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Learning From Citizen Sacrifices During WWII

The Journey Inward


Last updated 7/29/2020 at 4:52pm

According to projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, if 95 percent of Americans were to wear masks in public, more than 33,000 lives will be saved by the end of September. Their report appearing in The Week also predicts 179,106 deaths by Oct. 1, a figure that drops to 146,000 with 95 percent mask compliance.

Wearing masks and social distancing are challenges for Americans. There is no uniformity or national mandate requiring masks. We are asked to make sacrifices and protect each other but that is often ignored.

Considering our challenges with COVID-19, I wondered what national policies were enacted and what sacrifices were made by the average citizen during World War II.

I turned to several sources such as the United States History website, an article entitled “Doing their Duty by Doing Without” (from a World War II Memorial citation) and personal family letters. I use these sources interchangeably without citing them in each paragraph. What follows is a summary of my findings.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States government created a system of rationing, thereby limiting the amount of certain goods a person could purchase. Franklin Roosevelt signed the Food Rationing Program in the spring of 1942. Every American was affected by this program. The government needed not only to control supply and demand but also attempted to avoid public anger about shortages as well as prevent the wealthy from taking advantage of the markets.

Supplies such as gasoline, butter, sugar and canned milk were rationed because they needed to be diverted to the war effort. Sugar rationing took effect in May 1943 with the distribution of “Sugar Buying Cards” or “War Ration Card Number One.” Size of a family determined how much sugar each family would receive. Even then sugar was not always available.

Other ration cards developed as the war progressed. Cards included stamps with drawings of airplanes, guns, tanks, aircraft, ears of wheat and fruit. Americans used their ration cards and stamps to obtain their meager share of household staples, including meat, dairy, coffee, dried fruits, jams, jellies, lard, shortening and oils.

Registration for these books and cards took place in schools with only one representative from each family attending.

As noted, my wife’s family kept letters they sent each other during the war. One letter from my wife’s grandmother dated February 1943 mentions the day she went to register: “I hated to go out today, but I had to get that book. I had to stand in line for two hours. I thought I couldn’t do it. Finally, they let two sit down and rest and then stand back in their place and let two more sit a few minutes. Finally, they gave us a number and then we sit down till they call our number. Then we started a tour of tables, about 10 in all. Some had 3 people and some 2, each had to check other’s work and pass it on for another mark. All this time you had to stand in line and not lose your place. Last of all they have a government stamp to put on them (ration book). You don’t get away with nothing.”

From her notations we get a glimpse into how difficult life was on the home front. We also surmise that government protocol out of necessity was strict and organized around the principle of fairness.

In addition to household supplies, gas and rubber were stringently rationed. Since the Japanese controlled the Dutch East Indies from March 1942 to September 1945, rubber was in short supply. Rationing of gas and tires depended on the distance to one’s job. A posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour also helped.

Government-sponsored ads, radio shows and posters urged people to comply. A poster released by the Office of War Information stated simply, “Do with less, so they’ll have enough” and another poster pleaded “Be patriotic, sign your country’s pledge to save the food.”

But not everyone complied. A thriving black market developed where people could buy items on the sly, though at a higher price. Black marketers dealt in sugar, meat and gasoline. Subversive profiteering created resentment on the part of those who were making sacrifices every day.

Even though the black market thrived, the ways people economized were endless; there were scrap drives, and recycling of metal, paper and rubber. War bonds and stamps were sold to provide war funds; schoolchildren pasted saving stamps into bond books. The American people united through numerous volunteer efforts. Some planted “Victory Gardens.” By 1945, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced approximately 40 percent of America’s vegetables.

World War II was a time of great sacrifice for most Americans. Despite occasional profiteering, the whole country was united in efforts to support each other.

When the United States joined the war effort to defeat Japan and Germany, the government took control of the situation. Citizens followed recommended protocols and most did their part to ensure victory.

As we face the pandemic, we do not see the same degree of uniformity and co-operation that existed in the 1940s. Yet, we are in a national crisis of epic proportions. Our degree of trust in people to protect each other is concerning. When I leave home and go shopping for gas and other supplies, I hope people will follow the mask and social distancing recommendations. Most do.

Some do not. The other day I was at a local business and a couple behind me were right on my heels at checkout, even nudged me to move aside. I left wondering if the unsafe distance could lead to illness. I do not like to mistrust or feel anger toward my fellow Americans, but we live in a time when individual defiance and political divisions work against the kind of patriotic respect evident in World War II.

When called on to seize the moment during World War II, people responded. The sacrifices of the “Greatest Generation” show us the essential qualities that, when reborn, will see us though this time of peril.

(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and clergyperson living in Brevard.)


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