by Betty Dahl
The quiet life in Kodai was interrupted with news of the War. The Japanese were threatening to enter the north part of India. The school was asked to prepare for the war. They did this by having regular air raid drills in which those of us children in school had to take cover under desks or alongside the walls for protection should the roofs or walls fall in on us if the school were bombed. The drills were randomized so we never knew when they would occur. Another action taken was digging trenches in the hillside and camouflaging them with branches so they would not be seen from the air. Each class was told to dig a trench, not in a straight line, but zigzagging so as to avoid a direct hit. My class outsmarted themselves. Our zigzags were so close together that a child could not round the corner fast enough to get out of the way of the child behind. During air raid drills, we were timed to check how long it took us to get into these trenches. We always were in last place and ended up modifying the design. Basic supplies like canned food and water were stored in each trench. We children argued as to what should be considered basic. On two occasions a plane was heard overhead, and we were convinced the war was on. We all headed for the trenches but the usual bantering was absent. We were scared and feared separation from our family members.
The parents of many of the children decided to come to take the children out of school and many decided to leave the country, so Kodai School was closed. The mission warned our parents that they should consider evacuating from India since they might be separated from their children. Our folks and the Wiebes came up to Kodai to get all of us children and take us down to the mission station. From there our family would wait for word about passage to the U.S. The two men drove to Kodai in a Plymouth station wagon. This had to hold all twelve children (six Hieberts and six Wiebes), as well as the four adults. Since gas was rationed, both families had saved their ration of gas for months and Uncle John concocted a mixture of gas and kerosene so there would be enough fuel for the trip.
With so many people crowded into the car, every bit of space had to be used. The suitcases were loaded vertically onto a rack on top of the car, and covered with a tarpaulin. Blankets and pillows were laid flat on the floor of the van before the seats went in as they couldn't fit into the rack. We had to take our shoes off because there was no room for them, only for bare feet. The seats had been put along the sides of the van under the windows, so we sat facing each other with all the feet in a tight row in the middle. Our shoes were in a cloth bag tied to one front fender. Our topees were in another bag on the other fender. Every time one of us had to go to the bathroom, the bags had to be untied and hats and shoes handed out prior to heading out into the bushes. It took a while.
There were no main roads to and from Kodai, so it was difficult to get through some areas. At times we got stuck and everyone got out of the car and helped puIl the car through a stream or rut. When we stopped at night the seats had to be taken out and the bedding distributed. The tarp had to be untied from over the suitcases in the rack and spread on the ground. Each kid grabbed a pillow and/or blanket from the floor of the van and found a place on the tarp. But first the mothers had to boil water to make tea. I remember being extremely thirsty and trying to drink that boiling hot tea, very frustrating. Then we had something to eat and tried to sleep. Hyenas screeched in the background and often were brave enough to come in sight of the car. The hard ground and unfamiliar sounds made sleep intermittent. Nonetheless Uncle John and Dad were exceptionally good storytellers and we grew drowsy (see Appendix for Uncle John stories). It certainly was a memorable trip.
To the mission at last; we waited impatiently for word of available passage on a ship to the States. The orders were long in coming and the heat of the plains was oppressive as this was the middle of the hot season. Dad hired a man to pull an overhead fan operated by a pulley system to cool our bodies down so we could read or play games. Cane mats were hung around the verandah during the day to keep out the heat of the sun and a small boy poured water over them with a tin can. They were rolled up in the late afternoon when a faint breeze eased the heat. We would take pour-on showers several times a day to cool off our bodies a bit. Tempers flared easily in the heat and no one felt like doing much that was physically exerting. Mother got sick from the heat and had to be in bed some of the time. At nights we children slept on the porch trying to get some movement of the night air. One morning we woke to find a snake curled under one cot. Reports that a tiger had attacked a villager made the family a bit nervous.
Dad and Mom tried to keep us children on target with schoolwork, but the heat made us tired, cranky and lazy. Paul and I spent hours playing Monopoly. The only reading materials available were some books that we had read time and time again and the Reader's Digest. Mother would encourage us to learn new words through the vocabulary section, and I worked hard at this task as I was sure I was destined to be a famous writer. At suppertime she quizzed us to see what new words we had learned, and had us make sentences with the word of the day. As children we did not appreciate this task and would often moan, "Oh, Mom, do we have to?" When I became a parent, I implemented some of these same tasks.
It was a long wait for all of us. A first attempt to take a ship out of Karachi failed as the voyage was cancelled, to Dad's great disappointment. Later, however, we heard that the train to Karachi we would have been on was attacked by robbers. Finally word came of another troop ship assigned to evacuate Americans: the SS Brazil. It was scheduled to leave Bombay, but the day of departure was kept very secret. Dad and Mom decided to take the ship, while the Wiebes decided to stay in India with their seven children. Our parents worried over their decision, but also worried about the safety of the ocean voyage during war conditions.
At last we would be on our way. We finished our last-minute packing and got ready to take the train to Bombay. Sad good-byes were said at the train station and tears flowed while we sang "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again," knowing that both the families that left and the families that stayed faced real dangers.
In Bombay we stayed at the YMCA with many other families awaiting notification of time of departure. It seemed unbearably hot in the big gymnasium where we were housed. At last word came that the ship was ready to leave and it was time to board. Our journey back to America had begun.
Trip Home to America
The ship, the SS Brazil, was a relatively new luxury cruise ship called into action for the war. It had brought 5,000 American soldiers to Bombay and was now taking 2,000 evacuees--mostly missionaries--as it headed back to the U.S. for more troops. We heard that the soldiers hadn't known where they were being sent until the ship was on its way. When they found out it was India, they were so angry they threw the piano overboard.
The rooms on the ship were tiny and the heat so intense that it was difficult to sleep. The portholes were samll and closed at nights because of the blackout. Bunks had been stacked four high to accommodate the soldiers; more bunks had been placed on deck. No one wanted the top bunks as warm air rises, and the coolest place was on the floor near an air vent. Many slept on the decks, trying to get what relief they could get. In the dining hall, long tables had been set up for the soldiers; these were chest-high, so we had to eat standing up. Only women and small children ate in the regular dining room.
Because of the fighting in Europe, the ship had to sail down across the equator around South Africa, then back across the equator to Bermuda and on to New York City. The ship zigzagged to avoid a direct hit from the enemy, so the time enroute was more than doubled. It took six weeks to cross. One could see the waves through the porthole. Everyone was required to sleep with a life jacket nearby for quick use. Daytime would find us on deck trying to escape the tiny rooms to get air on the decks because of heat. It was oppressive.
Nights were very dark because no lights were permitted in the cabins or decks. It was said that even a cigarette light could be detected several miles away. One night a distant ship radioed that they saw a light and, sure enough, a lady was washing her stockings with lights on and the porthole open. Because of this, the steward ordered portholes to be closed for the nights for the rest of the trip. As ships did not have air conditioning then, the rooms became stifling hot. There were air vents, but it seemed as if all these did was circulate hot air. There was little breeze. The children slept on the floor with their heads to the vent to get what air movement they could. Sometimes Dad would keep us up on deck until we'd fallen asleep, and then carry us down to our cabin. We older ones were allowed to find a bunk on deck. Phyllis remembers trying to find an empty bunk up on the enclosed deck at night--it was too dark to see if anybody was already in the bunk so she gingerly felt with her hands. In retrospect, Dad and Mom were very liberal in letting us roam the ship and sleep on deck without them, but where would we disappear to on a ship?
Drills were held to practice finding the lifeboats and learning how to board them. They were called at random times to keep us on constant alert. Children were told to go directly to their assigned lifeboat and not to go to the cabin to find parents. Parents reinforced this. "Go to the lifeboat. We will meet you there." Several of us forgot and ran to the cabin. We got quite a scolding for doing this. The next time the alert sounded, we went straight to the lifeboats.
During these drills, men had to stand farther back away from the life boats, while women with children had first access to the boats (like the Titanic). When there was danger, life vests were worn continuously at the direction of the ship's officers, but all were painfully aware that there were not enough lifeboats for all passengers. This made the atmosphere very tense. The rule was children first, mothers second, then the men, and finally the crew. It was a code of honor. The children would talk bravely about giving up their seats to their parents, but all hoped it would not come down to that event.
At one point early in the trip, the Brazil received a radio call for help from a ship nearby. The Brazil did not turn back because of all the civilians on board. We didn't hear about this until later.
It was a long trip, and as children we didn't worry constantly like the adults did. Life developed a sort of normalcy. We played on board deck and swam in the pool. The ship was an excellent place to play hide and seek games since there was a myriad of chairs and equipment on the decks. Shuffleboard was a favorite game on deck, but it was hard to gain use of the game because of the many people on board. We also played deck tennis with a hard rubber ring. Unfortunately the ring frequently ended up overboard, and we ran out of rings. It was a large ship, and we had freedom to roam the various decks, to meet other children our age, and to read in the lounge--things we could do without worrying our parents. These activities gave relief from the tenseness of the journey.
The first time we crossed the equator, the stewards gave us eggs to toss at other people, cake to eat and party noisemakers to celebrate. This was a common tradition on ships at that time. A pool party was held and in accordance with tradition, those people who had never crossed the equator before could be smeared with spaghetti and thrown into the swimming pool backwards. Because the ship was zigzagging, we actually crossed the equator several times, but I only remember having one big equator party.
One day the children were told they could fish from the back of the ship. The chefs would prepare a fish dinner with any fish that were caught. The experiment ended up being remarkably successful. Someone (I'm sure not a child) caught a shark and some of us got to help hold it. Not long after, the bursar's office announced that no more fish were to be kept in the saltwater of the bathtubs. We were disappointed that the fishing expedition was ended. It had been such fun to hold a shark. We looked for shark on our menu but didn't see it; it had been saved for the adult's menu and we had been searching the children's menu.
Our ship went first to Capetown, Africa, for refueling. As Phyl remembers it, we docked late in the day during such stormy weather that tugboats had to keep pushing the ship toward the dock so the ship wouldn't slam into it and damage both. The main gangplank was not let down, but only a smaller one usually used by the crew. Dad and a few of us older children went to a candy store not far away: a small lighted shop with displays of candies all around. The currency was different so we couldn't tell how much the candy really cost. One of my memories of Capetown is of being awed by the black skin of many of the city's inhabitants; this later seemed strange to me since I was already so accustomed to having friends with dark brown skin. Paul recalls that the sailors caught a large hammerhead shark and cooked it and ate it on deck.
From Capetown the ship sailed to Bermuda, zigzagging every three minutes to dodge the many German U-boats in the waters around NYC, thus making the trip much longer. At night the ship went straight because it was a fast ship that could make nearly 2 knots an hour (30 mph). We were in strict blackout during the night and many passengers slept on deck. We docked briefly in Bermuda but did not get off. The ship picked up some sailors who had survived another sinking. These men would not go to bed the few nights from Bermuda to New York, but sat on the main staircase down from the decks, on each side along the curve of the bannisters; we remember walking by them. They didn't want to get caught below deck if this ship also got hit. At Bermuda we also picked up a convoy including a cruiser, two destroyers, and two airplanes, as an escort into New York City Harbor. Their presence was comforting since there was a concentration of Germany U-boats in that area.
One day an enemy sub was sighted, and the destroyers were active sending depth charges to destroy the sub. Passengers were ordered on deck to be ready for evacuation, if needed. Dad stood with the men on one side of a dividing rope; Mother tried to keep us children close to her on the other side, ready to get on one of the lifeboats. Seeing Dad separated from us, tears coming down his cheeks, was a very tough and memorable experience. Fortunately we were not hit.
Very early one morning Dad came into the cabin and told us to dress and come on deck. We went up and saw that we were entering New York City Harbor. In the early morning fog the Statue of Liberty came into view. People cried and all sang "God Bless America." It was one of the most moving moments in my lifetime. The passengers crowded on deck, all singing and cheering. Many cried. No one would ever forget this grand finale. Safe in United States territory. God Bless America.
Stopover in New York City
At the beginning of the trip a doctor from India had boarded the ship with a child who had the measles. An epidemic started, and the doctor worked day and night to care for the children. Nonetheless, many were extremely ill. Joanne was among the less fortunate. Mother and Dad spent many hours taking turns rubbing her with water and alcohol to reduce the fever. In spite of their efforts, Joanne got pneumonia and was so ill that she was airlifted from the ship at New York City docks directly to the hospital, where she spent two weeks.
We had thought that the hospital stay would be short and for a few days the rest of us stayed in a Union Theological Seminary dorm, a very tall building with lots of stairs and no elevators. We spent the days seeing the many sights of New York City. The automat where one put in nickels and dimes and got food out of little compartments awed us. It was the cheapest place to get food and certainly fun for us children, and the family was large. Even Dad and Mom got caught up with the automat and made several trips down to get pie, coffee, and ice cream--obviously something they had really missed in India. One meal Dad looked at his tray and saw he had chosen sauerkraut, pickles and another item--all sour.
Uncle Clyde and his wife took pity on the family and asked them to come stay with them a few days. They took us to the basement department of a large store where cheaper clothes were on sale--long racks of identical dresses, so different from India. They bought each of us a dress or garment; it was the first store-bought dress I recall owning. Everyone was pleased and felt rich for owning such a dress. Later we girls found that Uncle Clyde was embarrassed by the clothes we wore and helped save face for the family in this way. The kids were introduced to "man-made movies," the first films we had ever seen. The cartoons were a favorite. We also found that we had to eat spinach and anything else that was on our plate or risk the ire of Aunt Hedy.
Since Joanne still needed to be in the hospital and it was difficult to keep the whole family in New York, Dad took the rest of us children on to Grandpa and Grandma Jungas's home in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, while Mom stayed with Joanne until she could travel. The day we were to leave it snowed heavily, and the city was beautiful. A taxi took the family through the snow to the train. The train had to travel slowly because the tracks needed to be cleared. The rocking motion and exhaustion from all the excitement kicked in, and most of us slept a good portion of the time. It was still snowing when we met relatives at the station in Windom several nights later. Off to Grandma and Grandpa's house in Mt. Lake. Grandma surprised us by crying, whereas we all thought she would be happy. Later Mama explained that sometimes people cry when they are happy; that seemed odd to us. Our relatives were concerned about our lack of winter clothes, which we never had needed in India except on cold rainy days in Kodai.
One of the first things that happened when we got to Mt. Lake was a whole day of laundry in Aunt Peg's basement. Grandma Jungas's upstairs washing machine tended to overflow so that water leaked through the floor and on through the ceiling of the store below, and one of our uncles would come storming up. With so much wash to do, Grandma wasn't taking any chances.
Luckily Grandpa and Grandma had a large home. It was upstairs above Grandpa Jungas's Hardware store. There were five or six bedrooms, a front room, dining room, parlor, Grandpa's study, the kitchen, ironing room, pantry and a back area for laundry. Grandpa and Grandma had one of the bedrooms. It was full of mysterious treasures. Grandma went in and came out with pennies for candy or ice cream. No one was allowed to enter this bedroom; it was Grandma's sanctuary.
Our parents' room was also off limits and the older children surmised that Daddy and Mama were making babies in their closet and carefully explained this to the younger children. I kept looking for the baby after I happened on my parents together in the bedroom. I wasn't sure the information was accurate but Grace assured me that she had the information from reputable sources. Anyway, proof was to be had: Margy was born soon after on January 6th. Phyllis and Grace shared a bedroom, and Gwen and Joanne shared a room with me. Paul must have slept somewhere but I can't remember where, and baby Margy stayed in folks' bedroom.
Uncle Jake, Grandma's brother, stayed with our grandparents. He had lost his wife and Grandma opened her home to him and his four girls, now married and gone. Uncle Jake had been in construction earlier in his life but had some major setbacks that he eased through abusing alcohol. He was often at the bars. He would often suck on peppermints to cover the odor of beer on his breath; we thought his breath smelled strange but didn't know why.
Grandma J. often entertained company at about four in the afternoon. Thus the parlor was off limits to us children, as were her cupboards with all her beautiful glassware from Germany. We would peek into the parlor to see what was so special. Grandma J. later used this as her TV room to watch Russian wrestling, a sport she greatly enjoyed. When Frank Jungas came home from the army, he met his wife Helen in that parlor and we children sneaked a look at them kissing. We were thrilled at the romantic scene--just like in novels.
There was also a sewing and ironing room with a large mangle Grandma had kept from the hotel days. (When their house and business burned down years before, the family ran a hotel for eight years while rebuilding the hardware store.) Grandma insisted on pressing all the bed sheets and pillowcases just like they had done at the hotel. This was a chore to which I was often assigned. I saw the task as unnecessary as one would sleep on them and mess them up in minutes. In the room there were also many old dressers full of fabric and wool, scraps of cloth, baskets of thread, string, lace and a little of about everything you could think of pertaining to the art of sewing, cleaning, and ironing. Grandma saved everything and was very parsimonious with her money.
Like the parlor, the back porch was also off limits for play because of the steep stairs and height of the roof. We younger children were allowed out there when we helped hang out the laundry. We were often told the story of how our cousin Marion had fallen off this roof; according to our elders, she would certainly have been killed if she hadn't bounced off the roof of the store's back porch before hitting the cement stairs.
One major problem at Grandma's house was the fact that there was one bathroom for all to share, so we would have to shout "Emergency" to get it first. Baths had to be short or the hot water would be depleted, and by then a line had formed to use the bathroom for other purposes. Occasionally the toilet would overflow or someone would leave the bath water running. Water would start seeping down into the store, and Grandpa would come running up to get the water stopped. Other times Uncle John or Uncle Lando would the one to hurry up the stairs with a warning: we were making too much noise and the people shopping in the store could hear us clearly; we had to be quiet. It must have been difficult for Mother to keep seven children from being too active.
Through the window of Grandpa's study, we could see snow on the roof and the many birds Grandma fed, using up her old bread. I loved her bird families. We would also watch out of the front windows and see the busy street below. It was especially exciting to see all the hustle and bustle of shoppers on Saturday nights, when all stores were open until very late.
While Grandma was busy taking care of this big family group, Grandpa would usually be in the hardware store. The store was always a place of mystery to us, and we figured Grandpa had everything anyone needed to fix anything. One time Paul and I got into BIG trouble when we mixed up many of the nails in the big bins Grandpa had in the store. This is one of the few times we saw Grandpa really upset. He had us sort through the nails and put them all back in their places. We never tried that again.
There were so many things to be sold, and Grandpa J. loved to visit for hours with the men who seemed to inhabit the store to discuss local or national news. It was like a morning coffee shop. The problem was they talked more than shopped. Moreover, Grandpa allowed them to buy on credit, a factor that later led to his sons' taking charge of the business.
Grandpa J. had a large garden; it covered most of a city block. It had apple trees and vegetables, but the thing that caught our attention was the large strawberry patch. We enjoyed helping pick strawberries for the evening meal and being allowed to help pick green beans. The garden had a special attraction: a wooden shed in which we could play house. We children were told the rules about where not to walk and were taught to respect the harvest of foods for the table. Yet we were given freedom to play in this idyllic spot. I spent hours with my cousins playing in the garden. In spring, hundreds of tulips bloomed, obviously Grandpa's favorite flower. People came from nearby towns to see the tulips. It was fitting that Grandpa died at tulip time.
Grandpa stopped each day after work and brought home any produce that was ready to be picked. If he brought home a pan full of strawberries, Grandma would say, "Oh, I thought you would bring new potatoes or string beans for soup." If he brought beans, she would ask about the cherries or apples or strawberries. Grandpa could never get it right, but he just smiled and ignored the remarks. Grandpa was ever so patient with everyone.
Grandma loved to play Chinese Checkers. She was very competitive when she played. She would line up her marbles in a double line across the center of the board so nobody could get past--very frustrating! If she saw that she was about to lose, she was known to cheat--or she would suddenly remember some chore she had to do. We never thought grandmothers would try so hard to win games they played with their grandchildren!
Paul was Grandma's favorite, as the girls in the family outnumbered him. She stuck up for him in arguments. Paul challenged me by saying that he played piano better than I did. A challenge was all I needed, especially since Grandma also was convinced that Paul was the better player. A blind experiment was set up. Each played a song without Grandma knowing who played. Well, Grandma picked my performance, but then said she really meant to pick the other one once she knew Paul hadn't been playing that piece. I felt very hurt.
Since we were there such a long time, we attended the Mt. Lake schools. I was in third grade, and made some close friends. After the warmth of India, we found the winter to be very cold, and the walks to and from school were freezing. One school day it was 20' or 30' below zero, and Mom told Grace and Phyllis to wrap up in Grandma's black knitted shawls to walk the five or six blocks to school. Phyllis obeyed, but Grace refused outright to be seen in a black shawl; instead she stayed home. After school we would stop at a little candy shop to spend the nickels Grandma would give us from time to time. Another favorite place to go was the ice cream shop down the street. Paul and I spent a lot of time playing with our cousins Marion and Bob, while Gwen and Joanne played with Barb and Lois or went to Uncle George and Aunt Elizabeth's place.
Children were not generally aware of what was happening in the war, especially if family members were not involved. Schools did get involved by promoting competition among grades to gather the most scrap metal, so we were on the lookout for such prizes: parts from cars, old tools, tin cans, etc. Also children brought a dime to school each week to buy war bonds.
The war was bound to end soon, so we all thought, but time dragged on and Grandpa and Grandma put up with our big family, providing food and lodging. Grandma J. baked fresh bread and zwiebach every week, and had people over for tea and cookies and baked goods. She faithfully served two meals a day. Grandpa worked hard in the store, helping meet the financial needs of his extended family. Dad took classes in the Twin Cities. Mom helped Grandma and tried to keep up with all her children. For us children, these were times of family closeness and good times. I wouldn't have given up this experience for anything.
(To be continued)