KOKOMO, Ind. — As a boy in England, James Heath learned to keep a “stiff upper lip,” shouldering his burdens and making the best of his situation as the family moved frequently, experiencing the challenges of rationing, and even heard shrapnel associated with German attacks.
However, his feelings could not be checked as he shared his World War II experiences with Indiana University Kokomo students.
James Heath described his return to England and witnessing V-Day [Victory in Europe] in 1995, 50 years since victory was declared, and his voice cracked with emotion. “It was just so moving. You saw all of those men dressed in their uniforms.”
His wife, Ann Heath, who grew up in the United States, said even without having experienced what James did, she was also stirred by what she witnessed during that trip.
She described one man in the Tube station near St. Paul’s Cathedral, with medals from his chest all the way to his arm. She reminded students that these humble men served as a testament to the brave things they must have done.
Their daughter, Sarah Heath, associate professor of history, invited James, now 82, to share the stories he told her when she was growing up, preparing students to travel to sites significant to World War II.
Kristin Snoddy, lecturer of English, teaches the class, reading works written by people who experienced the war, with Sarah Heath contributing historical background. They will lead the trip in May, taking students to historic sites in Berlin, Amsterdam, Bayeaux, Normandy, and London.
She was moved by her father’s emotional response to sharing his recollections.
“The war obviously impacted him deeply, as it did everyone of that generation,” she said. “One of the things we want students to understand is, what it was like for average people to live through war. The U.S. has been attacked, but for people to undergo being at war first hand, on a daily basis, is a different experience than we’ve had.”
James Heath’s family first moved out of London as the war started, anticipating attacks by the German air force. His father took a job in Barrow-in-Furness, in northern England, and moved the family there. During the Blitz, a time when the Germans tried to get Great Britain to surrender by repeatedly bombing, London was attacked, but Barrow-in-Furness also was targeted, because its shipbuilding industry supplied the Royal Navy.
The air raid sirens, calling people to seek shelter from incoming bombs, made an impression on the seven-year-old Heath. He described several instances in which his home was damaged or destroyed by nearby fighting.
The Heath family narrowly missed the bombing of their first home in northern England, as they happened to be away. Their next home was a trailer near the sea, where he recalled hearing shells from British anti aircraft raining down on the roof, as the Luftwaffe, or German air force, passed overhead.
The family moved frequently during the war, living in seven places, from cottages by the sea to trailers in a field. He remembers most places in northern England having a shelter during the bombings. Schools had reinforced shelters underground, while some homes had “coffin-like” Morrison shelters, which resembled reinforced coffee tables, with metal wiring on the sides.
Even tube (subway) stations had cots for people to stay when they needed a safe place to sleep.
The Heath family moved to the United States in the late 1940s. James Heath earned his college degrees in the U.S., and became a citizen while serving in the military. He was a professor of Classics at Bucknell University, and raised a family with Ann.
Sarah Heath had the presentation recorded, and hopes to place the recording in the IU Kokomo Library.
“It is important to capture these memories from the people who experienced the war firsthand,” she said. “I want these stories to be available to students in the future, so they can understand what it was like to live at war.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.