My Souvenirs from World War II
July 1978

“My Souvenirs from World War II,” Ensign, July 1978, 24

My Souvenirs from World War II

It was Sunday, December 7, 1941. The little bridge I was building was almost completed; it just needed another load of dirt. After I had finally located some which was not frozen, my well-worn play dump truck hauled in the final mound of dirt necessary to complete the miniature construction. It was a great, enjoyable accomplishment for a six-year-old.

Suddenly, my quiet world of make-believe ended. My older sister came screaming out of the back door of the house, clearing all three steps in one leap.

“War! War!” she was yelling, and facing me, she panted, “The Japs attacked us!” I didn’t know what a “Jap” was, but I did know what war was and what “attack” meant, and that certain terrible fear that you get only as a child gripped my stomach.

This was my introduction to a war experience that lasted for almost fifteen years. It began that night of the 7th; I dreamed of skies full of an infinite number of airplanes. During the days and weeks after that dream, the spirit of the war was prominent in my life. Newscasts, newspapers, advertisements, toys, and conversations were dominated by it. Strange words began to become familiar: “Japs,” “Yellowbellies,” “Krauts,” “Philippines,” “Pearl Harbor.” My father, a construction foreman, was called to build airports somewhere, and my mother was buying bonds to blow up German tanks. It was all confusing and very impressive.

The propaganda of hating the enemy was effective, most certainly with me. At ages seven and eight, I shivered at stories of jungle warfare and at tales of the sneaky enemy who ruthlessly tortured and killed the Yanks. Comic books about the war were plentiful, and 90 percent of the pictures were bloody scenes of the Yanks heroically—and successfully retaliating. These stories and pictures, accompanied by the conversations of relatives and family, slowly taught me to fear and to despise the enemy. I believed that the “Japs” were totally inhuman.

At this most impressionable time, 1943, my father bought a farm, a place to raise his five children. The farm life caused me to leave some of the vivid war reality behind, but one Sunday afternoon some relatives showed up and said, “Let’s go visit the ‘Jap camp’; it’s only twelve miles from here.” I felt that gripping fear again as I quietly rode in the back seat of the ’41 Chevy. I was told that the “Jap camp,” located at Hunt, Idaho, was a peacetime concentration camp where many Japanese living in the United States at the time were rounded up and placed under surveillance. As we drove through the barracks, sure enough, I saw the small, strange people—our enemy. I huddled low in the car seat, threatened by the “gonna get ya” jokes of older relatives. It was a confusing experience to me and wasn’t what I had expected.

But the real confusion came a few weeks later at school. Our large, two-room rock schoolhouse had grades one through four in the little room and five through eight in the big room. Although we lacked the organized entertainment of the big city schools, we managed by other avenues to have our share of excitement. The event we all looked forward to was the show-and-tell time on Fridays.

One Monday morning my classmate Stanley came galloping to school on his big pinto horse, shouting, “Guess what? Guess what? My Uncle Ed killed a Jap and sent us the souvenirs.” A sword, a flag—he breathlessly named off several personal belongings his uncle had acquired and somehow managed to ship home. This was a significant occasion indeed. It seemed especially important to me because the war almost never left my mind.

Our teacher, Mrs. Ricketts, was an elderly lady who had taught for thirty-five years. Although she was generally feared as a strict disciplinarian, she was one of the kindest, wisest, and most influential teachers I’ve ever known. She heard the bragging about the souvenirs and suggested that Stanley bring them for the “special period” Friday. He was exuberant and so was I.

Never did Monday through Friday go so slowly. That week seemed as long as a whole school year. Finally, on Friday morning Stanley arrived with a large bundle and handed it to the teacher. Another eternity passed until 3:00, zero hour. We all went to the back of the room to the big table and Mrs. Ricketts carefully spread all of the souvenirs on the table. It was truly a great moment. A real enemy layout! A flag, an “ammo” belt, and a bayonet! Imaginations soared and my fever was high as we vividly and mentally pictured how Uncle Ed had killed a man to get these things. After thirty minutes, we finally calmed down.

“Here is one souvenir you haven’t seen yet,” said Mrs. Ricketts as she unwrapped a scarf and placed a bamboo-designed wallet on the table. As I opened it up I stared in disbelief. There across from his identification information was a picture of a handsome Japanese man, a pretty wife, and five children. One girl and four boys, exactly like our family. We had just had a family picture taken, and they were even standing like we had stood. I couldn’t take my eyes off the man; he looked like my dad and combed his jet-black hair back the same way my dad did.

The most terrible and frustrating feeling passed over me as I stood frozen with that wallet in my hand. I suddenly felt very uneasy and for days following was depressed to think that someone just like my father had been killed. I would look at Dad as he sat at the table or as we went fishing, to work, or to a Roy Rogers show and would always think of the enemy father and his boys. I tried to avoid projecting myself into the position of the enemy’s son, but I couldn’t help it. The experience remained with me and haunted me for years because Mrs. Ricketts had pointed out that the soldier had been a loyal man, a grocer, and was just like all of us; his country was our enemy, but he wasn’t.

Due to my limited rural exposure, I never really knew a Japanese or German while I was growing up. I pitched baseball against one Japanese boy in high school and occasionally ate at a cafe that his parents operated, but throughout high school I still housed the propaganda, the frustration, and the confused compassion within me.

At nineteen I found the Church, and one year later, following some intense preparation and involvement, I accepted a mission call to the Hawaiian Islands. When I arrived there, I found that the majority of the population was Oriental, and upon hearing words like “Pearl Harbor” and “Honolulu,” many childhood war memories which I thought I had forgotten were aroused again.

The first night out in the tracting area, we were invited after a day’s work to have supper at the bishop’s house. When the bishop opened the door I almost gasped. He was Japanese!

“A Japanese bishop?” I thought. “How could it be?” But it was.

He was a sharp UCLA graduate, and when he talked to us later that evening, tears rolled out of those almond-shaped eyes as he fervently testified of his love and commitment to the Prophet Joseph Smith and to President McKay. All of my frustrations of childhood and teenage years suddenly came into focus as I felt a deep warmth and love for that young bishop. He became, in my own mind, the father in the picture in the dead soldier’s wallet. I left his home that evening relieved of a burden I had carried for fourteen years, and I left with a commitment to maintain and expand that warm spirit of kinship which I had experienced while listening to the testimony of the Japanese bishop.

As later experiences drastically reverse one’s previous feelings, my mission taught me to love the Oriental people. Their irresistible humility and gentleness of spirit made me feel almost overwhelmed by the greatness they all seemed to have. I sang Hank Williams cowboy songs to them, worked, prayed, laughed with them, and even pitched on a Saturday afternoon baseball team of all Japanese. I ceased seeing any difference at all between us and found that I loved them as my own family. I left the mission field possessing a valuable lesson and experience in compassion, one that enriched my life tremendously.

Then only a few years later, as a bishop, I received the same enlightenment in behalf of our other enemies of World War II, the Germans. On a beautiful fall afternoon, a handsome, sturdy man introduced himself to me.

“I’m John,” he said in a German accent. “We are from California, but love it here. Could you tell us about living here?”

I did, and within a few months three German families, all with heavy accents, moved into our ward. And although they were very different from the Japanese, they, also, seemed to have a magnetism of greatness.

John, whose father was a branch president when the war started, had been drafted in the Nazi army at age seventeen. He then became an SS trooper and fought on the Russian front and in Normandy. But now, John and I, along with the others in the family, had an instant kinship. They were great people.

One fast Sunday they gave me the “Japanese wallet” experience all Over again. John’s immediate family, his relatives, and their friends who had lived together as Saints in Germany before and during the war were all together for a reunion. Thirty-five of them showed up at our fast and testimony meeting. Since John had mentioned that in Germany in the “old days” they had once sung together in a choir, I asked if they would all sit in the choir seats and sing for us. There in the seats were thirty-five men and women, stoutly built, ruggedly handsome, some gnarled with age, but all with one thing in common—a testimony of the truth of the teachings of the Savior. The chapel was hushed. John, acting as the director as in the old days, walked up and raised the choir members to their feet, and in the strong sounds of the German language, “There Is Beauty All Around” burst forth.

It was overwhelming. The harmony and feeling were beautiful, and it had been thirty years since they had all sung together! Then my eyes fell on Brother Hyde, one of the American Saints who faithfully attended our resort ward in the summer. Brother Hyde at twenty had been taken from a bountiful Idaho farm, drafted into the U.S. army, trained, and shipped to Germany. Soon after his arrival, his tank crew suffered a German attack. In minutes his tank was destroyed and Brother Hyde found himself lying on the roadside, bleeding, an arm and a leg missing. Two of the Germans who were now singing “kindly heaven smiles above” had participated in that German attack. But tears of compassion and love streamed down Brother Hyde’s face as he listened to the song of those Germans—possibly the very Germans who had crippled him for life. My faith in the binding strength of the Spirit and in the kinship of man again increased, and I realized that there are no enemies in mankind. I treasure these experiences now as the only souvenirs I want or will keep of World War II.

  • Don Aslett, a contractor consultant, serves as high councilor in the Arimo Idaho Stake.

Photography by Jed A. Clark