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Veteran Profiles

Elizabeth Progress

Amy Wilkinson

Editor’s note: When most people are asked to picture a veteran, most think of someone in uniform. But in WWII, everyone served – everyone. As I reflected on last months Veteran’s Profile, where we celebrated the life of a RAF pilot who chose to call Emmitsburg home, it occurred to me we had amongst us someone who experienced the horrors of ‘Blitz’ while serving our country. It’s high time her story get told.

In 1939 the Government of the United Kingdom produced a propaganda poster that was intended to raise the morale of the British public during World War II. The poster had a restricted distribution and was, therefore, not widely known. The message printed on the poster was, "Keep Calm and Carry On". Though she never received this advice, this is the story of how a young lady living in Southern England during the war did just that.

On the 8th of November, 1926, Elizabeth Prongas was born in Queens, New York to parents Joseph Francis Whittum, 45 of Rhode Island and Florence Matilda, nee Curtis, 35 of Hampshire, England. Ms. Curtis worked on Park Avenue in Manhattan as a personal assistant to a wealthy woman. Mr. Whittum was a painter and decorator. Mr. Whittum was hired to do some contract work for the woman Ms. Curtis worked for and it was there she met Mr. Whittum. They were married shortly after and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Grace.

In 1931 Mr. Whittum unexpectedly contracted pneumonia and died. Elizabeth’s mother could not afford to support herself and her daughters on her single salary and had no wish to remain in the United States so she moved her family to the Village of Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England. They arrived in England to live with Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle. Elizabeth’s uncle was a butler on a 1,500-acre estate owned by a banker and it was near estate that Elizabeth and her family resided. Elizabeth and Grace spent several years living an idyllic life style. Unfortunately for the family, in 1938 when Elizabeth was twelve years old, her uncle was diagnosed with cancer and the girls had to move away. After a series of moves the family settled down in Ryde, Isle of Wight, situated in the English Channel and it was there they lived when World War II began in 1939.

In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler, head of the Nazi party, was elected Chancellor of Germany. Prior to the military invasion that instigated World War II, Hitler spent his time in office rebuilding Germany’s military and infrastructure, which had been devastated in the First World War. He also began methodically eroding the rights of the Jews living in Germany; his plan, to eradicate the Jewish people completely. In 1938 Germany invaded Austria and in March of the same year Germany took over Austria and incorporated it into the Reich. In an attempt to appease Hitler, England, France, Germany and Italy met in Munich and agreed that Germany should be able to annex areas along Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. The Sudetenland were areas along Czechoslovakia’s boarders that were inhabited, mainly, by ethnic Germans. However, Hitler was not content and in March of 1939 Germany forcibly seized Czechoslovakia and then turned it’s attention to Poland. When the German military invaded Poland on the 1st of September, 1939, World War II began.

When Germany invaded Poland, Great Britain declared war. It was expected that air raids on English cities would occur shortly after and preparations were taken to limit the number of civilian casualties during the raids. Public shelters were provided and many families erected small "bomb" shelters in their gardens. In addition to the shelters, many school-aged children and mothers with infants were evacuated to the countryside.

The British people were encouraged to plant Victory gardens, also know as war gardens. Victory gardens were vegetable, fruit, and herb gardens planted in private residences during the war. The purpose of the gardens was to reduce the reliance on the public food supply. They were also considered a morale booster, in that, they enabled the gardener to feel empowered by their contribution to the war effort.

The first attack by the German Air Force was aimed at destroying the Royal Air Force, or RAF, in September of 1940. The Nazi leadership hoped that by continually bombing the British people that the latter would become so demoralized that they would be forced into surrender. While the attacks were incredibly effective, the Germans were completely unaware of the British strength and resolve. During the war, the Isle of Wight was used as a garrison to alert the British military of incoming enemy planes. Anti-aircraft guns were also stationed on the island. Anti-aircraft guns are weapons that are fired from the ground or shipboard that target enemy aircrafts. When the anti-aircraft guns were fired, shrapnel would fall from the sky on to the civilians who lived on the island.

When the Battle of Britain, also known as the London Blitz, began, Elizabeth and Grace were still living on the Isle of Wight. On the 31st of August, 1939, the British Government gave the order for school aged children and mothers with infants to "Evacuate forthwith". The children who were to be evacuated were tagged, like luggage, separated from their parents, and put on trains. Most had no idea where they would be going, what they would be doing, or how long they would be gone.

Elizabeth and Grace were not evacuated. Their mother had decided not to have the children evacuated, as so many others were, because she believed that, as a family, they should stay together. The girls were given gas masks to keep with them at school and shelters were built in the schoolyard. At school, Elizabeth practiced putting her gas mask on quickly. She was taught how to find appropriate shelter in the city or the countryside when bombing began. It was not uncommon for Air raid sirens to sound at any time of the day or night. In the beginning, the German bombs were not very large. They were called incendiary bombs. Later, the Germans began dropping high explosive bombs, which were heavier and caused substantially more damage. There was an incident one night on the Isle of Wight when a five hundred pound bomb was dropped in the schoolyard, half of a block away from where Elizabeth and her family lived. Elizabeth was on the second floor of their house at the time of the explosion. The explosion knocked her out and when she came round, she was on the first floor with no recollection of how she had gotten there. Elizabeth had been, quite literally, blown down the stairs. The windows were all blown in; luckily though, there was blackout stop at the windows and it kept the shards of glass from flying into the house and injuring the family further.

Few homes in Britain had basements at the time; many families spent nights crouching in small spaces under stairs or in closets away from windows. On the Isle of Wight, where Elizabeth lived, there were anti-aircraft encampments. During nights when the bombing was heavy, shrapnel from the exploding shells fell heavily on the island and the sky lit with the flashes of the bombs. During one of the raids, the Head Master of Elizabeth’s school was killed when his house took a direct hit.

One day Elizabeth and her sister, Grace, along with some friends were walking though a field of a farm. A common hobby of school children at that time was lying in a field, spotting and naming the different sorts of British planes. This day, a German fighter plane flew overhead. The girls crouched down and hid in a ditch, as they had been taught to do. They were terrified that they were going to be strafed. Elizabeth could tell that it was a German plane because it had a distinct swastika on the side of the plane. The plane passed the girls and was heard strafing moments later.

At the age of fourteen, Elizabeth finished Upper Grade School and had to begin work. Elizabeth moved to Barming, Kent to live with her mother’s sister, where she believed there would be more opportunities. She began work at a local store in Maidstone. When Elizabeth was sixteen years old, the American Embassy contacted her mother. Because Elizabeth was an American citizen, she was required to go to the embassy to register. While Elizabeth was at the Embassy, the Secretary of the Embassy asked her what sort of things she could do. She replied that she could do shorthand, typing, and book keeping. He offered her a job at the Embassy. She traveled from her home in Kent to Grosvenor Square everyday to work. The journey took over an hour each way. As one of the few American citizens working at the Embassy, Elizabeth, at sixteen years old, was one of a small number of people who were allowed to enter the Code Room.

When I asked her what it was like, walking from the station to the Embassy, seeing buildings that had been recently blown up, she responded, " Well, I hate to tell you, but it was a way of life. It was a way of life from the time I was twelve. It was a way of life. It was always bombing. It was always destruction. I couldn’t even see the time when we would be out of it. It seemed to be hopeless because things just got worse and worse. There were points in time when we were losing badly; we were losing men. It was just horrible. We kept our hopes up by listening to the King, George VI; we listened to the royal family; we listened to Churchill on the radio. The radio was always keeping us up to date. I would go to church; there was a Catholic church near the embassy. A friend and I would go to light candles. There was frequently debris in the street. I hate to even think of it. At that time, the British were mainly occupied with making do. You had to think about where your next meal was coming from; a lot of British people were very into their Victory Gardens. I spent a summer in Maidstone, and after work, my friends and I, would go out in a lorry, that’s a truck, and we could go out of the city and pick strawberries. You see, the men had gone to war. The only men left to do these jobs, until they brought Italian prisoners in, were conscientious objectors. They worked on the farms. So it was mainly up to the women and children in the towns, we would go out to pick the fruit."

In 1940, the British Government began rationing food supplies. Bacon, butter, and sugar were the first things to be rationed. They were followed shortly by; meat, loose tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, canned fruits, sweets, and dried fruits. Clothing and gasoline were also rationed. British citizens were issued ration books that would allow you to purchase a certain amount of various food items per week. Citizens were still required to pay for their items, but now they were only able to purchase small amounts of certain types of food. During the London Blitz, occasionally the grid system would be hit and that would cause the power in the city to go out. It was not uncommon for petty criminals to take advantage of the power outages. They would break into people’s houses while all of the lights were out. The most commonly stolen items were the ration books. Elizabeth told us about the perks of being an American citizen living in London during the war. "Rationing was hard on a lot of people." She stated. "I was fortunate, however because, well I was an American citizen and, when I had the money, I could go to the American PX, the Post Exchange, and buy things that the British couldn’t get. Cigarettes, stockings, shoe polish to share with English friends."

When I asked Elizabeth how she felt about the American Military joining the war effort, she said, "I heard about Pearl Harbour on the news on the radio. I was so young, just fifteen. At that time it was hard for me to grasp. It seemed so far away. I did know though that the Yanks were coming into the war. The Americans were coming. I felt great because I was a Yankee girl! I never lost sight of that. The first experience I had, seeing the Americans was at a dance when I was seventeen. The Americans were there. I thought it was wonderful that they were there. The British were just so appreciative, really. Finally we started to get the feeling that we could win it. A lot of girls went to dances. There were Americans there, and these service men, well, they thought they were going to die. So they would try to find any sort of comfort they could, going out and socializing at these dances. Most of them missed their families terribly. They were very brave."

As the war progressed, the Germans developed more devastating weapons. In 1944 the Germans began launching V1 and V2 bombs, a sort of ballistic missile. These missiles went by many nicknames; among them were the Buzz Bomb and the Doodle Bug. "That was really scary, because you couldn’t hear them." Elizabeth told us about the missiles, "You could hear the Doodlebugs (V1 bombs), you could hear them coming and sometimes you could actually see them as they were coming down. But the V2s were lethal. They made this tremendous arc and then they would just drop straight down on the target with a massive explosion. It was very frightening."

"When we heard about the invasion of France in 1944, it was amazing. People were pouring out into the streets. We had a huge bonfire on our block. It was just so joyful when Paris fell to the allies. The response was just ongoing. There were so many people around me who had relatives, men that were fighting or extended family or something in France. No one was untouched. We were always hopeful of winning and when France fell it seemed like a greater possibility. Mainly, though, we thought about our boys. We would hear stories about how hard it was. I think that was my greatest sadness was to think about those boys, just giving their lives, as in any war."

When the British received news that Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in May of 1945, it was a very joyful time. People poured out of their houses to celebrate. There were parties and bonfires in the streets. It was not until later that the British people learned about the enormity of the Nazi German concentration camps, or indeed, the enormity of the war itself. It is estimated that between 50 and 70 million people died during World War II. The Second World War has the unenviable distinction of claiming more lives that any other human conflict in recordable history.

By the time the war ended, Elizabeth had met the man who was to become her husband. He was an American soldier who worked across the square from the American Embassy. "You have to remember", she says of her husband, "most of the British boys had gone to war. So this meant that the American and the Canadian soldiers who were in England were the only people British girls could go out with. A lot of girls ended up marrying Americans and Canadians because of that. I did. "

They arranged to move to America together. Because he was in the military, Elizabeth’s husband traveled back to the States in a military vessel. Elizabeth, however, came to America on a Swedish cargo ship (crewed by Finnish men) called the Christina Thordon. The ship allowed only twelve passengers at a time. The ship was full, so the crew signed Elizabeth as purser so she would be able to make the voyage. The journey took two weeks.

I asked Elizabeth what her views of war are now. She replied, "I hate war. I consider myself a pacifist. I believe that the glorification of war is wrong. War is glorified in television shows, movies and video games. But war is not a video game. There is no reset button, you don’t have extra lives, and you can’t start over. In war, if you get hit, you go down and a lot of times, you don’t get up. War is a lamentable human tragedy. "

In a Socratic dialogue, Laches defined courage as an endurance of the soul. If this is truly the case, then Elizabeth Prongas exhibited immense courage during World War II, in a time where there was nothing to do but endure.

Read other Veteran Profiles

Ruth Richard's: Emmitsburg During World War II
LtCdr Hillman's: 50 Yard Line Seats for a Show I Would Rather Have Missed

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