Childhood at Fort Monroe included German POWs

HAMPTON — It wasn't so much the march of fascism that got Bob Ballou's attention in the 1940s.

It was homesick Germans at Fort Monroe who would teach an American child how to play stickball.

It was the 8-inch "invaders" who landed with tiny parachutes as part of a simulated attack on the Army post.

It was living with seemingly impossible restrictions. Imagine being able to purchase only three rolls of caps at one time for the ol' Peacemaker. How could a child wage a respectable war?

Ballou, who lives in Hampton, was 4 years old when World War II broke out, 9 years old when it ended. His formative years are flanked on all sides by the defining military struggle of the age, even if he was too young to grasp its meaning.

Ballou's father was in the Army and the family spent the early part of World War II living at Fort Monroe, when the Peninsula was far different from today.

Back then, what is now Mercury Boulevard was a two-lane concrete road that carried convoys of troops and vehicles up to Fort Eustis in Newport News.

The James River Bridge was the sole way to drive across the water. Ferry service compensated for lack of a Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. Who knows? On some days, the ferry may have been faster than what we have now.

"World War Two," said Ballou, "was an interesting time."

Ballou was living on Fort Monroe when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He stayed on post for a time before his father, an instructor of coastal artillery, was transferred to North Carolina. Ballou returned to Fort Monroe just after the war ended, in September 1945.

When he returned, captured Germans were still living at Fort Monroe in long barracks, 50 on the first floor and 50 on the second. Ballou had a child's curiosity about the young men.

"You could ride through the encampment area," he said. "You were told not to. I got taken home by the MPs a couple of times."

The risk was worth the payoff. By then, the Germans held no animosity toward the Americans – at least not those Germans who were allowed to walk around. They always had candy for a passing American kid.

"They said hello and you would stop and talk," Ballou recalled. "They'd teach you how to play stickball. Of course, then the MPs would come by and ruin everything."

Ballou held no hatred for the Germans. The war against them had ended months before, and he was more concerned about replenishing his stocks of toys and candy.

Toys were made of metal, not plastic, and the war effort put a premium on metal. During the war, Ballou could sometimes score a helmet liner or a discarded military belt at Fort Monroe. When the machine gun range fell silent, he sifted through the dirt for spent rounds.

Candy was a problem, too. During the war, the penny-sized Tootsie Rolls disappeared — it used too much paper. He had to get by with the larger Tootsie Rolls, and they didn't taste the same to his discerning child's tongue.

But there was no shortage more important than caps. Older folks will still remember the metal pistols that accommodated a roll of paper caps — 50 to a roll — good enough for gunning down any Nazi horde or Japanese invasion.

"You used to be able to buy a box with seven or eight rolls," he said. The wartime economy scaled that back to three rolls at a penny a piece.

He had little grasp of the global life-and-death struggle or the threat to American security. The only "invasion" he remembers was a simulated exercise — part of which required the tiny paratroopers.

""They don't always go where they're supposed to," he said. "In the area where I was, which was the Chamberlin, we had a big fight over who was going to get one of the rubber parachute people. I guess the kids got hurt more than the adults."

Ballou's heart never left Fort Monroe. Instilled with a love of history, he is now a tour guide at the Casemate Museum.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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