MIKE PESCA, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
Today is the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That was the event that brought the United States into World War II.
PESCA: For years, the boys who signed up thereafter, who were drafted, or who otherwise found themselves in the thick of the fight, were known for their bravery. But as time goes by, America is coming to see the former soldiers more fully, as people as well as fighters, people with private lives. As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: About 10 years ago, at Thanksgiving, author Jane Mersky Leder heard her mother reminisce about her experiences as a newlywed during the Second World War.
Ms. JANE MERSKY LEDER (Writer): She was a World War II service wife, or what some people called a wandering wife. And she followed my father for almost a year during his stateside military training.
BATES: Leder had never heard about this part of her mother's life, and she was astonished. Those stories of racing to secure housing near military training posts, adjusting to a string of new towns as her cadet husband moved, trying to squeeze romance into a few hours once a week, made Leder curious.
Ms. LEDER: And I wondered whether she was unique, or whether in fact there had been thousands, if not millions of other women just like her.
BATES: The answer, several years and scores of interviews later, is Leder's book “Thanks For the Memories: Love, Sex and World War II.”
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BATES: The war was a catalyst for tremendous social change, altering women's roles both inside and outside the home. Leder says it also abruptly transformed social niceties almost overnight.
Ms. LEDER: The day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, everything was blown to bits and long-held attitudes toward love and sex were absolutely up for grabs.
BATES: This new attitude meant premarital sex became more common, as did babies born out of wedlock. It was a new day, even for military wives. Rather than stay at home waiting for their men to return, the wandering wives followed them to their training bases to extend their time together before the guys were shipped overseas. Not that the military made that easy. Jane Leder's mother, Shirley Mersky.
Ms. SHIRLEY MERSKY (Military Wife): First of all, we were not allowed to see our husbands except once a week. Secondly, they didn't help us with any housing. The men stayed on the post, and we did for ourselves the best we could. Sometimes I slept in the car.
BATES: And to complicate things, says Morris Mersky, Shirley's husband, it was the problem of the cadet's training schedules which placed them on different bases as their skills advance.
Mr. MORRIS MERSKY (World War II Veteran): We had to move every eight weeks and then if wives, girlfriends, whatever, wanted to come along, they were faced with that problem of finding a new place to live every eight weeks.
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BATES: The new towns near the post usually had little to offer in the way of temporary rental space. So it wasn't unusual for at least two wandering wives to share a room, which worked out fine until those very brief weekend leaves. Jack Hadener(ph), a former co-pilot in the Army Air Corps said he and his buddies managed to work something out.
Mr. JACK HADENER (World War II Veteran): Usually the four couples of us would go out to dinner, and then after that'd we come back to the motel. And we'd draw straws to see which couple got to use the room first.
BATES: You don't need to know anything more about that except this. The other couples waited outside in their cars for their turn. Well, maybe a little more.
Now, I have to ask you a question.
Mr. HADENER: Uh-huh.
BATES: What did you guys do in the car for two hours?
Mr. HADENER: Oh, we did a little necking, a little smooching, tried to catch up with whatever was going on.
BATES: Usually the couples inside the room didn't have to be told time's up. But every now and then, says Hadener, the lovebirds would have to be reminded.
Mr. HADENER: When that happened, they'd come out half-dressed or half undressed, and we tease them.
BATES: Sometimes the guys were stuck on the base, but their girls still found ways to meet them. Betty Lou Cradoville's(ph) future husband, George Herari(ph), was a fighter pilot. When he and his comrades couldn't get to town, she remembers, the sweethearts visited another way.
Ms. BETTY LOU CRADOVILLE (Military Wife): We'd catch a bus in the evening and go out and talk to them over the fence.
BATES: Really? Over the fence? So there'd be lines of you and lines of them and a fence in between?
Ms. CRADOVILLE: Yes.
BATES: That made it kind of hard to give him a goodbye kiss, didn't it?
Ms. CRADOVILLE: No. You simply had to adjust one way or another.
BATES: Betty Lou had already adjusted her expectations about her wedding. It occurred earlier, on one of George's day visits, in the courtyard of the motel where she and a lot of the other wondering wives were bunked. And their honeymoon?
Ms. CRADOVILLE: My best man and I got in the cab with Herari and drove him out to the base. And I said goodbye, and I didn't see him again for a week.
BATES: So that was your honeymoon.
Ms. CRADOVILLE: So that was my honeymoon.
BATES: The romantic front wasn't the only place where adjustments had to be made. The wandering wives - to the government's displeasure, there would eventually be over one and a quarter million of them - often changed life in the towns that hosted them, happily or otherwise. Jane Leder.
Ms. LEDER: A lot of these military bases were located in the South. And a lot of these women like my mother were coming from the North. So you had this conflict of Northerners and Southerners, and sometimes they were not particularly friendly or welcoming.
BATES: Leder says there were almost no African-American wandering wives because of this. Although a few wives of the famous Tuskegee airmen braved it. But those women, often highly educated and from privileged backgrounds, remained safe by staying on the campus of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, the Black College where the airmen trained.
Some Jewish wives found cool receptions too. One woman leader interviewed recalls the pain of being ostracized by her housemates when she told them she was Jewish. Although World War II was a time filled with challenges - social, emotional, logistical and financial - Jane Leder says there was one thing the service wives she interviewed agreed upon about their experience.
Ms. LEDER: All of the women to whom I spoke clearly said that while they can't imagine that they'd ever be able to do it again, if push came to shove, they certainly would.
BATES: She found many of the service families, normally tight-lipped about their war experiences, eager to pass on this personal side of the war. Leder wanted to make sure the stories were told because so many of the Greatest Generation are dying out.
Ms. LEDER: I think there was a real need on the part of women and men to talk about what it was really like to be a young American during World War II and to leave for parents and grandparents an accurate history of their experiences. They were, after all, young. They were ordinary. They were just living in extraordinary times.
BATES: And while there are monuments to World War II vets, “Thanks For The Memories” is a human counterpart to the stone and bronze tributes that dot the country. And it gives a whole new answer to the classic question, Daddy, what did you do in the war?
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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PESCA: You can read an excerpt of the book at our Web site, npr.org.