A day that will live in infamy
■ Rusty Strait / Contributed
“I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not
going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Oct. 30, 1940
As the poet Robert Burns once said, “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go astray,” so did those of our 32nd President of the United States. Europe’s war was not ours. We would aid and abet, but not fight.
Wars and Rumors of Wars
Three days after Germany attacked Poland, on September 3, 1939, England joined the fray by declaring war on Germany, although they were ill-prepared to enter into the conflict militarily.
In January 1940 Americans were more interested in the movie version of Martha Mitchell’s compelling novel, Gone With The Wind. Japan was bogged down in a war with China and we were isolated from war by two oceans. Such was our situation as we approached a new year and the unheard of, a president seeking a third term. We had no concerns about foreign entanglements and were pursuing Roosevelt’s dream of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” as it were.
Despite our nonchalance toward European struggles, Roosevelt asked Congress to finance a $1.8 billion dollar upgrade of the military. No such fund had ever been requested during peaceful times. Hitler and Mussolini were not our problems.
Aiding and abetting our ally
The era of defense plants began and was booming. In 1940 we became the arms merchants for England which, in that year alone, purchased $4.5 billion dollars in armaments from the United States. Although Winston Churchill was the great public relations Prime Minister of England, President Roosevelt became the brains and action figure in England’s war with the Axis. In early 1941 Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program to assist our mother country passed through Congress, the most prolific defense aid ever for an ally.
He was accused of being a war-monger and denounced by Republican isolationists. Even American’s aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh joined his detractors. “Let us stop this hysterical chatter of invasion,” he said. “The three most important groups which have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration.”
Without the knowledge of Congress or the American people, Roosevelt secretly provided hundreds of war planes to assist the R.A.F. to build up England’s air defense against a far superior German Luftwaffe. Also, in secret, he provided an armada of warships, disguised as merchant vessels to assist the British Naval Forces.
Selective Service, but no war?
With 71 percent of Americans supporting it, on Sept. 16, 1940 President Roosevelt signed the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history. Young men showed up in droves at recruitment centers. The Selective Service Law was propagandized as a preventive measure to discourage anyone attacking us, when in fact the Government expected Germany and Italy to be the culprits with eyes on our land.
In 1941 President Roosevelt took the oath of office for an unprecedented third term. Through his fireside chats he continued to assure American Citizens that our defenses were strong. Hitler declared that “Lend Lease, or no, England will fall.”
A date to live in infamy
On Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941 Frank Sinatra, the “swoon crooner,” had young bobby-soxers mesmerized with his lazy style of delivering a love song. Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was number one on “Your Hit Parade.” The jitterbug was American’s teen dance rage and zoot-suiters were the “gangsta rappers” of the early forties. President Roosevelt, currently in peace talks with the Japanese Ambassador Nomura, was shown an intercepted message from the Tokyo Military High Command directed to the Ambassador, breaking off all negotiations with the President. “This means war,” he said to his aide.
At 7:02 a.m. a soldier observed a blip on an Army radar screen and dismissed it as “probably a pigeon with a metal band around its leg.” At 7:55 a.m. on that balmy Sunday Morning, Dec. 7, 1941, while most of Oahu slept, the first of three waves of Japanese dive bombers rained hell fire down on Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II.
America’s Pacific Fleet, at anchor, was all but destroyed, including eight battleships, three light cruisers, and 188 planes caught on the ground. A total of 2,400 men were killed in the sneak attack. America was finally forced into combat.
One of the darkest blots in American history was the internment of Japanese-American citizens in camps. Fear caused us to do a lot of things during the war. Sensible government officials put sanity behind them due to such fears. Our response to the attack on Pearl Harbor created immediate anger and hatred. Interestingly enough, lo these many years later, Japan has become one of America’s greatest friends and allies.
Doin’ it for defense
We were a nation at war. Factories barely recovering from the Great Depression suddenly were part of a booming defense industry. Men went to war and we suddenly developed a shortage of manpower. Enter Rosie the Riveter. Women began to “man” the defense plants, building ships and planes and tanks. No job was too difficult for the women who saw their husbands and sons don a uniform and cross the two oceans that “would prevent anyone attacking the United States.”
Brown outs soon became a regular event, especially in coastal cities. Lights were turned down low to prevent an enemy bomber from finding a good target. The days of rationing and price controls, and the dollar a year men became commonplace. Corporate moguls went to work in Washington for $1 a year. They were doin’ it for defense.
Any bonds today?
Hollywood and Broadway pitched in. Every actor, singer and musician in the country offered themselves up to entertain the troops. Dorothy Lamour, Carole Lombard, Dinah Shore and comedienne Martha Raye sold millions of dollars’ worth of bonds as they toured the country for Uncle Same. During the war, savings bonds turned into War Bonds. The Andrews Sisters, hawked the song “Any Bonds Today .
The U.S. O., under the aegis of comedian Bob Hope became a haven here and abroad for service men between stations. The $25 E bond could be purchased for $17.50. Upon maturity in ten years they could be redeemed for $25 in cash. Americans invested $49 billion dollars in War Bonds. Even men in service sent home a war bond a month.
Hollywood goes to war
Hollywood became America’s number one propaganda machine, filling theater screens with war films. Many movie stars enlisted; George C. Scott, (Major) Clark Gable enlisted after his wife, actress Carole Lombard died in a plane crash outside of Las Vegas while on a bond tour. (Captain Ronald Reagan and (Brig. Gen.) James Stewart enlisted before we entered the war. Humphrey Bogart, expelled from prep school at 18 enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an ordinary seaman, Henry Fonda was commissioned as a Lt. Junior Grade in the Navy’s Air Combat Intelligence, commenting that, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” He was awarded a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star. Paul Newman, Navy radioman/gunner. Kirk Douglas, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy.
Henry J. Kaiser and the American armada
If it was needed by the military it soon became less available to the public. Ration stamps became the coin of the day, even though the standard of living was a sixth higher than in 1939 by 1943. Big business quickly connected to the war effort. Ammunition, military vehicles and war materials gobbled up consumer goods. F.D.R, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, Dictator of the Soviet Union met in Teheran at one of the numerous “Allies Summits” in 1943 to look forward to war’s end. Stalin noted that Russian soldiers were driving trucks built in Detroit and lifted a toast, “To American Production, without which this war would have been lost!”
American factories were soon producing more than 50% more weapons of war than all our enemy countries combined. We owed much of our success to industrialist like Henry J. Kaiser.
He began his career working for a gravel-and-cement dealer in 1913 and by 1914 had secured a loan to take over Canadian company. From there until 1930 he built dams, river levees, and highways, including up to roads and bridges in Cuba. In the United States his companies were responsible for the Hoover, Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. During World War II he operated seven shipyards, applying Henry Ford’s assembly line production method. His company built transport ships, known as Liberty Ships, at a rate of one every four and half days, producing almost 1500 vessels for the U.S. maritime commission. He operated steel mills to provide metal to build those ships. He became a one man industry that became a major part of material backbone in the war.
Rationing and the black market
Anything needed in the war effort was soon rationed to the general public. Ration stamps became coin of the day for gasoline, tires, coffee, rubber and foodstuffs. Red Stamp rationing was the most severe and covered all meats, butter, fat and oils. Cheese was abundant and replaced meat on many dinner tables. Blue Stamp rationing ruled over canned, bottled, frozen fruits and included vegetables, juices, dry beans soups, baby food and ketchup. Every family treated their War Ration Books like priceless jewels. Every family was guaranteed equal treatment. Almost every family.
Folks with money had no problem securing an abundance of rationed goods, thanks to the black market which operated openly. Rarely were black marketeers prosecuted. Gasoline at the pump was heavily rationed, but folks who knew someone at the refineries filled their tanks with “drip” or unrefined gasoline. It was easy to see who used drip because smoke blew out of the tail pipes like a belching coal fed steam engine. Black marketers leaned toward meat, sugar and gasoline because the demand and profits were greater.
Scrap drives and recycling were considered patriotic gestures. Folks were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens in their back yards. By war’s end more than 20 million victory gardens produced 40% of the country’s vegetables.
Every community had its share of volunteer block and air raid wardens. We were on alert 24 hours a day. America was said to be winning the war on the home front as well as the battle fronts.
The automobile industry rolled up its sleeves. On February 9, 1942 new automobiles for civilian use were replaced by tanks for the duration of the war. Auto repair shops sprung up like popcorn in a hopper. Even then, parts were hard to come by. One wit claimed that his 1936 Packard was “ kept running with baling wire and putty.”
The tragedy of America’s big swing band
America’s youth’s musical idol was Glenn Miller and his big band, whose swing music captivated audiences of all ages. Glenn was at his peak in the hearts and lives of his millions of fans. Prior to giving up civies for a uniform, between October 1941 until May of 1942 he supported the war effort through radio broadcasts, concerts, and the Sunset Serenade program which was credited as a boost to our troop morale.
However, Miller was anxious to do more. He wanted to do something besides wave a baton in front of a band. So he signed up for the draft in 1942 even though he knew he was past the draft age. His application for a commission in the U. S. Naval Reserves was rejected. The Navy’s loss was quickly the Army Air Force’s good fortune, where he was given a commission. He explained his decision in a statement: “I, like every American, have an obligation to fulfill. That obligation is to lend as much support as I can to winning this war. It is not enough for me to sit back and buy bonds… I owe a debt of gratitude to my country…”
On Sept. 26, 1942, this writer, living in New York at the time, was privileged to attend Glenn’s last civilian performance, lasting for 2 hours and 45 minutes. Teenagers with tears streaming down their cheeks listened as he closed the show with his theme, “Moonlight Serenade.”
Most of Glenn’s band joined with him. Tex Beneke, his lead sax man, appeared with his big band at the Soboba Casino a few years ago. Back stage we talked. “You know, Rusty, Glenn had the kids of this country in the palm of his hand. Had lived there would have been no rock and roll.” Maybe.
It is not generally known, but Glenn Miller had 23 number one hits, more than either Elvis or the Beatles. On Dec. 15, 1944 Glenn’s plane took off at 1:15 p.m. from a small air field in England crossing the English Channel en route to Paris for a Christmas Concert. His plane disappeared over the English Channel.
Farm boys gave up overalls for a uniform
Almost 2 million young men abandoned the farm to take up arms after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Farming was becoming more mechanized, but until the Victory Gardens became a way of life, there was indeed a shortage of food, which actually made it necessary to ration food.
Fabrics that were used for clothing, linens and carpeting became in scarce supply. Silk in ladies’ silk stockings, became silk for parachutes. Women, gone to work in factories, took to slacks and overalls. Skirts became wrap-arounds because there were no more zippers and metal snaps. Men’s trouser zippers were replaced by buttons.
Further complicating the agricultural shortages, farmers were abandoning their land for higher paying jobs in the industrial plants. By early 1944 America was struggling back from the terrific hit we took in the Pacific. Island by Island the Japanese over-ran the Pacific Theater of Operations.
Blue stars replaced gold stars
Blue stars populated the windows of homes where a loved one was in the military. That included daughters and sometimes mothers who were serving on the home front, and in some cases in battle zones. As the war proceeded and the war dead began to return home in body bags, Gold Stars, designating a life lost in battle, soon began to replace the blue. During the war, every soldier, sailor and marine was provided a $10,000 insurance policy. The next of usually became beneficiary.
One of the horrors of any war is the loss of a loved one on a battlefield. America’s youth bore the brunt of that. More than 100 Pacific islands were taken by the Japanese forces during the months that followed the attack at Pearl Harbor. At Iwo Jima alone, the military suffered fifty percent casualties. We did not begin to obtain a foothold in those battles until late 1942. Every white beachhead became red with American blood. $10,000 dollars and a coffin was no compensation for the life of a mother’s son or husband with a wife and children.
Military hospitals back home were overflowing with the discharged wounded who went off to war whole only to return without limbs or sanity.
The American voters, not wanting to “change horses in the middle of the stream, unwisely re-elected President Roosevelt to a fourth term. The word “dictator” became a mantra among his political enemies. Under the high command of General Dwight David Eisenhower, the war in Europe was winding down. Germany was all but defeated. Hitler would no longer send millions of Jews to the gas chambers of Austria and Poland. It was only a matter of time until the last vestiges of the Third Reich would be history.
Roosevelt’s failing health was kept secret from the public, but anyone watching the newsreels at the local theater could see that his face had grown grey and gaunt. The burdens of a great depression and the war had taken their toll. Frail and crippled, he boarded the presidential railroad car for his annual visit to Warm Springs, Georgia to soak in the hot mineral springs which seemed to relax his twisted limbs.
On Thursday, April 12, 1945 shortly after lunch, while posing for a portrait, his hand went to the back of his neck and he said, “I have a terrific headache.” Those five words were his last. America’s greatest leader since Abraham Lincoln was dead.
Harry S. Truman was sworn in as America’s 33rd President. Eleanor Roosevelt, a grieving widow was asked by the incoming President, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Mrs. Roosevelt replied, “Is there anything I can do for you. You’re the one in trouble now.” And so the torch was passed.
Next week: Part III –The forties