By James Mack Adams
This is the column I originally scheduled for publication in December, but I reconsidered and decided to go with a lighter and more Christmassy theme. Thus, last month’s column on two of my most memorable Christmas gifts was written.
December is when preparation for the celebration of the Christmas season occupies our thoughts. That is as it should be. To some of us who were born in the early 1900s, however, the month of December is also a time for reflection on a global event that reshaped our world as well as our young lives. It was in December that the United States entered World War II.
On the quiet Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941 Japan shook us awake with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that almost wiped out our Pacific Fleet. President Roosevelt described it as: “a date which will live in infamy.” Four days later, Dec. 11, both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy declared war on the United States. Needless to say, New Year’s Day 1942 was not a happy one. During the following four years, that war consumed the total body, soul, mind, dedication, patriotism, service and resources of every American of every age.
I was eight years old when the war started, but I have vivid memories of those years. It was a time in our history when Americans were overwhelmingly united in a single cause, the total defeat and unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. With the possible exception of the 9/11 attack, we have not been that united as a nation again in my lifetime.
My dad and uncles all immediately enlisted for military service. Dad and three uncles joined the U. S. Navy and ended up in the South Pacific. All returned except dad’s oldest brother who rests in Arlington Cemetery.
Most men between the ages of 21 and 45 either enlisted or were drafted for military service. Members of the military were required to wear their uniforms at all times, even while on furlough. If you saw a man within the military service age range in civilian clothes, you wondered if he had a disability or perhaps a critical job that exempted him from uniformed service.
Those of us who remained on the home front during those years tried to do what we could for the war effort. Manufacturing plants quickly converted from civilian to military production. Many women worked on the assembly lines in defense plants building tanks, airplanes and other war material. They were the inspiration for the iconic war-effort poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Rosie came to represent women who joined the workforce to free the men for military service.
School children contributed by collecting scrap metal for the war effort. I pulled my wagon through the streets and back alleys of town collecting what I could and delivering it to my school. We were also encouraged to spend our dimes on the purchase of defense stamps and bonds to help finance the war.
We really didn’t miss the money we donated for the cause because there was not much available for us to buy in those days. Candy bars were essentially unavailable. I recall the time when a local store was able to get a box of Hershey bars from somewhere. They were all gone in a short time after the word got out.
Our mothers didn’t have it any easier as far as commodities were concerned. Many basic items, such as butter and sugar, were rationed. So was gas. Automobile travel was only if necessary. Cokes and other carbonated drinks were impossible or at least very difficult to find.
I remember air raid drills and blackouts. When the siren wailed, every light in town was turned off to create total darkness. I sometimes wondered why the enemy would want to bomb our little town. It was then explained to me that we had several coal mines and a railroad yard.
It was of course long before television cable news and the 24-hour news cycle. We depended on the radio and movie newsreels for information on the war. President Franklin Roosevelt was frequently on the radio with his “Fireside Chats.” He used these brief broadcasts to report on the war and to bolster the courage of his listeners. He did it from the confines of a wheelchair. I remember him once saying, “I hate war. Eleanor hates war. Even my little dog Falla hates war.” Another famous quote was, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Most everywhere one looked in my little town one was bombarded with reminders of the war and for what the United States and its allies were fighting. A large billboard on the main street showed caricatures of Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini with the caption, “Bomb the Axis to their knees.” Numerous posters about town were either recruiting ads or cautioned, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
The local movie theater did its part in building patriotism. Before the showing of each feature movie, a large American Flag filled the screen while the “Star Spangled Banner” filled the theater. Everyone in the theater stood and cheered. Photos of local men and women serving in the armed forces were flashed on the screen between shows.
Being surrounded and engulfed with patriotic fervor, I was heartbroken that I could not enlist. Of course, the military did not need the services of pre-teen boys. I was proud to wear my little Navy pea coat and white sailor cap.
The first paragraph in the classic Charles Dickens novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is one of the most familiar opening paragraphs in English literature. The story opens with the words, “It was the worst of times. It was the best of times……..”
There is no argument that those early 1940 years could be described as the worst of times. An entire world was at war. Millions of people, military and civilian, lost their lives. Cities were turned into piles of rubble. Practically an entire generation was serving in uniform. When Americans at home watched films of German troops marching down the Champs Elysees in Paris, they could not help but wonder if the same scene could happen in New York City or Washington D.C.
You may ask how this period in our history could also be the best of times. It showed the world what America and its people are capable of when the chips are down. We were able to quickly transform our meager, ill-equipped and ill-trained armed forces into a war machine that was unstoppable once it got started. Our strong industrial base rose to the occasion.
Yes, in December 1941, our parents and grandparents stepped up, locked arms, and gave their all to save America from brutal enemies.
They are not called the “Greatest Generation” for nothing.