Interview of Robert W. Black for the Elizabeth V. and George F. Gardner Digital Library an initiative of the Cumberland County Historical Society. Black discusses growing up on a farm in Gardners, Pennsylvania during the Great Depression.
Helen Amanda (Pompeo) Sowers was born on March 19, 1925 in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. One of ten children, she was born to Anna (Myers) Pompeo of Mt. Holly Springs (born in 1902) and Joseph William Pompeo (born in 1885) who had emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1900. Her father was veteran of World War I who was badly injured in a mustard gas attack, an injury from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Her parents first lived in Carlisle, then moved to the Italian section of Harrisburg, then to Boiling Springs, and then finally settled in Mt. Holly Springs so the family could be closer to her mother’s family. She attended a one-room schoolhouse in Mt. Holly Springs. She worked a cannery and a shoe factory until she turned eighteen in 1943 when she went to work at the C.H. Masland Corporation in Carlisle. She also volunteered at the observation tower in Mt. Holly Springs during her free time. Mrs. Sowers had two brothers and a fiancée in the war. After the war, she married Woody Sowers and continued to work at Masland’s. She is now retired and enjoys gardening.
Helen Sowers began the interview by describing how, being in a family of ten, they survived through the Great Depression. She also briefly described the blizzard of 1936 in Mt. Holly Springs. She then talked about how local women went to work in the canneries, shoes factories, or at the C.H. Masland Company and how a bus ran to bring the women into Carlisle. She continued by discussing how the war brought hardship to her community as young men were killed or taken prisoner, including her brother whose plane crashed in Alaska and who was missing for 182 days. Next, she talked about her reaction to Pearl Harbor and how her community responded to the outbreak of war. She discussed how her boyfriend and future husband was gone for three and a half years, and how many of the young men who left came back old and injured. She described how she and her parents worried about her brother who was a bombardier in Europe, and how they came to fear the sight of the telegram delivery boy in case he might be bringing news of their son’s death. She then mentioned how one brother was killed in the war and another suffered injuries that required him to stay on and off in a V.A. Hospital in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Sowers then discussed how rationing was particularly hard for a large family with ten children, and how her mother traded ration stamps to get enough food and fuel for her large family. She also discussed the clothing she wore to keep warm. The interview then discussed her experiences working and commuting to the C.H. Masland factory where she worked machine placing grommets onto tents. Helen Sowers then discussed her volunteer work as an airplane spotter at a watchtower in Mt. Holly springs. She concluded the interview by discussing her reaction to V-E and V-J days and the trouble men had finding jobs when they returned.
The following transcription is based on a tape-recorded interview that is available from the library of the Cumberland County Historical Society located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The project’s intent in transcribing the interview was to create a clean, readable text with out sacrificing the original language. Because written English differs from original language, the project adopted conventions to deal with the variations. No words have been added or changed, and no changes have been made in grammar or sentence structure. Words or short phrases added to clarify text always appear in brackets; longer explanations will be placed in footnotes. Likewise, description of non-verbal signs, such as nods of the head to indicate agreement or disagreement, have been noted in brackets. In preparing the text, the transcriber omitted false starts and filler words such as “you know” or “um.” The transcription does not include language from the interviewer that is purely procedural (such as references to turning over the tape) or language that repeats or rephrases a question. No attempt was made to preserve the dialect or pronunciations of the interviewee since the original tapes are available for those interested on those aspects of the interview. (Based on the methodology used by the Wisconsin Women During World War Two Oral History Project)
Heather Egan: First question I’d like to ask is could you just tell me a little bit what it was like before the war?
Helen Sowers: Before the war would have been like, in ’33, you know what was the Depression. I mean everybody had it bad. I mean you traded eggs and you traded chickens and stuff like that, cause I come from a family of ten children, but they fed you, they clothed you and stuff like that. And in 1936 is when the big snow was here in Holly. Oh, that was terrible, see back then when it snowed real hard and real deep, they didn’t have the equipment to dig us out so the men would go shovel 34 [Pennsylvania Route 34] out. That night it would blow shut again so they could go to work again in the morning, they shovel it out again. So, I mean back then it was really rough. Here they come plowing and it’s only two inches, that’s right. So then when the war broke out, I think things got a little better because most people wanted women working, which the women didn’t work then. My mother never worked in a factory or anything. They stayed home and raised her children, but then when the war came along the younger generation of women, they went to work at Masland’s or the shoe factories or the canning factories and places like that. Which we had bus service from over at Gardners the whole way into Carlisle because the bus had a regular schedule to make sure they got us working people to work at seven o’clock. Well out here we came through the bridge out here sometimes we didn’t get to work because it would blow shut when the bus would be coming through that way, well then we’d sit there and wait for somebody to come and dig us out. So it was rough, but we survived, that’s they way I look at it.
Then when the war came along, oh it was terrible, I mean we had a lot of our boys killed and people back then--the telegraph office was over on Pine Street--and they would come over, the man would come to your house with the telegram if somebody was killed and it was sad, I mean very very sad. Because the one boy that I grew up with, he was home on a 24-hour pass and he knew he was going over seas. He never even got off [the boat], they took him in for a boat landing you know, never even got on the beach. I mean things like that you remember because his mom and dad just lived two doors from us and there’s been so many boys in Holly killed, is it really worth it all? They say it is, to keep us free.
So, my brother he was lost in Alaska and after 182 days out in the wilderness he finally got back to civilization. The only way he got back was this Indian trapper was living with an Eskimo woman, so far back--not even civilized back in there my brother said--and what they would do in the winter, they would kill them seals and things and then they’d take have them in some place where that they kept them and they kept [the seal meat] frozen all winter and it was so hard, my brother said, you should see them out there with cross cut saw, sawing them, that’s how hard they were. So my brother, not used to eating blubber meat, why he was very, very thin when he got back to the states, very, very thin and he was a real tall, red-head guy, wasn’t real heavy set or anything, but boy could you tell he lost weight, and then they had him in the hospital for, oh I don’t know how long.
But you know when then take these boys out like that and they take them and the boys that I knew that came and were in the prison camps, it you tried to feed them right away what they were used to, they would get awful sick, too rich of food for their system that they weren’t used to. Hey, not to change to the subject, but do you girls know Gill Masland in town? No? Well he was captured by the Japanese and they tortured him. And I worked in at Masland’s when he got back, they took his finger nails off and he’d come into work in the morning and he wouldn’t want the people to see his hand you know, on account of his fingernails, he was in and out of the hospital I don’t know how many times with those finger. I mean its things that I experienced and it was horrible, so what else do you want to know? Anything else?
HE: Where were you when you heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?
HS: I was at a football game with my boyfriend, the one I married, and we had—I don’t know how many of the boys that were with us--we all went together to the football game and this was on a Sunday, and Carlisle was playing Mechanicsburg and that’s where I was. And when we came home, because they, Woody [Sowers] and Ed Skilton and all these guys that was with us football gang, they ended up in the service, and when we came home, when we dropped off the first boy, and we went in there in the house to the parents, they were sitting there crying and we didn’t know what happened cause usually they had cake like of coffee or tea or something for us kids when come back. Well, when we found that out then I went up home and then it was worse cause mom and dad knew three of her boys were going. It was really awful, so.
HE: And how did your community respond?
HE: How did your community respond to the bombing?
HS: Oh how did I respond?
HE: The community?
HS: Oh the community? Terrible, everybody was in an uproar. I mean it was you know, cause you take most of the families back there had eight or nine, ten to thirteen children back then, and they all knew that their boys would have to go and it was devastating. I mean all the boys I grew up with, I knew they were going and I kept in touch with the guy that I married because he was my first boy friend and then we got married when he came back. But he was over seas for three and a half years. You know now they limit the time to the soldiers for to be over there, but during the war it wasn’t that way. You went and stayed. And he operated General Patton’s upper radio, so he was out a good bit on the front, because old Patton, he went up regardless of what was going on. He would just want to see what’s up ahead. So that’s the way it was with that.
But you know the boys, none of them are the same when they come back, none of them. I mean you sent these young boys to the war and when they come back, they weren’t young boys anymore. Some of them were haggard and torn and broken bones and shot up and one day this one boy came home and I can’t remember how long that he was home, and he came to stay his sister and her husband here in town--whether his parents were dead or not I don’t know--but he’d ride the bus into Carlisle everyday with us. One morning he didn’t get on the bus--he was dead. So I asked his sister what happened and she said, “Well, he got complications from the shrapnel that was in him.” See, these guys come home, they had that shrapnel, my husband had an awful lot of shrapnel in him and what would happen it would fester and then it would come out, but it would get soar, and every time I’d squeeze something out, he’d scream. I said “Well you got to take the worse with the better.” I said “Now it’s going to get better.” But I mean things like that, people, you know, they remember, because I know how my mom and dad did. They were aw, man.
So then the second boy, he was over in England and he was a bombardier and then he would go on these bombing missions, and every time you turned around, whenever the man would come up Hill Street with a telegram they’d think it was him. I mean it was terrible to see the look on somebody’s face and the one time they stopped at our driveway and he asked me where this family lived that he had the telegram--I thought it was for my brother--you won’t believe this, I was so shocked and so scared I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t even answer the man. Now, I knew the man, you know from different times we’d go over to the station to pick up things and he looked at me and said “Helen what’s the matter with you?” It was a boy down the street that he was bringing the telegram, but see I thought it was my other brother, and having one already lost, why I didn’t want the second one to be.
But he got home, but he wasn’t--like I said. A bomb exploded in his face and his eyes were terrible for years, he ended up going to the VA [Veterans Administration] hospital to stay, but they treated him all right. I mean they cared for him. And down in Lebanon, down here, and I’d go down there all the time to see him you know. But they fed him good, they housed him all right, and whenever you were there for a long of time they had a special place for you—[it] looked like a locker thing there in their room. They could put their stuff in there. And then he would get out sometimes. And then he had an apartment in Lebanon for a while, and they even bought him one of them carts that you ride, and he could go to the Post Office he could go do his banking and stuff. But every so often I’d get a call from the hospital and have to go down. He’d be out so long and right back again, so what else?
HE: How did the war affect you and your family’s daily life such as, like you said, you’re brothers went into the military service, that’s one, rationing victory gardens?
HS: The rationing really bothered, us, but they gave you sugar stamps, they gave you gasoline stamps, they gave you heating oil. Well, because we were such a big family we could trade off which you weren’t supposed to do. My mother would trade off the stamps that she had too many sugars or something like that so she could get heating oil for us cause they didn’t give you what you really needed, cause we lived in a pretty good sized house for ten children. But outside of that and the gas rationing, and no tires for on your vehicle, everyone was always along the road with flat tires, I mean really. You wouldn’t believe that with out tires you could have three flat tires a day. You had to learn to change your tire quick. So outside of that, why I would say most of the people just learned to survive with what was going on. I mean you’d hear, you know, on the radio where your boys were and stuff like that, but you didn’t have television to see what was going on, they ought have told you, but the thing is to me it was terrible.
Because we went to work in there at Masland’s, we worked three shifts, you worked seven to three, three to eleven, eleven to seven and when it snowed too bad, they’d say, “O.K., it’s going to snow tonight, bring your suit case with your toothbrush and stuff in.” They kept you overnight in there, so that they could get that work out the next day because it was war work, and you stayed. Mother didn’t like that because I was just a young girl and she was afraid somebody would sneak in where us girls were sleeping. But they paid to have a lady sit there all night while we slept. See that’s what I say, they treated us all right, you know what I mean, as far as I’m concerned, they treated me all right. Now some people probably wouldn’t talk like that, say they did, but I will say that they treated me wonderful and I never had any problems with F.E. or C.H or any of them. See, I was there was there when the older ones where there, and they were always very nice to me, well they were nice to other people, but to hear them talk…So now what?
HE: I just have a quick question because we’ve gotten this in every interview, did you by any chance use leg paint instead of panty hose?
HS: Have what?
HE: Leg paint instead of panty hose?
HS: No, we didn’t have panty hose. When we went to church, you wouldn’t remember them brown and white oxfords you wore, they were the style then and then you wore anklets. And what they usually made you wear in the wintertime was those long underwear because it was so cold and then you had these here brown stockings that you wore, but then you had a garter that went around here to hold them up. But that’s the way the winters were, it was cold and you’d take back in the houses didn’t have furnaces in and things like that, it was all [a] cook stove in the kitchen and that’s where the heat came from. So that’s what they dressed you in. In other words, when you went to church, why you had them oxfords on and them brown stockings, as I called them, but they provided for you, but I don’t know how. Just think of the little bit of money that they made, cause my grandfather only made fourteen dollars a week, and he kept five kids and his wife didn’t work. But you see back then you raised all your stuff, and you raised your garden and things, and you canned all that stuff, and things like that, so. But I don’t live that way now. I learned better.
HE: When did you start working at Masland’s?
HS: When I was eighteen.
HE: What did you do there?
HS: During the war I ran a grommet machine, in other words, the tent-- they made these tents and you’ve seen tents the holes to put your ropes through, and that’s called a grommet. So whenever you laid that grommet on the bottom part of the machine, and laid your tent up there, and then, the part up here brought the top down and clamped them together, so that’s what I ran for, during the war [shows motion with hands]. The after the war I worked in just the rug part, because you were called back after the war whenever they rearranged everything for breaking down from all the war tents and tarps and stuff, why then they had to lay a bunch of us off until they got the rug stuff back up again, and that took quite a few months.
HE: Can you describe maybe a typical day at work?
HS: Typical day? Everyday was a typical day. It started out like I said, and you had so long for a coffee break, and then at dinner time—you usually took your lunch cause there wasn’t cafeterias then--and then everybody, we had this great big eating room, went there and sit, and soon the as the bell rang you were back at your machine and started again. And then at three o’clock you were finished, and then like I told you, the bus was always out front for us and brought us home. So that was a typical day, everyday. Just like at night, the bus was out there, if you worked three to eleven, and then if you worked eleven ‘til seven they were there to drop us off who went to work at seven [and] take the ones home that worked ‘til seven. We had good bus service here then, but there wasn’t any cars then, nobody could afford the tires or anything, cause you couldn’t get them. I mean the people couldn’t get the tires.
HE: How did you become involved with working on the observation tower?
HS: I guess because there was just a few of the people left in town, that left us girls to do most of that. And really, it wasn’t anything, no airplanes like there is now going by or anything like that, but it was just up here on Hill [Street] up back of Chestnut Street there and it was mostly done by the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] which is still up there in the alley. And then they’d come around and ask for volunteers to sit up there, and that’s all you did was sit up there and watch. You had, I don’t remember, they never brought you anything to eat or anything, I mean I guess we took our own things, I don’t remember that much about it, but my sister and I saw a lamp because that your parents didn’t let you out unless your sisters chaperoned. So that’s the way I looked at it anyway, but I didn’t go to often because I was too busy working and they had a few women up there that didn’t work and I guess they kept up with all the different things that were going on. But I always tried to volunteer and everything, if I was available, but the way we worked you didn’t--and then come home and help your mother. Anything else?
HE: Did you feel you were contributing to the war effort?
HS: Oh yeah, I think everybody did by saving gas and saving this and saving that and working, because when you worked you were making them great big tarps why you were contributing to the war in the same way the Carlisle Tire and Rubber people, that’s they way I guess they figured they were contributing to the tires for the boys overseas because that’s where they all went.
HE: Do you remember V-E and V-J day?
HS: Oh yeah, yeah. It was quite a celebration, but then when the boys got back they didn’t have nothing for them, no parades or anything. The only parade I saw was up in New York. Roosevelt had that then and they showed it, him going down Time Square and with the soldiers and all that, but not here. The boys just came home and back to work if they could even find a job--which jobs were very scarce then, very, very scarce. And most of them went to work in the paper mills or--these other plants weren’t around here then--the crystal plants and the milk plant and the PPG’s, they weren’t here when these boys came back. A lot of them went into Carlisle to shoe factories, because they had to get on with their lives when they had come back. Just think when them boys went into the service, they got twenty-five dollars a month. That’s what my husband got when he went in, twenty-five dollars a month because he used to say “I don’t know if I’ll have enough money for shaving and stuff for,” because they had buy all that stuff themselves, their toothbrushes, their haircuts, and everything like that, and twenty-five dollars didn’t go very far then. But they gave them free movies and stuff like that, but still. That it?
HE: Thank you.
[end of interview]