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March 26. 2014 4:50PM

Bill Luti: Situation in Ukraine stirs memories of events before World War II


BILL LUTI 

RUSSIA'S recent annexation of Crimea has prompted reminiscences of my high school days, a period spanning the years leading up to World War II.

In the spring of 1939, I was a senior at Middleboro (Mass.) High School, where the art department was holding its annual exhibit for parents. As a would-be cartoonist, I displayed a comic strip lampooning one of the most notorious world figures of not only of our time, but of of all time, Germany's "Fuhrer," Adolph Hitler.

Standing by my masterpiece, I was approached by a classmate and her father. Instead of the expected compliment, I received a blistering dressing-down from the girl's father, who accused me in a thick German accent of an indecent and slanderous attack on a foreign head of state.

I was stunned — but hardly chastened. After all, my amateurish effort was inspired by what had been going on in Europe for the past three years and by our country's passivity in the face of a looming catastrophe.

What was wrong with us? Were we deaf and blind? Could we not hear nightly on the radio Hitler's screaming madness, and the roaring response of frenzied "Sieg heils" from enraptured hundreds of thousands of German citizens?

Could we not see the same insane scenes in the newsreels at our movie houses, footage showing ad nauseam goose-stepping troops, as well as boys and girls in uniform marching and singing, members of the racially pure Nazi youth movement?

Who had read "Mein Kampf"? Why were Americans such as Charles Lindberg seduced by Germany's technology, efficiency and culture?

Along with civil war in Spain and Japanese aggression in the Far East, here is what was happening during my high school years, events of which I was well aware:

1934 — Chancellor Dollfuss of Austria is murdered and Hitler takes total control the German government.

1935 — Hitler violates the Treaty of Versailles by initiating universal conscription and strips Jews of their rights by enacting the Nuremberg Race Laws.

1936 — German troops occupy the Rhineland, and the Olympic Games take place in Berlin. With a smug but soon-to-be infuriated Hitler looking on, a black American "mongrel" shows up athletes of the "master race" by winning gold in four events and setting a world record in the broad (long) jump. Can anyone say schadenfreude? The gifted athlete who struck all that gold was Jesse Owens.

1938 — In March, Hitler "negotiates" Anschluss, political union with Austria. In August, Germany mobilizes. In September, in Munich, Britain's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, strikes a non-aggression deal with Hitler, assuring joyous compatriots that as a result of his diplomacy there will be "peace for our time," words that will be forever associated with appeasement and surrender. In October, Germans occupy the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. In November, Nazi stormtroopers and other thugs roam the streets of Berlin and other German cities smashing the show windows of Jewish owned stores on what becomes know as "Kristallnacht" (the night of broken glass).

1939 — In March, Nazi Germany takes Czechoslovakia. In June, I graduate from Middleboro High. On Aug. 14, Germany signs a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. On Sept. 1, the Luftwaffe bombs Warsaw, and Hitler's troops invade Poland. Two days later, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declare war on Germany. On Sept. 5, the United States proclaims neutrality. I am stunned. As if on signal, Hitler unleashes his U-boats and the Battle of the Atlantic begins.

1940 — In summer, I embark on one last fling before joining the Navy. My good friend Greg Mitrakas and I hitchhike to New York to check out the World's Fair for a couple of days. With next to nothing in our wallets, we spend the night sleeping on a bench in Grand Central Station (though Greg's version says that for 50 cents we flopped at the Mills House in the Bowery). Around Labor day, several friends and I travel to Cape Cod. Parked beside the Cape Cod Canal, we witness an amazing sight: a procession of a dozen or so old U.S. destroyers passing northbound under the Sagamore Bridge.

Later we would learn that those "four-pipers" were part of a larger group of 50 headed for Great Britain as the result of a deal called "Lend-Lease," whereby we would give the Brits 50 or more over-aged escorts in exchange for land on which to build military bases, including one in Argentia, Newfoundland.

But on this day I have no way of knowing that in several months, having taken the "Oath of Allegiance" on Nov. 4, I will pay my first visit to Argentia as a member of the crew of a newly commissioned seaplane tender, the USS Albemarle .

Bill Luti is a resident of Concord


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