It’s difficult for most of us to even imagine what the world was like in 1941. The United States was not thought to be a powerful force. In fact it was ranked eighteenth in the terms of military might. The country was only beginning to recover from the effects of the Great Depression. Most of the country was rural and there were still a majority of homes without electricity or indoor plumbing. The mood was isolationist as the populace here watched events unfolding in Europe with horror but an intense belief that our nation needed to stay out of the fray. My mother was fifteen and my father eighteen as December began that year. They were yet to meet one another and naively unaware that life for every American citizen was about to change dramatically.
My mother often spoke of December 9, 1941 when the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor. It was a fearful and shocking moment. She along with her countrymen listened to President Roosevelt as he reassured the nation. She remembered how quickly people answered his call for all Americans to participate in the coming war effort. She saw her brothers enlisting in various branches of the Armed Forces one by one, and saw high school friends leaving the classroom as soon as they were old enough to lend their help to the cause.
World War II was like no other engagement in history. Its influence stretched across the globe, affecting people on virtually every continent. Here at home citizens of every age contributed in one way or another. Women who had traditionally kept the home fires burning took over manufacturing jobs. Industries were cranking out planes and ships and munitions at a fevered pace. Everyone rationed their use of critical materials, including paper. My mother-in-law often showed me the yearbook from her senior year of high school. It was thinner than a monthly magazine, made only of the cheapest quality pulp. It mirrored the reality of the time with row after row of photos of mostly young girls. The boys had dropped out of school and to join the fight.
When our troops first went to faraway places like northern Africa and the Pacific they were ill prepared to battle the well trained and experienced Germans and Japanese. They often found themselves overwhelmed and in retreat in the earliest forays. They learned on the job and became just a bit better as they slowly understood the demands of the new ways of fighting. I have often wondered how those of us living in today’s world might react to news of battlefield losses and situations requiring our troops to run for safety. Would we have the heart to continue the fighting or would we give up quickly? Luckily the generation who fought World War II was made of stern stuff. They were determined to do whatever it took to free Europe from the grip of Nazi Germany and the Pacific from the Japanese.
There was much at stake and the American people understood that they could not be deterred from seeking total victory. In that regard both Japan and Germany had greatly underestimated the will of our country. There are those who wonder if the world might indeed look very different today had the United States not allied with Great Britain and Russia in that great fight against fascism and tyranny.
The World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is a repository of the remarkable history of that era. It is filled with the stories of both the leaders and the common people who worked together to defeat the enemies and free the world from their dominance. With hundreds of photographs, artifacts, videos and research texts it leads visitors from the beginnings of the conflict to its horrifying end with the explosions of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a touching and personal journey that is honestly and beautifully told.
The city of New Orleans was chosen as the site of the museum because it was the birthplace of the the inventor of the Higgins boat which was used to bring troops ashore at Normandy on D Day. Mr. Higgins was already making shallow draft boats for fishing in the bayous and swamps when the military expressed a need for a military version of such craft. He was ready to design a larger boat capable of transporting troops. The Higgins boats that were manufactured in New Orleans have often been credited with helping to win the war in Europe.
It’s been seventy five years since our nation entered World War II. By the end of the conflict the United States was viewed as a major political power. With an infrastructure unharmed by the devastation of the war we were poised to enjoy an economy exploding with innovation and production. The soldiers returned to an exciting time that included creating a new generation of children that would become known as the Boomers. The United States was slowly but surely transformed by the building of a system of interstate highways that made travel from one ocean to the other quicker and more open to all people. The same spirit that drove the success in the war continued its inventiveness all the way to the moon and back.
Those of us who were the children of the men and women who endured the uncertainties of war would inherit the fears of the atomic age. We would wear dog tags for a time to identify us in case of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. We practiced air raid drills each Friday afternoon, crouching under our desks in wonder and confusion. Our generation would be drafted into a new and different war in Vietnam that somehow never made as much sense as the one our parents had fought. We would march for the civil rights of our Black neighbors and those of us who are females would blaze new trails in education and work.
World War II was never just a long ago historic event to us. We saw those photos of our dads and uncles in their uniforms. We heard the stories of life under siege. We watched the old black and white movies that celebrated the accomplishments of our generals and troops. We saw the sadness in the eyes of those who lost loved ones in places so far away that nobody had even known that they existed before the battles. We were the link between the past and the present, the generation that watched the world change at such a rapid pace that it was sometimes difficult to keep up. We truly appreciated what the brave men and women of the world endured to secure a time of promise and opportunity for us.
Few people in 1941 might have imagined a nation so filled with the bounty that we now have. Ordinary citizens enjoy lifestyles that once belonged only to the wealthy. We live in modern homes and watch our big screen televisions that bring the world into our living rooms. We travel the world and study at universities at a rate that our parents never saw. We have much for which to be thankful and most of it resulted from the brave and unselfish acts of a generation that chose to defeat the forces of pure evil. Their story is on full view seven days a week at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. Every one of us should take the time to absorb the importance of the stories that are told there and to thank the veterans of that war and those who serve today to protect us.