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On Pearl Harbor Day, remembering Austin’s homefront during WWII

Connie Douglass Vanzura recalls wartime adventures in the streets of the city.


Life on Austin’s homefront was sometimes testing, sometimes upbeat, but rarely dull.

To Connie Douglass’ surprise, an Austin rooming house filled with “war brides” following their husbands.

To Connie Douglass Vanzura, Dec. 7, 1941, was just another ordinary day in her 10th year.

“Until my grandfather, Zene Foster, rushed into my grandmother’s rooming house, yelling: ‘Turn on the radio, turn on the radio. We’ve been attacked. This means war!’” Vanzura said. “I can still remember the shiver of fear that rushed through my body.”

Seventy-five years ago, that rooming house — not far from the two Austin train stations that straddled Congress Avenue at Third Street — was a gathering place for friends as well as roomers. That evening, concerned people gathered around the Douglass family’s Motorola radio.

Life on Austin’s homefront for the daughter of the American-Statesman’s only photographer at the time, Neal Douglass, was sometimes testing, sometimes upbeat, but rarely dull.

“One day I came home and saw soldiers in full uniforms, with rifles on their shoulders, standing in columns that filled the entire street for blocks and blocks,” she recalled. “They stood for hours, waiting for troop trains to take them to war. It didn’t take long for my grandmother, Nora Foster, to realize that the men needed water.”

Vanzura and her 5-year-old sister, Carolyn, were sent out with pitchers and glasses.

“That eased my shyness,” she said. “And being the kind of kid that made any animal that moved a pet, I owned two ringed-necked doves that I trained to stay on my arm until I lifted it. They flew off my arm, circled around and, at the sound of my whistle, came back and landed on my arm. I saw the smiles on the soldiers’ faces — and I had an audience. Day after day I repeated my act.”

One day, a dove landed on the barrel of a soldier’s rifle. She heard laughter from that row, as one by one the men handed the dove to the next in line until it reached her.

“The lines of soldiers moved forward, turned the corner, and disappeared into the troop trains,” she said. “The soldiers were gone. The street was empty. I missed them, but more soldiers took their places, and my doves flew above them.”

To her surprise, the rooming house was soon filled with war brides following their husbands. Her grandmother cooked large meals. The chatter of young people filled the rooms.

“I was raised by a Victorian-era grandmother, and she was happy for the young people, but bristled at the brides sitting on their husbands’ laps on her front porch,” Vanzura said. “She grumbled about it to me, and let me know that it was not anything she’d better ever see me do when I grew up. She held her tongue to them because she realized it might be the last time they were together. With the snap of her dishcloth, she went back to cooking. Throughout the war, as soldiers left, new brides arrived.”

At school, she and other Austin students collected metal, bought war stamps to fill their savings books and understood the importance of rationing.

“Bubble gum disappeared,” she said. “I learned many years later that it was used in bomb making. I have no proof of that, but if true, it was a patriotic item to be without. Cooking grease was collected for the war effort, and I always had a large donation from my grandmother’s kitchen. Oleomargarine was created to take the place of butter.”

It was hard to serve so many meals in the face of rationing, but that led to another wartime adventure.

“Behind the rooming house was an alley, and across the alley was a hatchery,” she said. “When I learned that the barrels of pipping chickens that did not get out of their eggs on time were destined to be destroyed, I gathered as many of them each day as I could carry. … My sister and I put them in a brooder to keep them warm, and throughout the war, the yard was full of chickens and a few turkeys.”

Patriotic Austin citizens, Vanzura recalled, dug up their yards and planted victory gardens. Women joined knitting clubs and made warm socks for soldiers. They volunteered at the USO to take care of soldiers. Soldiers were invited to have Sunday dinners with Austin families. Movie house ushers collected money for the war effort.

“I am 85,” Vanzura said. “But in my mind’s eye still stand those brave, eager, forever-young men. I remember the one who smiled as he handed me my dove. His face is etched in my memory. I remember their laughter when a gangly, skinny kid took their minds off where they were heading. Today, those still with us will be in their 90s. They saved America from domination. They gave all of us a lifetime of freedom.”

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