GROTON — On June 7, 10 people from the Groton High School Class of 1945, got together at The Devens Grill, in Devens, to talk, laugh and share memories of growing up in a Groton during World War II. The classmates meet regularly on the first Monday of June and October each year at restaurants around Groton.
Due to the war, not all of the reunion attendees graduated with their class. Some enlisted for military service before graduation. With parental permission, a teenager could enlist at 16. Of the 21 students who graduated in 1945, six were male and all had signed up as reservists.
Milton Freeman was one of them. After graduation, he and his classmates went to basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago, Ill.. Freeman was assigned duty on the troop transport ship, USS Hermitage. The ship, a converted Italian luxury liner, arrived in Japan to transport troops across the Pacific after peace had been declared.
From 1933 to 1945, transient students passed through the Groton school system. Some were from migrant farm families who worked in Groton and Dunstable. During the war years, families associated with military operations at Fort Devens temporarily lived in Groton as well.
“There were 63 students who came and went with that class year, and only 21 actually graduated,” said Freeman.
Muriel Ruckstuhl was another Class of 1945 alumni. She was born in New York City, and her family moved to Groton when she was 2. Ruckstuhl transferred from Groton High School to Northfield School for Girls to become a registered nurse. She married Charles, an engineer, in 1950 and they moved to Germany while he worked for Radio Free Europe. They later lived in California and Connecticut. She returned to Groton in 1961.
Ruckstuhl remembers Groton as always being a pretty town. “The center of town still looks the same, though some of the old buildings are gone,” she said. “Main Street was always lovely. There used to be beautiful giant elms lining the street, but they blew down in the hurricane of ’38.”
The classmates share a common bond of spending their formative years in the midst of war. At that time, everyone lived with hardship. Clothes, shoes, food, gas, oil and coal were in short supply and strictly rationed. Ruckstuhl recalls how her family collected metal items in their home, such as pots and pans, and contributed them to make armaments to advance the war effort.
Freeman’s family lived with his maternal grandparents. “Because of the food rationing, we grew our own vegetables and kept chickens,” Freeman said. “Each year I raised a calf to be slaughtered for meat.”
It was a sad time too, with a large number of men going to war. Members of the Class of ’45 were aware of other classmates who graduated ahead of them and joined the service.
Another vivid memory of the teen years for the Class of 1945 involved military activity at Fort Devens, where Army troops were stationed. Many Groton residents were employed in the base’s construction. Teens and their families often drove to Ayer to watch B-25 and B-19 aircraft take off and land.
“It was different then — there were not a lot of airplanes overhead like today,” said Ruckstuhl. “Watching those planes was a special sight to us.”
During the war years, Groton had a population of about 2,500. Today, more than 13,000 live in town. The high school had about 100 students. Ruckstuhl and her brother had a paper route, so they know just about everybody in town. “Everywhere you went, you’d see someone you knew and say ‘hello,'” she said.
After Ruckstuhl received her nursing degree, she worked in Groton Hospital, where Donelan’s Supermarket now stands.
“The hospital was a big old colonial house with pillars in the front. There was a blacksmith shop next door where the dry cleaner’s is now,” said Ruckstuhl.
V-E Day, May 8, 1945, was shortly before the students’ graduation. Ruckstuhl remembers it as a joyous and eventful day.
“Everyone was outside their houses that day, and everybody was so happy,” says Ruckstuhl. “We had come through such a hard, sad time and now were so relieved that the war in Europe was over.”
For Freeman and his classmates, the celebration was muted because war was still being waged in the Pacific. Freeman and his alumni would be shipping out to basic training immediately after graduation.
Freeman saw much of the Pacific during his time in the Navy. The USS Hermitage had been attacked and nearly sank in the Panama Canal in 1941. After that, it was retrofitted to carry 4,500 troops.
“All of us knew older boys who had gone overseas, and we all believed it was a thrilling thing to do,” Freeman said. “Most of us went into the Navy — basically because we were familiar with army operations at Fort Devens and wanted something different.”
Ruckstuhl didn’t think their aspirations were so different from the teens of today. “We thought about making a romantic connection, and who we would marry, and wondered what we do after school,” she said.
After his active duty as a reservist was over, Freeman returned to Groton. He enrolled at Bentley College in Waltham, and commuted from Ayer.
“In those days, they ran a lot of trains, so many of us went to school in Boston. I met my future wife, Eileen, on the train.”
Freeman became an accountant, married Eileen, and they settled in Connecticut where she was a teacher.