‘Everyone carried their gas mask, even the children’
John Perks shows his gas mask.

‘Everyone carried their gas mask, even the children’

Memories of a different — and terrifying — era of a different sort of universal masking mandate in World War II

SAXTONS RIVER — In 1940, I was 6 years old and living in the village of Sidcup, Kent, England, about 12 miles south of London. We were under attack by a virus called Nazi fascism, led by a charismatic leader who wanted to make the Deutschland great again.

The war had started in 1939, and by 1940 we were in the thick of it. My father, who had fought in World War I, was in the Home Guard. My mother was in the National Fire Service, driving an ambulance, and my elder sister, Mickey, at age 17, was a dispatch rider in the Royal Air Force.

The air raids were constant, day and night. So we spent a lot of time sleeping in shelters.

Everyone carried their gas mask, even the children. I still have mine, in its metal canister. They were issued in a small cardboard box with a strap so you could wear it over your shoulder, and if you went out without your gas mask the air raid warden or concerned citizens would ask you why you didn't have one.

There may have been a few eccentric English people who refused to wear a gas mask. But because the threat of poison gas was terrifying, to say the least, most everybody was happy to be issued one.

My dad, of course, had been gassed during World War I with mustard gas. He was also shell-shocked and had tremors. So we were brought up accustomed to carrying and wearing masks.

The government also issued us a Morrison air raid shelter, a big iron table that you assembled in the house. The theory was that if the house was bombed and collapsed on you, you could be dug out by the rescue workers.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my mother had a small stash of cyanide pills, which she kept in the shelter for the fear that if we were bombed, there may be gas leaks or fire in the house, and she planned to euthanize us in that event.

We were also prepared for an invasion by the Nazi virus and we made petrol bombs out of wine bottles filled with gasoline and a bedsheet wick that we would plan to light and throw onto the German troops when they were in the streets. And of course Dad had his .303 Lee-Enfield rifle, issued by the British Army.

My mother told me that in case of an invasion, I should take my knapsack with a few cans of Spam or corned beef and head off into the woods.

* * *

In 1942 we were liberated by hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, who were young and wore beautiful uniforms and spoke with a strange accent. They gave us tons of chewing gum, candy bars, and other kinds of foodstuffs. They had the reputation of being “overpaid, oversexed, and over here,” but everybody loved them!

We had some who were billeted in our house. I never forgot them. Many of them never returned.

I always felt personally that they gave their lives so that I could live in a free and democratic way, whether in England or in America. So it was a personal debt that I and many of my countrymen owed to these gallant heroes.

Sometimes I run across Americans who do not want to wear their face masks and cite that their Constitutional rights are being trampled on. But it could be equally said that your Constitutional right might be to sacrifice your personal, individual liberty for the benefit of the community as a whole.

So for all those ancestors who fought, stood, and held the ground to defend democracy, please consider wearing your COVID-19 mask.

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