Although the battles of World War II were primarily fought in countries far from American soil, the war was still here in the minds, behaviors, and actions of nearly every American. As soldiers rushed overseas to join the war efforts, children watched the America they had come to know change before their very eyes.
During the infamous Great Depression, job opportunities were scarce and rare; however, with a high demand for supplies and soldiers for the war, new jobs began sprouting up, giving employment to virtually anyone ready and able to work. While this economic surge may seem completely beneficial to children, this was not necessarily the case. Woman began entering the workforce at astonishing rates, leaving their young children and babies home alone during the work day or night. These young children unable to fend for themselves were found starving and weak in their homes, abandoned and neglected. Newspapers during this time period coined the term “Eight-Hour Orphans” to describe these neglected children (Mintz, S., & McNeil, S). Because of this surge of abandonment and child neglect, the foster system was now crowded with children, having more children than suitable homes to place them in for the first time in history (Mintz, Kellogg). However, leaving a child all alone during the day was not the only option working parents could choose. Daycare facilities offered childcare for children over the age of two, for a drastic price. Not only was daycare a costly option, it was another neglectful issue as well. Facilities became overcrowded with children and ill-equipped to suit basic needs; one small center in particular cared for eighty preschool-aged children with only one bathroom (Mintz, Kellogg).
The result of job opportunities did not always mean the child would stay home alone or in a daycare facility; children began joining the workforce in factories, farms or other businesses. Child labor was a concept that business overs took advantage of for several reasons. For starters, children were more susceptible to verbal and physical abuse and threats, making them more willing and complying to complete a dangerous job an adult refused (The Source: Child Labor). If a machine was experiencing technical problems, small children could easily squeeze into the tight spaces to fix the issue, as well as go deeper into the tighter spaces within mines. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, children received much less pay than their adult coworkers. Multiple children could work for the cost of hiring just one adult worker, which encouraged business owners to hire children that would work extremely long hours for only a small wage (The Source: Child Labor). The results of these new job opportunities for children were extreme. With an underestimated account of 1.75 million children working 16 hour days, attendance in schools plummeted while illiteracy skyrocketed (The Source: Child Labor). 25% of children under the age of fifteen, half of which were under the age of twelve, found themselves choosing a dangerous job over a plentiful education (The Source: Child Labor). Not only were children mentally facing harm, but physical harm was prevalent as well. In one instance, a sixteen year old boy lost an arm while working in a factory, and a fifteen year old child died a brutal death from burns (Mintz, Kellogg).
Besides joining the workforce, several changes were seen within teenage culture. Before the war, teens were expected to follow in the footsteps as their parents, portraying similar values. However, this time period produced a new culture, filled with new clothes, dances, movies, activities, and hairstyles for teenagers across America. As Archie Satterfield, a WWII teen, remembers this era by writing:
“Gasoline was the biggest problem for a teen ager. We still had cars, and gasoline was our biggest worry of all the rationing. We’d always pick up our dates in sequence when we had gas, and you might end up not taking your date home if it would save gas for you to be dropped off first. You’d kiss your date goodnight in front of your house, not hers. Some guys you didn’t trust very much, and you wondered if they might not be kissing your girl also, because they would drop their date before yours. ” (Mintz, McNeil)
This brings to light another issue faced within teens: “social disease”, or venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea. Delinquency became apparent in girls of younger ages with the emergence of “Victory Girls” (Smith). These girls began getting involved with soldiers, thought to be because of teens now living primarily alone because of both parents working. Because of the lack of foster homes, teenagers began living on the streets or in bad conditions, leading to more delinquency within this population.
Even though actual battles and war were not seen in the United States besides Hawaii, the war was still here. An enthusiastic President Roosevelt wrote a message to the Official Boy and Girl Scouts of America, encouraging children to recycle scrap, metal, and rubber; children were also encouraged to plant their own victory gardens to help with the war effort (Mintz, McNeil). Several children jumped at the opportunity to make a difference, such as Dick Clark, fourteen years old at the time of the war, who planted a victory garden with the help of his family (Mintz, McNeil). Children also could show their patriotism by joining the Civil Air Patrol for kids. By becoming a part of this group, children were expected to give those in uniforms hot coffee and their upmost respect. These children, as they carried around wooden guns to drill with, also were taught Morse code and learned about different types of aircraft to look out for (Mintz, McNeil). However, patriotism was spread throughout children through more subliminal methods. Young children were familiar with a popular wartime rhyme:
Whistle while you work,
Hitler is a jerk,
Mussolini is a weenie,
And Tojo is a jerk. (Mintz, McNeil)
These patriotic rhymes, movies, and radio information created a wild imagination within children, and combat became a game. Because not many toys were made because of materials needed for war, imagination became the main component of play. Sheril Janovsky Cunning, a child during this time, would play war themed games with her sister by making hideouts during a pretend air ride and pretending they had to find shelter and food like the starving orphans in Europe (Mintz, McNeil). Although there was a lack of toys produced during the war, toys produced were inspired by the war. Toy soldiers, patriotic puzzles, and paper dolls sporting World War II fashions were distributed not only through American, but through countries such as Britain and Germany as well (Baugh).
Sadly, several children did not have the opportunities to go to school or play with toys during this time period. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were looked upon with much suspicion forced into internment camps. Young Grace Nakamura remembers her experience as her family was forced to uproot their home. This family was put on a crowded train filled with elderly, babies, toddlers, and sick people on stretchers. The shades were drawn and escorted by a police car as this population of people were sent to the internment camps (Mintz, McNeil). Because the conditions of the camps were poor, the school systems within the camps were far from effective. The schools were generally cold, as preparatory measures to insulate the schools during winter months were poor. A lack of supplies, such as books, chairs, desks, and educated teachers, provided a shoddy education for these American children. One child recalls learning a year’s worth of lessons in just one week due to the lack of materials needed to study the subjects in depth (Mintz, McNeil). However, this tragedy did not cause each of these Japanese-American children to give up hope; sixteen year old Helen Murao, an orphan caring for her two younger brothers, stands strong in herself and her hope, strongly claiming, “I’m going to prevail, my will is going to prevail, my own life will prevail” (Mintz, McNeil).
Even if a parent did come home from war, the children forgot the parent that had left them years before. Deborah Gorham, at the tender age of four and a half, watched as her wonderful, “flawless” father left their home and became a soldier in the war. However, after two years passed by, a different man returns. As Deborah Gorham remembers about her father’s homecoming: “He returned as a deeply troubled, angry man. And he remembered an exuberant 5 year-old, not a shy, gangly 7 year-old” (Mintz, McNeil).
In conclusion, whether by becoming young patriots, growing up fast, orphaned, a loss of a parent, or a loss of their own life due to working, poor care, or internment, children everywhere across American were affected by World War II. Although their country was seemingly untouched by this war, children watched as America drastically changed because of this tragedy.
Baugh, Alex. “Toys Go To War: World War II Military Toys, Games, Puzzles and Books by Jack Matthews.” The Children’s War. N.p., 31 May 2012. Web. 2 Mar 2014.
Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press, 151-175. Web.
Mintz, S., & McNeil, S. (2013). Documents World War II. Digital History. Retrieved 2 March 2014 from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraID=15&smtID=3
Smith, C. Calvin. “Diluting an Institution: The Social Impact of World War II on the Arkansas Family.”Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 39.01 (1980): 21-34. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
“The Source: Child Labor.” Eastern Illinois University. 2012. Web. 2 Mar 2014.
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