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Franny The River and POWs

by Willie Lagarde


It was the summer of 1939, and I was a high school student between my freshman and sophomore years. It was the days before home air conditioning and television. A single oscillating fan in the house was considered a luxury. Hot humid New Orleans in the thirties was sweat and bear it and that we did. Unless we had a dime for admission to the Audubon park pool, the nearest accessible swimming hole was the Mississippi river between the Cotton Warehouse and Stuyvesant docks near the Napoleon Ave ferry landing. It was one of the few places on the New Orleans east bank where you could actually walk to the water’s edge.

It was the place where Franny the neighborhood tomboy first heard some inner voice telling her swimming with the boys in her underwear could no longer be acceptable behavior. Heretofore she considered herself one of the group and could prove it with her athletic prowess and showing disdain for jump rope, hopscotch, dolls or anything considered feminine. It was also a time when an occasional Japanese freighter was loading scrap iron at Sty docks. Scrap iron falling into the hold of a ship after being released from the powerful electro-magnets was a dominant sound on the always bustling New Orleans river front.

One sweltering day in July a Japanese sailor apparently anxious to try out his English or maybe curious about Franny approached the group as we rested on the batture under an old cotton bale loading ramp. He had questions about our age and why we swam in what he considered a dangerous place. That inner voice told Franny, who swam topless, to put on her shirt. No need to really, only a pony tail distinguished her from the rest of us.

War in Europe was only months away and was the topic of conversation everywhere. Opinions on the extent of our possible involvement were diverse and hotly debated. When the subject of war came up the sailor showed two fingers together and said Japan and Germany were that close. Later when standing I noticed we were the same height although I was barely thirteen. He was very friendly but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two and half years later ended all debate and unified our country like no other event in American history.

It was approximately five years after this meeting I next saw Japanese; this time as prisoners when they were brought aboard our ship by high line from destroyers. We often had prisoners aboard and I noticed almost all of them were no taller than the sailor I met on the river bank five years before. I thought about him and wondered if he was still alive or how and where he may have died; at the rate we were sinking Japanese ships his chances of surviving even this long were slim to none. They were usually dressed in regulation US Navy dungarees provided by the destroyer or sub crews that fished them out of the water.

Depending on the number we had aboard, they were either confined to the brig or a fourth deck sleeping compartment with a single hatch the only way in or out. They ate the same food from the same trays we did. One of the Marines who guarded them told me they would eat whatever soup we had but would only pick at the other food. They wouldn’t sit on our trough seats but instead squatted to defecate. Most were subdued but there was always one or two who were still arrogant, believing they would win the war.

When the general alarm and bugle sounded for battle stations, one of the prisoners wanted to know if that was "Japanee" planes. When told yes it was, his comment was was "oh bad, bad." One kept saying, "no bomb on plane me take picksha." It didn’t matter to us if they lived or died and at that time most of us hated all Japanese but I don’t believe there was a man aboard who may have been inclined to physically mistreat them. I contrast that to the Japanese who held American prisoners. The name of the game for them was humiliate, beat, starve and worse.

I often wonder if post war Japanese would be as friendly and accommodating if we lost the war. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and even forgive; but can’t forget. Sorry children, it’s just an old man with a memory reminiscing; the slate will never be completely erased for him but let it be clean for you. BTW: some of the born yesterday conspiracy weasels are still sniffing around the sale of scrap iron to the Japanese but that’s another story for another time.

About Franny; 1939 was the last year she swam with us but she continued all sports including tackle football.

The last caper I remember her being part of the group was the 1940 Tulane/Georgia football game. She went over the fence with us and it was Buddy S who first noticed slight bulges in her sweater.

After she started high school at all girls Sophie B Wright HS we didn’t see her for almost a year. She must have hated it but in those days all public high schools in New Orleans were segregated by sex.

It was maybe the spring of 1941 I thought I saw her walking on the other side of Napoleon ave. I crossed over and could hardly believe it was her even after said, "hi Willie". It was the first time I ever saw her in a dress. The transformation wasn’t like boy to girl it was more like boy to woman.

We remained good friends and when she came to see me off the train station the night I was leaving for boot camp in San Diego I almost had second thoughts about leaving.

We corresponded throughout the war and beyond including the letter telling she was getting married; and a couple more during her adjustment to married life. Remember folks this was the days before computers, face book and smart phones. Long distance phone calls were expensive.

She's a widow now, a great grandmother and looking back at eighty seven. If she happens to read this; my question to her seventy years after the fact; did I get it right old girl.

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