America’s Changing Lifestyles

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(The King is Dead)

Part III – The King is Dead, Long Live the King

The sudden death of President Roosevelt hit the country like a strike of lightening, although it was obvious he had been ill for quite some time. It was as if the country’s family patriarch had passed during the night. We were a nation suddenly confronted with two hot wars on two fronts, like a ship in a typhoon without a rudder And a cold war that would continue far beyond his presidency.

Harry Truman was a vice-president without the faintest idea of what was going on. When he took over the presidency, he was so much in the dark that he had no idea we had an atom bomb almost ready to drop. But Truman was made of stern mid-western stuff; a man who knew how to make decisions. While the nation prayed for him, he acted.

Truman became president on April 12, 1945. Berlin was under siege. Rather than face the consequences of his madness, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.

Conversion from war to peace begins

While the hostilities in Europe were all but declared over, the sports world welcomed the first black to a major league baseball team when Jackie Robinson was brought up from Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers two days before Truman became president.

Victory in Europe, forever known as V-E Day in the U.S. and VE Day in the UK, occurred on May 8, 1945, when citizens from both the U.S. and Great Britain crowded into the streets to celebrate the unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allied Forces. 

Hitler’s concentration camps, where 6 million Jews were exterminated by gas and other means, were being shut down as tens of thousands of men, women and children, with skin barely clinging to bones, were freed. Most would require months to years of medical treatments. Many would die shortly after being freed from the Nazi horror camps.

General Dwight Eisenhower, to his later regret, allowed the Russian Army to enter Berlin and that action would ultimately create the separation of Germany into East and West. In 1946, Prime Minister Winston Churchill would declare that “An ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent [Europe],” in a speech he gave at Westminister College in Fulton, Missouri.

Okinawa, the Marianas and Hiroshima

As troops began to return from Europe, Americans were trying to return to a peaceful country. The only thing left before we could begin our recovery from the bloodshed was the stubborn Japanese. In June of 1945, with a tremendous loss of life on both sides, American forces took control of Okinawa. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was en-route from the States to Tinian Island to deliver two precious babies, “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” Sadly, on its return trip to the U.S., the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 29, killing 883 sailors -many of whom were eaten alive by sharks.

Your reporter was stationed at North Field Tinian with the 313th Bomb Wing of the 20th Air Corps. Also situated on the two mile by four mile island was the 509th Composite Group where the “babies” would be brought to live. Captain Paul Tebbets, who would soon take charge of “Little Boy” and deliver him to Hiroshima to introduce a new weapon of war, was often seen out on the flight line with his crew playing pinochle.

All of that would end on the morning of August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb to be dropped on a civilian population would be placed aboard the Enola Gay, a B-29, for its flight to Hiroshima. In one horrendous mushroom cloud the rules of combat would change forever. Within days “Fat Man,” found its way to Nagasaki, ending our conflict with Japan. On August 14, 1945 (V-J Day), Truman announced victory over Japan. The most famous marker of that date was a photograph of a young sailor grabbing a nurse and planting a big kiss on her willing lips while celebrating in Times Square. 

Back home again in Indiana, and other places

Post war America was drunk on peace. The party began before the formal declaration of surrender by Japan.

On September 2, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur conducted Japan’s unconditional surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.

American forces had paid a steep price for our victories with the loss of life and major injuries to the young men and women who went off in all directions to protect our way of life. We were a united nation. The dissent was meager compared to what it would be in twenty years.

Teenagers who grew into adulthood during the war were subject to limited freedom. They were either being drafted at 18, starting a family or taking the place of those who went into military service. College education did not exist for most of the population. High school was akin to college. The depression had stifled education, just as it did starting a family or aspiring to better styles of living.

Fashions had been muted during wartime. Mustn’t be too ostentatious when so many of their peers were dying on the battlefields. However, there were no great revolts among teenagers. They obeyed their parents and generally stayed out of trouble for the duration.

However, when the troops started coming back from places they’d never even heard of prior to the war, all hell was about to break loose.

Consumers at large

With the end of rationing the country went on a spending spree unheard of in prior years. Shoes, nylon stockings, fur coats and automobiles were high on shopping lists. Musical tastes were changing. Although there were perhaps 50 big bands, some much more musically talented that Glenn Miller, his demise was the death knell for many of those name bands. Former swing band singers were cutting out to go solo. The Hit Parade, which began its popularity during the war, would go on into the fifties, but never regained the popularity of the late thirties and early forties. Some attribute it to the fact that so many young people were either in the service or so dedicated to the end of hostilities that they simply didn’t have time for such activities. Movies continued to be the main source of entertainment. Drive-in theaters were popping up across the landscape. Radio began to give way to television towards the end of the war, a medium President Truman used to announce the end of the war with Japan.

Casual dress began to replace shirts, ties, suits and hats. Take a look at old news reels of sports events; rarely was a man or woman seen in a ball park without a hat. Same with race tracks and other outdoor sporting events. We were suddenly becoming more “Californish,” some would say.

Blackouts were passe. Broadway once again lit up the theater district. The American Airlines stories-high sign at the top of Times Square filled the sky like a million spotlights, just as it had before the war.

Sports shirts, slacks and loafers were large with young men. Girls skirts were shorter; the prudish and religious conservatives condemned them as salacious and vulgar. Girls who slashed their tresses during the war due to working with machines in defense plants did not return to their thirties styles.

Rekindling friendships and the building boom

Under the auspices of General George Marshall the U.S. initiated the Marshall Plan, a program designed to rebuild a destroyed Europe. The economy shot up due to the surge of jobs in the construction industry. The boom increased, thanks to the G.I. Bill of Rights wherein all who served in WW II were guaranteed a college education. Kids who wore a uniform could exchange it for four years of learning, something that millions of young men and women could not afford prior to the war. Veterans of World War II became the most educated generation in the history of the world..

Through the Marshall Plan we not only rebuilt countries, but rekindled friendships in the process. Germany and Japan became two of our strongest allies and that friendship is stronger than ever today. America is a forgiving nation, the envy of other governments. Powerful entities start wars – ordinary citizens fight them.

Hit the road, Mac

By the end of January 1942, all civilian auto production ceased and would not restart until the fall of 1945. During the war auto mechanics had more work than they could handle and the 1942 vehicles remained the latest models until 1946. When new cars became available, most of them weren’t much more than 1942 models with new grills and designs. It took time to retool from wartime production..

Vacations that had been delayed for more than five years suddenly became number one items on folks’ “What to do” lists. Summer resorts, winter sports and coastal beaches became the places to play-and the highways were crammed with people “getting away” from wartime restrictions.

Let’s dance

Although some of the big bands, like Duke Ellington, were still doing cross country tours, many were anchoring at hotels in heavily populated, urban communities. Small groups like Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five were popping up in small clubs as costs of operating a big band were becoming prohibitive. But with the decline of large venues, local clubs featuring small dance groups became more popular for a population anxious to kick up their heels and shed the shackles of war.

It was the beginning of “America on Wheels.” Never had the country taken so much to wheels. They gave up walking to the grocery two blocks away. It was easier to drive. However, there was a downside. As we stopped walking and sat on wheels, we began to pick up “inner tubes,” that flab around our middles. Today it might be reasonably assumed that there is more lard on the streets in America than all the hog farms in Iowa. Blame it on the automobile and our desire to ride instead of walk.

Friend or foe

When Eisenhower let the Russians enter Berlin ahead of us, there were consequences later on. At the end of the war Berlin was divided into four zones for rebuilding purposes. American, British, French and Soviet. It was, from the beginning, a contentious division of governing and led to President Truman’s political enemies accusing him of being soft on Communism. Taking advantage of the president’s unpopularity in that area, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin began what has become known as the “McCarthy witch-hunts,” slinging mud and making false accusations toward whomever he didn’t like, accusing them of being communists.

In 1947, Great Britain and the United States merged their two Berlin zones and called them Bizonia. France soon joined them and it became Trizonia. In an effort to drive the Western Allies out of Berlin, the Soviets set up a blockade along their border with Trizonia and thus established what Churchill referred to a year earlier, the Iron Curtain. All auto and rail traffic across the Soviet Zone was halted. The Berlin Airlift was formed by the Trizonians to feed and heat the millions of Berliners until the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949. Two million tons of supplies in 270,000 flights kept Berlin alive for almost two years.

More war and radical changes in lifestyles

Happy Americans were enjoying a good economy, happy homes and social lives with World War II vets graduating from colleges in numbers unheard of in the past. We were on our way to the land of milk and honey. Then, without warning-again, the milk soured and the honey became rancid.

On June 25, 1950, while Harry Truman was in the second year of his own elected presidency, it all fell apart. More than 75,000 troops from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel which separated the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north, backed by the Soviets, from the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south, committing the first military action of the Cold War.

The United Nations, from its beginnings in San Francisco at the end of WWII, was designed to settle arguments and disagreements among its members. Both North and South Korea became members of the U.N. in 1991; South Korea has twice held seats on the Security Council; North Korea never has. During the Korean war, the Chinese Government supported the North Koreans and dedicated over three million military personnel to the war.

The 1940s brought us many improvements and inventions, giving us modern kitchens, mass television access and faster transportation on the ground and in the air. Thanks to necessity during World War II, the development of new medicines had growth like never before. Music was headed in a direction that only the kids understood and the film industry worried that television would destroy its popularity. Penicillin became the cure-all and a little man from Missouri had ordered the use of a bomb that should have ended all wars.

We were involved in two wars – one down, one to go and another not too far down the road. Would it ever end? Just sayin’

rustystrait@gmail.com

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