"Hey, there's a war going on!"
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by Ron Cruger
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My sister, who is a decade younger than me, recently asked, “Were people more patriotic during the Second World War than they are now?”
I was a young kid by the time the Second World War started and hadn’t even reached my teen years by the end of the war in 1945, but, even as a young boy I was filled with the excitement of the War. I read the New York Times to keep up with the day by day exploits of our military. I hated Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo and every one of their soldiers.
I was proud that our father volunteered to be a Block Warden, watching out for the safety of our neighborhood in the Bronx. I practically burst with pride when he went to Air Raid meetings wearing his official Air Raid Warden arm band and his quasi military cap, identifying him as an Air Raid Warden
I told my sister, “There’s no comparison between those war days and these. Unless a family has a member serving in Iraq or Afghanistan their prime interest today is in their financial portfolio and the lowering value of their home.”
Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 consumers in America learned a new phrase: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Tempers often frayed because of the long workdays and limited goods. Complainers were quickly told, “Hey! Don’t you know there’s a war going on?”
The war affected everyone and everything. All of America was dedicated to win the war and defeat our enemies -the Axis.
Today the news of the war in Iraq is sadly relegated to the secondary news sections of our daily newspapers. We are being told that our military involvement may encompass five or ten more years in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. The vast majority of Americans are unaffected by the wars we are waging – other than the effect on our taxes.
For whatever reasons there is almost a total absence of patriotism of the same kind that pervaded our country during the years of the Second World War.
By the summer of 1942 gasoline was scarce and many filling stations were closed. In December the Office of Price Administration (OPA) dealt out A, B, and C windshield stickers. An A sticker entitled the car’s driver to coupons for four gallons of gas per week, which authorities suggested should be used for grocery shopping, going to church and other absolutely necessary activities. The gas shortage touched everyone’s life. Car pooling became an American institution. Departing servicemen put their cars up on blocks. Many buses suspended service, plane tickets were unavailable for ordinary citizen travel. The government took over the steamships.
Almost everything of importance to the war effort was rationed. Food shortages cut closer to the bone. Coffee was added to the list of rationed goods, so was sugar. Ration boards set an allotment of half a pound of sugar per week for each man, woman and child which was not much in the days before prepackaged mixes, when many housewives made puddings and pies from scratch and put up their own jams and jellies. By February, 1943 the military’s need to send food overseas brought rationing to canned meat and fish, followed by fresh meats, butter and cheese.
With rationing in effect from early 1942 through 1946 preparing meals became an experiment in creativity for American’s women. Casseroles and stews were made from whatever icebox leftovers the family would tolerate. Some homes even substituted horse meat for beef.
Over 20 million Americans started “Victory Gardens,” growing all manner of vegetables. All over the country Americans spaded up everything from a few square feet to acres. Flower beds became cabbage patches and grass surrendered to growing lettuce. By 1943 “Victory Gardens” were harvesting more than one million tons of vegetables each season, about 40 percent of America’s needs.
In California Bette Davis and John Garfield launched the Hollywood Canteen, where the brightest stars in Hollywood entertained and mingled with the GI’s.
More than one million Americans donated their time to help operate over three thousand USO Centers.
Hit Parade songs rang a note of high patriotism, like Kate Smith’s soaring rendition of “God Bless America,” but the music that best summed up the national mood came from the concert hall. It was the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which echoed the dot, dot, dot, dash rhythm of the letter V in Morse code. V stood for Victory, and it was tapped on car horns and flashed in lights throughout the free world.
The government sold over $135 million worth of war bonds. War bond rallies became major events attracting thousands of buyers. Hollywood stars volunteered for the service. Gene Autry, Jackie Coogan, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, Robert Montgomery and James Stewart and Clark Gable were just a few of the stars that volunteered for military service.
Radio brought the news of the war in detail to American households. Newspapers did the same. Media’s greatest writers and reporters were assigned to cover the war and bring the news home. President Franklin Roosevelt held “fireside chats,” telling Americans of the war’s progress.
Americans sacrificed in every aspect of their lives. Americans were idealistic. Soldiers fought to preserve our way of life. As the war drove to its conclusion Americans staged parades. Millions celebrated the victory. It was a time of great unified spirit. America was of one mind, dedicated to one end – victory.
Younger Americans of today might look upon those days of the Second World War as too idealistic – corny, in fact. Sentimental, sure.
Most importantly, Americans were united.
In September of 1945 the rifles were silenced, bayonets were sheathed, bombs no longer dropped. The great healing was underway.
Since those days in 1945 America has been involved in a score of wars. None has evoked the patriotism that ended in 1945. Since then Americans have been divided over the value of sending our young men and women to fight and die on foreign lands. With each of these wars the divisions grow deeper and longer.
That long ago World War was the last one that found Americans united, idealistic, involved and patriotic.
A few weeks before his death, just before the end of the war, President Roosevelt wrote, “If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.”
Some things never change.