One Seattle family’s incredible World War II homefront hospitality

Dec 5, 2018, 8:39 AM | Updated: 8:44 am
World War II...
The library, where a local woman was a wartime "mother" to hundreds of young servicemen traveling through Seattle during World War II. (Feliks Banel)
(Feliks Banel)

When Pearl Harbor was attacked 77 years ago this Friday, the United States was officially drawn into a global conflict that had already been underway for more than two years.

In the nearly four years of activity that followed, World War II had a big impact on Seattle. The population swelled with defense plant workers who migrated from other parts of the country, and tens of thousands of young soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines came through the city on their way to and from fighting overseas.

Though they’ve never sought attention for what they did to support the war effort here on the homefront — and still wish to remain anonymous — one local family made a big impact of their own by providing a special place where enlisted men only – and not officers – could rest and relax.

John (not his real name) was just a young boy when his family moved to a big beautiful house not far from Seattle that overlooked Puget Sound.

One morning, not long after Pearl Harbor, John’s mother and father looked out at the gorgeous territorial view from their house and saw, from the military marine traffic out on the water, that the war was having an effect right here.

“As they stood by our windows in this house looking out on Puget Sound and seeing the troop ships go by they said, ‘We have to do something,’” John said recently, sitting in the living room of the home his family has owned for nearly 80 years, and turning to point toward the huge window. “So they discussed it for a few days, and my mother three days later got in her car and went over to Pier 91 and talked to Admiral Smith and told him what they wanted to do; that is, open their house to these men who were going overseas.”

There were already other places for young servicemen to go, such as USO facilities and on-base recreation centers, but there was nothing as “homey” as what John’s family ultimately created.

Home away from World War II

Within a few weeks, John’s family converted their home into an informal rest and relaxation center for enlisted men from all branches of the service. The existence of the special house spread through base commanders and word of mouth, and the men started showing up. And showing up.

John says there was a ping pong table, a record player, books and magazines, and lots and lots of food, plus couches and dozens of cots and other places to sleep on the main floor and in a large basement rec room. No reservations were required, and the doors were open 24 hours a day, which necessitated that John and his brother carry out a special job each day to get a headcount for breakfast.

“My brother and I had the mission of going down every morning and finding out how many people came in during the night,” John said. “The doors were never locked. My mother’s purse sat in the library on a shelf. Not a dime was taken. It was an interesting time of people dedicated to the service of the United States. Men and my parents.”

The rest and relaxation center never had an official name, but it was wildly successful.

By the time the war was over, it was estimated that the family had served about 20,000 meals and provided the equivalent of something like 5,000 room nights.

John says that in addition to the activities and food, his mother was a great listener and something of skilled amateur therapist for hundreds of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old men who found their way to the family home and then to a seat in the room the family called “the library.”

The library, still mostly unchanged nearly 75 years after the war ended, was the place where John’s mother would sit up all night, listening to young men pour out their hearts. Some were on their way to combat and were homesick, others were on their way back from overseas, and many of these were likely suffering from what would now be called PTSD.

John’s parents bonded with so many of the young men who visited, that the family continued to receive cards and gifts – and telephone calls – from grateful former soldiers and sailors for decades after the war was over.

Feliks Banel

Lasting impacts

His mother and father are long-deceased, and John and his wife moved into the big house back in the 1980s. Until not so long ago, the phone would occasionally still ring, and a long-ago military visitor to the house would be on the line.

“We’ve lived here 35 years and in our 35 years we also had phone calls,” John said. “The last one that I got, a man said his wife had died and he was going through all of her effects and their effects, and [he] came upon my mother’s phone number and name, ‘Is it possible that she was alive,’ he said, but I said ‘No.’”

But John’s mother had clearly made an impact on the man.

“He said, ‘Well, I’ve never forgotten,’” John said.

And there’s at least one former visitor to the house that John and his family are still in touch with. Tommy Phinney was a medic based in Bremerton, and he and John’s parents (and John and his brother) really hit it off. So much so, that Phinney stayed with the family for a few years after the war while he went to college.

Tommy Phinney is in his 90s now and lives out of state, but he still vividly remembers what the house was like during World War II.

“It was a celebration all the time,” Phinney said. “Laughter and conversation and people joking and having fun. It was a terrific place, absolutely fantastic. My mother became a little jealous of it because I writing her and raving about it how wonderful it was.”

“It was a happy place,” Phinney said.

Tommy Phinney said having time at that house with those people made all the difference, especially during the times when he couldn’t be there.

“You left there with a great feeling. And you remembered this all the time you were back on duty,” Phinney said. “It was a wonderful thing.”

John is clearly proud of what his parents did for so many young soldiers so long ago, and he says it influenced his own generosity and public service throughout his life.

And the family did make one exception when it came to avoiding calling attention to the house.

From a balcony above that big picture window where John’s parents had first been inspired to help, they hung a huge white sheet.

This way, enlisted men shipping out from Seattle via Puget Sound could look back to a particular spot on the distant shore and see where they’d had a chance to play ping pong, eat a decent meal, and get a good night’s sleep.

And maybe pour their heart out to a kindly woman playing wartime mother to thousands of young Americans, far from their own homes, but temporarily, at least, safe and sound in hers.

More from Feliks Banel

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One Seattle family’s incredible World War II homefront hospitality