War through a patriotic lens – a memoir

credit:  foreign.woodenboat.com

credit: foreign.woodenboat.com

My friend Bud Morgan sent me a link to a slew of World War II aviation pictures this morning. They caused a rush of memories, not of the war itself but of that time. I was just a kid then, not yet 5 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and I was unaware of its portent. I never heard its ramifications discussed in our house. I think my parents thought I should be protected, but there’s no way to know now. They were apolitical, a blue-collar family who accepted life on its own terms, whatever happened. My father worked as a welder, at first on a project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and later for most of the war at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Seeing the aircraft pictures, I flashed on the cardboard models I used to get by sending in cereal boxtops and a quarter. I remember a Thunderbolt fighter. It would swing on a string and it flew pretty well – it needed a coin in the nose for a counter-weight. The memories  include the vegetable garden in the backyard. It was called a “victory garden”, and we raised corn, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, squash, even rhubarb. I remember selling tomatoes door to door in our neighborhood to raise some cash. I had a piggy bank, painted as a toy drum, and on its side was “Remember Pearl Harbor”, a motto I understood out of context as though it were an athletic slogan. I also recall buying savings-bond stamps and pasting them in a booklet. When one was filled it was redeemed for a $25 bond.

I have distant memories too of rationing, although I recall no deprivation in my child’s world. Mother used food-ration stamps at the store. Butter was scarce, but there was a new product at some point, oleomargarine. It came, colored stark white, in a plastic bag with an internal orange button on it. One squeezed the button, kneaded the bag, and the stuff took on the proper color of butter. I was delighted to volunteer for the task.

Our car had a rationing sticker on its windshield and it had a prominent letter on it, but I didn’t comprehend its meaning and don’t remember what it was. Wikipedia says there were three categories and describes intricacies and ramifications imperceptible to my child-view:

A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel and rubber for tires.  Later that month volunteers again helped distribute gasoline cards in 17 Atlantic and Pacific Northwest states.  To get a classification and rationing stamps, one had to appear before a local War Price and Rationing Board which reported to the OPA (which was jokingly said to stand for “Only a Puny A-card”). Each person in a household received a ration book, including babies and small children who qualified for canned milk not available to others. To receive a gasoline ration card, a person had to certify a need for gasoline and ownership of no more than five tires. All tires in excess of five per driver were confiscated by the government, because of rubber shortages. An “A” sticker on a car was the lowest priority of gasoline rationing and entitled the car owner to 3 to 4 gallons of gasoline per week. B stickers were issued to workers in the military industry, entitling their holder up to 8 gallons of gasoline per week. C stickers were granted to persons deemed very essential to the war effort, such as doctors. T rations were made available for truckers. Lastly, X stickers on cars entitled the holder to unlimited supplies and were the highest priority in the system. Ministers of Religion, police, firemen, and civil defense workers were in this category.  A scandal erupted when 200 Congressmen received these X stickers.

The article on rationing has more about the war’s effects on civilians. It was a patriotic time, one of hardship and sacrifice, but it was also a time of desperation in which society struggled to maintain its civilized structure. There was a thriving black market in rationed commodities and a good deal of controversy over the rules. These realities were hidden from my child’s view and the papers, newsreels and radio were patriotically cooperative in minimizing them. I was 8 when the war ended. My perceptions of the war were subsequently influenced by the post-war culture which, with justification, glorified our victories. Among other influences, there was the golden age of comic books, including heroes like Captain America, villains like Nazis, and, of particular power for a young boy, documentaries like the thrilling and artful Victory at Sea.

I’m grateful to Bud for the aircraft mnemonic. Perusing the past can help put the present in context. One of the pictures was particularly moving to me: an aircraft carrier’s deck, crowded with fighter planes, covered in snow. The weather was an enemy too. Just think, if America were to encounter a threat the size of the Axis powers today, how the political partisanship that is hamstringing government today would fade into the background! But history is never perfect. It is a mosaic of countless pieces and it is mainly thanks to written and video documentation that we can asymptotically approach the truth.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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8 Responses to War through a patriotic lens – a memoir

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    I was born about 5 months after Pearl Harbor and thus have no personal memories of events in America during WWII. I did recognize the results of war however around 1950 when bad guys in comic books became Asian instead of German.

    I also remember participating in civil defense drills in school as a kid, learning what to do and where to go if Russia bombers suddenly appeared in the skies over Georgetown, KY and started dropping nuclear weapons on my hometown!

    Yet, given such memories I have no idea how they can help me “asymptotically approach the truth.” My first question is “what truth”, truth about what, war and peace?



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      My first question is “what truth”, truth about what, war and peace?

      No, Anson, not that. My reference is to written history as an imperfect mirror through which the past is viewed. Consider as an example what is now widely known, at least for the literate, about the indigenous population of North America at the time of colonization, and compare that with what you and I learned of it in our history books a half century ago. This is an excerpt from Wikipedia (emphasis added):

      The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives and cultures of the peoples of the continent. Although the exact pre-contact population of the Americas is unknown, scholars estimate that Native American populations diminished by between 80 and 90% within the first centuries of contact with Europeans. The leading cause was disease. The continent was ravaged by epidemics of diseases such as smallpox, measles, and cholera, which were brought from Europe by the early explorers and spread quickly into new areas even before later explorers and colonists reached them. Native Americans suffered high mortality rates due to their lack of prior exposure to these diseases. The loss of lives was exacerbated by violence on the part of colonists who frequently perpetrated massacres on the indigenous groups and enslaved them. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1894), the North American Indian Wars of the 19th century cost the lives of about 19,000 whites and 30,000 Native Americans.

      Not mentioned here is one research estimate I’ve read recently that the North American native population, at its peak, was about 100 Million! Similarly, prior accounts of early colonists omitted many details of their cruelties and abuse of themselves and Indians, and for all I know, may still do. Incredibly, creationism also still exists in some books. In short, just because a book has “history” in its title is no guarantee of its veracity or completeness.

      Thanks for giving me a chance to clarify this.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    The iconic, to me at least, book about Western Hemisphere colonization and local populations is 1491. Not only does it address settlement of North America by white Europeans, it delves into all of the Western Hemisphere, Mexico and South America as well. By some recent accounts populations were over 100 Million in Mexico alone, for example.

    Now that revision of history, some agree it is correct and others disagree, is due primarily to technology. The study of antropology and archeology for example have been significantly changed since the 1960’s with advances in technology as well as other “finds” in very remote regions such as the Amazon Basin, etc. According to that book the Empire of the Inca’s in Peru was far greater, geographically and demographically, that ANY previous civilization in world history!! Again, some agree and others disagree, but it sure provides a different perspective on world history as we learned it 50 years ago.

    It is “evolving history” that concerns me however, history being made in our lifetimes. Take just nuclear weapons and the book I offered for your consideration privately, Command and Control. For sure that book offered ME a new “twist” on such history, part of which I helped play a role to make. I was on the tip of the spear for a while handling and controlling nuclear weapons, even trying to manufacture the things..

    Who knows how the history, the long term history of such weapons will be revealed. Will such weapons be the cause of the demise of earth itself or will they simply be another weapon used for a while to deter war, until a new technology arises, even more destructive to the earth as a planet.

    Carl Sagan rattled the public psychic with “Nuclear Winter” decades ago, as you recall. One must read science fiction to find the “truth” in such matters however, today!

    I guess I leave it at this, as a point to consider and certainly not an argument. Your phrase ““asymptotically approach the truth.” is what caught my attention in your blog. My own reading of history over the years shows me at least that mistakes made, historically, continue to be made for various reasons. So my question, which I doubt anyone can answer, is “what truth” are we really talking about using history as our guide.

    Western thought, philosophy if you like, takes the approach that history is linear, at least in terms of the human condition, with improvements made throughout history. The Chinese instead see history as a wheel, with events of fundamental matters, like war and peace, repeating themselves over long periods of time.

    If we are to believe there is some really fundamental “truth” to be found, well then we can find it or get real close to finding it, aysmptotically. I’m not so sure about that and tend to agree with the Chinese instead, at least in fundamental matters.

    But for sure, all of such stuff is simply the musings of now an old man and has nothing to do with whether to support or oppose Obamacare, think Benghazi was a travesty of major proportions or just an “opps” made by lower level men and women in government, etc.



  3. desertscope says:

    I absolutely loved the WWII propaganda films as a kid. When video recording came out, I wore out the Betamax copies of Kapra’s “Why We Fight.” There were only good guys and bad guys. Binary thought is comfortable. I took German through high school, just for when I would get stationed in West Berlin. Decades later, and long after getting out of the Army (without ever setting foot in Europe), I finally used that German for the first time last week talking to flight attendants on a Lufthansa flight that passed through Frankfurt. Sad.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Binary thought is comfortable.

      Interesting phrasing, Marc, and useful in this context. Something there is in the human brain that loves a fight, and to see the matter in stark white and black. Thanks for commenting.


  4. I don’t remember the war at all. I’m about 20 years to young for that, but I’m struck how that shared experience was a glue that held the country together. As the generation my father still represents dwindles away, I miss that .


  5. Greg Urbano says:

    Great perspective through a childs eyes, thanks for sharing your memories.


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