Column – Brits, Germans helped fill wartime labor void

Published 8:34 pm Monday, December 5, 2022

Those of my generation knew World War II only as the recent memories of our parents, but those memories were so vivid that, as we heard and reheard stories of what they were doing when the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came on Dec. 7, 1941, we could visualize being there with them, even though we were yet to be born.

I recall my parents saying they got a phone call from someone alerting them of the news. They didn’t have a radio at the time, so they went up the road to Grover and Sis Yeoman’s house. The Yeomans had a radio, so the neighbors sat together and listened as the terrible news unfolded.

My father was in his 40s when the war began and wasn’t called by the draft. He and others of his age remained on their farms, growing hogs and peanuts. Others of that generation ran stores and other businesses or worked in factories (here, it was often the shipyard).

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The family farming effort became the center of World War II stories in our household.

Back in those days, peanut harvesting, in particular, was labor-intensive. All the young men in the community had volunteered or had been drafted, and with the community’s young people overseas or headed that way, fall harvests became extraordinarily difficult.

Uncle Sam tried to help, however, because farming was critical to the war effort. First came the British sailors. Their aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious, had been torpedoed and badly damaged. She limped across the Atlantic to Hampton Roads and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. There, she was drydocked for six months while repairs were made.

Her sailors, with nothing but time on their hands, were loaned to farmers throughout the region. My parents hosted several of them, their labor greatly appreciated in peanut fields. One of those sailors “appropriated” a small pewter pitcher from the ship and presented it to my mother. She used it as a syrup pitcher for decades after that.

Then, there were the German prisoners. Soon after the Allied invasion of Normandy, German prisoners of war became numerous. Thousands were shipped across the Atlantic and many of them ended up in Hampton Roads, where a major prisoner of war camp was established in Princess Anne County.

When it came time to dig peanuts in the fall of 1944, the Army sent truckloads of Germans into Isle of Wight to learn how to shake peanut vines and shock them. Armed guards came along as well, of course.

There were stories also of ration cards. Everything needed by the military for the war effort was rationed — gasoline, tires, sugar, coffee and canned goods were among the items most needed and most carefully doled out.

Others my age — the Baby Boomers — knew war from a bit different perspective, for most of their fathers, a generation younger than mine, had served somewhere during the war. For them, and their parents, “Remember Pearl Harbor” had different connotations.


A war love story

I had the opportunity recently to deliver a talk about Enola Gay copilot Bob Lewis to the Great Bridge Daughters of the American Revolution, who were observing Veterans Day.

A highlight of that meeting was a comment by each member about their military connections and some family wartime tale. The most poignant came from Rebecca Webb.

Her grandfather James Battle Draper was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. He was engaged to marry Katherine Wear, a Red Cross worker he met while serving.

The couple’s wedding plans set the stage for what happened. He parachuted into Italy and, once on the ground, buried his parachute. He later retrieved the parachute and managed to ship it back home to his fiancée. She, in turn, took it to a seamstress to have a wedding gown made from the silk. She bought two packs of cigarettes with ration stamps and gave them to the seamstress in payment.

James made it home, the couple was married and last month, Mrs. Webb displayed the wedding gown made of a parachute to fellow club members.

Tales of veterans’ experiences never grow old, nor should they.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is