11/12/07 — They won't forget what happened 'over there'

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They won't forget what happened 'over there'

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 12, 2007 1:45 PM

Miriam Johnson remembers when a piece of candy set her free -- when the taste of sweet powder took a little girl away from the air raids and the bombings.

The 72-year-old can still smell the rubber gas mask she wore to the movies.

She could tell you about sleeping under a table at night, covering the windows and going hungry on rations.

But Mrs. Johnson would rather talk about the hope American soldiers brought with them across the pond after Japanese fighters bombed Pearl Harbor.

So today, she will take those memories with her to Goldsboro's Veterans Day parade -- hoping that maybe, a once-scared little girl will get the chance to thank some of the men who made her smile when German forces tried to steal her childhood.

"During the war, all our men were going overseas," Mrs. Johnson said. "As they were leaving, Americans were coming in."

Even at 8 years old, she said she could sense a turn in the conflict when U.S. troops arrived.

"Do you know what it's like to be playing in a road, maybe 20 of us kids, and over the hill comes this jeep with that American flag flying?" she asked, choking up. "All the kids would start running to their houses screaming, 'Convoy. Convoy.' They would throw out candy and gum. We just loved it."

Marguerite Poland, now 80, was living in The Midlands at the time.

"We were fighting hard in England, but we were just losing people," she said. "Germany was taking over this side and that side."

But treats from American soldiers were a nice break from the conditions she had grown used to -- spreading butter on bread only to scrape it right back off for use in another meal, looking up at a sky full of bombers.

Mrs. Johnson can still feel the house shake.

She can still see a pilot crash into the old Elm Tree outside her farm house.

"It shook the house so bad that the windows would shatter and the glass would blow in and cut your face," she said. "But you know what the worst part was? After the air raid at night, you would go to school the next day. You go in the classroom and you would look around for the empty desks. You knew when you saw the empty desks that those kids didn't make it."

Brenda Chambers, 72, remembers when evacuees from London showed up in her town along England's coast.

She can tell you about not being able to swim in the ocean for fear of mines in the water.

"You couldn't go in there for years and years," she said. "When I finally went in -- I don't know how old I was but I was old enough to go by myself -- I split both the bottoms of my feet open with the shrapnel. The water was full of downed planes."

More than 60 years later, each of the women live in Wayne County, a byproduct of marriage to American servicemen who wound up retiring near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

But they said they will never forget how for a short time, a foreign country's soldiers adopted them.

"All us kids used to love those convoys. They had the flaps in the back of their trucks and all the guys would be sitting there throwing candy and gum to us," Mrs. Chambers said. "We would just pick it up off the street wouldn't we? We had no candy during the war. We hardly had enough to eat."

The bombing continued for more than five years.

"I remember the evening before D-Day," Mrs. Poland said. "The sky was full of planes -- nothing but planes everywhere."

And not long after, Mrs. Johnson did not have to carry her gas mask to the movies anymore.

"It was just gone one day," she said. "I never did know where that gas mask went."

American soldiers had kept a country's spirits high while the sons of England were fighting in Europe.

Mrs. Johnson and the other ladies vow never to forget.

So when you see a float decked out in a different red, white and blue making its way down Center Street today, don't forget to ask for gum and candy.

After all, for the women sitting on that trailer waving British flags and signs reading 'Thanks Yanks,' those simple sweets represent an escape from the horrors of war -- and the Americans who brought smiling back to childhood in World War II England.

"I'll never forget what they did for us," Mrs. Johnson said. "They came over and fought, they died for people they didn't even know."

"I remember one day I saw an American at the train station," Mrs. Chambers added. "He turned to me and said, 'Would you like a piece of gum? I said, 'Oh, please.' I made it last all day."