I spent a fair amount of time watching and listening to World War II vets telling their stories on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. They reminded me about how much I miss being around my father-in-law, who died a few years ago.
A retired Navy vet and then a retired Navy Yard electrician, Bill’s strong hands and shoulders were still formidable, even after repeated chemo and radiation treatments. I can’t count how many times he climbed under my house to fix a leaky copper pipe or into the attic to troubleshoot a drip pan that was overflowing.
It was in his North Charleston garage one day, while under the hood of my car, that he asked me to hand him the knuckle buster. My first reply was naturally, “The what?” He pointed to his work bench where every single tool had a specific place and said, “The crescent wrench — the knuckle buster.”
An awful lot of his day-to-day language included slang words that I’d usually figure out. I’m not referring to cuss words, just words that he’d accumulated from years of being aboard a ship that allowed servicemen to communicate with each other in unique ways.
As I listened to recent interviews with other men from WWII, it dawned upon me that an entire vocabulary evolved from soldiers, airmen and naval personnel. And much of it still exists today.
As I started to explore the topic, I learned there were already lists of phrases and even books written about the subject. In some cases, these words or phrases were sarcastic, pessimistic, humorous or dark. I think you’ll find some of them familiar, but you probably never realized they were formulated and popularized from 1941 to 1945.
A fair amount of the vocabulary revolved around food. For instance, moo juice = milk, dog food = corned beef hash, shingles = toast. A chow hound = somebody always at the head of the mess line. Jawbreakers = Army biscuits and Army strawberries = prunes.
If somebody "beat their gums," they talked a lot. Ham that didn’t pass its physical was SPAM, a canned meat. And a garbage catcher was a metal mess tray with eight depressions in which food was served.
Juice = electricity, but bug juice meant insect repellent. Pocket lettuce = paper money and a pineapple was a grenade.
An entire new language developed that allowed 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds from all across our country to communicate with each other. Farm boys, rural Southerners, West Coast sunshine lovers and Northern enlistees with immigrant parents were all now wearing various uniforms with the same flag on the sleeve. These words and phrases gave them commonality.
Some of the language evolved from radio code. Wilco meant "will comply." To respond with "Roger, Wilco" meant "OK, I’ll do it."
I found multiple slang words for a chaplain. They included: Devil Beater, Padre, Sin Buster, Sky Scout, Soul Aviator and G.I. Jesus. G.I., by the way, simply meant Government Issue.
If you drew work in the kitchen, you were on K.P. — kitchen police — duty. If you wore civilian clothing, they were called civvies.
My father-in-law would use a few of these phrases all the time in general conversation. Just recalling them via print reminds me of just how much we miss by not having him and others like him in our daily lives. They made a significant difference in what our country became and what we stood for.
A customary cry of the company mail clerk at the end of mail call was “That’s all she wrote.” That eventually became shorthand for "that’s it."
I hope some of this sparked memories of things your parents or in-laws might have uttered that left you wondering.
I always like knowing where stuff came from. If this effort to amuse and inform proved worthless, you can put it in File 13. That was WWII code for wastebasket.