The Home Front During World War II
by William E. Paul
What was it like here “at home” while nearly sixteen million American young men were serving in the military during World War II?
It is probably difficult for twenty-first century adults to fully comprehend the mood and mindset of most Americans living “back home” during those chaotic days of World War II (1941-1945).
With no TV at that time, news about the war had to be learned from daily radio news reports, newspaper headlines and newsreels shown before movies in theaters. And some of it was not very current. Exact details of casualties were not reported as quickly by the media then as is often the case today. Also the government and popular opinion exerted some degree of influence over what was released to the news media, restricting it to events and statistics that would not demoralize the population or hinder any military operation. This has not been true of subsequent war-reporting.
It may be difficult even for some adults today to realize that a strict censorship of all mail from military personnel serving in battle zones was in force then. Such things as the names of places, people and events were blacked out in letters, so that loved ones on the home front could learn little or nothing specific about the war’s progress from letters they received from military people serving overseas. How “painful” that was for the wives, mothers and siblings who prayed for them daily.
The fervor of the American public in its opposition to the sneak attack on our military personnel led to the battle cry of “Remember Pearl Harbor,” making it probably the most famous slogan in America during the war. The deep and lasting impression on the minds of young teenagers like myself was that the imminent threat of this global war could affect us here on American soil. Virtually all of my high school friends felt the urgency of entering the military in order to help stop this heinous menace to our very way of life!
Conditions on the home front during those war years contributed significantly to preparing the American people for total involvement in the war effort. Posters were displayed everywhere admonishing people to “Buy War Bonds.” School children and adults alike were urged to purchase “War Savings Stamps,” which, when pasted into small booklets, could be exchanged for “War Bonds.” Volunteers serving in war aid agencies even made corsages out of War Stamps; the bouquets were called war-sages.
Many individuals, with good-paying defense plant job, had $25 war bonds (costing initially $18.75) automatically deducted from every pay check by their employers. Who failed to see the large depiction of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying “I Want You,” which served as an effective recruiting poster urging men to enlist in the military?
“Mum” was the word as civilian war plant workers were strongly cautioned never to reveal any war plant information by such cautionary slogans such as “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships.”
Then there was the notoriety achieved by famous people who volunteered or were drafted to serve in the military during the war: athletes: Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Yogi Berra; movie stars: Clark Gable, James Stuart, Charlton Heston, Gene Autry, Paul Newman; future political figures: George H. W. Bush, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson; entertainers: Glenn Miller, Johnny Carson, Desi Arnaz, Don Knotts, Red Skelton. These celebrities demonstrated a sincere earnestness as they toured the nation conducting “War Bond Rallies,” to motivate contributions to the war effort.
Many of them enlisted in the armed forces from professions with lucrative salaries, only to travel throughout dangerous war zones, freely performing as morale builders for lonely troops. Some even projected a high degree of personal sacrifice and commitment, when it was learned that they volunteered for overseas duty to serve in battle zones.
Speeches or interviews involving these people never quoted them as saying words or conveying sentiments critical of our government, its war policies or troop behavior as is often the case today. In those days, such behavior would have been viewed as treason!
Also it was common for many Hollywood movies of the times to be built around a war theme, often depicting enemy troops committing atrocities of the worst kind, and lauding the bravery of American fighting men. Such films filled teenagers with both fear and resolve to enter the military so they could help stop such brutal carnage and preserve our cherished way of life.
Since music both influences listeners’ thinking and reflects their feelings and emotions, the lyrics of nearly 400 popular songs during those World War II years revealed the poignant story of people’s hopes and dreams during and following the war. Some of the war-related song titles were: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (Till I Come Marching Home),” “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “Comin’ in On a Wing and a Prayer,” “When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World,” “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home” and scores of others.
“Aid Raid” blackouts, even as far inland as Ohio, gave us all the distinct impression that enemy bombers were a realistic threat right in our own community! And accounts of the chilling, German “blitzes” experienced by Londoners simply added to the anxiety of Americans everywhere.
In the spring of 1942, the national Food Rationing Program was set into motion all over America in order to insure that ample food would be available for feeding our troops overseas. Since everyone eats three meals a day in America, it became virtually impossible to go through an entire day without being reminded of the sacrifices made necessary for everyone in order to help the all-out war effort. Families were issued small coupon books containing ration stamps, and under a point system, used them to purchase very limited amounts of meat, sugar, butter, oils, cheese, coffee, canned or bottled fruits and vegetables, soups, baby food and ketchup, plus juices and dry beans. In place of butter, they sold white “oleo margarine” with its packaging containing a small capsule of yellow food coloring that had to be “pinched” and then “massaged” into the margarine to simulate butter.
In addition to food items, rationing (which lasted into 1946) also included clothing, shoes, oil, tires and gasoline. The amount of gas and tires allowed depended on the driving distance to one’s job. Stickers, displaying “A,” “B,” “C,” “T,” or “X” on car windshields signified the level of gasoline priority. The automobile “Victory Speed” limit was 35 mph to conserve fuel. Many government cars even had a “governor” on their motor to prevent them from being driven over 40 mph!
Signs were widely posted stating “Do with less so they’ll have enough.” Some items, like ladies silk or nylon stockings, were not available at all (the material being used for making parachutes). So women had to apply a specially purchased liquid (in various shades) to their legs to simulate hose, complete with a penciled-in “seam” down the back. Recycling was a government-encouraged, ongoing practice involving the collecting of various products used in the manufacture of goods essential for the military. “Drives” were continually conducted for gathering aluminum cans, scrap iron, copper, paper and rubber for the war effort.
People were also encouraged to plant a “Victory Garden” to conserve on commercially processed food. For a small investment in soil, seed and time, people could raise fresh vegetables to feed their families and to share with neighbors. By 1945, an estimated 20 million “victory gardens” were producing approximately 40 percent of America’s vegetables. People even used the narrow parking strip in front of their homes (the dirt between the sidewalk and street) for planting such “gardens.”
The enormous contribution made by six million women who entered the work force to replace men drafted into the military was evident in every plant and factory. “Rosie the Riveter” became the popular nickname for such women. Posters bearing such slogans as “Do the Work He Left Behind,” and “We Can Do It” were prominently displayed.
The entire nation seemed totally bonded together and absorbed in a supreme preoccupation with gaining a military victory over the unparalleled tyranny represented by the Axis powers. The war touched every person’s life in some way . . . both fighting men at the front and their loved ones at home. Virtually every family had a relative, friend or acquaintance serving in the war in some capacity. Everyone’s job was directly or indirectly connected with the war effort. Every form of media was saturated with messages or information related to the progress of the war and the need for people to contribute to its speedy and successful conclusion.
It may be that in no future time in the history of America will there ever be the same unified effort, aim and purpose as that exhibited during those turbulent days of World War II!