World War II in people's lives

by Ralph LaRossa, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Georgia State University
NCFR Report

Seventy-some-odd years ago, in the wake of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States of America became a combatant in World War II. The country would remain at war until 1945€ˆwhen first Germany and later Japan surrendered. In commemoration of the war, many in the United States and throughout the world will periodically stop and think about the war's battles and its overall impact. What we will remember will include (but not be limited to):

  • Presidential Executive Order 9102 (signed into law in March 1942) establishing the War Relocation Authority and leading to the imprisonment of more than 110,000 resident Japanese men, women, and children (many of whom were U.S. citizens)
  • The congressional debate (in the spring and summer of 1943) over whether the six million fathers who had conceived a child on or before the date of the Japanese attack should continue to be exempted from the draft (eventually it was decided that they should be among the pool of potential recruits)
  • The Allied invasion of Normandy, otherwise known as D-Day (in June 1944); the battle of Okinawa (April to June 1945)
  • The fall of Berlin (in May 1945)
  • The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (in August 1945), which ushered in the Nuclear Age and redefined what it meant to destroy something.

With the United States currently at war, we can appreciate, to some extent, what Americans were confronted with in the 1940s. But we must understand, too, that the breadth and depth of World War II put it in an entirely different realm. Today, approximately 1.5 million men and women are on active duty. During World War II, more than 16 million were. Today, tens of thousands of civilians are engaged in homeland security (particularly at airports and seaports). During World War II, the number was significantly higher, especially if we take into account those who worked in munitions factories (e.g., "Rosie the Riveter") and the fact that everyone had to ration and get by with less. In the 1940s, even if a person's job did not seem to be connected to the war, a link nonetheless was often made by an employer (e.g., in one of its ads, the American Thermos Bottle Company, manufacturer of vacuum bottles and lunch boxes, claimed that "the man with the lunch kit and the man with the gun are equally vital to America's war effort"). Children, too, contributed to the war effort by being messengers in the U.S. Citizens Defense Corps and by soliciting monetary donations as "Victory Volunteers" ("Won't you buy a war bond, Mister, so's my Daddy can come home?").

In short, the majority of Americans during World War II, regardless of whether they were in the armed forces, lived with the war on a regular basis. "Military families" thus included not only those that happened to have a son or father or uncle (or daughter or mother or aunt) in uniform, but also those in which a member of the family was engaged in war-related work.

My father served in World War II (as an Air Corps radio man on B-series bombers). So, in a way, did my mother, in that she was employed for a while in a Brooklyn factory that manufactured gyroscopes for planes and ships. I remember as a child asking my parents about the war and being captivated by what they had to say. I remember, too, playing war games and simulating combat with my elementary school buddies in the small field across the street from the house where I grew up. My friends and I would "shoot" at each other and, every now and then, fall down and pretend to be dead, only to miraculously arise a few seconds later to fight again. Little did we realize how far removed our antics were from the actual horrors of battle.

Several years ago I embarked on a project to research World War II. I wanted to better understand what the war meant for fathers and their families. The project began as a sequel of sorts to a book I had written on the history of fatherhood during the Machine Age (1918-1941). Quickly, however, the venture expanded to include a lot more than this. The conversations I had with my parents about the war did little to prepare me for the heart-wrenching and heartwarming stories I came across.

What stood out were both the magnitude of the conflict and the enormity of its reach. My parents' war was not a confrontation that touched only a fraction of the population while the rest of the country remained largely unscathed. Rather, as its name implies, World War II was a full-scale conflagration, the consequences of which are still being felt.

Central to understanding World War II was the diversity of people's experiences. Some have suggested that the singular impact of the war on the domestic front was the economic boom that it initiated and the speed with which it put Depression-era men back to work, as if war was only about gross national production. Men in the 1940s also have often been characterized in monochromatic terms, with the impression given that all were (a) drafted or volunteered, (b) sent overseas and into combat, and (c) welcomed home as heroes when they returned. Such generalizations, however, ignore the myriad ways that the war was felt and perceived and the significant differences that existed from one group to the next. The social meaning of World War II varied substantially by (among other things): race, ethnicity, social class, gender, age, geography, religion, whether one had or had not seen combat, and the particular relationship one had with the casualties (e.g., as a father or mother or sibling of a soldier who died or who was injured). One thus cannot talk about the war's economic effect without acknowledging the Japanese Americans who, in U.S. government-sponsored roundups, were forced to abandon their homes and leave behind most of their possessions, and who, upon their release years later, were unable to return to the jobs they once had or find new jobs commensurate with their skills. As one Japanese American woman reported, "My father kept looking for work [after the war], and he couldn't find anything. … He never was able to get back on his feet. …"

Nor can one speak of the pride that men gained from being in the military and being given a chance to defend their country without acknowledging the fact that Black men initially were barred from enlisting, and that when they were allowed to participate they were told they would have to serve in noncombat roles. Even when African Americans were eventually permitted to join or be drafted (the United States could ill afford to continue to exclude them if it was to win the war) and even though many were in the thick of battle (the decorated Tuskegee Airmen constitute only a small proportion of the Black soldiers who fought), they were not revered when they returned, as White soldiers were, but sometimes were scorned. To cite but one example, in 1946, Isaac Woodward, traveling in uniform, was on his way home by bus to South Carolina and, at one point, asked the bus driver, who was White, if it would be possible to stop the vehicle so he could use the bathroom. "Hell no!" the driver told him. "Dammit," Woodward replied, "you've got to talk to me like a man." Furious that Woodward would challenge him, the driver called ahead to the police who at the next stop beat Woodward so hard as to render him blind.

Consider, too, that although the armed forces were (by law) desegregated in 1948, the privileges that White veterans enjoyed were not offered in equal measure to Black veterans. G.I. Bill benefits, which provided educational and housing opportunities for millions of White veterans, were frequently denied to Black veterans. New York's famed suburb, Levittown, which began construction in 1947 and flourished throughout the 1950s, systematically excluded African American families.

Gay soldiers also fought in World War II, as they had done in wars before, and distinguished themselves on the battlefield. Said a corpsman who was wounded on D-Day, "No one asked me if I was gay when they called out 'Medic!' and you went out under fire and did what you were expected and trained to do." In the immediate postwar years and especially in the 1950s, thousands of men and women, many of whom were veterans, were fired from their jobs if it was discovered that they were gay. The freedoms that many had fought for were not made available to all.

The social meaning of World War II also varied by how close a person got to battle. Of the 16 million Americans who were on active duty, only about 10% saw combat. For these soldiers, the brutality of war was witnessed up close. One infantryman, who had seen action in the Pacific, wrote in a letter to his father and mother about "mortar shells dropping in on heads and ripping bodies" and how "faces [were] blown apart by flying lead and coral" on the beach. "The Catholic Chaplain," the son reported, "was killed as he was blessing each foxhole. An artillery shell cut him in half at the waist."

Some soldiers, though near battles, were not in any immediate danger, while others, far away from the front lines, never fired their weapons or were fired upon. Youngsters often wanted to know what their fathers did in the war. In many cases, they yearned to learn whether their fathers had killed anyone. Not fully appreciating the import of what they were asking, the children hoped in their hearts the answer was yes. One young man, finding out that his dad was not in combat, said that he "felt cheated." ("After everything the rest of us went through so he could go off the war, he never even got shot at.") Postwar conversations about the war thus could be difficult, not just for the men who did not want to dwell on the terrible things they saw and were forced to do, but also for the men who could not honestly offer the tales of bravery that family and friends so much wanted to hear.

Geography was a factor, too. Today, Americans in large cities are especially prone to feel vulnerable to terrorist attacks. New Yorkers, many of whom personally witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers, are inclined to have a heightened sense of alarm. During World War II, Americans who resided in cities and towns on the East Coast or West Coast were more likely to believe they were in immediate danger because of the assumption that the country would be invaded from the sea. Their fears were fueled by the buildup of shoreline artillery batteries and by the success of German submarines in waters around America's harbors. In early 1942, U-boats patrolling off the East Coast sank 216 ships, and it was not uncommon for bodies from the torpedoed vessels to wash up on shore. We can only imagine what it was like for World War II-era families to stroll on the beach, ever watchful of what they might find in the sand.

More than 400,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in World War II. Kids suffered the loss of their parents and siblings; parents grieved the loss of their children. Yet another gruesome statistic in the arithmetic of war is the number of soldiers missing in action, lost at sea, or interred as unknowns. (A mother, mourning her child, exclaimed, "If they could just find him so I could bury him I don't want the birds picking on his body.") To this day, the remains of over 70,000 American G.I.s from World War II have never been officially recovered or identified. For the families of these veterans, the war, in some ways, is not over.

Contact Ralph LaRossa at [email protected]


This essay draws on the research and references reported in Ralph LaRossa, Of War and Men: World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families (2011).