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.