My brother Ed was born in 1944 while my dad was away, and my sister Shirley was born in 1947, the year after my dad’s return. At that point, my parents moved from an apartment in the city of Pittsburgh to a newly built house in the suburbs. My family’s story was typical of that era. During the post-war fifties, the building of housing plans in the suburbs grew exponentially, and they were inhabited by World War II vets and their burgeoning families.
All those babies born shortly after the war are who we now call Baby Boomers, and our numbers were prolific. Many of us kids grew up in those newly built suburbs.
The war fresh in the American psyche, its effects filtered down to the children. The popularity of “playing war” was inspired by such movies as Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne in 1949 and To Hell and Back with Audie Murphy in 1955, as well as TV show Combat with Vic Morrow, which ran from 1962 to 1967.
Cowboys and Indians gave way to Americans vs. Germans or “Japs.” It seemed like every young boy had a set of green plastic army men. And why not? They were inexpensive, and your parents could buy a bag of 20 or so soldiers without compromising their budgets.
Thanks to my husband Frank, I have been schooled in the fine art of waging battles among miniature plastic army men. From what he remembers, his set included soldiers in various positions, carrying the following weapons: M1 carbines, machine guns, BAR automatic rifles, pistols, and bazookas. It also included tanks and Jeeps.
My two brothers had their batch of little green army men as well, and even I owned a few. I found them in the attic one day when I was sorting through a box of my childhood keepsakes.
Boys set up their “battles” in sand, dirt, and sticks and even inside if the weather didn’t allow outdoor play. Frank and his friends created some mammoth battles in which clothespins, Popsicle sticks, matchsticks, and “explosives” were instrumental on the battlefield. Cracked.com comments, “Even today, roughly half of all grown men cannot help but see trenches in the garden walls and cliff sides in tree roots. These little soldiers, sometimes based on actual national armies, watched their friends die face down in the mud for this patch of sidewalk.”
Every Christmas when Frank and his brother were young, their dad set up a large train platform around the Christmas tree in their living room. The 4′ x 12′ platform held two American Flyer trains—one passenger and one freight—along with houses, churches, a gas station, a coal loader, and more. Although Frank enjoyed operating their two trains through the “town,” under bridges, and up the trestles, he, like my brothers, was not content to sit and watch, getting much more pleasure in creating havoc—like blocking the tracks with Lincoln logs, trucks, and army men. He would outfit the train cars and army trucks with his little plastic soldiers and have the Americans battle the Germans as they rode the rails. Sometimes he would set the transformer controls to maximum speed to observe the train round a curve and careen out of control. Frank’s poor army men surely earned their combat pay.
But that was not the only havoc that boys wreaked on those army men. Certain boys in my old neighborhood, who shall remain nameless, had a back-up plan for when they tired of doing battle. One of the little miscreants admits, “I remember having fun burning the toy soldiers because they melted, and we would drip the melt onto ants and other bugs.” Boys will be boys. They’re fortified with snips and snails, you know.
Unlike some toys that were nothing more than brief fads, the miniature green army men didn’t ride off into the sunset as World War II faded in memory. For the Korean War followed five years later and then the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and 1970’s, perpetuating war reenactments with little green army men, an American tradition for generations.
My son Frank had a set of army men, very similar to the original World War II set my brothers had, when he was a child in the 1980’s. It was a set that came in a rectangular green plastic case. Frank recently reminisced, “I used to set up the army men around the room and outside, then shoot/throw things at them to knock them over. The last man standing won. I had one of those troop carrier boats, a machine gun emplacement, a portable cannon, a flag, and a few other things. I also had a destroyer and aircraft carrier that I kept in the box, but they must have been from a different set since the scale was wrong.”
You can still buy those little green army men today. Amazon sells everything from a small bagful to a 202-piece bucket with American, British, German, and Japanese soldiers. Even Lego is in on the act, the ultimate set being its 761-piece Land/Air Force Building Block Set.
For everything on little green army men from the 50’s to today, read here at The Army Men Homepage.
If you’re a boomer who wistfully harkens back to those days of playing in the dirt with army men, you may like to read this excerpt from my fictitious memoir, The Crab Hollow Chronicles. Relying on my husband’s childhood remembrances and his “expertise” with miniature weaponry, I hope to have captured the essence of that simple form of boyhood play in the 1950’s and 1960’s:
I found four boys clustered beneath a locust tree on the border of Skipper’s back yard and the woods. Assembled on a large patch of dirt were what appeared to be two miniature army forces with about fifty plastic soldiers in each. Some soldiers held rifles that were strapped around their backs; others held carbines, machine guns, or hand grenades; still others held first aid kits or walkie-talkies—all interchangeable. Interspersed among the soldiers were Jeeps, tanks, and a variety of trucks.
I heard a flurry of whispers and then Skipper’s voice. “It’s only Karen.”
“What are you playing?” I asked.
“War. Whad’ya think?” Michael answered. “Me and Kenny command the Americans, and Bobby and Eddie have the Germans. We’re setting up for the next bombing round.”
“And what are you doing?” I asked Skipper.
“I’m the lookout right now in case my mother or anybody comes. So you better not snitch, or I’ll snap you like a wishbone.” He cracked his knuckles.
“I won’t tell,” I responded, insulted that he would even suggest such a thing.
“Come on, come on,” Bobby admonished. “Let’s get back to the battle.”
Preparing the “Americans” for battle, Michael was setting up a Lincoln Log fort while Kenny dug small foxholes and a larger cave, which served as the supply depot. At the same time, Bobby and Eddie were reinforcing their dirt bunkers and repairing the “Germans’” Popsicle stick fort, which had been glued together by hand. Both divisions included additional buildings constructed with a few decks of playing cards.
This was even more impressive than the railroad skirmish Tommy and Bobby had set up by the tree at Christmas time, where they would position soldiers in the box and gondola cars and set booby traps in the tracks. Then they would sit back to delight in the ensuing demolition as the entire Lionel train careened off the track.
Preparations complete, the boys stood before their enemy forces, about ten feet away behind two golf clubs used as start lines. “First,” Bobby instructed as he aimed a wooden clothespin, “We deploy our aerial bombs. Snodgrass, tell us when to start.”
I felt like a general leading her troops into battle. “Okay. Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes! We have just begun to fight! Give us victory or give us death!”
“C’mon already,” came the chorus from the boys.
“Quit flappin’ your gums and say ‘go!’”
“Ready, set, go!”
With each boy getting three shots, the clothespins flew through the air, accompanied by the boys’ whistling and exploding sound effects. The ground base holding the flagpole fell on its side; the soldier with binoculars to his eyes was on his stomach observing magnified dirt while the soldier manning a metal detector lay atop him. Several other soldiers drew direct hits.
“Can I throw one?” I asked.
Eddie attached a clothespin to his nose. “No, this is a serious competition.”
“Now,” Bobby continued, “comes the cannon fire.”
“I’m first,” Kenny announced. Getting down on his knees, he placed a matchstick in a green plastic spring-loaded cannon and lit it. Then he pulled the spring back and discharged the matchstick, which slid harmlessly across the roof of a cargo truck before getting stuck in a razor wire fence. Thereafter, each participant took a turn behind the cannon. Michael reaped the most damage, sending his flaming match stick sailing into a playing card barracks, where it knocked over three cards and set the building ablaze. It was nothing that a few stamping feet couldn’t extinguish, though.
“Now comes the coolest of all—the explosives!” Michael proclaimed excitedly.
Kenny whipped out a pack of firecrackers from a brown paper bag. “Demolition time!” he declared.
“Where’d you get those?” I inquired.
“From Fuzzy Horgan,” Bobby responded.
Ah yes, I should have known—the junior high mercenary. Why did I bother to ask? Other than Richie Gentile, Fuzzy was the only kid around who knew how to concoct an exceptional explosive device out of common household products, and he had the advantage of having easy access to illegal fireworks for any occasion.
“Black Cat penny firecrackers,” Bobby informed me. “Great deal, too. Only a quarter for a pack of sixteen.”
Kenny pointed to some paper on the ground. “We tried the mini lady fingers, but they didn’t do anything. You get a lotta punch with these penny firecrackers.”
The boys took twenty-five firecrackers apiece. Kenny, impatient to begin, prompted the others. “C’mon. Hurry up before Skipper’s mother comes home!”
“I’ll give the signal,” Skipper commanded.
The foursome stood in anticipation of the impending battle—two on the right, two on the left—firecrackers and matches at the ready. Skipper checked to make sure all feet were behind the golf clubs. “Ready, set, bombs away!”
The “missiles” were hastily lit and expeditiously thrown onto the battlefield. Pow! Bam! Soldiers were getting hit with shrapnel left and right. One private went airborne, impaling his bazooka in the ground as he fell. A pistol blew from an officer’s hand. Snap-on helmets and overturned vehicles were scattered among the wreckage. One playing card hospital had been demolished, a medic stuck beneath the Queen of Spades with only his first-aid kit peeking out.
Gleeful at the devastation, Skipper exclaimed, “We shoulda bought some M-80’s off Fuzzy. We coulda had a massacre.”
For a free short story from my book The Crab Hollow Chronicles, message me at my author Facebook page.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.