Home Front: America in the 1940s

Uploaded by HooverPresLib on 23.06.2010

In late 1941 much of the world was at war. Nazi Germany occupied Eastern Europe while
Imperial Japan continued to extend its empire throughout Asia. Although the United States
government had spoken out against Japanese attacks on China, it was supplying Great Britain
with food and weapons. Many Americans hoped their country would remain neutral.
December 7th 1941 most Americans were enjoying a restful Sunday. Across the nation, people
were going to church, listening to the radio, or reading the funny papers. At Pearl Harbor,
Hawaii, the base of the American Pacific fleet, most sailors were sleeping late. First by
telephone, then by radio, the awful news flashed throughout the United States.
Many music lovers heard the dreadful announcement as they tuned into CBS radio for an afternoon
concert by the New York Philharmonic. At 7:49 a.m. more than 180 Japanese aircraft
began raining bombs on dozens of American warships anchored in the harbor. A second
raid an hour later added to the destruction wiping out a total of 188 U.S. planes and
sinking or disabling 19 naval vessels including five battleships.
The following day nearly sixty million Americans tuned in their radios as President Franklin
Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. When the president, who regarded December
seventh as, “a day that will live in infamy,” asked for a declaration of war against Japan,
only one lawmaker voted against him. Three days after FDR’s speech, Germany and
Italy declared war on the United States. By January 1942, the United States, Great Britain,
and two dozen other countries, later known as the Allies, had joined together to fight
the Axis. Eventually six million men and women volunteered and ten million more were drafted.
Saying good-bye was a never ending drama on the home front. As draftees and volunteers
left for boot camps, towns organized send-offs at the local train stations. Even military
personnel who remained in United States were usually stationed far from home. To keep lonely
young men out of trouble in local saloons, civic leaders invited them and their female
cohorts to dances, church socials, and variety shows sponsored by the United Service Organizations.
The U.S.O., a joint venture of the government and private charity groups operated 3,000
clubs in or near military installations throughout the United States, and 10 additional canteens
overseas. Comedian Bob Hope, dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and movie stars
Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and Boris Karloff traveled to bases around the globe to perform
at U.S.O. shows. At the Hollywood Canteen and the New York
City Stage Door Canteen stars danced with, waited on, and cleaned up after thousands
of grateful men and women in uniform. Initially many Americans felt that only “loose”
women would join the military, but the overwhelming response of determined hardworking females
began to erode the prejudice of those who thought women could not function in the armed
forces. Eventually female performance in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines, including
16,000 who served overseas exceeded the highest expectations.
Caught unprepared by the Japanese, the United States had to work quickly to provide its
armed forces with basic supplies. Many factories had to switch from making household goods
to producing war material. To supervise this change, the government created the War Production
Board in January 1942. Auto plants soon were able to turn out trucks, tanks, jeeps, and
amphibious vehicles. American productivity soared beyond the combined output of all other
Allied and Axis countries. But when a shortage of male workers occurred, women filled the
gap. Defense plants ran confidence boosting ads
and Lockheed Aircraft’s famous, “Rosie the Riveter,” a poster girl in kerchief
and overalls, symbolized a new notion of American beauty. Women performed well at their new
jobs. And their presence improved working conditions for all employees.
Many towns prepared for air raids. Neighborhood block wardens enforced blackouts. During drills,
Civilian Defense workers sounded alarms. Since few communities had bomb shelters, citizens
were told to hide in basements or under tables. The American Red Cross filled the gaps left
by public welfare agencies forming a bridge between those on the home front and loved
ones fighting overseas. More than three million women volunteered for service running canteens,
assisting as nurses’ aides, and ambulance drivers, and packing the legendary Red Cross
packages for shipment overseas. Encouraged by the government, homeowners planted
more than twenty million backyard victory gardens, which yielded a third of the total
U.S. vegetable crop in 1943. During the war, the U.S. government had first
claim on food and raw materials. Worried that shortages would make prices rise; the Office
of Price Administration set limits, and began to ration essential goods, such as sugar,
coffee, and gasoline. For instance, each person was entitled to
two pounds of sugar a month and three pairs of shoes a year. Families picked up ration
coupon books at neighborhood schools. Each coupon was worth a certain number of points.
A pound of pork chops might cost thirty-eight cents and eight red points.
Gas rations varied with needs of different groups. Most people qualified for four gallons
per week. Doctors, police officers, and emergency workers could fill up anytime, as did the
members of Congress, who incurred the outrage of motorists by voting themselves unlimited
use. Shortages and rationing had far reaching effects.
To conserve cloth and metal, dressmakers shortened hems and eliminated cuffs, hoods, and zippers.
Pennies turned grey when the U.S. Mint replaced the copper coating with zinc.
Ironically, in an effort to defend freedom, the federal government suspended many civil
liberties for the duration of the war. But in some cases, minority groups who previously
had experienced prejudice saw these injustices magnified by wartime measures.
African-Americans endured widespread discrimination both at home and at the front. The Army increased
the number of black soldiers and formed a few combat units but most served in segregated
construction, food service, transportation, and supply units. As the war progressed, the
growing civil rights movement gained the support of many elected officials. But the military
was not integrated until President Harry Truman signed it into law in 1948. He said that top
brass had resisted. People of European descent also experienced
discrimination during the war. Quotas which had been enacted during the 1920s and 30s
to prevent immigrants from taking jobs from unemployed Americans continued to keep certain
ethnic groups, particularly Jews, out of the country.
Some Americans feared California would be invaded by Japan. Lt. General John L. DeWitt,
the Army’s west coast commander, claimed that Japanese-Americans were planning sabotage
and signaling to enemy ships and planes. Although no evidence of this was found, DeWitt insisted
on relocating 127,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps.
Even though most internees had been born in America, they were forced to sell their homes
and businesses. Compensation for their losses was slow in coming. In 1948, Congress paid
37 million dollars in damages, but each surviving internee did not receive their additional
twenty thousand dollars until 1993. By 1940s news gathering facilities dotted
the globe. Newsreel, ten-minute films covering real life events, were a principle information
source. Enhanced by dramatic narration and music, they were seen weekly by at least forty
million people at home and two hundred million people abroad.
Hundreds of Hollywood entertainers appeared in films, and radio shows, organized scrap
drives, and sold war bonds. The Liberty Loan Bond drives attracted such stars as Jack Benny,
Judy Garland, and James Cagney. “Let’s all back the attack.” Entertainers, musicians,
and sports figures all wanted to do their part.
Jimmy Stewart had joined the Army before Pearl Harbor. But by May 1942, deferments were being
granted to Hollywood personnel who were considered essential to the government’s war propaganda
effort. Schools became the focus of many new war related
activities. Students were reminded to save money, to buy war stamps and bonds, serve
in volunteer projects, and recycle clothing, paper, and toys.
Students followed the course of the war by reading maps, learning to recognize enemy
planes, and staging plays. Children also wrote letters to soldiers without families, raised
carrier pigeons, drew posters, and wrote patriotic essays.
The government encouraged letter writing to boost the morale of military personnel. But
since letters took up precious cargo space on ships, the Post Office introduced the three
cent “V-Mail.” By microfilming short letters written on special stationery, the Army Signal
Corps could reduce shipping weight by 98%. Officials on the receiving end then enlarged
and printed the negatives for delivery. Throughout the war, the government screened
all the letters that might affect national defense. At overseas bases, officers read
outgoing mail and snipped out any dates or place names that might reveal a battle plan.
Folks on the home front soon became accustomed to what they called “Swiss cheese letters.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, who had led the United States throughout the war, passed
away less than a month before Germany surrendered. On May 8, 1945 Americans across the country
celebrated victory in Europe, or “VE Day.” Although one stage of the war had been won,
another, possibly more difficult stage remained. To defeat Japan, the United States planned
an invasion likely to produce a horrible number of causalities. Just capturing the tiny island
of Okinawa that spring killed almost seven thousand soldiers, sailors, and Marines. But
the war ended more quickly than anyone expected. On August 6, 1945 under orders from President
Harry Truman, the B-29 aircraft “Enola Gay” dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.
Three days later, a second atomic bomb devastated Nagasaki. When the Japanese surrendered, jubilation
overpowered every other emotion. Particularly this sailor who briefly celebrated with a
female passerby in New York’s Times Square. On “VJ Day” September 2, 1945 President
Truman proclaimed a two day holiday during which banks, factories, stores, and the New
York Stock Exchange closed. While movies and magazine covers romanticized
the return of U.S. military personnel, the period of transition was often difficult.
Veterans needed time to unwind, to make plans, and to acquaint themselves with children whom
they had seen only in photographs. Anticipating problems, Congress had passed
the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act in June 1944. Known as the “G.I. Bill,” it enabled
veterans to borrow money at low interest, to buy homes, or open businesses.
Returning servicemen were not prepared to find wives who were disappointed with traditional
female roles. And the housing shortage continued. There were no places for young couples who
were forced to double up with parents or in-laws. Research and development in the defense industry
had lead to manufacturing innovations. After the war, TVs, air conditioners, and plastic
products became widely available. But science was a double-edged sword. The arms race between
the United States and the Soviet Union which began during the late 1940s filled people
with anxiety. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, former
President, Herbert Hoover, favored providing food relief to the nations being starved by
the German army. But Hoover’s national Committee on Food for the Small Democracies was ignored
by Roosevelt and Churchill who feared American food would end up in German stomachs. After
Roosevelt declared war in December 1941, Hoover pledged his full support devoting his energy
to plans for a post-war organization to preserve world peace, an international group we now
call the United Nations. To provide food relief to devastated Europe
after the war, President Truman asked Hoover to head his Emergency Famine Committee. Traveling
fifty-thousand miles, Hoover visited thirty-eight countries, warning the free world that the
war would not end until starvation had been defeated.
Long before Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had begun preparing for war. In 1939 he provided
the first of several aid packages to Great Britain and other Allies. American involvement
in the war was inevitable. On April 12, 1945 Roosevelt died of a massive
heart attack and as his Vice President, Harry Truman, took over command, people around the
world mourned his passing. Harry Truman never dreamed that he would be
President. An obscure Missouri politician, he was elected Vice President in 1944 with
the help of powerful Democrats and on the strength of his crusade against wasteful wartime
spending. Truman severed only eighty-two days as Vice President before he took over for
the deceased President Roosevelt. Within four months he oversaw the defeat of Nazi Germany,
stared down the Soviets at the Potsdam Conference, and ordered the atomic devastation of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. Thus ending World War II and ushering in more than four decades of Cold
War. Able to turn his attention to domestic affairs,
Truman dismantled and integrated the military, ended price controls, and promoted full employment.
Dwight Eisenhower had served in the military for thirty-one years before he was appointed
Assistant to Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall, during World War II. In June 1943, Marshall
promoted him to Commander of all U.S. forces in Europe. And a few months later, Eisenhower
had commanded the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
Ike’s greatest moment came as Supreme Allied Commander in charge of Operation Overlord,
the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944 which ensured the eventual destruction of
the Nazi empire. After the war ended, Eisenhower returned to the United States as a hero.
Following his war service with stints as a best-selling author and president of Columbia
University, he had only one more goal to accomplish. In 1952, he was elected President of the United
States. A scrawny sickly young man, John F. Kennedy
failed the armed forces physical more than once. But he used political influence to receive
a Navy commission. During the night of August 2, 1943 Kennedy’s patrol boat, PT-109, was
sunk by a Japanese destroyer off the Solomon Islands.
Left to drown, he towed one of his crewmen to an island three miles away. Making sure
the rest of his men were safe, he swam from island to island until he got help. Kennedy
never fully recovered. After serving in the South Pacific until the spring of 1944, he
returned to Boston for a back operation. Although thin and weak, he was remembered as the hero
of PT-109. Lyndon B. Johnson was a Texas Congressman
and a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Refused active
duty because he had no combat training, Johnson was asked to work on the Navy’s labor and
production problems. In May 1942, President Roosevelt sent Johnson on a fact finding mission
into the South Pacific. He met with General Douglas MacArthur in Australia and observed
several combat missions at close range including one during which his plane was attacked. For
providing the President with first hand information, Johnson received a Silver Star from MacArthur.
He returned to Congress during the fall of 1942.
Although he was entitled to an exemption due to his Quaker beliefs, and status as a lawyer
with a vital government job, Richard Nixon joined the Navy in August 1942. First assigned
to a new Naval Air Station in Ottumwa, Iowa, he joined the South Pacific Air Transport
Command on the island of New Caledonia in late 1942. Nixon’s duties were dull and
routine until early 1944 when he saw some action in the Solomon Islands. At the war’s
end, he returned to the States determined to run for Congress.
Joining the Navy only hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Gerald Ford initially directed
physical fitness training for new recruits at a pre-flight school in North Carolina.
In June 1943, he was a gunnery and athletics officer on the U.S.S. Monterey, a small aircraft
carrier attached to Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet. Ford saw action throughout the Pacific
and braved a massive typhoon in December 1944. Before leaving the Monterey, he received a
glowing commendation from his captain. After returning to the states, Ford spent his remaining
military service at the Glenview Naval Air Station near Chicago.
In his memoirs, Jimmy Carter reveals that he decided to join the Navy before he entered
grade school in 1942 he joined the Naval R.O.T.C. at Georgia Tech and transferred to the U.S.
Naval Academy the following year. Life at Annapolis was difficult, but Carter pressed
on to become an expert at recognizing the silhouettes of planes and ships. Each summer
he went out on extensive training exercises in the Atlantic. Carter saw no actual combat,
but his training ship was hit by a German torpedo in 1944. After the war, he graduated
59th in a class of 820 in June 1946. He served in the Navy until 1953 when he returned to
Georgia. Ronald Reagan was a Warner Brothers contract
player and an Army reservist when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Ordered to report to San Francisco’s
Fort Mason in March 1942, he quickly finished fighting cinematic Nazis alongside Errol Flynn
and Alan Hale in Warner’s Desperate Journey. Kept stateside because of his poor vision,
Reagan served as liaison officer for troop convoys bound for Australia and then joined
an intelligence unit producing training films. Reagan’s primary function was to narrate
the films helping to guide bombardier trainees to their targets. He also returned to Warner
Brothers to appear in Irving Berlin’s This is the Army, a film that raised ten million
dollars for Army emergency relief in 1945. When George Bush turned 18, on June 12, 1942,
he joined the Navy. One year later he became the youngest pilot currently fighting in the
war. After being reprimanded for attempting dangerous stunts in his plane, he racked up
a distinguished combat record. It was dangerous business and Bush was only one of four in
his fourteen man squadron to survive the war. In June 1944 he was forced to land at sea,
barely escaping before his plane exploded. Three months later, he again crashed into
the sea after his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. With his wings on fire and his crew
dead, Bush dropped his bombs on target before he crashed. In December 1944 Bush returned
to the States to prepare for the invasion of Japan. But he spent the remainder of the
war in Virginia where he celebrated “VJ Day” with his wife Barbara.