“A fast-moving overview stuffed with interesting factoids and historical tidbits . . . Casual readers will find themselves carried along, and hardened military buffs will learn much that is new.”—Library Journal
“It’s almost guaranteed to make you so interested in the subject you’ll want to learn . . . By including hundreds of interesting anecdotes and facts, [Mike] Wright not only piques our interest repeatedly, he also gives areal feel for the war era.”—Manchester Journal Inquirer
“An excellent overview . . . [with] interesting chapters on spies, POWs, censorships, and the building of the atomic bomb . . . Wright’s style is accessible.”—The Post and Courier
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A World Gone Mad:
But What if Tomorrow Never Comes?
Shortly before the middle of the twentieth century, the world lost its mind. Beginning in 1931, the people of one Asian nation invaded another Asian nation; it remained a local war until the Japanese claimed that their invasion of China was part of a new order (the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere) to rid East Asia of the detested white race.
Beginning in 1939, the people of one European nation invaded another European nation; it remained a local war until the Germans claimed that their invasion of Poland was partly a need for living space (Lebensraum) and partly to rid Western Europe of those they detested as a race of inferior beings.
From September 18, 1931, (in Asia) and September 1, 1939, (in Europe) until May 7, 1945, (in Europe) and September 2, 1945, (in Asia), the world turned to war. We killed more people and did more physical and psychological damage than ever before in history. If we are lucky and we work at it, we will never break our own record for death and ruin.
For most of history, when people fought other people it was their world war, because their worlds did not yet go beyond boundaries written by waterways or mountains or deserts. When their worlds expanded, so did their wars, and they were forced to find a new way to name those wars.
Gone were the days of fancy or fanciful names: the War of Jenkins’ Ear (in 1739, Spanish revenue agents cut off the ear of an English seaman named Robert Jenkins; a member of Parliament displayed Jenkins’s pickled ear in England’s House of Commons), The War of Austrian Succession (which grew, so to speak, out of the War of Jenkins’ Ear), and The Hundred Years’ War (a good name, although it lasted more than a hundred years, from 1337 to 1453). Even the American Revolution and the Civil War had definitive names.
The start of the twentieth century saw the Great War, which only later we called the World War. The next time we got into trouble, all we did was give the war a number: World War II. It was the largest war the world has ever known. By giving it a number, not a name, we admitted that we were doing it all over again.
During World War I, Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, bitterly commented, “This war, like the next war, is the war to end all wars.” Each time we hope it is “the war to end all wars.” So far, we’ve been wrong.
Americans were called out of factories, out of offices, and out of schools; called to pick up rifles, get behind cannons, get into tanks or airplanes; called to ride bucking destroyers in the dead of a North Atlantic winter and slip their carriers over a sun-flattened ocean somewhere in the South Pacific. They fought under seas and along stormed shores. Others kept factories rolling, continued growing corn and raising cattle, and saw to the millions of items needed to stay alive.
Those who fought often fought alongside their British and Canadian and Australian cousins who had been doing the same things longer and at greater costs. All the while, our more distant relatives, who looked and sounded a bit different from us, overran Manchuria and Korea or goose-stepped their way through France and the Netherlands. To their shame and the world’s sorrow, too often they cut off prisoners’ heads or herded victims of their hatred into showers of death-spewing gas.
In 1940, the United States had a population of 131,669,275. Even before Germany’s attack on Poland, many Americans realized that they, and the world at large, soon would be at war. Neither the Neutrality Act nor the self-proclaimed isolationists of the America First Committee (really just those who were anti-British, anti-Roosevelt, and anti-Semitic) could keep the nation out of what would become the first truly global war. Already, the army, navy, marines, and Coast Guard were expanding.
December 7, 1941, became the “date which will live in infamy,” and neither the United States nor the world in general would ever be the same.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before had so many fought so hard, so far away; never before had so much of a nation’s soul been put into a war effort. Even America’s Civil War, which took more American lives than any other conflict the country had been in, did not match the atrocities, the changes in lifestyles, the often total reversal of fortunes of World War II.
In the course of forty-five months—the duration of U.S. involvement in the war—disbelief, despair, confusion, and chaos changed to confidence and hope, organization and order. It was a time when old enemies became friends and old friends became enemies. In the axiom of politics, our enemy’s enemies became our friends. At least temporarily.
World War II was like just about any other war in at least one respect. Most of the time it was not an adventure; it was a time of loneliness and boredom and fatigue. Action and danger were the punctuation marks.
Still, in its ferocity, World War II was like no other war anyone has ever seen. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Moments To Remember
I was in the class of ’41, the last high school class. You see? By that winter Leslie Bidwell would be dead at Pearl Harbor. My class would be dying.
—Betty Basye Hutchinson, resident of Oroville, California
Say what you will, nothing can make a complete soldier except battle experience.
—Ernie Pyle, United Features Syndicate, August 23, 1943
In September 1940, as Congress debated America’s first peacetime draft, a fistfight broke out in the Capitol, the first in fifty years. Outside, women protestors burned in effigy Sen. Claude Pepper, who had championed the draft bill.
Congress also created a two-ocean navy and, in a case of extreme, virtually unprecedented liberality, allocated $660 million for the army in the coming fiscal year. The War Department had asked for only $460 million. It did not, of course, refuse the extra $200 million.
The United States operated 6,500 local Selective Service Boards, called draft boards. October 16, 1940, was registration day, “R Day.” America’s young men reported to their local boards and registered for the draft. Some thought they’d be going into the army right then; a man in Davidson County, Tennessee, was so sure he’d be heading off to war that he took along his hunting rifle. It didn’t work that way, of course; there were several steps involved in the process.
From the moment the men stepped into the Selective Service Board office, the military confronted them with paperwork. First came DDS Form 40, an eight-page questionnaire. Because neither the military nor the bureaucracy spoke any normal language, many registrants needed help filling out the form.
Question: Have you ever been in an institution?
Answer: Yes, the hospital when I had my appendix taken out.
Question: Have you ever been found guilty of a crime?
Question: Give particulars.
Answer: An automobile accident.
When the men walked out of the draft board office, they carried an item they were never supposed to be without under penalty of the law: DDS Form 2, better known as the draft card. By mail, registrants received draft lottery numbers ranging from 1 to 7,836. They were ready to go to war—not always willing or able, but generally ready.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson stood blindfolded beside a ten-gallon glass bowl, the same bowl used to hold World War I draft lottery numbers. Now, on October 29, 1940, the bowl was back in action.
Newsreel cameras rolled; radio microphones picked up the words. America and the world waited. Stimson reached in, drew out a blue capsule containing a number, and handed it to President Roosevelt, who read out the number for the first draftee: number 158. In the watching crowd, a woman screamed, “That’s my son.” Six thousand one hundred seventy-five other young men held lucky number 158. Western Union message boys around the nation hopped on their bikes and pedaled off to deliver telegrams from the Selective Service Board. The first line said it all: “Greetings.”
Inductees reported to their local draft board in the predawn darkness, with large groups of boys (truly, they were boys, not yet men) who stood in grim silence. Often with them were virtuously sobbing girlfriends, openly crying mothers, proud fathers, and noisy younger siblings who thought it was a gas for brother Bill to go off to be a soldier.
The inductees stood around and waited, some of them shy, some boisterous, some still drunk or hung over from the previous night’s farewell party. Unless the drunkenness got too out of hand or the hangover was so severe that it “spilled” onto other inductees, the army didn’t care. Finally, all the inductees climbed into a bus and were taken to an induction center, where they stood around some more.
Inside the center, an officer ordered the draftees to strip to their shorts, socks, and shoes. Most of the men were uncomfortable standing there in their underwear, especially with businesslike nurses walking among them. The army knew they’d be uncomfortable and realized that a man often sheds his defenses with his clothing. A sergeant issued tags for the inductees to wear around their necks, another sign that the military cared more for numbers than for names.
About the time that the men had given up expecting anything more to happen, a team of physicians marched in and examined the inductees one by one, poking and prodding them, checking them for irregular heartbeat and any outward signs of ill health. A nurse handed out specimen bottles and ordered the half-naked men to take them to a rest room and urinate. Those with the smallest specimen bottles invariably wound up farthest away from the urinals.
Inductees had to be at least five feet tall and weigh a minimum of 105 pounds. That appears small today, but the average World War II draftee was an inch taller and eight pounds heavier than the average in his father’s war, the War to End All Wars.
Recruits’ vision had to be correctable, and they had to have at least thirty-two natural teeth and not have flat feet, hernias, or venereal disease. The rule about teeth was left over from the Civil War draft, when a soldier needed most of his teeth in order to bite the end off a paper cartridge before loading his musket. The rule was dropped in mid-1943. The current concern was over the wretched state of the inductees’ teeth. It may have been due to the Great Depression and its long-lasting poverty.
In all, men drafted from the West and the Dakotas were, by far, the healthiest. Those from the South were the most likely to be rejected for health reasons.