Kenneth E. MacWilliams ’54

MacWilliams '54

Kenneth E. MacWilliams '54

(1936–    )

Ingenuity and Creativity Win Battles

Just before the start of the war my father bought a new car from the local car dealer in the small New England town where we lived. Within days the car developed mechanical trouble. Multiple trips to the dealership didn’t resolve anything and finally my father asked the dealer to replace the car. The dealer declined, pointing out to my father that he should be glad he had a new car at all given the war clouds about to burst. They argued, but because there were then no warranties or lemon laws my father had no legal recourse. However, he was very well known and highly respected in our little community. So he purchased practically all the lemons he could find and, with the help of my two older brothers who would soon leave for the war and using sailmaker’s thread, he managed to hang about a hundred lemons around the outside of the car, after which he continued to drive around town as if nothing had happened.

Within a day the dealer called saying, “Get that car in here immediately.” “What about returning my money or giving me another car?” my father asked. “We’ll give you another car, but just get that car in here immediately.” I like to think that it was Yankee ingenuity and creativity such as this that helped our armed forces win World War Two.

Six Penny, Eight Penny, and Ten Penny Nails

During the war all building materials went to the war effort, so by the end of the war there was a large pent-up demand for private new home construction. Building materials though remained very scarce. Many temporary military buildings had been built during the war and many were auctioned off when it was over. People bid for these small, simply constructed wooden structures in order to disassemble them for the materials. My father wanted to build a summer home in New Hampshire so he bid on one such small building. He won and with the help of my older brothers back from the war he carefully disassembled the building in a few weeks in the spring of 1946. They used crowbars to remove the nails, which were in just as short supply as the lumber and needed to be carefully salvaged. But pulling nails out curved them. Thus my assigned job as a nine-year old at this “deconstruction site” was to hammer all these bent nails (seemingly millions of them) straight so that my father could soon re-use them to build our family’s first vacation home. By the end of that assignment I never wanted to see another nail again in all my life.

The March of the Evil Black Pins

Hitler began marching in 1938 and peaked geographically at Stalingrad in 1943 when I was six. From the beginning my father plotted the Third Reich’s expanding perimeter on an enormous map of Europe on a wall in our home. He used small map pins with spherical black heads, inserted side by side, which made it appear to me as if an evil black blot was spreading right across the wall.

After Poland was invaded he added red pins to represent the Soviet armies, white pins for the British and green for the French. With the aid of frequently published battle front positions he updated the map constantly.

Steadily over weeks and months the evil black pins pushed the white and green pins off the map on the left and then wheeled around and pushed the red pins almost off the map on the right. I sensed my parents’ great anxiety and I feared the world would be devoured by those overpowering and insatiable evil black pins! It left a lasting visual memory. Finally the blue pins of the American armies appeared on the map, crushed the black pins, and made a by then eight year old feel safe and enormously proud of his country.

The Nazis as Creepy-Crawlies

At the beginning of WWII the U.S. was worried that Nazi Germany might try to connect with fascists in South America. To rebuff any such effort we needed to build many dirt airfields in remote strategic locations of South America as quickly as possible. Professor Arthur Casagrande at MIT had developed new soil stabilization techniques that made it possible to construct simple dirt runways with the surface strength to handle high impact landings of heavy planes. My father was a civil engineer and expert in these new techniques. Working with private companies in South America he was responsible for the construction of many of these jungle airfields and he often brought my mother and me along to these remote areas. As a four year old in these outback regions the only threats of “invasion” I could imagine were the ones coming from under and above my bed at night, and they were very real! My mother placed each leg of my bed in an empty coffee with an inch of auto transmission oil at the bottom. My blanket was pinned to my mattress to keep it from touching the floor, and a mosquito net was suspended over the top of my bed, completing a cocoon of protection. Just as my father was working to help repel potential Nazi “invaders,” every morning I awoke and inspected the net and oil moat around my “castle” to count how many horrible creepy-crawlies my own ramparts had repelled during the dark night. To me these dead “horribles” were a good approximation of the Nazis.

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