Glenn Uminowicz - March 2008

All In Step

by

Glenn Uminowicz

   At the end of August 1941, the Easton newspaper published an editorial cartoon captioned “All In Step.” Figures representing capital and labor strode arm in arm with Uncle Sam followed by a supportive crowd of citizens. The cartoon clearly referenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for Americans to join hands and make their nation the world’s “arsenal of democracy.”
    FDR issued his call in December 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor brought the United States officially into World War II. Under the rubric of “national defense,” however, Americans, including Marylanders, began mobilizing for war long before the Japanese attack.
    The military draft, for example, was introduced in September 1940. By the next summer, twenty Talbot County lads had left for military training. That same month, youngsters launched a scrap metal drive for aluminum pots, pans, and kitchen utensils. Twelve observation posts in Talbot County and three in Caroline County had been established in towers or on rooftops staffed by spotters scanning the skies for enemy aircraft. In October 1941, a mock air attack over Easton tested the skills of the spotters, auxiliary police, firefighters, and nurses. Finally, the local American Legion post organized a “home guard” unit staffed by volunteers.
    The latter was part of a statewide effort. In 1940, Governor Herbert R. O’Conor determined to create Maryland’s own fighting force. An all-volunteer state home guard was commissioned to defend war plants, railroads, and public property. The action received enthusiastic support from the American Legion and the National Rifle Association.
    At the county level, the governor authorized the home guard to be supplemented with an all-volunteer reserve guard, like the unit formed in Talbot County. Carrying shotguns, deer rifles, pistols, and hunting knives, these “Minute Men” staged war games on golf courses, took part in mock invasions aboard ersatz landing craft, and patrolled the streets during practice air raids.
    While the men organized the home guard, members of Homemakers Clubs in Talbot County set out to salvage the local tomato harvest. Throughout the war, canneries faced a shortage of labor. Without a sufficient number of tomato peelers to process the fruit, a portion of the crop faced rotting on the vine. In response, Talbot County homemakers armed themselves with additional canning jars, putting up extra fruit to share with neighbors or the less fortunate during the winter months.
Through newspapers, radios, and correspondence from friends and relations in England and France, Eastern Shore people were well aware of events in Europe. Despite fears of enemy attacks at home and knowledge of the impact of the war overseas, however, historian George H. Callcott observed that most Marylanders embraced neutrality. In 1940 and 1941, they enjoyed a period of “patriotism and prosperity” that they hesitated to disrupt.
    The above attitude reflected the national mood. In 1941-42, BBC journalist Alistair Cooke kept a journal that included a description of two cross-country road trips he took in a Lincoln Zephyr. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Cooke noted a certain level of detachment among Americans toward the conflict overseas. He observed, “America was sleeping in after work, or making dates for parties, climbing snow-laden fences in Minnesota and Vermont, flitting fruit flies in Florida, dishing up homemade ice cream and apple pie for the family dinner in Kansas, or pounding crab-cakes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.”
    That attitude changed immediately after December 7, 1941. An Easton editorial writer insisted, “Of course, this great country is a unit now. Parties forgotten, all the nation has but one object now and that is to win the war.” Within two weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government imposed a complete ban on the sale of automobile tires, local newspapers published descriptions of what to do in an air raid, and communities initiated blackout drills. A Talbot County Council of Defense was formed to coordinate civil defense activities.
    In Talbot County, historian Dickson Preston described the mood as “hysteria bordering on paranoia.” After Pearl Harbor, a newspaper advertisement appeared instructing citizens how to report subversive activities to the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the State Police. The Emergency Hospital at Easton ran an advertisement emphasizing its continued need for public support. The ad copy included the warning, “Perhaps enemy planes will appear and do damage. Perhaps forays of enemy troops will make landings on the coast and raid our countryside. Perhaps all sorts of dangers threaten that we can yet only imagine.”
    By the spring of 1942, however, hostile aircraft had yet to be seen over the Eastern Shore and our tomato fields remained safe from forays of enemy troops. In the imaginings of local business and civic leaders, however, a new sort of danger loomed—Washington bureaucrats.
    During the war, business people and consumers experienced government imposed restrictions and rationing. In 1942, the War Production Board restricted production of tin cans, creating difficulties for canneries. Farm machinery was rationed. In almost every community, the Office of Price Administration operated War Price and Rationing Boards that allocated coupons for each family and checked stores for violations of price controls. Rationed items included meat, butter, sugar, and canned goods. An Easton editorial writer observed, “No matter how we look at the present situation, we must admit that the average housewife has a headache each week end trying to get a few articles of food.”
    Nevertheless, women proved crucial to the OPA’s success. They enlisted in the “food fight for freedom” by signing the “Home Front Pledge,” promising to pay no more than the fixed price for an item.
    Easton grocer Albert T. “Doc” Dawkins, however, was not about to sign any pledges for OPA bureaucrats. In 1943, he placed an ad in the local newspaper announcing that he was closing his market on Wednesday afternoons in order to fill out his pile of government paperwork. To his surprise, the idea spread around the country, even receiving coverage in the Wall Street Journal.
    For a year prior to Dawkins making his stand, the Taxpayers League of Talbot County railed against “unessential, unnecessary governmental expense.” The league and similar organizations in Queen Anne’s and Caroline counties were affiliated with the Citizens Emergency Committee (CEC). In 1942, the Talbot County group ran a newspaper ad from the national organization. The ad copy read, “Sure, we’ll give up tires. We’ll give up automobiles—and luxuries—and non-essentials—EVEN sons—and brothers—and fathers—and husbands—and lives!” The CEC insisted, however, that government spending needed to be rationed too.
    At the local level, the Taxpayers League demanded staff reductions at the Talbot County Welfare Board and further cuts in the school budget. At the Federal level, Eastern Shore budget reformers attended a statewide meeting with the Maryland congressional delegation. They demanded the dismantling of the National Youth Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and any alphabetical agency paying “unemployed persons to remain idle.”
    While Taxpayer League members complained about bungling bureaucrats, big government programs proved a boon to farmers. Agricultural products fed homefront Americans, G.I.s and Britons, Russians and Chinese through the Lend-Lease program. The Federal Government became the nation’s largest purchaser of food products.
    Overall, agricultural production increased nationally by 17% from 1940 to 1944, despite a steep decline in the number of farm workers. In Talbot County, many farmers were slow to mechanize their operations until the late 1930s. Wartime demand encouraged them to participate in the so-called “second American agricultural revolution.” In 1945, as the war neared its end, an Easton newspaper writer acknowledged, “We should not overlook the part the farmer played in winning the war. No army can fight on an empty stomach, and this present war saw our servicemen and women the best fed army in the world—thanks to the farmer.”
    In addition to Talbot County farmers, the War Food Administration recognized the contribution of local canneries and the Navy presented the Oxford Boatyard with an award of excellence for constructing 126 boats and repairing seventy-one others.
Finally, in Talbot and across the Eastern Shore, individual citizens willingly sacrificed for the war effort. They purchased war bonds that both helped finance the war and reduced inflationary pressure. They accepted rationing and a reduced speed limit of 40 MPH to save wear on tires. They planted vegetables in Victory Gardens because “food is just as vital in winning the war as bombs.” They collected kitchen fat and scrap paper. Telephone users agreed to “win the war by talking less,” thereby keeping lines of communication open, and Rotarians volunteered to assist farmers by picking tomatoes. In dozens of ordinary ways every day, Eastern Shore people contributed to the war effort. They proved what historian Marilyn M. Harper asserted in a recent National Park Service report on World War II and the American Home Front (2007). She observed, “Most historians agree that World War II was won as surely on the American home front as it was on the battlefield.”
    The Historical Society of Talbot County is currently planning an exhibit on World War II, covering both service in the military and the home front. Curator Beth Hansen is now locating images and artifacts to be loaned for use in the exhibit. She can be contacted at (410) 822-0773 or via e-mail at curator@hstc.org.