J. Malcolm Swenson ’54

Swenson '54

J. Malcom Swenson '54, back row, sixth from right

(1936–    )

From Children of the Storm: Childhood Memories of World War II, edited by Charles Perkins; page 94

The War in Straw’s Point, New Hampshire

In the summer we used to stay at Straw’s Point on the New Hampshire coast. Because of the nearness to Portsmouth Navel Base, parts of the coast were taken for defense and coastal guns. We were allowed to remain in our house but during the early part of the war the Point was defended by a detachment of perhaps twenty US Army soldiers who stayed in the Coast Guard station behind the point and immediately dug defensive positions on their perimeter. During the summer, the five- to seven-year-olds like myself who lived on the point would have a good time playing army games with the soldiers. We would often get instruction in Army tactics from soldiers who had probably just finished basic training themselves. I remember one of these soldiers solemnly telling enthralled children to “maintain frontal fire while using part of your force to encircle and attack from the rear.” Pretty heady stuff if you were a small child.

Eventually, a watchtower was built at Straw’s Point. There were silhouettes inside of German and Japanese aircraft. We kids were permitted inside and we dutifully memorized all the aircraft types. Sometimes, as a drill, the volunteers on duty in the tower would call Grenier Field near Manchester and summon a flight of P-47s, I think they were, for a mock sighting of an enemy or submarine. These aircraft would come in as low over Straw’s Point as they could – actually below the level of the flagpole – so as not to be spotted I suppose, in case there was a real enemy out there. I can tell you how exciting it was as they skimmed over the roofs of the houses, their engines roaring. In a funny way it made me happy because I felt we needed all the help we could get. About seven miles offshore are the Isles of Shoals, a string of low-lying, rocky islands. One of them was designated as a bombing range and sometimes we could see the planes dropping bombs on it, and the flashes of the explosions. It’s only very recently that it was decided that the island was safe enough to be returned to public ownership.

Once, there was a large oil slick washed up on the beach, and rumor had it that a Nazi submarine had been sunk just offshore. We never knew for sure that this was true but I have a vague memory that after the war a submarine which had gone down somewhere in the shipping approaches to Portsmouth had to be moved or blown up.

There was a woman in her eighties who lived on the Point. Everyone called her Aunt Carrie Meigs – and I suppose she was a typical New Englander of her time. Her house backed right onto the ocean, above a stretch of the coast known officially and unofficially as “Pebbly Beach.”

Aunt Carrie was very patriotic and was always urging us kids to be alert. The Enemy Were Everywhere, she said. As an example she told us about a sinister thing that had happened to her. She had been sitting outside, rocking on her porch, when a car had pulled up and stopped. Three men got out, Aunt Carrie told us. She knew instinctively that one was an Italian, one was a German, and one was a Japanese. The men asked Aunt Carrie for directions to Pebbly Beach. Aunt Carrie said that she “remained calm,” and pointed out the way to the beach past her house. As soon as the men had gone, she rushed inside and reported them to the Coast Guard. Even to a six- or seven-year-old as I was by then this seemed a bit far-fetched but, as we found out later, Aunt Carrie’s calls to the Coast Guard were real enough. And frequent enough, I suppose they must have livened up many an otherwise tedious watch for the young Coast Guardsmen on duty. So far as I know, on this particular occasion the Coast Guard didn’t send anyone to investigate Aunt Carrie’s reports about dangerous enemy aliens on Pebbly Beach.

When the war in the Pacific ended, all we children formed a parade and marched around the point shouting, banging pots and pans, and generally making as much noise as possible. As a joke, we ran up a war trophy Japanese flag on the flagpole in front of Aunt Carrie’s. As far as I know, this was the only Japanese flag raised on the American mainland during the war. We all thought it would be a good joke on the grown-ups. Unfortunately, it was Aunt Carrie who spotted it first. Within minutes of the Rising Sun being hoisted over Straw’s Point. Aunt Carrie’s daughter, clearly acting on orders, came storming outside, hauled down the flag, and gave us all a stern talking to.

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