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2014, Aaron Elson




Helen Grottola

Widow, 712th Tank Battalion

Sept. 22, 1994

"When are you going to interview some of the women who stayed on the home front while their husbands went off to fight the war?" Helen Grottola asked me at the 1994 reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion at Fort Mitchell, Ky.

"How about now?" I said.

(Helen's husband, Joe Grottola, was still alive at the time of the interview.)

2014, Aaron Elson

    Aaron Elson: When did you and Joe meet?

helen.jpg (36838 bytes)    Helen Grottola: We met in seventh grade. In Harrisburg.

    Aaron Elson: Did you both grow up in Harrisburg?

    Helen Grottola: No. Joe was born in Philadelphia and I was born in Bristol, Tennessee. I’m a Yankee transplant. Or a rebel transplant, actually.

    Aaron Elson: What did your parents do?

    Helen Grottola: My mom was just a regular housewife. Her father was a farmer. My father was an orphan from the day he was born. His mother died in childbirth, and his father was killed six months later on the railroad. So he was an orphan when he was born. And when he was old enough he lied about his age and went into the Navy.

    Aaron Elson: In World War I?

    Helen Grottola: Yep. Plus he had been in a few battles before that. We figured out the other day that if my father were still living, he would be 105 years old, because he married my mother rather late. Being in the Navy, he kind of met her late. And I was raised a Navy brat.

    Aaron Elson: He stayed in the Navy?

    Helen Grottola: Yes. He used to come in to Philadelphia, and my mother would go to Philadelphia when he was in port. But being a country girl, she didn’t like Philadelphia. A friend of his said, "I know a nice little town that’s not too far from Philadelphia," and he said, "Harrisburg." So my dad brought my mother there. I was four and a half and she was pregnant with my brother, and she liked it. I was seven or eight when they moved to Harrisburg. In the meantime, Joe came to Harrisburg, but his family came to another section, so we went to different grade schools. Then we started junior high in seventh grade. And he was from one end of town and I was from the other. Mortal enemies from Day One. But we started going together, dating off and on, all through junior high school. Then in high school I said, "I want to meet other guys." So I told a girlfriend, "Make a play for Joe and go out with him." And she did. And then one day I said, "Kate, I want him back."

    She said, "You try to get him." And I did. And we started going together steady then. That was in 11th grade. He was in wood shop. They had to be there 45 minutes before we did. And he used to wait down at the end of the hall. He would bring the attendance slip to the office, and then he would wait at the end of the hall until I got there. And then we’d stand there and talk until the late bell would ring and then I’d run to my room and he’d run back down to the wood shop. Then we came out in January of ’41 and we got married in May of ’41. But over half of our class was already in the service. A lot of our boys came to graduation in their uniforms.

    Aaron Elson: And this was before Pearl Harbor?

    Helen Grottola: Yes. Then Joe went to work for the government. He was sewing uniforms. He and his father both. They were both tailors. He worked in his father’s tailor shop when we were going to school. All three of the Grottola boys had their duties in the tailor shop. So we didn’t get to date too much in school except on weekends because I worked, too. I worked part time at an exclusive dress shop in town. I would go in and unpack the dresses and steam them and put them up on the rack and put the prices on them. I think I made 25 cents an hour at that time.

    Then Joe went to welding school, and he left on Monday morning and didn’t come back until Friday night. That was when he learned to weld. And he was doing that when he was called into the service.

    Aaron Elson: How old was he when he was drafted?

    Helen Grottola: Around 20.

    Aaron Elson: You were both the same age?

    Helen Grottola: Yes. In fact, I’m 11 days older than him. I’m already 73. He won’t be until tomorrow.

    Aaron Elson: When did you get engaged?

    Helen Grottola: We graduated in January [of 1941], and that was when he gave me my first diamond. My first little wee diamond. That was a big deal in that day. We got it at the jeweler and I think we paid 75 cents a week on it until it was paid off. That was a big thing, we’d go in and we’d pay on my ring and we’d go to the movies and then we would stop and get something to eat, and I think at that time you could get a hot dog for a nickel. So that was a big Saturday night for us.

    Aaron Elson: Did Joe go into the service before Pearl Harbor or after?

    Helen Grottola: It was after. Let me see, our baby was 13 months old, and that would have been November of 1943. She was born in October of ’42 and then the following November he went in.

    Aaron Elson: Would having a child have gotten him a deferment if he wanted? Or did he not want a deferment?

    Helen Grottola: He didn’t want it.

    Aaron Elson: And how about you?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, I’d have given anything if he would have taken it. And he very easily could have because he was working at York Safe and Lock Company which was making safes for the military, and he could have gotten a deferment. His boss wanted him to get it, and he didn’t want it. And like a very dutiful little wife at that time, I said, "Well, whatever he wants." You know, "If he wants to go. …" So he did. And he left a very small baby. And it was very hard, because she was a preemie to begin with. I had her at seven months.

    Aaron Elson: How much did she weigh?

    Helen Grottola: Five pounds and two ounces. I didn’t bring her home for a couple of weeks. And then I was allowed to bring her home because there were no other children. But he was already in military construction. He was down at York Safe and Lock Company, working, which was 55 miles from our home. He drove the company truck down every morning and back every night. That was when you ate and slept and that was it. Get up and go to work the next morning, come home and eat supper and go to bed because you got up about four o’clock in the morning to go down.

    Aaron Elson: Did you have a car?

    Helen Grottola: Oh no. He drove the company truck. With a welding machine on the back of it. Don’t laugh. After the baby was a little bit older my mother kept her and I went down for a couple of days and I rode in that old truck.

- - - -

   Helen Grottola: Marcia was 13 months old when Joe went in the service. It must have been between Christmas and New Year’s when he shipped out, because I really cried.

    Aaron Elson: You did?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, buckets. Buckets. Because I didn’t know where he was going, what he was going to be doing.

    Aaron Elson: Did you get to see him off?

    Helen Grottola: No. He went right from Fort Mead to wherever. I knew he was at Fort Mead, that was it.

    Aaron Elson: Was he writing home regularly?

    Helen Grottola: Oh yes. I went down to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for a week with the baby. Then I came home, and he’d call on Saturday night, I always knew he’d be calling. We wrote back and forth, and then he said, "I’m going to Fort Mead." And I said, "Oh, great! That’s in Maryland. That’s about an hour, an hour and a half from home! Hot diggety dog!"

    I think he wasn’t down there too long, and he called one night and said, "If you don’t hear from me, don’t get worried." And of course I wanted to know why. And he said, "I can’t tell you. There’s too many guys here at the phone."

    Well, with first my dad being military, I said, "You’re leaving."

    He said, "I didn’t say that. You said it."

    And I said, "Okay."

    The next call I got was from New York, and I said, "Can I come up?"

    And he said, "No."

    I said, "You won’t be there?"

    He said, "You said it. I didn’t." So I knew that it was just a matter of time, and with my father being military I never asked questions. I knew better.

    Aaron Elson: Was your father still in the Navy?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, yes.

    Aaron Elson: Was he in World War II also?

    Helen Grottola: Yep. He went to Sicily and then they shipped him over to Oran, and they put him in ship’s receiving. He was taking stuff off of the ship and sending it in to wherever it was to go. And in the meantime, my brother was over in the Aleutians and was on his way down to Australia.

    Aaron Elson: Was he in the Navy?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, are you kidding? With my father a Navy man, if he’d have been anything else he’d have got killed. My young brother was in the Navy. Had two ships torpedoed from under him. And of course Joe was in Europe. I always tell people I had a premature baby so my husband decided to take a European tour, with all expenses paid. He says, "Oh, sure I did. Digging ditches. In the rain, the snow, the sleet. Eating garbage." It was many years afterwards that I made a big joke out of it because it was really not a very a good experience for me.

    Aaron Elson: Were you living with your mother while Joe was away?

    Helen Grottola: I lived with my mother and I had a house. And the two of us lived together. Because my brother was in the Pacific, my father was in Africa and Joe was in Europe. We had three stars hanging in our window. At that time, that was the big deal. You hung stars in your window for your servicemen. And Joe’s older brother was in the service. I only had one brother. Joe comes from a big family. He’s got one older brother and one younger brother and he has an older sister and a younger sister. He’s the middle baby.

    Aaron Elson: Were his two brothers in the service also?

    Helen Grottola: Yes. Frank, that’s the baby – he was only 16, and he was in what they called the Home National Guard. They were given duty like watching our highways, watching our bridges in Harrisburg to make sure that nobody put any bombs or anything. They did that at night and went to school during the day.

    Aaron Elson: If your mother had three stars and one was for Joe, what about Joe’s mother? Did she get to have a star for Joe also?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, she had a slew in the window because she had brothers in the service, she had sons in. Because see, he was a nice Italian boy and he came from a big family. When we would go to Philadelphia before he went in the service when we were first married, it was nothing for us to set 35, 40 people at dinner. His cousins would come in to visit because we were there.

    Aaron Elson: Did you get many letters from Joe when he was overseas?

    Helen Grottola: Oh yes. He wrote almost every week.

    Aaron Elson: Even when he was in combat?

    Helen Grottola: I got a lot of letters. I never knew where he was. Even when he upset the truck, that was the worst part, because I didn’t get any letters, and I thought, uh-oh, something’s wrong. I didn’t get anything from the military saying he’s been hurt or he’s deceased or anything, and that went on for about six weeks.

    Aaron Elson: Did you contact the military and ask what was happening?

    Helen Grottola: I called the Red Cross but that was a big laugh. We didn’t get much satisfaction out of them. Because they had too many to take care of.

    Aaron Elson: What happened to Joe?

    Helen Grottola: He upset a truck. They went for coal. I don’t remember any more where they went, then they upset the truck. They were racing back and he missed a curve in the road, and they went over.

    Aaron Elson: Was the war still on?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, yeah. That’s why I was scared to death.

    Aaron Elson: Did he write to you about it?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, yes. That was the greatest thing in the world. The mailman even came up to the door and rang the doorbell and said, "Look what I’ve got for you!" Because at that time we had a mailman that, oh, God, I don’t know how many years he’d been delivering mail at the house and he was a really nice guy. He knew the family.

    (Joe Grottola joins the conversation)

    Aaron Elson: How long were you in the hospital when the truck flipped?

    Joe Grottola: Two weeks.

    Helen Grottola: What else did you write and tell me, you caught your finger?

    Joe Grottola: Oh, I smashed my finger with a sledgehammer one time when I was trying to repair a tank track.

    Aaron Elson: That must have hurt like hell.

    Joe Grottola: Oh yeah. When you’re changing the tank track and something slips, that stuff don’t give, that’s a machine. So what happens it’s you that give. You pay for it with banged up fingers and toes.

    Aaron Elson: Were you hospitalized for that?

    Joe Grottola: No. You don’t go to the hospital for something like that.

    Aaron Elson: When the truck flipped, where were you?

    Joe Grottola: Coming back from Czechoslovakia.

    Helen Grottola: I thought you’d gone for coal that time.

    Joe Grottola: No, no. That was coming back from Czechoslovakia. The war was over then. We were stationed at Amberg. We took a coal run. They used to send ten trucks in convoys from Amberg to Cologne to get coal and then bring it back. After the war was over we were at Amberg but they used our trucks to go and pick up the Russians and take them to Czechoslovakia where they were being repatriated back to Russia.

    Helen Grottola: See, I told you he was traveling all over Europe while I was at home with a little baby making all the decisions, should I buy food or buy her new shoes? He’s running all over Europe. All expenses paid. All his food.

    Aaron Elson: How was money? Were you poor?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, very poor. Try living on ninety dollars a month, raising a baby.

    Joe Grottola: She was getting eighty dollars a month and I was sending her I think twelve dollars of mine, and I was getting $16 when I was overseas. I’d send her $12 of the $16, and that would leave me four dollars that came out of my salary.

    Aaron Elson: Sixteen a week?

    Joe Grottola: A month.

    Helen Grottola: Oh, you are cute, baby.

    Aaron Elson: What rank were you?

    Joe Grottola: A private. I didn’t get to be a Pfc until after the war was over. I was doing sergeant’s work, but they weren’t giving out any ratings because the war was on. So you just did the work. I never questioned it.

    Helen Grottola: You try raising a child on ninety dollars a month, a child who needs new shoes every three months because their feet are growing, and being a preemie she’s got to have them, and then the shoes are rationed and you have to go to the Ration Board and get extra coupons so your baby can have shoes. You go to the other Ration Board, the Food Rationing Board, and you get extra stamps so that your baby can have meat, because the meat was rationed, butter was rationed, sugar was rationed, you don’t have a car, you’d ride a streetcar. It was a nickel a ride.

    Joe Grottola: Remember, our daughter’s older than you.

    Helen Grottola: Our daughter’s 52 years old.

    Aaron Elson: Did she recognize you when you came home?

    Joe Grottola: Oh, yes.

    Helen Grottola: I never gave her a picture and said, "This is your daddy." I would show her pictures and I would say, "This is what your daddy looks like." Which made the difference. My girlfriend made the mistake of saying, "This is your daddy" and giving the kid a picture. So that when his daddy walked in he grabbed a picture and said, "My daddy! My daddy!" John’s heart was broken. But I told ours, "This is what your daddy looks like." Every time she’d see a soldier it didn’t matter whether he was black, green, blue or purple, if he had on a uniform, "Daddy? Daddy?"

    "No. That’s not your daddy."

    And I taught her one song, "It’s Been a Long, Long Time." And when he hears it today he almost cries.

    Joe Grottola: My daughter sang it to me the day I came home.

    Helen Grottola: Yes she did. He got out of the car and she damn near tore out of my mother’s arms and screamed, "My Daddy! My Daddy!" And she was four and a half years old.

    Aaron Elson: And she hadn’t seen you in three years?

    Joe Grottola: Two and a half. When I left Fort Knox I went right to New York, and right on a ship. In fact, she came to New York to see me, and the day she came up to see me they froze us, we weren’t allowed to go into New York. I was already in New York for about four days, and then the day she came up was the day they said, "You can’t go. You’re going overseas."

    Aaron Elson: So you did go up to New York and try to see him.

    Helen Grottola: I did. My daddy said, "Don’t go. You won’t see him."

    Aaron Elson: What would you write in your letters to Joe? Would you try to be cheerful?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, I’d tell him the neighbors ask about you and want to know how you’re doing. And did I know where you are. The baby’s fine. She has a new tooth. She’s walking. … the little stinker wouldn’t walk until the day after he left. Or I would write that I went to town, I saw so and so and they didn’t even know you were in the service, they just haven’t seen us for a long time but didn’t know what happened to us, and they thought maybe with the baby we were just staying at home, or we couldn’t get babysitters. That was the roughest thing, trying to get babysitters because all of the women were working, like his mother, she was in Middletown, which was a big military operation during the war. His sister went to Middletown and worked. And his other sister went to the newspaper and worked. So it was a problem to get babysitters. You almost had to work in between shifts and depend on your family. You couldn’t call a high school kid because they were working too. And the boys were working in the mills, they really needed them. It was rough. But now I can look back and make a big joke out of it, like about him going to Europe for free.

    Aaron Elson: Was there a support network?

    Helen Grottola: No. Not like they have now.

    Aaron Elson: What about other women whose husbands were overseas?

    Helen Grottola: Well, for myself it was rough, because I lived in a neighborhood of older people. In fact, my brother and I and the girl next door were the only children within three blocks. It was an established neighborhood, I mean it was people who bought their homes and were raising their children, so when I married and stayed there, my girlfriend is really the only one that I had that I could cry on her shoulder and she could cry on mine.

    Aaron Elson: Was her husband in the service also?

    Helen Grottola: Yes.

    Aaron Elson: And what happened to him?

    Helen Grottola: He came home right before Joe because he was the one that borrowed her father’s car and took me down to Indiantown Gap to get Joe.

    Aaron Elson: Was he wounded at all?

    Helen Grottola: No. I don’t even remember what branch of the service Bill was in.

    Aaron Elson: Did you have single friends?

    Helen Grottola: No. Most everybody was either just getting married or was very recently married.

    Aaron Elson: Did you get married knowing Joe was going to be leaving, or sensing it?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, no. I figured with him being with his father in the tailor shop making military clothes, oh, that was going to be it. He wouldn’t have to go. And then he started taking this welding course and he liked it and he gave up the tailoring and then he went in making these safes, so I figured, well, he’ll never go, they’ll keep him out. But I didn’t know my husband too well. I think most of the young boys were that way. You know, if you hand a young guy a gun today, look at Haiti, when they said we need volunteers they had no problem. It was the same way then. The fellows got the letter that said "Greetings from the President," and they all, hey, hot diggity dog! Cowboys and Indians.

    Aaron Elson: Did you have other children after the war?

    Helen Grottola: No.

    Aaron Elson: And your daughter’s name is?

    Helen Grottola: Marcia.

    Aaron Elson: Does she have children?

    Helen Grottola: She has three girls. We have three granddaughters. And we have a grandson who is 33 because our oldest granddaughter got married three years ago. That’s the only way we get boys, we marry the girls off. Joe’s older sister has a girl, and Barbara has two girls. His younger sister got married and she has a girl.

    Aaron Elson: Did you say you have a great-grandson?

    Helen Grottola: No. I have a grandson through marriage. I’m hoping for a great-grandchild by Christmas, or shortly after Christmas. She hasn’t told us, but I think she’s waiting because she doesn’t want to say anything because she knows her mother and her grandmother both are gonna go bananas. Well, she’s 30, so it’s time, but she wanted to get her five years teaching in before she had children.

    Aaron Elson: Did you work after the war?

    Helen Grottola: Yes. I went to Bell Telephone because Bell Telephone would not employ married women until the war, and then during the war they had no choice. They had to employ married women because there weren’t any men.

    Aaron Elson: Did you work there during the war or after the war?

    Helen Grottola: I worked there during the war.

    Aaron Elson: Even with the baby?

    Helen Grottola: Well, my mother kept the baby, and then I worked there until right before Joe came home, and when I knew he was coming home I quit. I stayed home for about a year and the company that he worked for dissolved during the war, because all of the owners went in the service, and they never reopened because, well, one of them was killed.

    Aaron Elson: Who did Joe work for after the war?

    Helen Grottola: He went to work for a while for a washing machine company, because with his tank training, that came in handy. He went out and repaired washing machines. He dug ditches. He worked at the gasoline station. Anyplace he could find a job that would put money on the table. He was never a slacker. He was a hard working guy, and he loved his baby. He would take any job.

    Aaron Elson: And then you went back to work?

    Helen Grottola: Yes, but I didn’t go to Bell. I went to Maryland Casualty Company, which was an insurance company, and I was a typist. I worked for them for four years and then I decided I wanted another baby, so I quit. And I got pregnant. And that’s when I found out that I couldn’t have another one. I have the Rh factor, which they didn’t know too much about then.

    I was pregnant four times. My daughter had three babies, but with her they knew about the Rh factor. With me they were just starting to learn. That’s why many the men died during the service. It didn’t come out until years later. It’s okay to match A with A, but if you match the wrong Rh factor you can kill a person.

    I wouldn’t have found out about it except that I went to a very young doctor who was starting to study the different diseases and things that the men were coming up with from the war. And he was really getting involved in this, because that was approximately seven years after the war. And also these men with plates in their head were starting to reject them. This young doctor was really starting to go into this blood stuff, and that’s how he discovered it. And then of course they traced my father and my mother, and they discovered that my father was the one that had it.

    Aaron Elson: How did losing the pregnancies affect you?

    Helen Grottola: Very bad.

    Aaron Elson: You’re naturally, to begin with, a very warm, emotional woman.

    Helen Grottola: And I love children. I taught Down Syndrome children. I started teaching in 1970. They opened a special school close to our home. And at that time I wasn’t working, my daughter was grown, and they asked for volunteers, and I said "I volunteer!" and the next thing I knew I was teaching full-time. I still volunteer. Right now I’m in the process of learning sign language, and it’s great. The Down Syndrome children are really special. And one granddaughter is a teacher. But she teaches normal children, only sometimes I wonder about that normal. Ohhh, my. I think back now and I think, I can thank the Lord I’ve had a really full, enjoyable, exciting life. And that’s what we said when my father had a massive coronary. We said, "Let him go. He’s had a full, exciting life." At that time he was 89 years old, and they said he’ll be a vegetable if he came through and he said, "No way." Because he had been all over the world. And he loved – oh, did he ever love the baby. He’d come home, and that was his little monkey. Those were the first words out of his mouth when he saw her in the hospital, because, of course, being premature she had a lot of hair, it was clear down in her eyes. And she had these big swatches of hair on her shoulders, and he looked down and he said, "My God, she looks like a monkey!" And that was his pet name till the day he died, "My little monkey." And if Joe wants to really make her mad he’ll say to her, "Hey, Monkey, what are you doing?"

    Aaron Elson: Did you save the letters that Joe wrote during the war?

    Helen Grottola: I saved them on up until I guess it was when we sold the big house and went into the apartment and I burned them. And I wish now that I hadn’t of. But I knew we were moving out of the big house, my daughter was married, there were no kids coming home, we lived in a duplex house and the kids next door were leaving, and I can sympathize with anybody on the empty nest. It’s a horrible feeling.

    Aaron Elson: When you burned the letters, did you feel a sense of closure?

    Helen Grottola: I read every one of them again. It took me days to burn them. We lived in three apartments, one right after the other, before we had this tiny house built. I call it a tiny house because it’s exactly what I want. It’s just big enough for him and I. I lost his medals, and I don’t know where they are. I know that they’re somewhere.

    Aaron Elson: You can probably get them replaced.

    Helen Grottola: I think you can write the military now and get them, but they wouldn’t be the same.

    Aaron Elson: What medals did he get?

    Helen Grottola: Oh, he got a good conduct medal, and he got one for the European something or other. I don’t know what all he had. But I wouldn’t give up the military experience that I’ve had, and I know he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t give you a nickel for to do it over again, but he wouldn’t take all the money in the world for the experience of it either. And neither would I, because I think anybody who went through it I think it made a better person."