HUNTINGTON — The Japanese attack that ushered the United States into World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, changed the lives of millions of Americans who put on their country’s uniform and went into battle.
But life also changed for those who stayed at home — perhaps more than during any conflict since the Civil War.
For one thing, Pearl Harbor filled the nation with fear and confusion.
“My uncle, Marine Sgt. Lee R. McCallister, had a 10-day leave before reporting to his next duty station in Iceland,” Willie McCallister, a former Huntingtonian who lives in Hillsborough, N.C., told Herald-Dispatch reporter Bob Withers for a story in 2006. “On that Sunday afternoon, he took me window shopping downtown.”
McCallister was 5, and his uncle told him to look for something that he could tell Santa Claus about.
“The town was already decorated for Christmas, and holiday music was being played from speakers along 4th Avenue,” McCallister said. “Suddenly, the music stopped, and there was an announcement being made that I did not understand. What I did understand was that our trip downtown was over.”
The Marine was visibly upset as he drove home.
“When we got home, our family was very concerned,” McCallister said. “Uncle Lee told everyone goodbye, and we did not see him for two years. He never made it to Iceland; he reported to Quantico, Va., instead. He was in the battles at Guadalcanal and Bougainville. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart.”
The hysteria even permeated the White House. Alonzo Fields, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s butler, overheard “the Boss” and presidential aide Harry Hopkins wondering if Japanese forces might drive inland from the Pacific Coast as far as Chicago. For the first time, no one was allowed to stroll around the mansion’s grounds feeding squirrels and hoping someone important would come out. Blackout curtains covered the nation’s windows — including the presidential residence — and fires in fireplaces were prohibited.
Isolationism gave way to a surge of patriotism overnight as Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war in response to the “day which will live in infamy.” Labor union leaders vowed no strikes or lockouts for the duration, and shortages developed everywhere as the nation retooled to supply an unprepared military.
Domestic life never was the same.
“The grown-ups were always talking about the war and rationing,” McCallister said. “The most common things were really scarce.”
That included copper and brass, a raw material in ammunition. Coffee was scarce, too, not because of a lack of coffee beans but a shortage of ships to transport them from Brazil. Rubber was diverted to make military tires, and gasoline was rationed to cancel civilian demands for rubber.
Iron and steel diversions prevented the manufacture of electric refrigerators and ranges, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, washing machines, irons, radios, phonographs, lawn mowers, waffle irons and toasters. Tableware couldn’t contain stainless steel. Shoes couldn’t be double-soled. Lingerie lacked ruffles, pleating and full sleeves. Women couldn’t buy food near the end of the day because by that time, store shelves were empty.
Bus tokens were made of pressed paper and 1943 pennies were minted from zinc. The few that were tucked away in dresser drawers still had a light blue luster a half-century later, but those in circulation quickly turned black — and persisted well into the 1950s.
Vehicle manufacturers made no new cars or trucks for the 1942-45 model years because existing plants were converted to churn out tanks, guns, planes and bombs. New factories sprang up overnight.
Unemployment vanished and racism flared as African Americans replaced draftees. Women became riveters, welders, blueprint readers and inspectors. Working hours were extended, the first day-care centers opened for business, and American industrial production quadrupled.
The need for silk parachutes created a shortage of silk hosiery — “stockings,” in the language of the day. Many women, including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, switched to black cotton stockings.
Cotton and wool was commandeered for soldiers’ flannel shirts. Cuffless trousers and narrow lapels were mandated for “victory suits” and women wore shorter, pleatless skirts and two-piece bathing suits. An order restricting girdles for their rubber content was rescinded when American females rebelled.
Rationing stamps regulated access to meat, butter, canned vegetables, sugar and shoes as well as gasoline. Women saved kitchen fats and traded them at butcher shops for rationing points.
There were price controls, but also black markets in every city — offering nylons at $5 a pair, cigarettes for 30 cents a pack and boneless ham at twice the ceiling price.
But it was a time of unparalleled patriotism and unity.
“Everybody had victory gardens,” said Mary Myers Curnutte of 8th Avenue. “And the women canned the vegetables they grew.”
Since gasoline consumption was restricted to 5 gallons a week, people learned to walk again. Car pools multiplied, milk deliveries were cut to every other day and auto deaths plummeted. Parties at homes and nightclubs ended before midnight so revelers could catch the last bus home.
With pleasure driving virtually extinct, Americans forced themselves to be satisfied with simpler pastimes — going to the movies (sometimes just to get war news from the newsreels), listening to the Reds on the family’s Philco, entertaining at home, playing cards, doing crossword puzzles, talking with friends or reading.