By Tim Henney
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series by one of our favorite writers, Tim Henney.
The early part of 1942, as noted, was a terrifying time for the United States. To calm down people went to the movies. Between features, Pathe News would show Nazi U boats sinking American ships with impunity. In the first four months of 1942 German subs sank 87 American tankers, troop and warships off our Atlantic coast. The Axis had been building their military might for years, slaughtering millions in Europe, China, Indonesia, a murderous tide. That changed in June at the Battle of Midway in the Pacific. American dive bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers, several cruisers and other warships and crushed the invincible Japanese Navy in the empire’s first naval defeat ever. Two months later (Aug. 7, 1942, my 11th birthday) Marines landed on Guadalcanal. First step on the long, island-hopping battle toward Japan. That bloody jungle fight lasted six months. The Japanese lost 24,000. Some 1,800 U.S. Marines died. (The first book I remember voluntarily reading, post Dick & Jane epics in elementary school, was “Guadalcanal Diary,” published January 1,1943. The author was a Marine veteran of that fight).
At home we 11-year-old patriots sang “Praise the lord and pass the ammunition, praise the lord, we’re on a mighty mission…”. We “transitioned” the lyrics of the seven dwarves song from the 1937 movie, “Snow White,” to “…we’ll slap the Jap right off the map, heigh ho, heigh ho…”. And we lustily sang the songs of our armed forces. Our favorite was the Marines’ “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli … we will fight our country’s battles, on the land and on the sea…”. We listened to Bob Hope on the radio, with sidekick Jerry Colona, sponsored by Pepsodent toothpaste. And to Jack Benny broadcasts, with chauffeur Rochester, singer Dennis Day, wife Mary Livingston and jolly announcer Don Wilson. Under the guise of patriotism, the show’s sponsor, Lucky Strike cigarettes, changed the color of its package from green to white and told us that “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone To War.” Early corporate bullshit. The American Tobacco Company claimed the copper used in the green color was needed for the war effort. Truth was, the company used chromium, not copper, to produce the green. Lucky Strike green went to war because research showed women bought more cigarettes if they were in white packages. Cigarettes, not women.
Nestled hard by the Pacific Ocean, Long Beach was one of those scenic beachfront communities (today indistinguishable from seething Los Angeles) whose Japanese Americans, Nisei, including thousands of produce farmers, were shipped to internment camps. This writer’s grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. T.G. Harriman, in whose home I was reared until 12, employed a Japanese-American gardener named Frank. Another Japanese-American owned a laundry and delivered cleaning on a weekly basis to Margaret, the live-in family cook. He would then conduct long, animated conversations in Japanese over a wall-mounted back porch telephone. Margaret, from Glasgow, knew in her Scottish heart that he was a saboteur, probably passing military secrets to General Hiedki Tojo. I thought so too. Whether he was we never knew. Both Frank the gardener and the laundry owner vanished when FDR authorized the incarceration of nearly 130,000 Japanese Americans who lived on the Pacific Coast, or near it. Many of today’s fat and sassy California opportunists launched their fortunes gobbling up Nisei-abandoned farms and businesses at fire sale prices in 1942.
In those pre-suburb times, malls and big box stores were unheard of. People of all ages shopped and hung out in the downtowns of the nation, Sandpoint included. Just up Pine Avenue from the venerable C.C. Lewis Jewelry Company, my family’s business for some 65 years, were clothing stores, sporting goods stores, shoe stores, drugstores, music stores and the Long Beach Press Telegram. The city’s major churches and department stores were downtown in 1942. The banks were downtown. So were the movie theaters.
Speaking of which — I had a crush on fifth grade classmate Barbara Fawcett. On my first and final “date” until high school, my mom drove Barbara Fawcett and me downtown in her blue 1940 Oldsmobile sedan to the State Theater on Ocean Boulevard. A gentleman wannabe, I let Barbara Fawcett stand in front of me in line. To my horror, when she beat me to the cashier she paid her own 10 cents admission. I spent the movie holding in my sweaty little hand the dime I had planned to spend on her. Too embarrassed to apologize, I don’t think I ever talked to Barbara Fawcett after that early romantic disaster. Although ancillary to the lure of fake SCMA rifles, it was a factor in my leaving Longfellow school to attend the military academy. Oh, my.
There were no turn signals on cars in those primitive times. Drivers stuck arms straight out to turn left, straight up to turn right. Everything from gasoline to butter was rationed. Billboards cautioned citizens that “Loose Lips Sink Ships!” Almost as often as people of a certain vintage today say “awesome,” in early 1942 my buddies and I said, “You’ll be sor-r-r-y” if someone seemed on the brink of a risky decision. Like eating a squishy fig from the backyard tree. The catchphrase had originated on the radio quiz show “Take It Or Leave It” when giddy contestants either chose $32 in winnings or gambled for the life-altering sum of $64 or nothing.
Douglas Aircraft had a massive factory in the new, neighboring city of Lakewood. Bobby Watkins and I spent many afternoons on the brick front steps of my house next door watching freshly minted Douglas transports, bombers and fighters thunder high over our homes. Headed for enemy targets via Air Corps bases in Europe and the Pacific. Dear “Grandma Mary” cultivated a victory garden and grew, among other things, persimmons. She insisted I taste one. It was my first and last persimmon.
Counting all deaths from fighting, famine and disease, some 80 million military and civilians perished in World War II. Total U.S. deaths from the war numbered 419,000. Additionally, 672,000 American military and civilians were wounded. Some 130,200 Americans suffered as Japanese and Nazi prisoners of war.
I’m tempted to say the risks were higher in early 1942 than now, but I’m not sure. We and our allies were battling for our lives. But a key difference between then and today is that in the early 1940s America was united. Thanks in the main to one creepy malcontent, today we’re divided. And he has the keys to the nuclear codes. Irrational and paranoid, if someone insults him he might just punch the button.
So you tell me which is scarier. The months of murderous Axis triumphs following Dec. 7, 1941? Or right here at home today? I’ll opt for the glass half-full. We made it then. We’ll make it now.