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Page 1234

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The Home Front

At that time, our army had more horses than tanks and didn't have a single combat unit confronting the enemy. And America wasn't even able to function, as it had up to then, as the arsenal of democracy, supplying armaments to England and the Soviet Union. Nazi U-boats were sinking American merchant ships with shocking ease. Many of these merchantmen were sunk within sight of shore because coastal cities like New York and Miami refused to enforce a blackout, fearing a loss of their tourist trade. Their bright lights gave U-boat captains a perfect background to site and sink ships headed for Europe. That spring, the American task wasn't victory -- it was holding off defeat.

[picture of Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack]

It took a tremendous exercise of American will and power to turn the tide, a national mobilization such as this country had never seen before, and may never see again. And fueling it was raw revenge, retribution for the humiliating defeat at Pearl Harbor. Pearl might be the greatest American victory of the war. It awoke a sleeping giant.

But it took almost no time to re-tool the economy for wartime production. The world's greatest automobile society stopped making cars during the war and geared its auto plants to the production of every imaginable instrument of mobile warfare. At Henry Ford's gigantic new plant at Willow Run, outside Detroit, an assembly line a mile long poured out B-24 bombers at a rate of a plane every 63 minutes. [picture of female factory worker]While out on the West Coast, the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser used women welders and Ford's assembly line techniques to build Liberty Ships.These were the "Model Ts of the Seas," slow, ungainly looking ships that carried prodigious amounts of military cargo to the war. And it was Kaiser who convinced Roosevelt to use small escort carriers against the U-boat menace. Kaiser built these baby flattops, as he called them, and they, along with the navy's new convoy system, drove off Nazi wolf packs from the North American waters and out into the central Atlantic, opening sea lanes to the Allies.

Germany's armaments minister wrote Hitler an interesting memorandum describing the war as a contest between two different systems of industrial organization: the German system, based on skilled, high-quality production; and the American system based on unskilled, high-volume production. Unless we change, he warned the Führer, the Americas will bury us.

But Americans needed time to bury Germany, and that was provided by the Russian army on Germany's eastern front, which suffered more than three million casualties in 1941 alone.

[picture of a tank being assembled]

America was a third rate military power in 1940. By 1945 it was producing more weapons and firepower than the rest of the world put together. To take these new war-production jobs, over l5 million Americans changed their place of residence, a great number of them moving to the West Coast.

The war lured black people by the millions from cotton fields in the south to northern industrial centers. And in a war against the world's most vicious racist, blacks were discriminated against in war work as well as in the armed forces, where soldiers, and even blood plasma, were segregated by race.

Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces in the war, and that opened up jobs for women as well. Women made airplanes, bombs, and ships, and performed secret administrative work on the atomic bomb project. They joined the WACS and the WAVES, auxiliary forces of the Army and Navy. And some 12,000 women served with the lesser-known WASPs, the Women Air Force Service Pilots. The WASPs piloted bombers from assembly lines to air fields in the United States, taught male pilots how to strafe and bomb, and flight tested repaired aircraft before sending them back into service. They were eager to fly in combat, but only the Soviet Union would let women fight.

For many Americans, wartime prosperity, coming on the heels of the Great Depression was "an absolute miracle." Working with her mother and sister in a shell-loading plant, Peggy Terry, a mountain woman from Kentucky, made what she called the "fabulous sum of thirty-two dollars a week. Before that," she said, "we made nothing....We were just a bunch of hillbilly women laughing and talking. Now we'd have money to buy shoes and a dress and pay rent and get some food on the table."

But at this point, Peggy Terry pauses and adds, "But when I look back and think of him." That was her husband, a paratrooper who made 26 drops over Europe and North Africa. "Until the war," Peggy continues, "he never drank. When he came back he was an absolute drunkard. And he used to have the most awful nightmares. He'd get up in the middle of the night and start screaming. I'd just sit there for hours and hold him while he just shook. Then he started to beat me and the kids. Combat does things like that to men."

My grandfather, on my father's side, returned from the trenches of World War I, where he had been wounded, a broken man, unable to keep his life or his marriage together. One evening, when my father was very young, he slipped away and never came back.

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