On the Homefront
By Thomas J. Minter
Things had been festering in world relations before the 1940s decade, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the war began in earnest for the United States. It was like America got hit up beside the head with a two-by-four. I was 10 years old at the time. I was too young to go to war, but old enough to realize that something important was happening to people. It was my "formative years." and I was all eyes and ears.
The little town where I lived was called Saltillo, and it was situated on the prairie in east Texas. In some respects it was a million miles from everywhere. It was not a big town, the population was only 250. It was not located at a major crossroads. It was off the beaten path . . . to use a cliche. There never was a war bond rally held in the town. Nor was the town destined to have a war hero like Audie Murphy. Yet, in spite of the town's isolation, the war touched everybody in various ways -- some little and inconveinent, and others big and tragic.
The first big noticeable thing at the beginning of the war was all the young men disappeared. And, they went gladly to serve their country. And those who were rejected for service because of mental or physical reasons, regretted the fact they were not going, and would have done almost anything to be included. Everyone in town knew who was serving and what branch of the military they had gone into. To the extent it was possible, just about everyone knew where the town's servicemen were in the world. And when one of these men were killed or wounded, everyone knew about that too. It was a small community.
One of my teachers had three sons in the marines. She was some proud woman. To let people know you had someone in the service, you put a paper star on the front door or window -- one for each person serving. And when one of those serving came home on furlough, he was treated like a hero, a dignitary. At that time a man in unifrom could hitchhike and get rides immediately . . . all across the country. This attitude toward those in service carried over to the Korean War a few years later.
Aside from radios, Saltillo had three things that kept reminding everyone there was a war going on. One of these was the Cotton Belt Route Railroad that ran through town. Periodically, a troop train would pass through going east. The soldiers would lean out the windows and wave. Sometimes they would throw out candy. If you were anywhere near the track when an unscheduled train approached, you beat it up closer to see what kind of train it was. The Cotton Belt Route was one of those railroads that operated with a single main track. As such, it had sidings where trains could wait until it was clear to proceed. So when a military train had to layover at the Saltillo siding, everyone got a good closeup look at everything. Sometimes such a train would be hauling tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, jeeps, and so on. Both grownups and kids were very much interested in these implements of war.
Highway US 67 also ran through town parallel to the railroad track. It must have been a favorite route for military convoys, for quite a few passed through town. The jeeps and trucks of the convoys moved slower than the cars of a train, so you got a longer closeup look at things. Sometimes such a string of vehicles would stop near town for a break or something. There was a lot of saluting and radioing going on. All this plus the uniforms, helmets, sidearms, and the insignias was fascinating stuff to boys. It was on par with playing cowboys and badmen.
The town also boasted of not one, but two rotating beacons to guide aircraft. One of those red and white towers with a beacon atop it was about a quarter of a mile west of town near the highway. I think this beacon was like a highway marker for an air route in the sky. The other beacon was situated northeast of town about a mile. I later learned it marked an emergency field designated by the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Adminsistration). The field by this beacon was nothing more than a cow pasture, no hangers, gas pumps, or anything like that -- just a beacon tower and a flat, treeless pasture.
Every once in a while some aviator would grace our town by landing his trainer nearby. It always seemed to be near dusk or on some rainy, overcast day. And no matter what time of day it was, or what the weather was like, it seemed like everyone in town rushed to the sight of the landing. I don't know how so many people knew a plane had landed or was going to, but they did. I guess in the same way ants know when you have thrown some bread out into the yard.
The strange thing about these landings was they were never near the beacon with the cow pasture air strip, but they were always near the beacon near the highway Even I, a boy, knew this was not a good place for a airplane to land. I hunted rabbits there all the time, and it had a lot of gullies and remanents of old barbed wire fences. It is miracle that some wayward pilot didn't destroy his plane . . . and himself.
After a plane had landed and everyone had gathered around it, the pilot, would
climb out of the cockpit, with a packed parachute dangling about a foot below
his rear end, and step onto the wing. By the time he had set foot on the ground
some grownup would rush forward to confer with him. After some animated
conversation between the two, the pilot would climb back into the plane and wave.
He would then gun the engine and start moving for the takeoff. When he did that,
the tall prairie grass would lay flat in a sort of twirling motion. Once the plane got
into the air, it wasn't long before all you could see was its lights, which you watched
until they faded away. You always wondered what it was like for the pilot flying the
plane and where he was headed.
Also during the early war years, a couple of fellows landed a small plane on the dirt road about a third of a mile southeast of town near the Methodist church. I don't think they had anything to do with the military or the war effort, but it caught everyone's attention because it fit with the times. The plane sat in a yard near the church for a long time with various parts being removed from it. Apparently they were working on it. Eventually they completed what they were doing, for they attempted a takeoff on the same road they brought the plane in on. The upshot was they crashed, actually ground looped the plane, on their takeoff run. No one was hurt or killed, and their plight soon faded from the public consciousness.
When it came to the actual fighting of the war and its progress, people relied on the radio. Few people would miss a news broadcast. Everyone in the house would gather around the radio in silence. We had one of those little cathedral-shaped Philco radios. Among those who gave the war news was H. V. Kaltenborn, Edward R. Morrow, Elmer Davis, and Gabriel Heatter. Gabriel Heatter was our favorite. Mister Heatter always begin his broadcast with, "Well . . . there is bad news tonight folks," or "There is good news tonight folks." In the early part of the war, it was more of the former. Some of the places he mentioned such as Mindanao, New Caledonia, Marianas, and Solomon Islands are still stuck in my mind.
After the war had been going on for a couple of years, there was a big scrap drive to help the war effort. Everyone was encouraged to gather up their rusting junk iron and bring it into town, where it was piled up in front of the school gym. Old trucks and horse drawn wagons came from every direction loaded with old plows, pieces of cultivators, tin, Model T Ford parts, and all kinds of metal pieces for the drive. The pile of junk in front of the gym grew into a mountain. People had already been helping out with the war effort by saving rubber bands and tinfoil, which they rolled into balls. Toothpaste tubes were saved too, as they were made of a thin tin.
Looking back now, everyone during that time seemed patriotic and willing to make whatever sacrifice needed. There was hardly any complaining. Many consumer items that were in short supply because of the war were rationed. Once the war began, rubber was rationed right away as the Japanese armies in the Far East had cut the U.S. off from its chief source of rubber. Widespread gasoline rationing began in December of 1942, not because it was in short supply, but the curtailment helped save rubber. There were four classifications in rationing gasoline: A, B, C, and X. You got a sticker to display inside the windshield of your car to indicate your classification, and stamps to give up for the gasoline. Our old Model A Ford had a "B" sticker on its windshield, which entitled us to about 8 gallons a week. Sugar was also rationed. Many other things were rationed too, but these are the ones I remember.
I moved away from Saltillo to the big city, Oklahoma City, just before the war ended. I remember "D-Day" and "V-J Day," and the extra newspaper editions heralding the surrenders of the Axis and the final end to the war. And like the song, "These are the Days of Our Lives," those were the days of our lives.