By Kevin Thomas, Archives Technician
The end of the calendar year, the Holiday season, is traditionally a joyful time of year for many Americans – encompassing gatherings of family, and memories made over large meals filled with an assortment of delicacies and comfort foods. There is often the exchange of gifts and an assortment of decorations, along with several other elements that seem to make the season so loved.
The recent effects from the Coronavirus have reminded us how very fragile our world can be. This holiday season will be so very different from what has been normal recently. Concern and uncertainty. Shortages and delays at times for consumer goods. Most importantly, loss of, and separation from, family and friends.
Stress that was once reserved for shopping, or stringing temperamental lights, is now assailing us from a new direction.
In 1943, while the circumstances were different, the world was also experiencing difficult times. For Americans, they were no longer isolated from dangers around the world, and even the most remote locations of the country were no longer untouched by hardship and loss from a global war.
The nation was in the midst of fully mobilizing – inducting larger and larger numbers of service men and women, and further realigning the economy to equip them – all the while trying to maintain and increase commitments to its allies through Lend-Lease. For families looking forward to celebrating, if such a sensation were practicable, the resources to do so were as strained as they would be for the entire war – both materially and emotionally.
In December 1943, World War II was over four years old, and was seemingly no closer to ending than at the start of the year. There had been however, a major shift in the progress of the war in favor of the Allied powers, with the Soviet victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, and the Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.
In Europe that month, the Royal Air Force continued its concentrated bombing of Berlin, known as the (Air) Battle of Berlin – while in the Southwest Pacific, the United States and other Allied forces continued Operation Cartwheel in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
For Americans, December 1943 was a time of anticipation, as a major Allied invasion of Europe was projected to begin sometime in 1944. In a Christmas Eve nationwide radio address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would add to that expectation by informing the country that General Dwight D. Eisenhower would command the invasion forces. That offensive would hopefully bring about a speedy and victorious conclusion to the war – a war which had already changed daily life in profound ways.
Across the country that year, Americans continued to relocate in large, diverse numbers, to seek employment in the swelling defense industries. As they did so, competition for jobs and access to scarce resources such as affordable housing, increased, and with it racial tension and violence. Race riots had erupted that summer in places such as Detroit, Los Angeles, and Beaumont, Texas.
1943 also saw rising tensions between business and labor, as the patriotic enthusiasm that led to no-strike pledges by unions began to unravel at times under high wartime inflation and frozen wages. On December 27, President Roosevelt ordered the Federal Government takeover of railroads impacted by an impending railroad strike. He had taken similar action with coal mines in April, when over 400,000 miners walked off the job over wages and conditions.
Because of the war, the U.S. economy was changing quickly, and American households, as well as American society, would change and adapt with it.
Millions of Americans were already in uniform by December 1943. Correspondingly, the U.S. economy employed around 55 million in some capacity – around 30 percent of which were women. With so many Americans working outside of the home, many at jobs with atypical work schedules (many factories ran 24 hours a day to produce war material), issues such as childcare and finding quick to prepare meals at home, were now fast growing issues for Americans.
Rationing had become perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of daily living on the Home Front by December, 1943. The U.S. Government had begun instituting the policy two years earlier to help conserve resources for the war effort and to ensure fairness in the distribution of what remained to the civilian population.
Rationing effected everyone. The war had spurred a conversion in the economy – from producing consumer goods, to producing military goods. This process placed a great demand on available raw materials, and left households with less to go around than before. By the end of 1943, household goods such as red meat, sugar, coffee, and processed foods were rationed items – as they were needed to feed US military personnel. Earlier in the war, automobiles, tires and gasoline, as well as paper, shoes, and appliances were among the long list of consumer items rationed or simply unavailable as factories converted to producing weapons, tanks, and uniform components for the US military and other Allied forces. Americans learned to improvise, or to simply do without if what they needed was unavailable, or a spare part unattainable. Meatless menus at restaurants began to appear, and newspapers ran tips on how to make your limited or monotonous pantry stretch farther and with more variety. Home gardens, known as Victory Gardens, became more commonplace to supplement households. Because of the war, Americans began their love affair with Kraft Mac & Cheese – a meal that was cheap, quick to make, and fairly easy to obtain during rationing.
Holiday dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas that year would inevitably feature dishes with alternative or substituted ingredients, as common staples such as butter and sugar were hard to come by, even if individuals managed to save up their Government issued ration stamps for their holiday food shopping. Turkeys were very hard to find, even though they were not a rationed item, as they were being procured in large numbers for military personnel to enjoy an authentic meal.
Gift giving during the holidays of 1943, also required creativity, and in many cases homemade gifts replaced purchased items. The government encouraged gifts of war bonds.
Americans stayed home for the holidays that year, as gasoline rationing made driving long distances difficult, and local authorities were on the lookout for non-essential travelers. Bald or worn tires could make the practice risky to begin with, as vehicle owners were limited to owning 5 tires, regardless of their condition. All others were to be given to the government for the war effort.
Even if you did travel, a national 35 mile per hour speed limit enforced by many states to conserve fuel and tires, ensured you didn’t get there fast.
Many worked through the holidays as well, as factories did not shut down, in order to maintain peak production and meet US Government orders for crucial war material such as planes, ships, and ammunition.
Perhaps the most difficult adjustment to the changing times that December, was the emptiness in homes and communities, as more and more loved ones and friends shipped out for induction and training for military service. Those already in combat theaters, had been bearing the full load for many months in places such as North Africa, Sicily, the Solomon Islands, and on the world’s oceans – and for their families, that emptiness had already become permanent in some cases, as casualties increased.
In spite of the hardships, Americans chose to find joy and cheerfulness in small places – and there were many things to celebrate.
On December 1, the repatriation ship MS Gripsholm docked in New York harbor, with over 1,200 Americans, as well as Canadians and Latin American passengers, who had been held by Japan since earlier in the war – some good news amongst the increasing blows from the war.
For residents of Chicago, December 26 brought victory for the hometown Bears, who defeated the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship, 41-21.
In New York, skaters could be seen beneath the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, enjoying a cherished amusement.
And letters, packages, and gifts crisscrossed the nation, and the globe that month, as Americans separated from each other by deployment, defense work, or long distance, chose to find any way possible to connect with those they cared about.
Even for the President of the United States, the holidays were very different that year.
The President and First Lady were subject to the same rationing conditions as every American, and were each issued a ration book. Cutting back and thrift became part of life in the White House. Even the National Christmas Tree was no longer adorned with lights – decorated instead for a second year with ornaments made or collected by local schoolchildren, to promote conservation.
On the other hand, being President, and considered essential, also meant you still had access to things.
On his trip to Cairo, Egypt, made over the Thanksgiving holiday of 1943, FDR made sure two turkeys were brought along, to be enjoyed with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other British officials as guests of the Americans.
Spending Thanksgiving abroad was not routine for the President (he preferred his residence in Warm Springs, Georgia). Neither was Christmas at home in Hyde Park, New York. But, FDR chose to break from his tradition of spending the holiday at the White House, and instead journeyed to his estate, Springwood. The war had altered other features of Christmas for the Roosevelts that year. His sons were away at war, and fewer family could make the journey. Those that did, found their gifts under the tree unwrapped, to conserve paper.
…But – on Christmas Eve this year – I can say to you that at last we may look forward into the future with real, substantial confidence that, however great the cost, ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ can be and will be realized and ensured. This year I can say that.
There were many questions on the minds of Americans in December 1943 – chief among them: How long would the war last? We know now that another holiday season was to pass before the war would end.
A year later, December 1944, the lion’s share of the approximately 2 million US troops to serve in Europe during WWII, had arrived there, and despite a very serious German counteroffensive that month, known as the Battle of the Bulge, the war was beginning to reach its conclusion.
In 1943, all of that seemed a long way away, and perhaps for some, very difficult to imagine.
The holiday season of 2020, coming at the close of an incredibly volatile year, will certainly leave us with an assortment of emotions.
Looking back and reflecting on another year in our nation’s past, we can see a time when difficult circumstances were confronted, and despite tremendous loss, through collective effort, the nation and the world endured.