Two wars within a decade changed America forever
■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
The sudden death of President Roosevelt hit the country like a strike of lightning, although it was obvious he had been ill for quite some time. It was as though the nation’s family patriarch had passed during the night. We were a nation suddenly confronted with two hot wars on two fronts, like a ship in a typhoon without a rudder, plus a cold war that would continue far beyond his presidency.
Harry Truman was a vice-president without the faintest idea of what was going on. He was so much in the dark when he took over the presidency, he had no idea we had an atom bomb almost ready to be dropped. But Truman was made of stern mid-western stuff, a man who knew how to make decisions. While the nation prayed for him, he acted.
Truman became president on April 12, 1945. Berlin was under siege. Rather than face the consequences of his madness, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30,1945.
The conversion from war to peace
While the hostilities in Europe were all but declared over, the sports world welcomed the first black to a major league baseball team when Jackie Robinson was brought up from Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers in that same month.
Victory in Europe—forever known as V-E Day—occurred on May 8, 1945, both the United States and Great Britain crowded into the streets to celebrate the unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allied forces. The most famous marker of that date was a photograph of a young sailor grabbing a nurse and planting a big kiss on her willing lips while celebrating in Times Square.
Hitler’s concentration camps, where 7 million Jews were exterminated by gas and other means, were being shut down as hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, with skin barely clinging to bones, were freed. Most would require months to years of medical treatments. Many would die shortly after being freed from the Nazi horror camps.
General Dwight Eisenhower, to his later regret, allowed the Russian Army to take Berlin. That action would later create the separation of East and West Germany. Prime Minister Winston Churchill would declare that, “An Iron Curtain has fallen across Europe,” in a speech he gave at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, a year later. Because of Eisenhower’s decision, made to speed up the war’s end, the Berlin Airlift would become a reality in order to feed the population of Berlin.
Okinawa, Marianas, Hiroshima
As troops began to return from Europe, Americans were trying to return to a peaceful country. The only thing left to begin our recovery from bloodshed was the stubborn Japanese. In June 1945, with a tremendous loss of life on both sides, American Forces took control of Okinawa. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was en-route from the States to Tinian Island to deliver two precious babies “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” Sadly, on its return trip to the United States, the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 29th, killing 883 sailors; many were eaten alive by sharks.
Your reporter was stationed at North Field Tinian with the 313th Bomb Wing of the 20th Air Corps. Also situated on the two-by-four mile island was the 509th Composite Group where the “babies” would be brought to live. Capt. Paul Tibbets, who would soon take charge of “Little Boy” and deliver him to Hiroshima to introduce a new weapon of war, was often seen with his crew playing pinochle out on the flight line. All of that would end on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 when the first atomic bomb to be dropped on a civilian population would be placed aboard the Enola Gay, a B-29 for its flight to Hiroshima. In one horrendous mushroom, the rules of combat would change forever. Within days “Fat Man,” found its way to Nagasaki, ending our conflict with Japan.
Back home again in Indiana
Post-war America was drunk on peace. The party began before the formal declaration of surrender by Japan. On Sept. 2, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur conducted Japan’s unconditional surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
American forces had paid a steep price for our victories in terms of the loss of life and major injuries to the young men and women who went off in all directions to protect our way of life. We were a united nation. The dissent was meager compared to what it would be in 20 years.
Teenagers who grew into adulthood during the war were subject to limited freedoms. They were either being drafted at 18, starting a family, or taking the place of those who went into military service. College education did not exist for most of the population. High school was akin to college. The depression had stifled education as it did starting a family or aspiring to better styles of living.
Fashions had been muted. Mustn’t be too ostentatious when so many of their peers were dying on the battlefields. However, there were no great revolts among teenagers. They obeyed their parents and generally stayed out of trouble for the duration. When the troops started coming home from places they’d never even heard of prior to the war, all hell was about to break loose.
Consumers at large
With the end of rationing, the country went on a spending spree unheard of in prior years. Shoes, nylon stockings, fur coats and automobiles were high on shoppers’ lists. Musical tastes were changing. Although there were perhaps 50 big bands, some much more musically talented that Glenn Miller, his demise was the death knell for many of the name bands. Former swing band singers were cutting out to go solo.
The Hit Parade would go on into the fifties, but never regained the popularity of the late thirties and early forties. It actually started during the war. Some attribute it to the fact that so many young people were either in the service or so dedicated to the end of hostilities that they simply didn’t have time for such activities. Movies continued to be the main source of entertainment. Drive-in theaters were gaining popularity. Radio began to give way to television towards the end of the war, a medium President Truman used to announce the end of the war with Japan.
Casual dress began to replace shirts, ties, suits and hats. Take a look at old newsreels of sports events—rarely was a man or woman seen in a ball park without hats. Same with race tracks and other outdoor sporting events. We were suddenly becoming more “California-ish,” some would say.
Blackouts were passe. Broadway once again lit up the theater district. The American Airlines stories high sign at the top of Times Square once again filled the sky like a million spotlights. Sport shirts, slacks, and loafers were large with young men. Girls’ skirts were shorter—the prudish and religious conservatives condemned them as salacious and vulgar. Girls who slashed their tresses during the war due to working with machines in defense plants did not return to their thirties styles.
Rekindling friendships and the building boom
Under the auspices of Gen. George Marshall, the United States initiated The Marshall Plan, a program designed to rebuild a destroyed Europe. The economy shot up due to the surge of jobs in the construction industry. The boom increased, thanks to the G.I. Bill of Rights wherein all who served in WWII were guaranteed a college education. Kids who wore a uniform could exchange it for four years of learning, something that millions of young men and women could not afford prior to the war. Veterans of World War II became the most educated generation in the history of the world.
Through the Marshall Plan we not only rebuilt countries, but rekindled friendships in the process. Germany and Japan became two of our best friends and that friendship is stronger than ever today. America is a forgiving nation, the envy of other governments. Powerful entities start wars—ordinary citizens fight them.
Hit the road Mac
By the end of January 1942 all civilian auto production ceased and would not start over until the fall of 1945. During the war, auto mechanics had more work than they could handle. 1942 vehicles remained the latest models until 1946. When new cars became available, most of them were 1942 models with new grills and designs. It took time to retool from wartime products.
Vacations that had been delayed for more than five years suddenly became number one items on folks’ “What to do” lists, summer resorts, winter sports and coastal beaches became the places to play—and the highways were crammed with people “getting away” from wartime restrictions.
Although some of the big bands, like Duke Ellington, were still doing cross country tours, many were anchoring at hotels in heavily populated urban communities. Small groups like Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five were popping up in small clubs. Costs of operating a big band were becoming prohibitive. But with the decline of large venues, local clubs featuring small dance groups became more popular for a population anxious to kick up its heels and shed the shackles of war. It was the beginning of “America on Wheels.”
Never had the country taken so much to wheels. People gave up walking to the grocery two blocks away. It was easier to drive. There was a downside. As we stopped walking and sat on wheels, we began to pick up “inner tubes.” We started to acquire flab around our middles. Today it might be reasonable to assume that there is more lard on the streets in America than all the hog farms in Iowa. Blame it on the automobile and our desire to ride instead of walk.
Friend or foe
When Eisenhower let the Russians enter Berlin ahead of us, there were consequences later on. At the end of the war, Germany was divided into four zones for rebuilding purposes. American, British, French, and Soviet Union. It was from the beginning a contentious division of governing. President Truman’s political enemies accused him of being soft on Communists. Taking advantage of the president’s unpopularity in that area, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin began what has become known as the “Communist witch-hunt,” slinging mud and making false accusations toward whomever he didn’t like.
In September 1947, Great Britain and the United States merged their two zones and called them Bizonia. France soon joined them and it became Trizonia. In an effort to drive the Western countries out of Berlin, the Soviets set up a blockade along their border with Trizonia and thus established what became known as The Iron Curtain. All auto and rail traffic across the Soviet Zone was halted. The Berlin Airlift was formed by the Trizonians to feed and heat the millions of Berliners until the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949. Two million tons of supplies in 270,000 flights kept Berlin alive for almost two years.
More war and lifestyle changes
Happy Americans were enjoying a good economy, happy home and social lives with World War II vets graduating from colleges in numbers unheard of in the past. We were on our way to the land of milk and honey. Then, without warning—again—the milk soured and the honey became rancid.
On June 25, 1950, while Harry Truman was in the second year of his own elected presidency, it all fell apart. More than 75,000 troops from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel that separated the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic in the north from the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south, committing the first military action of the Cold War.
The United Nations, from its beginnings in San Francisco at the end of WWII, was designed to settle arguments and disagreements between its members. North Korea became a member of the U.N. in 1991 but has never been a member of the General Assembly. The Chinese Government supported the North Koreans and dedicated thousands of military personnel to the war.
The 1940’s brought us many improvements and inventions—gave us modern kitchens, mass television and faster transportation on the ground and in the air. Thanks to the necessity due to World War II, medicine had growth like never before. Music was headed in a direction that only the kids understood, and the film industry worried that television would destroy its popularity. Penicillin became the cure-all, and a little man from Missouri had ordered the use of a bomb that should have ended all wars.
We were involved in two wars—one down, one to go, and another not too far down the road. Would it ever end?