“The macho was as phony as the day was long,” John Davis said. “We were all scared.”
This is how World War II veteran Davis described the dynamic of a troop of teenagers caught in the draft, plucked from their homes, and sent into combat.
According to the National World War II Museum, roughly 10 million American men were conscribed into the Armed Forces throughout the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all men age d18 to 68 were required to register for the draft. However, the focus was on men below the age of 38.
In 1944, Davis, who now lives at the Knolls of Oxford, was drafted at the age of 18.
“When you grew up during the World War II era, [you knew] you were going to be drafted, Davis said. “Everyone was expected.”
The transition from civilian life to combat and then its reversal were, for Davis, abrupt.
“The transition is so rapid and so short,” he said. “There is kind of a surreal quality to the whole thing.
“One thinks, ‘This can’t be happening to me; this happens to other people,'” Davis said.
Davis attended a mere three and a half months of training before he shipped out.
“If you are a true combatant, when firing a machine gun or a tank, the aim is to kill people,” Davis said. “I was a 19-year-old kid right out of high school. What did I know about killing people?”
Davis was one of the many young men, just out of high school, thrown into combat as situations in the European and Pacific Theatres boiled over.
“It was almost a joke,” Davis said, when comparing the scrappy, disoriented teenagers drafted into the US military to the trained armies of Japan and Germany.
“When you are 18 you are immortal,” Davis said.
Death is the last thing on a teenager’s mind, according to Davis, which is why the Armed Forces conscribed young men, general strangers to adulthood, unmarried and without much responsibility.
“I saw people dying,” Davis said. “You don’t ordinarily think those things are going to happen to you. You think you’re immortal and that bad things won’t happen to you and that’s a good feeling.”
He described the transition from high school to the United States military as a journey to another world.
“It’s regimented and disciplined,” Davis said. “You must follow orders without question. You don’t say, ‘let’s from a committee and discuss this.’ The only idea is to avoid being killed. It may sound facetious, but it’s on top of everybody’s list: to come out alive”
The transition was made easier, according to Davis, by correspondence with people back home, which soothed the anxiety of being thousands of miles away from loved ones. The correspondence between soldiers and those awaiting their return became known as V-Mail, or Victory Mail.
“Everybody wants to hear from those you left behind,” Davis said.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, the second, and more powerful of the two bombs, ‘Fat Man,’ was dropped on Nagasaki. Five days after that, the Emperor announced Japanese surrender, bringing the war to an end.
“As much as any of us understood, it had never occurred before,” Davis said. “[We asked,] ‘What was an atomic bomb?'”
According to Davis, at the time, the only thing the blasts and subsequent surrender meant to him was that he didn’t have to fight the Japanese in the notoriously turbulent and bloody Pacific.
“It didn’t occur to us if it was moral or not,” Davis said. “Main thing was, we were not going to fight in the Pacific … So, I went to a camp in Kentucky, which was much nicer.”
Davis was discharged in April, 1946. Five months after returning from duty, Davis enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. According to Davis, “one of the greatest programs,” the G.I. Bill, paid his tuition.
Looking back on his experience, Davis said as the years have passed, they have left behind perspective.
“I’m almost 88, I’m one of the younger WWII vets,” Davis said. “We’re talking now about a war that was almost 70 years go, and perspectives change, we’re still writing about it, dissecting it.”
Lee Fisher, a Vietnam War veteran, also resides at the Knolls of Oxford. He is a Miami alumnus and current Master’s student in anthropology.
Fisher, in his 60s, graduated Miami in June, 1968. He was drafted six months later, in December of that same year.
The Oxford draft board controlled the draft status of the young men in the area.
Eligible men attending an institution of higher education were exempt from the draft as long as they stayed in school with an acceptable grade. According to Fisher, roughly four months after a student finished or dropped out of school, they were drafted.
“I had never really been away from home, so to speak,” Fisher said. “But that was the time when the obligation to serve, among most men, had been traditionally been passed down to them, based on the service [of previous generations].”
According to Fisher, the bonds that were created with fellow soldiers during his time in the service are intensely strong.
“You don’t think you can do it,” Fisher said. “But you’re banded together with other people and you have to do it.”
Bonds developed between men in combat, according to Fisher, become stronger than familial bonds, in many ways.
“I have had a conversation with one of the men in my platoon almost every Sunday since 1970,” Fisher said. “That’s how strong the bond is.”
Both Fisher and Davis said being thrown into extreme circumstances creates different types of relationships.
“I don’t think a lot of people can understand unless they’ve have experience,” Fisher said.
“Everyone that has been involved in combat will inevitably be faced with ethical situations where you have to make an individual decision about how you are going to react,” Fisher said. “That’s not anything new for veterans of today.”
Decisions made in life-threatening combat differ from those made in life, in a safe, detached place.
“You have to remember that your goal is to keep yourself alive and keep those alive around you,” Fisher said. “And when you have to do that, you have to depend on how you’ve been trained to react.”
After 14 months of service, Fisher returned in early August, 1970. Ten days after returning home, Fisher married a fellow Miami graduate named Rosemary.
However, throughout Fisher’s 14 months of service, he was able to contact his fiancÃ© for a total of six minutes.
“There were no cellphones; there was no Skype,” Fisher said. “We had two radio calls that lasted three minutes each, and that was the extent of our contact.”
Fisher said the “welcome home” for Vietnam War vets was very different than today.
“So, in a lot of ways, it was like we were gone for a long vacation,” Fisher said. “‘Nice to have you back, and welcome back to your normal life.'”
With the draft era a generation or two behind, the dynamic of those voluntarily serving in the Armed Forces today is different than that of those conscribed in Davis’ or Fisher’s day.
“I have the utmost respect from those younger people who understand the concept of service to country,” Fisher said. “I think that is a concept-a belief, if you will-that at one time held a place of supremacy in our society.”