By good fortune, I had a series of front-row seats to watch the United States go to war. After failing, at age 15, to fib my way into joining the Marines on the morning after Pearl Harbor, I became one of the earliest United Service Organization’s entertainers. During the first year of World War II, I traveled to dozens of bases across the country, with stops in most of our big cities. I then worked in war-time New York City before joining the Navy at 17. I was stationed in Washington, D.C., for three months prior to going to the Pacific.
A good starting point to understand the scope of our World War II mobilization is to look at the numbers. With a population of 132 million, 16 million served in the armed forces. My extended family is an example. All five of my cousins and three of five military-age uncles wore a uniform. Nine of 11 served. (The other two, a fire captain and the foreman at an ammunition plant, were considered more valuable staying at home.)
Small white flags with blue stars, indicating family members at war, hung on windows everywhere. Sometimes the stars were gold for someone killed. The stars represented farmers, youth from city slums, the middle class, college students, and Americans from every walk of life. All races and national backgrounds were represented.
Thanks to the U.S. melting-pot philosophy, we got along — with occasional exceptions — very well.
Starting with a military that was unprepared to fight a major war, the United States went into overdrive. At training sites spread across the nation, huge numbers of recruits were blended into a human fighting machine that simultaneously fought in the two bloodiest wars in history.
We became a 24/7 nation, with war production continuing around the clock. A 48-hour workweek was mandated by the government, with three shifts a day common. Overtime was routine and a mere 48-hour workweek was almost a vacation.
In many cities, restaurants, theaters, and other amusement sites were open all night to accommodate workers finishing shifts at all hours.
Before all the Pearl Harbor casualties were buried, much peace-time production had stopped. Assembly lines were immediately changed to the needs of war. Automobile production was halted, and when the war ended, the United States was producing nearly 100,000 warplanes a year.
There was a price for the massive production. Everyday living was shaped by rules and regulations. With many basic foods rationed, keeping track of coupons and red stamps was a must.
Americans’ love of their cars was seriously disrupted. The war-time need for oil dictated gas rationing of three or four gallons a week and a 35-mile-an-hour speed limit. Pleasure driving was banned. Because of a critical shortage of rubber, possession of more than five tires was illegal.
The curtailing of automobile travel, compounded by an already existing scarcity of rail transport, resulted in packed passenger trains and schedules that were always in doubt.
Cigarettes were the saddest story of a shortage — and good intentions gone terribly wrong. Smokers on the home front were often reduced to “rolling their own” because there was an all-out effort to keep those in uniform well supplied with cigarettes. Taxes and profits were removed so that the cost was brought down to five cents a pack. Many were freely distributed. Because hardly anyone knew of the harm from smoking, countless service personnel eventually suffered horribly from addictions brought about by goodwill.
Naturally, the taxman had a prominent role, as the cost of the war had to be paid. If President Franklin Roosevelt had his way, those in the highest tax bracket would have paid 100 percent, but he finally settled for 75 percent.
Despite taxes, rationing, chronic shortages, and endless inconveniences, most Americans voiced little complaint. Those who did were usually met with the scolding shout: “Don’t you @$#%&*#! know there’s a war on?!” And there was little chance that you ever forget about the war for very long. Even at breakfast.
Those fortunate enough to have bacon were told to pour the leftover grease from the pan into an empty tin can and put it in their icebox or refrigerator. When filled, the can of hardened grease was dropped off at a butcher store, where it would be picked up for use in the war effort. Bacon grease contains glycerin — used in making explosives.
The war dominated news media, both print and radio. Advertisements and commercials often had a war theme. The entertainment industry went all out to bolster morale and encourage patriotism. Theaters augmented movies, often about the war, with short films that pushed causes such as war bond purchases. Dramas on the radio often had a war theme and comedy shows almost always had references to the war.
Examples of the intensity of the war’s influence were the conversations of teenage boys. From age 14, the main interest of most was the overall picture of the war. The average guy could identify the leading Allied and Axis generals, political leaders, heroes, aircraft, and more. They knew the status of ongoing battles and discussed strategy.
The songs of World II had tremendous influence. Many were about the pain of interrupted love and being apart. But most still warmed the heart and made listeners feel good. The unspoken message was that sadness was part of life and served a purpose. Unlike today, music seldom created rage. Fun songs were highly popular in a world that needed to laugh. Patriotic themes inspired love of our country and pride in being in the military.
For those serving in the Pacific theatre, one of the great incentives to fight was a propaganda gift from the Japanese. While leaving Pearl Harbor en route to combat areas, all ships glided past the wreckage of the sunken U.S.S. Arizona, with 1,100 of its crew still buried aboard. All personnel stood silently at attention and saluted.
Every man standing near me had tears in his eyes — and a fierce look of determination.
Charles Wiley is a 95-year-old World War II veteran with over 65 years experience as a military correspondent and lecturer.