I had a father, an uncle, and a father-in-law who served during WWII. They had varying experiences. I remember a talk my father and uncle had. My uncle, George "Bubbles" (a football nickname) Ferguson, had enlisted before the war in the Coast Guard. He figured that war was coming, and the CG should be a safe assignment. Instead, he wound up escorting merchantmen across the North Atlantic. He was on a small ship, I suppose a destroyer escort, with a depth charge projector. On one occasion they narrowly dodged a torpedo, but generally the U boats tried to get the merchant vessels rather than a small escort. Torpedoed ships almost always went down with all hands; if anyone stopped to take on survivors, the U boat would get them, too, and men froze to death in minutes in the icy waters. He talked of going past masses of dead men in their life preservers.
Back to his tale. He said that when he enlisted, his ship went to Norfolk VA. He found the bars and restaurants had signs up to the effect of "Colored and Sailors Not Welcome Here." In a segregated society, servicemen were part of the segregation. Perhaps human, but only barely.
When he was demobilized five years later, he had to return to AZ from the east coast. On that entire journey, he never once paid for a meal. He'd ask for the tab, and the owner would say "it's on the house, sailor," or "your money's not good here, sailor," with a grin. When he did get a tab, every time a civilian scooped it up from the table and paid it.
My father said that he'd been demobilized on the east coast, too, and stood by the side of the road thumbing a ride. A guy stopped, said he was heading to Arizona, too, and we can make it there in three days if we drive day and night. So one would drive and the other sleep in the back seat, then they'd rotate. The driver had no trouble sleeping while a hitchhiker drove his car ... after all, the guy was in uniform, he must be completely trustworthy.
What a change, they agreed. In 1940, a serviceman was subhuman or barely human. In 1945 he was a heroic figure who had saved western civilization.
Dad, Albert D. "Bud" Hardy, had also enlisted before the war, in hopes of seeing the world. He signed up for the Army Air Force after a recruiting sergeant claimed that he had the power to send him to the base of his choice. Dad picked the base and signed...and spent the next year asking when he was going to go to that base, and being told "later."
Then on Dec. 7 1941 he stopped asking, because he was a flight line mechanic and he'd picked Hickam Field, Hawaii, the main target of the second Japanese wave.
After the war, he never flew again. Twice he drove from Tucson to Virginia, for my wedding and for our son's baptism. He told me some tales of experiences. Once he'd been on an overloaded cargo plane, taking from a base somewhere in the South where the runway faced into a mountain. All he could see through the windshield was trees, and he heard the pilot saying to the plane "come on baby, you can make it. Come on. Come on, baby." They cleared the trees by a few feet. Another time they were having a night landing at a base which was entirely "socked in" by low clouds. Planes had no radar, so all you could do was circle and pray, as fuel ran low. Finally there was an opening in the clouds where you could see lights on the ground, and the pilot turned the plane and dove for it, luckily getting thru and finding enough visibility below the clouds to land. He said the other thing was that the cargo pilots mostly started as fighter pilots, so they were accustomed to landing planes with nose wheels, whereas the DC-3 had a tail wheel. So they'd touch down, start to lower the nose, then realize their error and jerk the nose back up.
Dad's early life was pretty rugged ... a one room adobe hut that held three adults and three kids. They slept outside except in rainy weather. Inside room dividers were blankets hung from the ceiling. No running water -- they tried digging a well with no luck. Cooking was outside, three rocks to hold the kettle or pan over a wood fire. I took him back there in, oh, around 2000, and it was his first return since he'd enlisted sixty years before. The three rocks for cooking were still there.
My father in law, Bill Avery, served in the Army, mostly in India and Egypt, as a translator (he had a gift for it, later founded the U of Maryland's Dept of Classical Languages). He'd been to Europe before the war (it broke out as he was on the boat home). While there he once had to translate between a German and an Italian guard. The guard was holding the gate at a big stadium where Hitler and Mussolini were to speak. The Italian guard was saying "nobody gets in without a ticket," and the German pleading, "But I have driven all the way from ___(Munich?) just to hear mein fuhrer speak." And here was an American, who'd soon be in service against them, doing the translating!
He talked some about his time in Egypt. One day a local tried to sell a friend a scarab, supposedly original, for a dollar. The friend laughed him off, saying you probably made that yourself. I might give you a dollar for a bag of them! Next day the guy was back with... a bag of them, and got his dollar.
In India, his closest friend was "Uncle Willy," last name probably Jordan. After the war, Willie suggested that Bill meet his sister, Frances, who was a widow. Her first husband had been Army, and was killed a few weeks after Normandy. They hit it off, and were married. After Bill's death, Fran and I took her to Florida, where she spotted a wishing fountain, the tradition being that if you both cast coins into it you would be re-united when a trip ended. She remarked that she and her first husband had done that and it hadn't worked.
Across the street from me, when I lived in Virginia, was a Navy veteran. He told me that he'd known a guy whose ship had been sunk, and who was left with what is now known as PTSD. In those days, the brass looked at him as a wimp, and sent him back to sea. One day they were in fog, and Japanese planes flew over them at low altitude. The guy panicked, and raced from the front of the ship to its stern (which had been his combat station on the ship that was sunk, "unbuttoning" all the water-tight hatches from one end of the ship to the other. The Navy still refused to let him go.
So they stationed him in a gun turret, assigned to be the guy with the headphones who heard commands and relayed them. The other guys in the turret found this disturbing, because in combat the one guy who could hear what was going on looked like he was paralyzed in terror.