There’s a standing joke here that Americans are always late everywhere they go. I’d heard it a couple of times before someone explained it to me. I didn’t think Americans any less punctual than any other people, and in fact we aren’t. The joke, more bitter than funny, has to do with the fact that the British fought the Germans without American help for over two years, until the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the USA into WWII. Some people here are still angry about that.
The war looms larger in the lives of the British than I think it does in the lives of Americans. My parents’ generation in the USA sacrificed in countless ways, it’s undoubtedly true, and military casualties were higher for the US (although they made up a smaller percentage of the population). Still, US people and US territory simply weren’t bombed by the Japanese the way the British were bombed by the Germans. We didn’t have 67,000 civilian casualties. We didn’t come out of bomb shelters to see our homes as piles of broken brick and dust. We also didn’t conscript women to work in munitions factories—which could be lethal—or in non-combat military roles. We didn’t put luggage tags on our kids and shove them onto trains hoping strangers in the countryside would take them in and so keep them out of the reach of the bombs, hoping that if we died, maybe they wouldn’t.
And there are still reminders of the war here from time to time, things Americans would have no reason to think about. Today in Yorkshire, the people and farm animals from two villages were evacuated while the Royal Air Force carried out a controlled explosion of a bomb that had been sitting in a field there since the 1940s.
Some history buffs, out last weekend to dig around the remains of a crashed plane, discovered a 500-pound bomb, still live. It’s thought the British plane crashed after limping home damaged by German flak. The crew parachuted out—an old man in one of the affected villages remembers the knock on the door that turned out to be one of the parachutists looking for shelter—and the plane plowed into the dirt with its enormous bomb intact.
The modern-day RAF spent two days shoring up and sandbagging. The bomb disposal crew made at least four attempts to defuse the bomb, which at one point started ticking. Eventually, they blew it up where it sat; you can see the footage on YouTube.
The war is still ticking in the minds of a lot of British people. That’s why, at a social event at the village hall, when I appeared belatedly at the door of the kitchen to return my cup and saucer—it’s true; no gathering here is complete without tea—the old man collecting up the crockery to be washed said “You Americans, always the last ones in.”
When Americans talk about the after-effects of the war, they tend to talk about the GI bill, the baby boom, the optimism and prosperity of the 1950s. Maybe they’ll mention Rosie the Riveter, and how she was expected to go back home and bake cakes and fold dinner napkins because the returning soldiers wanted their jobs back, but otherwise, the tone seems upbeat. For the British in the same era, there were whole towns to be rebuilt from the rubble up. While German reconstruction benefitted from millions in foreign aid, the British struggled to rebuild their bombed-out cities and to pay back their war debt.
The years just after the war are commonly called the austerity years. At the time, many people questioned why, since they’d won the war, conditions were even worse than they’d been during the fighting. Furniture was rationed until 1952 and was made according to government-specified patterns designed to conserve materials. People whose homes were bombed went to the head of the furniture waiting list. Food rationing lasted until 1954, and shortly after we moved here in 1999, they finally rescinded the last wartime regulation on food production, which had restricted bakers to making so many brown loaves for every so many loaves of white.
So I try to take comments like the one from the old fellow at the village hall with equanimity, even though that’s a pretty hostile thing for someone to say, and even though the policies of the United States before I was born can hardly be my fault. I’m thankful that millions of American civilians, while their lives were disrupted by everything from sending sons to the front lines to being rounded up into camps because their parents were Japanese, didn’t endure the same hardships and dangers as so many British civilians did.
The bomb unearthed this weekend and exploded today is not a unique find. About a year ago, they found such a bomb in someone’s back garden/yard in London. There’s no telling how many more are waiting to be found.