DADDY'S GONE TO WAR:
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
IN THE LIVES OF
William M. Tuttle Jr.
Oxford University Press
265 pages. $30
If you are under 55, you probably don't know how much World War II permeated the life of this country. In "Daddy's Gone to War," history professor William M. Tuttle Jr. explores the effect on a family of a father's absence, and much more.
In this exhaustive, effective mix of anecdotes and statistics, he relates the grim and heroic saga of a people whose lives were turned upside down by the war. He quotes James H. S. Brossard, a sociologist of the family, who, in 1944, observed, "so comprehensive and fundamental are the changes wrought by war, and so closely is the family interrelated with the larger
society, that there is perhaps no aspect of family life unaffected by war."
Dr. Tuttle adds: "This was particularly true during the Second World War, which brought such immense economic, social, and cultural change to the United States that historians have called it a watershed in American history."
The numbers are staggering and give a texture and depth to the history:
* 405,399 Americans lost their lives. (The population then was about 150 million).
* Nearly one family in five -- 18.1 percent -- contributed one or more family members to the U.S. armed forces.
* About 183,000 children lost their fathers.
Those figures show just part of the picture. About 15 million civilian Americans moved between 1941 and 1945, many more than once. They moved to the towns that sprang up around the huge defense plants.
That includes such towns as Willow Run (B-24s), 30 miles west of Detroit, and Pascagoula, Miss. (naval shipyard), both of which swelled up without housing, sewage, banks, doctors, schools and other amenities. The military migration consisted of 16.3 million people by the end of the war, and bloated bases in such areas as San Diego, Calif., and Hampton Roads, Va.
Both migrations resulted in hostility from the locals against the newcomers, especially against blacks and rural whites, and most of all, in the great and permanent shift from farms to cities. Oh yes, the Depression was finally over, and unemployment was reduced to 1.2 percent by 1944.
The two groups of migrants -- "America's new pioneers" -- comprised one-fifth of the nation's population and forever altered the composition of the nation. Until that war, Americans had usually stayed put for generations in the same region, and they reflected their local differences.
Southerners and Northerners still argued about the Civil War; ruralpeople had slower, more civil ways than city people. But when they met each other in military bases or war-boom towns, there was often friction.
A happy outcome of the war was its uniting power, but hatred of minority races and ethnic groups, especially blacks and Japanese, increased.
Most Americans then agreed that a woman's place was in the home, but some mothers had to work, often in defense plants, which resulted in catastrophic child-care problems and the term "latchkey children."
Of the 1.3 million women with husbands in the service, 280,000 had children under 10. There was no federally funded care for children under 2 until 1944, and there was resistance to federal help, anyway. There were cries about neglected children; in 1943 and 1944 the country endured polio epidemics.
Dr. Tuttle solicited 2,500 letters from men and women, now in their 50s and 60s, who were children during the war. They describe their childhood fears about being orphaned or abandoned, and the dearth of toys, since most production went toward the war effort. They thought it was harder -- but better -- to be a boy because boys felt a burden to win in battle; girls were just expected to be nurses and caretakers.
Dr. Tuttle describes the rationing of foods and goods, and the black market that many used for extra commodities. He describes scrap drives and campaigns to sell war bonds; and movies, songs, radio shows, comics and Life magazines that were saturated with propaganda.
The feeling of many children, as one person recollected, was of "an almost euphoric sense of being linked to something bigger than myself . . . I was made to feel that my . . . sacrifice was important to my nation's success."
It is impossible to read "Daddy's Gone To War" and not compare the all-for-one, one-for-all spirit of the era to today's attitude of rampant individualism and "what's in it for me?"
And two questions come to mind: Must it take a great crisis to bring out the best in a nation, and could we show such united spirit and sacrifice again?
Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.