husbands. At the same time, we would go across the street to the market and say to Bill,
"Are there any cigarettes?" He would say, "I saved a pack of these for each
one of you." We never kmew what it was going to be. There were some pretty weird
brands. Stockings were awfully hard to get. Of course, most everybody wore silk stockings.
Nylon was just beginning to come out, and you couldn't get them. So, during he spring and
fall, I used to paint my legs with leg make-up. We planted a victory garden. I shouldn't
really call it a victory garden because my father always had a garden. My father worked
for the electric light company, but he was really a farmer at heart We saved paper and
cans, all your cans. After you used them, you rinsed them out, took the label off, took
the top and bottom off them, and then flattened them. You could save quite a stack.
Looking back on it now, I was fairly young, and the war was exciting. There's no getting
away from it. It was an exciting time. But it was a scary time, too. You had so many
people that you knew and loved and all of a sudden they weren't there anymore. I had good
friends who were living in the same way that I was. We comforted one another. We saw a lot
of one another. We shared letters that we got and other things. But when it was over, it
was sort of, well, the war is over. Let's get on with our lives. Our real lives now.