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Flying Fortresses, Super Fortresses, P47 Thunderbolts, B24s, B25s, Mustangs, Marauders, Corsairs, Grumman Wildcats, Lockheed P38s, Liberators, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts, Stukas, Heinkels, Zeros...

Suddenly, while watching Ken Burns' World War II epic, I recalled them all - and more. A great rush of recognition struck me as the warplanes moved menacingly across the TV screen. You see, I served on the Home Front during the war, as a pre-teen Junior Air Raid Warden. And, boy, did I know my airplanes. If any enemy aircraft had ever dared fly over San Francisco, you can bet I would have alerted the appropriate military authorities pronto.

The San Francisco area was an extremely likely target as the center of a huge military/industrial complex that included 30 shipyards employing nearly a quarter-million workers, and as the major embarkation point for troops headed to the Pacific Theater. Yet those enemy planes never came. We spent many hours preparing for them, just in case, same as the real air raid wardens. They patrolled the streets during frequent citywide air raid drills to make certain that everyone's blackout shades were drawn tightly, so that no light could escape to guide enemy aircraft.

We didn't patrol. But we set aside our comic books to pour over fat manuals filled with black silhouettes of the undersides of German and Japanese bombers and fighters and those of the United States and its allies. And when not memorizing the shapes of warplanes, we made scale models of them out of balsa wood for others to study.

We knew very well what could happen to us and our friends and our neighbors and families if the bombers reached our city unchallenged. We saw the devastation in the propagandistic newsreels of the day, many shown at a theater downtown that screened nothing else, day and night. Like all other kids, we wore metal name tags on chains around our necks by government order -- just like the men and women in service, and for the same grim reason: We, too, might be killed and need to be identified.

We were part of a massive war effort, and proud of it. It seemed that everyone was involved -- young, old and in-between. We were joined together on a long, hard, patriotic march to victory that dominated our daily lives. It wasn't easy, but most people seemed willing, if not eager, to accept necessary sacrifices such as the rationing of food and other essentials, although there certainly was a sizeable black market for rationed goods.

Shiny white cloth squares hanging in many windows marked the greatest sacrifices. Red stars affixed to them stood for family members who served in the armed forces, gold stars for those who had been killed. We had four red stars in our window, for my father and three uncles, but mercifully no gold, though my Navy father was seriously wounded.

Warplane models shared space in my crowded bedroom with war souvenirs sent home by my red star relatives. They were jammed into a tall pale blue bookcase that stretched across one wall, a gull-winged German Stuka hanging threateningly above them, ready to swoop down in a dive of destruction.

Strings of highly polished sea shells from the South Pacific; rolls of rumpled currency from Italy, France and Germany; hand-painted wooden shoes from Belgium; brightly-colored campaign ribbons and insignias; a lime green German officer's cap; a German private's steel helmet; dummy hand grenades; a Japanese sniper's rifle I could barely lift; a long wicked-looking bayonet that I plunged frequently into an old pillow while shouting angry words about our enemies. Those were but a few of my war trophies from far-off, exotic places I'd hardly even heard of.

I even had a packet of Army-issue condoms. "What are these?" I innocently asked my Uncle Bud. "Er ... er ... just something they give us," he stammered.

The souvenirs were great for show-and-tell time at school, where the war was invariably a major topic of discussion, if not study. To this day, I can remember the words to the national anthems of our World War II allies that I learned in music class. Our allegiance was to the USA, of course, and we assembled in the schoolyard first thing every morning to pledge it en masse.

There was precious little money around our house, but I usually managed to come up with ten cents to buy one of the War Savings Stamps that were sold weekly at school to help pay the costs of waging righteous warfare.

A dime was not spent lightly in those days. We could get a whole comic book for ten cents. Or a whole Saturday matinee at our neighborhood movie theater - a double feature, which often included a film depicting our fighting forces scoring heroic victories, a newsreel, another chapter of an exciting serial, and lots of cartoons.

Many of us broadened our Home Front activities by enlisting in the Boy Scouts of America. That gave us the opportunity to join in drives to collect scrap paper, metal and rubber and other material used in arms making, including the silver foil in cigarette packages, cans of bacon grease and other cooking fat needed to make glycerin for explosives.

We were good soldiers all, marching off in proper Scout uniforms to collect whatever we could that was needed, utterly loyal to the nation's commander-in-chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He told us regularly, in his remarkably reassuring radio voice, that our side was winning.

Naturally, we were certain we would eventually win. But when? We were prepared - actually eager - to join our fighting forces should the war last long enough for us to reach enlistment age. Not surprisingly, Junior Air Raid Wardens favored the Air Force and practiced mastering tests like those given potential fighter pilots.

Peace was declared long before we would have been able to take the tests in earnest. But some of us had one last duty. We were assigned in 1945 to serve as aides at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco.

I like to think we played a key role at the conference, one even more important than identifying hostile aircraft. We carried between delegations the drafts, churned out in five languages at the rate of 300,000 sheets of paper per day, that went into the making of the charter that established the United Nations. It's still the only real hope to avoid another conflict like the world war, the fighting and killing, that had dominated too many of our precious formative years.

Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister