Home Front

     During World War II, battlefronts existed in the traditional sense throughout the globe--on Pacific islands, in the China-Burma-India Theater, in Northern Africa, and throughout Europe. But Americans recognized that a battlefront existed, too, on what was known as “the Home Front.” The government enlisted everyone as “soldiers” to galvanize the nation in an effort to insure eventual victory in a costly two-front war.  Men, women, and even children accepted this recruitment with very little protest. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor unified the nation more than any other time in its history. In Marion Stegeman Hodgson’s memoir of the war years, she testified to the special time in which she had lived--“Nothing in my lifetime before or since has united our country like the attack on Pearl Harbor.” If those born after 1945 read stories from the Home Front, they will find an America very different from the one of later decades. In particular, during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the recent War against Terrorism, Americans on the whole displayed few of the traits that distinguish the World War II generation.

          Commitment to the war effort, a sense of community, and a willingness to sacrifice dominated the national culture during the war. These traits set the early 1940s apart from other eras. One woman in New Mexico, Mrs. Anna Williams, displayed these characteristics just two and a half months into World War II in a letter dated February 26, 1942. Writing to a family friend for guidance as to how best she could help in the war, Anna observed, “I am more than willing to do my part regardless of where or when and feel it my duty same as our boys and men folks to serve, this is everybody’s war until our victory…” Her response to the war, like millions of others on the Home Front, emanated from a deeply felt patriotism. In World War II, Anna and others listened with reverence to Kate Smith sing God Bless America, a song that many members of later generations snickered at.  

        A national commitment to the war could be seen throughout the country. Sixteen million Americans, about ten percent of the population, entered the military for “the duration plus six months.” But it was not only the military that mobilized. The entire nation did. No longer would production lines make consumer items such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, or refrigerators. Instead, factories produced only the arms of war, such as guns, jeeps, and military planes. In his 1944 memoir Damned to Glory Colonel Robert L. Scott, a pilot who flew some of those planes, identified those who worked in factories as “skilled soldiers on the production line.” And those soldiers could be single or married women working in jobs traditionally held by men. In a similar vein, one could also define farmers as “soldiers.” They produced crops to feed Americans at home, men in the armed forces fighting abroad, civilians in Allied nations, and those liberated in countries that the Axis powers had controlled. A 1944 government documentary entitled America’s Hidden Weapon recognized food production as another type of war material.

     In December of 1941, some of those food producers in a Nebraskan town made a commitment to those who were in the military. Reporter Bob Greene detailed the story of the North Plate Canteen in his 2002 book, Once Upon a Town. The people of North Platte and surrounding communities decided to meet every troop train that passed through their town, regardless of the hour. If soldiers could not disembark, townspeople went onto the train. With arms holding gifts such as baked goods, sandwiches, and magazines, these Nebraskans met an estimated six million men in uniform over the course of the war. This small community opened its hearts to those in uniform. It did not matter to the people of North Platte that these were not their sons in the biological sense. They felt that the young men going off to war were their sons in a symbolic sense.

        In a similar vein, the war broadened the definition of community. If such a grouping is defined as individuals drawn together because of a common interest, the nation became one gigantic community in World War II. And the common interest was obvious to all--winning the war. It was what motivated people on the Home Front and on the other “fronts” overseas. An Allied victory would bring the boys back home, and everyone worked to achieve that end. Women saved fats and grease the military needed to make glycerin, a liquid used in high explosives. Even children became part of the national commitment to victory. They helped to collect items such as rubber, metal, and tinfoil, which the government converted into war material used on global battlefields. The heightened sense of community also led to volunteerism on a scale America had never experienced before. Millions served in war-related local, state, and national agencies to implement, for example, programs in civilian defense and rationing. Neighbors sat on draft boards to determine which men in their community would go off to war. At night, air raid wardens walked neighborhood blocks to insure that “blackouts” were faithfully observed; if light was visible through the window of any house, the warden knocked on the door to draw the attention of the occupants to the infraction. In backyards, even small ones, people planted victory gardens to augment the nation’s food production. Walls in public buildings displayed posters to strengthen the nation’s commitment to the war and to the sense of a national community. One reproduced towards the end of the war represented these feelings of commitment and community that had characterized Americans since the beginning of the war. The poster drew inspiration from the battle for Iwo Jima that began in February 1945. It showed the six flag raisers planting the Stars and Stripes into the ground atop Mount Suribachi.  The words on the poster were few, yet representative of the American spirit during the war years, “Now--All Together.” Posters also encouraged people to sacrifice for the war effort. “Are YOU doing all you can?” one queried, as a pointed finger poked through what appeared to be the red and white stripes of the United States flag.

     The sacrifice alluded to in these posters took many forms. One touched every American regardless of age, gender, or social class. The federal government rationed food through an Office of Price Administration. Every man, woman, and child, from infants to the elderly, who lived within the continental United States received a rationing book. They contained stamps to be used in the purchase of food items. The words printed in “War Ration Book Two” embodied the commitment, sense of community, and most assuredly the sacrifice the nation felt--“Rationing is a vital part of your country’s war effort. This book is your Government’s guarantee of your fair share of goods made scarce by war…” The instructions continued by warning Americans that if someone attempted to circumvent the rationing program, “Such action, like treason, helps the enemy.” Violations of the rationing regulations carried punishments of a $10,000 fine and/or ten years in prison. Women bore the major responsibility in carrying out the rationing policy because of their domestic role. Propaganda posters pictured the woman at home as a “Kitchen Warrior,” or as another poster put it, “Housewives Have Battle Stations, too.” Millions of American women gathered in public arenas, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to solemnly raise their right hand as they took the Home Front Pledge--“ I will pay no more than top legal prices. I will accept no rationed goods without giving up ration points.”

         In addition to food, the government also rationed gasoline. Most Americans could purchase just three gallons a week. This limited one’s driving, in any seven-day period, to about sixty miles. The military used gasoline conserved on the Home Front to fuel airplanes and military vehicles overseas. The government also needed money for the war effort. Selling war bonds became one way to finance the war. Workers had money deducted from their weekly paychecks to purchase bonds, movie stars and other celebrities toured the country in bond drives, people gave bonds as birthday gifts, and children brought pocket change to school to put toward the purchase of a bond. The military designated some bonds for a specific purchase. Cities could raise funds to offset the cost of a naval ship to be named after that city. In the summer of 1943 residents of Los Angeles had the opportunity to raise money in a one-month bond drive to pay for the construction of a heavy cruiser, to be named, appropriately, the USS Los Angeles. The announced goal was $40 million. By month’s end, double that amount had been raised. Altogether, Americans bought $185 billion worth of bonds during the war.

          While these examples of sacrifice illustrate one of the characteristics of the World War II generation, one form overshadowed all others. With over 400,000 military deaths, casualty numbers represented losses that touched all families, either directly or indirectly. If a family survived the war with all of its members coming home, that family knew another that was not so lucky. In public arenas such as town squares, churches, and even in Japanese American Relocation Camps, communities erected an Honor Roll or Roll of Honor to identify citizens who had gone off to war. Some of these plaques listed all who served, while others were dedicated to those who died in service to their country. Some of the Honor Rolls still stand today. One is located in a Methodist Church in Larryville, Pennsylvania, a town so small that it does not appear on many maps. A gift from church members Mr. and Mrs. Edward Losch, the congregation dedicated the Roll of Honor on March 14, 1943. A simple statement appears at the top of the plaque, “For Those In the Service Of Our Country.” Under this sentence, engraved on individual brass plates, are two columns of names that identify twenty-four young, local men who served in the Armed Forces. Two of the names, Neil E. Losch and Frederick S. Losch, belong to the sons of the couple who donated the plaque. The Larryville Roll of Honor testifies to the commitment, sense of community, and sacrifice felt by Americans on the Home Front.