To most Americans today, when our nation is at war, life at home goes on pretty much as usual. While the spouses and families of service members during the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars felt the love and fear tightening in their stomachs and shoulders by day, the rest of the population continued to walk the kids to school, drive to work, shop, fix meals and attend social activities.
For children who grew up during World II, however, war meant national and personal sacrifice. From the attack on Pear Harbor in December of 1941 to the explosion of atomic bombs over Japan in August of 1945, Americans subsisted on rationed food and fuel, wore hand-me-down clothing and drove aging automobiles. They learned to spot the silhouettes of planes overhead and kept the curtains drawn at night to avoid providing a target for enemy bombers.
In War Kids, the Littlest Generation, twenty-five of us who were children during World War II share our memories of those scary but spirited days. It would be impossible to forget the doors that fell from newly assembled bombers passing overhead — doors that enterprising ranch boys converted into snow sleds; the revulsion of the tiny girl who slaved in a victory garden and ate nothing but detested raw peas; the grief when friends or relatives were killed in the fighting. But not all is bleak. There is plenty of humor and much forgotten but fascinating information for the reader. War Kids is history, told by those who lived it.
Seen through the prism of a lifetime, the childhood memories collected by Ed Martley in this unusual book speak less to privation and anxiety, and more to the sense of family, community and patriotism that characterized the war years. Neighbors and relatives pumped water, planted seeds and hoed weeds in the backyard and community victory gardens.
It was a time when the whole nation seemed to be on the move. Soldiers on their way to train at faraway bases in Georgia, California, Texas and Missouri were fed and sheltered by families in railroad towns in the Dakotas. Families relocated to shipyard cities in California, Oregon and Washington. Women accustomed to farms, schools and offices took up riveting and the assembly to produce the boats, planes and bombs necessary to win the war.
In faraway places the war brought strangers together and forged new communities. In the little town of Provo in South Dakota, Lin Jennwein remembers making friends at the elementary school in nearby Igloo, while the adults moved bombs in and out of the newly established nearby ordinance depot. Twelve-year-old Donna Harbaugh encountered Italian prisoners of war living and working in the same community and watched them play the unfamiliar game of soccer.
Reduce and reuse reflected the patriotism of individuals, families and communities during the war. A converted dairy delivery van served as the school bus in Carthage, South Dakota. Ed Goss remembers “huge piles of old iron and steel” in the schoolyard, destined to be recycled for the war effort.
In the movie theaters, newsreels brought the war home to children and fueled the fears they stifled at night for their fathers, uncles and brothers fighting overseas. When the telegrams came with news of serious injuries or death, neighbors rallied to comfort grieving spouses, parents and children.
Seen from the perspective of childhood, adults celebrated the end of the war with uncharacteristic joy and abandon. Gena Strom was startled to see her father running down the road from the mailbox waving the newspaper that announced the end of the war. Joanne Morris Brand recalls they were “so happy, dancing and singing. This was the first time I remember gaiety by adults.”
Today, more than sixty years since the end of World War II, the stories gathered here capture an intimate, innocent and compelling view of life on the home front. Like all good history, they help us put our own lives in perspective and give us a sense of what is possible when the nation, including the children, share a sense of common purpose.
A common purpose that seems to be missing—except in the fear-tightened stomachs of their families—for those who are fighting for all of us in America’s longest war and related conflicts: Afghanistan, Iraq, Cameroon, and Syria. It would be fitting this year, to make what President Roosevelt called the “Day of Infamy” a day of reflection.