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Keizer woman recalls the echoes of WWII

Joy Beebe was a teenager living in south London when Germans began bombing the city during World War II. Her memories of the experience are fuel for her involvement in Spirit of '45 Day activities each August. (KEIZERTIMES/ Eric A. Howald)
Joy Beebe was a teenager living in south London when Germans began bombing the city during World War II. Her memories of the experience are fuel for her involvement in Spirit of ’45 Day activities each August. (KEIZERTIMES/
Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Keizerite Joy Bebee’s lasting impression of war is its sounds.

“There is never any quiet. The bombs get bigger and bigger. We had anti-aircraft guns stationed in a nearby park, there were planes in the sky, a railway track several hundred feet away carried rocket guns back and forth. Once the windows were blown out in our home, they were replaced with linen held in place with strips of wood and the wind would blow and you could hear the linen moving,” Beebe said.

Even the silences were marked by a peculiar lack of noise.

“When Dunkirk fell, things got quiet, very quiet. We all knew what was coming then. They told us that there would be peace in our time, but the enemy only had one more step before entering Britain. We sort of braced ourselves for it at that point,” said Bebee, who still speaks with a mild British accent despite 57 years on American soil.

Bebee was 14 years old and living with her family south of London when the British entered World War II alongside France, Australia and New Zealand. Her father, a veteran of World War I, was chronically ill after being gassed twice in that conflict and Bebee’s mother kept the family together.

The area where Bebee’s family lived was 22 miles from the coastline in Dunkirk, France. Preparations for what was to come began even before the German forces captured Dunkirk. Rationing in Britain had begun six months earlier.

“Many of the children were evacuated, but that ended up being a disaster,” Bebee said. “Some of the children were sent to farms and got along all right, but some families didn’t like the children they were sent, some of the children ran away and tried to get back home. Our mother wouldn’t let us be taken away.”

Bebee said airborne dogfights were commonplace in the months prior to the fall of Dunkirk, and quieted only as the Germans began ramping up for a full-scale attempt at invasion.

Families in the area had been issued black fabric to make curtains that would prevent interior light from escaping and indicating to German planes flying overhead which buildings were inhabited. Bebee’s mother didn’t take up the British government on its offer of an Anderson Shelter, an air-raid shelter meant to be partially buried in the ground and expected to withstand everything but a direct hit. They did accept a Morrison Shelter, a large steel table with wire netting that fell around the side to protect from flying shrapnel

“We slept in the cupboard under the stairs until we got the Morrison Shelter,” Bebee said. “Then we slept under the shelter.”

Outside her home, things were also changing. Most of the area’s lakes were drained to prevent German pilots from ascertaining their positions using geological formations. Even road signs were taken down in an attempt to confuse any enemy troops who made it to land.

“The trouble was most of us didn’t know where we were going either,” Bebee said.

Bebee’s family lived in what was to become known as “bomb alley” because it sat on the route German planes used to invade British airspace.

“The Germans would always keep one of their bombs to drop on the way out of the country and it fell around us,” Bebee said.

The family’s neighbor across the street once left her Anderson Shelter to make a cup of tea and the shelter took a direct hit. Down the street, another bomb took out the entire first floor of a residence and left the bathroom fixtures, including the bathtub, hanging from heavy lead pipes. The resident at the time of the bombing had either been bathing or taken shelter in the tub.

“I remember it took them a while to figure out how to get her down,” Bebee said.

Incendiary bombs were dropped by the hundreds and burned anything combustible within its range, Bebee said.

“People were always running around with sandbags to put out the flames. I remember my father going out on several occasions to put out fires on our fences and shed,” she said.

Despite the potential terror each moment held, life carried on even if the schedule was altered. School was canceled for the most part, but Bebee said students met with teachers, in air raid shelters, usually twice a week to pick up work to take home. Bebee herself held a job in central London tracing residents who had failed to pay taxes.

“It turned out that more than 90 percent of them were either overseas fighting or had been killed in the raids, but it took a lot of searching. What you have to remember is that entire families had been wiped out in the raids,” Bebee said.

She returned to London 30 years later and there were still plots of land completely vacant after being bombed in WWII.

“I asked our taxi driver about it and he said the only way the government could be sure no one in a family was left was to wait 30 years to see if anyone filed a claim,” Bebee said.

There were also beacons of hope. One came in the form of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose oratory skills helped bolster spirits. Another was St. Paul’s Cathedral. In photos at the time, the area around the cathedral is decimated, but the cathedral itself is unblemished.

“It had survived, and so would we. It was a mental thing,” Bebee said.

For the younger residents, like Bebee, there was also excitement over the influx of new people to the London area.

“The population went up to about 11 million during the war and we had Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, French and Polish troops in the city,” Bebee said.

It was at a dance hall where she met a young American, Pfc. Carl S. Bebee, a member of the Signal Corps, which helped intercept and prepare information that was passed along to Bletchley Park where the Germans’ secret codes were deciphered.

The couple married after Carl summoned up the courage to ask Joy out on a date. Carl brought his bride back to Keizer and they remained married until his death 50 years later. Joy still lives in their first home.

Bebee recalls much of what happened in vivd detail, but those memories also fuel her participation in The Spirit of ‘45 Day honoring WWII veterans.

“Our big thing is to try to get our children to learn about history and not be quite so selfish,” Bebee said. “I learned that nothing is so dramatic that you can’t get over it. I’m known for not dwelling on the bad things and moving on to the next thing. I get more panicky now in my old age than I did when I was younger.”