OCTOBER 2021






In the past, Ancient Hixtory examined how Hicksville was altered by external phenomena such as World War I, the influenza pandemic, and the Great Depression.  This month, it looks at how World War II transformed the village into a vital part of the Home Front.


First of Two Parts

Introduction

The World War II years were unlike any other era that America – and Hicksville – ever knew.  Consider this statistic: 11,000,000 million Americans served in the wartime Army, a force which had numbered fewer than 250,000 when the war began.  Those millions, plus millions more in the other armed forces, were removed from the nation’s labor force at the very time that the demand for labor was skyrocketing: agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation all had to function at unprecedented levels.

To meet the needs of those who fought the war, and to mitigate the impact of the shortages which inevitably occur during wartime, America was reincarnated.  It became the Home Front, governed by new rules and new practices, in which everyone’s life was repurposed for victory.

In concept, America ’s Home Front faced four challenges:

supplying people (civilian workers as well as people in uniform)

supplying food (farming, fishing, etc.)

manufacturing

minimizing critical shortages

The wartime changes were especially pervasive in Hicksville and its environs, for the region played multiple roles: home to agriculture, center for aviation research, and large-scale manufacturer of aircraft and technology.

Note to Readers: In recent decades, as the members of “The Greatest Generation” have dwindled, their children and grandchildren have done their best to remember and honor them.  To use the words that Abraham’s Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg , that is “fitting and proper.”  True heroes should be remembered.

However, this article (the first of two) is about the Home Front.  It is not about those who fought, or even about those who died, in uniform during World War II.  I hope that future AH articles will be able to tell some of their stories.


***

People, Food, and Manufacturing: Interconnected Challenges

America began getting serious about the coming war about two years before Pearl Harbor was attacked.  After months of preparation, the new Draft began late in 1940, and the Hicksville Selective Service Board had its first quota to attain.  By July 1, 1941, it would have to supply at least 425 civilians fit to wear uniforms, either as draftees or enlistees.

As that deadline approached, the combined population of Hicksville and the surrounding villages grew, thanks to the arrival of well over one thousand new families.  Most of them had been attracted to the area by the pre-wartime jobs that now were being created at the local defense plants.


 





Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 26, 1940


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 27, 1941

Those new families needed homes, and they had cars to be serviced, and growing children to be taught, fed, and clothed – at a time when there were 425 fewer local men in the labor market to work in construction, in garages, on farms, in factories, and in stores.

Clearly, there were problems ahead, and Hicksville experienced one quite early, as it tried to adapt to the parallel demands for more soldiers and more wartime labor.  The head of its Draft Board, dentist Elwood A. Curtis (no stranger to readers of
Ancient Hixtory) initially was unhappy that some men, deferred from the draft as essential farm workers, had taken jobs at local defense plants.  Upon reflection, however, he realized that much farm work was seasonal, and that employing otherwise-idle farm laborers in a second essential industry would be a good thing.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 17, 1942

Labor shortages steadily became acute, so acute that many employers eventually noticed the obvious: You could replace male workers who went off to war by opening more jobs to women.  The LIRR hired many (in its own words) “Train Women” to fill wartime vacancies.  The first women brought on board became Engine Cleaners for steam locomotives, doing labor-intensive tasks previously performed only by men.





Two of the first female Engine Cleaners on the LIRR,
checking oil inventory and getting a fresh barrel so they can get to work

Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library,
Princeton University
https://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/2018/03/world-war-ii-trainwomen-of-the-long-island-railroad/

 


In 1942, among the jobs for which Grumman hired women was Test Pilot.





Cecil “Teddy” Kenyon in a wartime Camel cigarette advertisement,
with Grumman headquarters shown in the background

timeline.com

In some cases, the most effective way to replace laborers lost to military service was to employ migratory workers.





Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 4, 1942


***

Critical Shortages: Groceries

Perhaps the best-known aspect of the Office of Price Administration’s restructuring efforts during the Second World War was the use of Ration Stamps, an idea which it imported from Great Britain .  The goal was to give America an effective way to reduce hoarding, and to preclude Black Market sales of items that were in short supply (cf. America ’s more recent panic-created “shortage” of toilet paper).







Outer cover and surviving partial interior page of
first Ration Book issued to Agnes Wencer, May 6, 1942

Collection of Ronald A. Wencer

 


After starting with the simple black ink tear-out “stamps” illustrated above, Ration Stamps (for food, clothing, gasoline, shoes, and other commodities) evolved in steps into engraved, perforated, color ones, with pictures of warships and guns.  The newer stamps were vivid reminders that Americans were risking their lives to win the war.  More important, they were harder to counterfeit.

Food rationing shifted to a point system, in which scarcer items required the redemption of more points.  This gave the public the ability to choose how it spent its points.  A cartoon (created for the government by experienced animators, and led by Warner Brothers legend Chuck Jones) was shown in movie theatres to explain to the public how to use the point system.  It is available at a number of locations on The Internet; here’s a link to one:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLahMe1Gdsk

Note that a retailer’s failing to properly enforce rationing, or to do the requisite record-keeping (a red flag that a retailer might be pocketing customers’ stamps for Black Market resale), was taken seriously.  In the story below, the Big Ben market on Hicksville’s West Marie Street was one of several on Long Island penalized for such infractions.  That store was forbidden to accept Ration Stamps for one week – a severe penalty in a business where profit margins are small.  During that week, regular customers would have to shop elsewhere for their food, and some might not return to Big Ben when that week was done.

 





Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 9, 1944

 


***

Shortages Nonetheless

Although rationing mitigated some shortages, the supplies of certain grocery items, like meat and fish, were chronically low.  People had to adapt.  The old WW I practice of declaring “meatless” days was encouraged – if people or restaurants served meat on a meatless day, they were publicly scorned as unpatriotic.





National Geographic, July 1943

 

Even SPAM – yes, SPAM – could be in short supply at home.  As the above ad apologetically explained, much of it was being sent to the military, where it doubtless was greatly appreciated.  Right.

Sugar was always hard to find, from before the war, until two years after the war ended.  It was the last item to be rationed.

Coffee quickly proved too difficult to ration.  The initial approach was to let families purchase the equivalent of one cup per day for each family member who was at least fifteen years old.  Imagine the hardship this imposed on merchants and the rationing program.  How do you verify the age of everyone in millions of customers’ households?  How do you prove that someone’s brother-in-law is living as part of the family?  What about the customers’ children who turn fifteen?





You can’t be expected to fight a war without coffee, right?

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 9, 1943

 


Besides, it was so hard to find coffee at local stores that many Americans resorted to wannabe coffee products, which they drank either instead of, or in combination with, real coffee.  Incidentally, there was no actual global coffee shortage.  The problem was that the ships which traditionally had brought coffee to the U.S. now were needed for running other routes, with higher-priority cargos.






Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 14, 1942

 


Less than a year after coffee was first rationed, it was removed from the ration list – rationing had not helped keep coffee on stores’ shelves.  Those coffee substitutes would be around for a while. 


***

Doing Without Driving (almost)

During World War I, Washington had – temporarily – nationalized the country’s railroads under the banner of the United States Railroad Association.  Despite many Americans’ inbred abhorrence of anything that smacked of socialism, people accepted this, and other far-reaching Federal emergency measures, rather quietly.  Locomotives were reallocated from the railroads which owned them to ones which the government thought needed them more.  Locomotive builders had to construct new engines only according to government-devised standard designs (much as automakers of the era had to build standard Liberty Trucks of a common design). The government decided where trains went when, and what they carried.

In World War II, government control of industry was more widespread.  For example, the demand for one of Grumman’s most effective aircraft, the Avenger torpedo bomber, was so high that General Motors factories in California were directed to build Avengers.  By the war’s end, GM had built more of them than Grumman had.  Similar stories can be told about all the era’s big American automakers.  Studebaker made trucks for the Army, and engines for bombers and big transports.  Packard made engines for different branches of the military, most notably the one for the P-51 Mustang.  Hudson’s efforts included engines for the landing craft used on D-Day, and more than 33,000 20mm cannons that were used by the Navy.  One of the Chrysler companies built Sherman tanks.  Nash made the engine for the F4U Corsair.

During the time that automotive companies worked on war projects, they were too busy – and they were forbidden – to make vehicles for civilians.  Americans would have to keep their old cars, the majority of which had been purchased in the 1930s, going until peace arrived.

Gasoline consumption was managed in a multiple ways.  Gas stations frequently were closed one day a week.  There were special gasoline ration cards, issued to an individual for use only with her/his own car.  With the card came a matching windshield sticker, which classified the owner according to occupation.  A defense worker could buy more gallons at once than the ordinary person could; a doctor or nurse could buy still more. Emergency, VIP, and farm vehicles all had their own categories.  In and around Hicksville, there were so many defense workers that certain gas stations were set aside just for them.




Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 25, 1943

War Production Board Poster

sarahsundin.com

 

Automobile tires posed a serious problem.  In 1940, synthetic rubber was a new product, still being tested.  It was anticipated that, apart from those involved in the early tests, American civilians and military personnel would have to ride through the war on natural rubber* – and early in 1942, Japan had seized the nations that supplied over 90% of that.  Thus, rubber was much harder to obtain than crude oil, which led to the belief that gas rationing, and the lowering of America’s speed limits to 35 mph, were measures taken more to make the nation’s tires last longer than to save gas.

Unless civilians’ jobs put them in special categories, they were allowed to own no more than five tires each.  They would not be able to purchase new tires while the war continued, but – and only if given permission by local officials – they could have worn-out tires recapped.

*As things worked out, different synthetic rubbers were introduced during wartime for a number of small products, including soles for shoes.  Synthetic tires were approved for use by the military during the latter years of the war, but I do not believe that (apart from testing) any were made available to civilians in wartime. 


***

Scrap Drives

I would not be surprised to learn that the phrase “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” was first uttered during an ancient war by some now-anonymous Hittite or Assyrian ruler, who desperately needed to melt down some kettles and have them forged into swords (or, on another day, into plowshares).

I know of two abundant sources of scrap steel in Hicksville which were plundered during World War II.  Beneath the paving of West John Street and a small portion of Broadway, nearly forgotten, lay the rails once used by the trolleys of the New York and North Shore.  The other source, on Barclay Street, and famous in the automotive world because of the classics and the racing cars that emerged from it, was Mike Caruso’s scrap business.





Caruso junkyard in 1937, before the advent of wartime scrap drives

The Bulb Horn, January-February 1964 issue

 

Most scrap drives were appeals to individuals, urging them to relinquish things which might be collecting dust and rust in their homes and garages.  School groups and Scouts proved especially adept at running such drives.

Metals were a prime target, although behind the scenes, the efficacy of recycling certain metals for the war was questioned.  The recycling of iron and steel long had been recognized as effective, and in wartime, it became more so, as it reduced the nation’s need to mine, ship, and process ore.  Brass – ideal for making ammunition – was in high demand and short supply, so recycling it made sense.  In contrast, aluminum recycling proved both more difficult and less effective.

The dire need for rubber triggered scrap drives for old rubber items: electrical insulators, rubber balls, bicycle and automobile tires, rubber dolls, girdles, even hot water bottles.  The wartime public’s cooperation was enthusiastic.

 





New York Daily News, July 17, 1942

 

 

There was, however, an unpublicized problem, one which still vexes environmentalists.  Old rubber cannot really be turned into a replacement for new rubber.  You cannot, say, melt down old tires and turn the resulting glop into new tires – which is precisely what government wanted scientists to find a way to do in the 1940s.  For a while, they tried revitalizing rubber by grinding it up and mixing it with petroleum to make new tires, but the results were unsatisfactory.

Paper recycling was far more effective, and it helped the war effort by letting loggers concentrate more on cutting down trees for wood-frame construction.  Rags also were collected, so that their fibers could be reused.

This is a good point at which to note that certain fabrics were unavailable to people on the Home Front.  Silk, which primarily originated in Japan and in other places then under Japanese control, was obviously one.  Another was nylon, then a new product, which was being used exclusively by the military, mostly for parachutes.  The lack of these two fibers meant that, even for formal occasions, American women had no decent hosiery to wear.  In consequence, a common wartime practice was for women to cover their legs with foundation makeup, and then paint or draw (sometimes with a friend’s help, and usually using eyebrow pencil) mock hosiery seams up the rear of their calves, or beyond.  Some stores even provided leg-painting salons!





Painted Lady: unusually elaborate painted-on hosiery
 (no garter belt needed!)

https://www.perfumepassage.org/news/paint-hosiery-during-war-years

 

For today’s generations, perhaps the most surprising scrap recycling effort of the war was the widespread collection of fats left over from household cooking.  As explained to Pluto and Minnie Mouse in the Disney cartoon at this URL:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4497GEGOOg , kitchen fat could be saved at home in a can.  When the can was full, it could be taken to a local butcher or grocer in exchange for cash.  You were paid (modestly) for saving it.  Why?  Because fats were used to make the
glycerine compounds needed to manufacture explosives!


***

This is where we pause until next month – when we will discuss bullets made in Hicksville that may or may not have been defective, how to put a pen in the pocket of your Army uniform without breaking regulations, why you might need to buy a special ink to write your wartime letters, and lots of other stuff.

 


Stay tuned!


*****