‘Everything has stopped, hasn’t it?’: Perspectives of 2 people who lived through World War II
Special to the Sierra Sun
Louis Conter has seen the world change, a few times.
As one of two surviving members of the USS Arizona during the Pearl Harbor attack, few can better grasp how quickly people and a nation can change.
So when in late February, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials warned Americans to prepare for the possibility of severe disruptions to public life, Conter knew the best way to get through is a unified, communitywide effort.
“The whole nation was involved the whole way through at that time,” said Conter, a Grass Valley resident. “People need to just face what’s in front of them, don’t panic, and follow orders.”
Pearl Harbor changed Conter’s life forever, but he said it was something he was well prepared for, already in the Navy with training to handle whatever came his way.
For Barbara Ryan, then a high school senior ready to start her life, Pearl Harbor was a traumatic shock, but even its full impact on her life wasn’t felt right away.
“We didn’t take things too seriously until the blackouts came,” Ryan said. “We were carefree and young, not paying attention to the European War. Then pretty soon we didn’t know if we’d even survive the war. We were very vulnerable being on the West Coast, and no one knew if the Japanese would attack.”
Mostly housebound as a result of a fall two years ago, Ryan gets support from friends, neighbors and community service organization to help her live independently. During World War II and now, Ryan said, people got through the uncertainty, anxiety and collective grief by coming together.
While people can’t be together physically during this crisis, both Conter and Ryan keep in touch with friends and family over the phone, a technological advantage people have today that should provide perspective, they said.
“Back in the 20s and 30s we worked in the fields from the time we were 8 and 10 years old on up,” Conter said. “Staying inside for a few three or four months is not a big deal.”
Both also agreed that some good could come from massive social change.
When the war broke out, Ryan joined the effort through war work that had her shipping supplies in a warehouse converted for use by the government. There she was able to work with people from across the country who relocated for the war effort, and learned to drive a Jeep.
“I loved working there. I liked my work so much I would’ve worked seven days a week, but they wouldn’t allow it,” Ryan said. “I wasn’t Rosie the Riveter, but I did stack lumber.”
Conter said once the pandemic and economic crisis are over with he hopes people come out on the other side with more appreciation for what they have and an enriched work ethic.
Ryan said she hopes people question what’s important to them.
“Everything has stopped, hasn’t it?” Ryan said, adding that she’s become more political and paid more attention to TV commercials recently. “There’s so much conspicuous consumption in this world. Do we need all this to come back?”
John Orona is a reporter for The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun based in Grass. Valley . Contact him at email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.
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