Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Alumnus Article!

Recently we published a letter in the Port Richmond HS Alumni Newsletters asking alumni to read our online Crow's Nest and to submit stories and articles about their time at our school. Here is our proud first publication of an alumnus, from Mr. Trygve R. Skarsten of the graduation class of 1946. Mr. Skarsten's memories of Port Richmond HS during the World War II years make fascinating reading. It's like a journey in time that allows us to see and feel what it was like here in our school during that long-ago and historic time. Enjoy this story, and remember that all Raiders are brought together by out common experiences here at our beloved school.

Here is Mr. Skarsten's memoir:

Personal Reflections on the Years We Spent Together at Port Richmond High School
by Trygve R. Skarsten

Trygve R. Skarsten, Class of 1946

Our years at Port Richmond High School were dominated by the Second World War. There was hardly a person whose life was not impinged by the all-pervasive reality of World War II. I was no exception. I had grown up in a Norwegian immigrant family in the Norwegian ghetto in Brooklyn called Bay Ridge where there were more Norwegians living than in Oslo, the capital of Norway. It had been my parents’ intention to stay just long enough to save up enough money so they could buy a tractor and a motor boat. Then we planned to return to the little hamlet called Skarsten that jutted out into the North Sea in southern Norway. The Depression and the birth of a sister and brother delayed the move for a few years. It was finally decided that we would move back to “the old country” in the summer of 1940. But then came April 9th and the invasion of Norway by Nazi Germany. My mother and father worried a great deal about their parents and siblings. What would happen to them now? So instead of sailing that summer across the Atlantic back to Norway, we sailed across the Narrows to Staten Island on the 69th Street Ferry so as to be closer to where my father’s tugboat tied up in West Brighton each evening.

A year and a half later, after the invasion of Norway, America was suddenly catapulted into World War II when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was a Sunday afternoon, a little after 3 PM I was riding my bike down Chandler Avenue when I heard my mother calling out from our second floor apartment for all Westerleigh to hear. She sounded frantic. “Trygve, du maa komme hjem. Vi er i krig.” (Trygve, you must come home. We are at war.) I peddled home as fast as I could and ran upstairs. There I found my parents huddled in front of our radio listening to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was hard to believe that the “day of infamy” had occurred. Everyone was in shock.

After this, German submarine attacks intensified outside of New York Harbor. My mother worried about my father since his tugboat often went out into the Atlantic, around Long Island to Providence, Rhode Island and sometimes down to Philadelphia. This area of the Atlantic was known as “submarine alley” or “torpedo alley.” After the war was over, my father told us of ships that were torpedoed right outside Ambrose Light. It was during this time my Uncle Johannes was torpedoed three times. It’s amazing he lived to tell about it.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor rationing was introduced in early 1942. If you were assigned an “A” gas ration sticker, you might as well have left your car in the garage for the duration of the war. You had to have coupons and tokens for everything imaginable. You were only allowed two pairs of shoes a year. It didn’t matter whether the old shoes fit anymore. Get them resoled by the shoemaker. The new soles were made out of hard-pressed cardboard so you quickly learned not to walk in them when it was raining. You were only allowed a certain number of cans of fruit and/or vegetables a month, if the grocery stores had them. Butter was rationed as was cooking oil. Many of us wore homemade clothes to school. Meat was hard to buy but the ubiquitous chop meat always seemed to be available so meatloaf recipes were very popular. Sugar was next to impossible to obtain. It was at this time that folks, who had never grown anything, began to plant what were called “Victory Gardens.” It seemed everyone was growing vegetables “for the war effort.” Many of us became experts at making homemade soap. We also learned to make candles that were frequently used during the many blackouts. Each block had an air raid warden who went up and down his assigned street to see that your blackout curtains were drawn tightly shut. Streetlights were covered with long cones so the light would shine directly down onto the street and not give off a wide glare. Automobile headlights were painted with black paint except for the bottom third. All of this was done to help merchant ships sailing up and down the coast so they would not become easy silhouettes at night for the prowling German submarines. Pastor Qualben at Zion Lutheran Church in Port Richmond always wanted us guys to walk the girls home after our Young Peoples’ Meetings because the streets were so dark. He never had trouble getting volunteers.

Always the reality of the war hung over us. How many ships had been torpedoed yesterday? Where were the Japanese now? Had the Philippines fallen yet? Were the Australians still holding out in Tobruk? Had Moscow and Stalingrad capitulated to the German Army? Was the Royal Air Force winning the Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffe? Out of the way places never heard of before became household words like Dunkirk, El Alamein, Casablanca, Guadalcanal, Port Moresby and Darwin. The list could go on and on. Anyone who read the newspapers became an expert in geography as the war raged around the world from the Aleutians to Madagascar.

As young men and women entered the armed forces, there would appear flags in the front windows of their homes. The flag had a wide red border with a white rectangle in the middle. In the white rectangle was a blue star or maybe two or three or even four depending on how many were in the armed services from that home. As the war dragged on, gold stars began to appear on the flags. We all knew what that meant. In our church in Port Richmond there was a large flag in the narthex with over a hundred stars. At the end of the war, all the stars were blue except for three who had been torpedoed while serving in the merchant marine.

Because there was such a shortage of men, women and young teenagers began to work in stores, gas stations, factories and assembly plants to help the war effort. “Rosie the Riveter” became a symbol of the modern woman working in shipyards and modern airplane assembly lines. When I turned fourteen, I obtained my working papers and at sixteen, my driver’s license. Before the war, child labor laws prohibited one from working until you were sixteen years old. Now with the tremendous shortage of labor, fourteen year olds were encouraged to work. Along with working papers came your social security card and a physical exam (just to see if you were breathing). In the line in front of me, waiting to take their physicals, were two Italian kids. When the nurse read their names, she lambasted them for not Americanizing their names. “We are at war you know and you should become Americans,” she said. From her accent, I knew that the nurse was Irish. I was in line right behind the two Italians. When she read my name, she became livid and gave me a double dose of what she had just given the two Italian guys. They turned around stunned at the verbal abuse I was taking. I stood there stoic –like and didn’t say a word. She should talk, I thought. Ireland wasn’t even helping to win the war. And since when was Claudia O’Shannagan any more of an American name than Trygve Skarsten!

The winter of 1942-43, when we were Freshmen at PRHS, was one of the coldest winters in recorded weather bureau history. It was brutal. It was the same in Europe and on the Russian Front where the German Army was experiencing the worst setback so far in the war. The snow began to pile up on the roads here on Staten Island. The weather was way below zero at night and hardly above it in the daytime. In the midst of this cold weather we moved from our rented apartment into our own house on Constant Avenue in Westerleigh. Mom and Pop had decided that we were all going to become Americans and be part of the American Dream. We now owned our own house! But we didn’t own enough coal to get us through the winter. Chunks of coal would often fall off the coal trucks as they rumbled by. My sister and I would pick them up wherever we could find them and bring them home. Up by Four Corners we had to pass by a huge Army coal dump. Some of the chunks of coal would spill over and through the chain-link fence onto the sidewalk where we had to walk. We helped “clean” the sidewalk on behalf of the US Army so the soldiers stationed there wouldn’t have to get sore backs stooping to pick up all the coal. Coal was hard to get and the soldiers knew some of us didn’t have much, so they threw chunks of coal over the fence for us to pick up. No matter how hard we tried to keep the sidewalk clean, there were always more chunks of coal on the sidewalk the next day for us to take home. It was like manna that appeared every morning. And so we got through the winter of 1942-43. No one complained about any hardships. We all knew we had it easy compared to those serving in the military and we feared for what was happening to our loved ones in Norway.

As the war dragged on, from our vantage point as we sat in class at PRHS looking over to the railroad bridge that crossed the Arthur Kill from New Jersey, we could see that the trains loaded with military equipment were getting longer and longer. When classes became boring or we had some free time, we would sit and count the number of freight cars, oil tankers, etc., in each train as they crossed the railroad trestle over the Arthur Kill. Sometimes there were several hundred freight cars going over the bridge. The same was true when we took the 69th Street Ferry to visit relatives over in Brooklyn. The ferry had to weave and maneuver around all the ships lying at anchor in the harbor. Sometimes on the way back to Staten Island later that same evening, the ships would all be gone. The convoy had sailed out to sea, bound for the British Isles, Murmansk, North Africa and who knew where else.

Some German spies knew. For a couple years, a nest of spies had operated out of Dongan Hills and sent word to the German submarines waiting outside New York Harbor when the convoys lifted anchor and got underway. Dongan Hills was one of the sites where our family picked blackberries. We had often watched convoys sailing out of New York Harbor while we were picking blackberries so it did not surprise us to read in The Staten Island Advance about a German spy ring that had been caught in Dongan Hills.

At the top of our street on Manor Road was the New York State National Guard Armory. It was a busy place with trucks and tanks coming in and out. There were several anti-aircraft batteries in the armory that were manned 24 hours a day throughout the war. At the north side of the armory was Clove Lakes Park. Here again there were anti-aircraft batteries scattered throughout the park. There were no fences to keep us away from these batteries so it was easy to talk to the soldiers manning the guns. Most of them were bored stiff and wanted to get “into the action” where there was some fighting going on. They were usually rotated in and out of their assignments so I’m sure they got their wish soon enough.

As the war continued, I expected that I would soon be entering one of the branches of the military and participate in the invasion of Japan. In our high school gym classes, we were issued wooden rifles and marched out on the football field. We then had to run with our “rifles” across the football field, up to the top of the bleachers, down again and across the football field, up the guest bleachers, down again, across the football field again. We did this several times. In between, Mr. Trella would blow his whistle and we would do a “Pete Rose belly flop into first base” with our rifle. A couple seconds later, we would hear the whistle again and begin to run at full speed in a zigzag fashion with imaginary bullets zipping past us. I saw many of my upper classmen returning to Port Richmond High School after they had finished boot camp glad that they had gotten into condition at PRHS. The girls would flock to them while the rest of us did a slow burn. I must admit, however, that their uniforms did wonders for them. They looked like real men while the rest of us were just high school kids.

I took the “academic” course of study at PRHS. Many girls took the “commercial” course so they could become office workers, stenographers, secretaries, etc. When I looked through our high school yearbook recently, I was amazed how many girls aspired to be secretaries. It brought home to me how limited the vocational options were for girls in our generation. The feminist movement has certainly changed that and I wouldn’t want it otherwise. The academic course of study prepared you for college, if you should be so fortunate as to be able to afford a college education. In any case, I took Spanish and Latin as my foreign languages. Mr. Jacob Wood was our Spanish teacher. He was the Dean of Boys and a stern disciplinarian. When we didn’t respond with the right answer, he would usually get angry and say, “El burro sabe mas que tu” (A jackass knows more than you).

I was what is called today an ESL student (English as Second Language). Mrs. Ella Adams taught Latin that in turn helped me learn English. Through Latin I learned what sentence structure was all about. I learned the difference between nouns and verbs. I could distinguish between adverbs and adjectives. I grasped the difference between nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative cases. I understood active and passive voice. Reflective pronouns were no longer a mystery. I was thrilled with Latin. Through it, the English language and its intricacies came alive for me. One of the intriguing things about Mel Gibson’s recent movie, “The Passion of Christ,” was that the Roman soldiers and people spoke to each other in Latin. I could understand what they were saying. Latin wasn’t dead after all!

Mr. Francis Salzano was my favorite math teacher as well as our Math Club faculty sponsor. No one wanted to be one of his “wall-nuts.” It was at this time that my friends gave me a new nickname, “Trygonometry.” Often they would ask me, “Hey Tryg, did you do your Trig?” In Physics we had Mr. Edwin Stuart. He was a pedantic, fusspot sort of teacher who lorded it over us with Archimedes Principle and the like. One day at lunch when he had cafeteria duty, we decided to get back at him. We filled a tall glass with water, placed a stiff piece of paper over the top of the glass, then quickly turned the glass upside down on the cafeteria lunch table and pulled the paper out from under the glass of water. We then walked over to Mr. Stuart and asked him how we could turn the glass right side up without spilling any of the water in the glass. Boy, did we have Mr. Stuart stymied. We rubbed our hands with glee and tried not to snicker out loud. At first he was annoyed with us but quickly realized that we were taking his Physics class into the cafeteria and were seriously trying to stump him. He took up the challenge with a smile on his face. He stood there with one of his hands holding up his jaw just like the famous statue entitled “The Thinker.” Finally, after a few minutes had passed, he said that the only way he knew was to get four guys under the table and carefully turn the table upside down with a fifth and sixth person took turns pressing the upside down glass tightly against the table as the four guys underneath turned the table over. Everyone pushed back the neighboring tables and we cleared our table of everything except our upside down full glass of water. By this time we had all the guys and gals in the whole cafeteria standing around shouting encouragement to us nerds while Mr. Stuart supervised the proceedings. Somehow we managed to turn the table upside down without spilling a drop of water. It was no easy feat to turn the table upside down because the cafeteria tables were long and heavy. Mr. Stuart’s popularity soared for allowing us to pull such a stunt and for him taking it so good-naturedly.

Mr. Carl Bohn and Mrs. Fannie Spieler made Social Studies come alive. Mr. Bohn had a flair for dramatizing history. He had the whole class enthralled when he dramatized the debate between Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Mrs. Spieler was a communist. At least that was what I accused her of being one day in class. She didn’t get upset with me. Rather she pushed us to defend the free market, capitalist position. She told us of her humble Jewish background and how her parents had been expelled from Russia just because they were Jewish. I was surprised to hear this and questioned her more after class. I wondered whether my Jewish friends with whom I ate lunch had similar stories. It was the first time that anti-Semitism had been explained to me so intimately by someone who had actually experienced it. I was growing up and learning about the real world. I could no longer live in my Norwegian ghetto cocoon. I had read about Kristallnacht and the Nazi Aryan propaganda but it hadn’t affected my psyche until Mrs. Spieler laid bare her soul.

Miss Mary Vroom and Miss Alice Erskine were our two music teachers. They were like night and day. Unfortunately (as I look back upon it now), we made a lot of jokes and fun behind Miss Vroom’s back about her eccentric mannerisms and looks that reminded us of the witch in The Wizard of Oz.” Miss Erskine was a very likeable person and our grade advisor. She could play 3-5 musical instruments and knew the fingering for many more. We had a full fledged symphony orchestra at PRHS with some very good violin players like Bob Emile and Bob Blakefield. Peter Demnitz on the flute, Mary Jane Jensen on the oboe and LeRoy Pedersen on the cornet were also outstanding. We played just about all the John Philip Sousa marches, and the popular symphonies by Beethoven, Dvorak, Brahms, Schubert and overtures by Rossiini. The “William Tell Overture” (The Lone Ranger Song) was always the most popular. Miss Erskine picked out real lively pieces and our classmates often broke out with hearty applause during our assemblies and special events.

Miss Beatrice Milner was a good English teacher. She made the subject matter interesting. Now that I was taking Latin, I began to understand English sentence structure much better and enjoyed reading books like Silas Marner, Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities. Miss Milner was the daughter of Rabbi Milner of Temple Emanuel on Post Avenue in Port Richmond. Our basketball team from Zion Lutheran was often over at Temple Emanuel playing interleague basketball games with each other. During our senior year, news began to surface about the extent of the Holocaust. It was terrible. Over six million Jews had been exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps. One day we found Miss Milner absolutely distraught. She had just learned during the lunch break that her entire family in Germany had been killed. Not a single member of her family was alive. She was not to be consoled. She sat at her desk and cried and cried. We sat there in class stunned. There was no English class that day. It was too late to get a substitute teacher. At the end of the class period, we all filed out of the room with our heads down. We were all sad for Miss Milner. She didn’t return to teach until over a week later.

By contrast, my parents had just learned that our whole family in Norway was okay. My future wife’s family received the same good news even though both our families had been active in the Norwegian underground with an uncle being sent to the notorious concentration camp in Grini, Norway and a cousin to Bergen-Belsen in Germany. When some of the 300 German soldiers stationed near Skarsten came looking for escaped Russian prisoners who were being used as slave labor to build the Atlantic Wall, my old grandmother would go to meet them. The German soldiers would ask about the escaped Russian prisoners. She made believe she didn’t know what they were talking about. But when she heard the word “das” (“the” in German) she would right away say, “Aha, kom….” She would then take them to the outhouse because in Norwegian the word for outhouse is “dass.” She knew what they wanted but she was just trying to act dumb so they would go away. This they usually did right away, muttering as they left, “stupid peasant woman.”

I always expected to be drafted after graduation from PRHS. After D-Day, Germany collapsed quite rapidly as she fought the Allies on two fronts. V-E Day was proclaimed by President Truman on May 8, 1945. Japan was another matter. Her armies had fought ferociously in defense of every single island in the Pacific. Casualties had been horrific as Japan had been forced to give up Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. What would it be like when the Japanese defended their own homeland? Everyone expected the casualties from an invasion of Japan to run up into the millions. I saw no other possibility than to be part of that Allied invasion force and expected to die on some landing beach outside Tokyo. Then came the dramatic news that atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two, three days later on August 14th, the war was over! We could hardly believe it.

I was picking blackberries on that hot afternoon in August (1945) down in the bottoms of Willowbrook when I heard sirens and church bells starting to ring. I wondered what was going on. The impact of the dropping of the first atomic bombs had not yet sunk in on the general public. Then I realized that the war must be over. I hurriedly gathered my blackberries together and put them in my bicycle basket. I rode home as fast as I could up Victory Boulevard (appropriately named) and found my mother waiting for me with open arms. As she hugged me, she said, “I’m so glad you don’t have to go to war.” I was too, though I would have been happy to have served my country. Then Mom reminded me that though the war might be over, I still had to finish my third year Latin home study.


Trygve R. Skarsten, born in Brooklyn, NY in 1928. Moved to Staten Island in 1940. Graduated from Port Richmond High School in 1946. Met a cute student nurse by the name of Ruth Stangeland from Tottenville in 1949 at Wagner College. We have 4 children and 12 grandchildren. We have lived in 9 different states since our marriage as well as in Norway and Australia for a year each.. We have visited all 50 states in the USA, 33 different countries and lectured in 15 of the latter. Besides Wagner College, I have studied at Columbia University, Luther Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, the University of Arizona, the University of Oslo (Norway) and the University of Chicago where I obtained a Ph.D in 1968. For 14 years I was a Lutheran pastor in Elizabeth, NJ; Tucson, AZ and Park Forest, IL. For 23 years I taught Church History at Sweet Briar College in VA; Yale University in CT; Trinity Lutheran Seminary in OH; and Luther Seminary in Adelaide, Australia. In 1994 I retired as president of Trinity Lutheran College in Issaquah, WA. We live at 12402 Pintails Circle in Pickerington, OH 43147. Phone: (614) 755-4435.


  1. What an amazing series of recollections about our school during WWII! Really enjoyed it.

  2. I was interested to read about one of your teachers, Mrs. Fannie Spieler. I'm pretty sure she was my World History teacher at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in the fall of 1960. I wonder whether you can verify whether she had bright red hair. If so, she was the same teacher I had. The only other physical trait she had was a physical in capability to snap her fingers. She also at that time had a son and daughter who were probably teenagers, so I guess when you had her she did not yet have children. Thanks for your interesting account!