Home Front's Call to Duty
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page C01
First of five articles
They all were soldiers, every last one of them, essential combatants in America's great struggle to save democracy.
They were children like John Cassell, growing up hard beside the tracks in West Virginia coal country, who'd holler and wave from his front porch as the troop trains passed on their way to Norfolk. Teenagers like Cuyler Taylor, who stood watch every Monday night on a wooden tower in Falls Church, scouring the horizon for sign of an imminent Nazi attack.
Their ranks included young women like June Bergan, drafting "tracer-ette" in the engineering department of an Upstate New York airplane plant, and even married women like Marie Tsucalas, a mother with two little ones and a husband in uniform in England. She took a bus and trolley to Red Cross headquarters in downtown Washington to roll bandages for the wounded overseas.
"The patriotism was so strong," said Tsucalas, now 88, a widow and great-grandmother in Silver Spring. "We lived to defeat [the enemy], to make the world right. . . . It was everything."
As the nation looks ahead to next weekend's long-awaited dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall -- an eternal salute to the 16 million men and women who served -- many also are looking back with nostalgia, recalling a time when the mission on the front seemed so clear, the response so complete.
"In many ways, World War II was the last total war this country fought, and it is likely to be the last," said Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy, who details the American experience in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Freedom From Fear."
It is hard for those born after 1945 to understand how profoundly life was affected during those years, and not just because nearly one in five families at the time had a loved one in the military. The mobilization at home entailed sacrifice and hardship. Both have been exaggerated in the intervening decades -- "we as a society were almost completely exempted from the deep destruction visited upon all other people," Kennedy noted -- but there was indeed a significant day-to-day impact, especially as calls for voluntary cutbacks gave way to mandatory rationing.
For the families of the 405,399 ultimately killed, there was also heartbreaking loss.
Yet coming on the heels of the Great Depression, when millions could find no work and a terrible malaise gripped the land, the war shook the United States out of its lethargy and put it on the move physically, emotionally, socially and, above all, economically. It infused towns from Maine to California with an energy that was powerful and transforming.
In big cities, factories that previously turned out gleaming automobiles or appliances operated on triple shifts to make airplane engines, troop carriers, tanks, bombers and guns. Smaller communities were staging grounds, too, with barrels placed in town halls to collect all size and manner of metal for the cause and "victory gardens" planted in the yards of every house. The materiel produced there were not torpedoes and grenades but tomatoes and green beans.
Even the youngest citizens were mustered for the domestic campaign. Boys and girls enthusiastically brought dimes and quarters to school to buy stamps that would collectively purchase war bonds. They argued over who would get to crush the tin cans being contributed for the latest scrap drive and proudly delivered their mothers' bacon grease to be recycled for the future manufacture of explosives.
Blackout drills took place regularly, signaled by blasts of the local air-raid siren. Families gathered in their "refuge rooms" -- windows covered by dark, heavy curtains or shades -- and waited for their neighborhood air-raid warden to make his rounds looking for escaped shafts of light.
From his perch high atop Seven Corners -- the spot now occupied by the Koons Ford dealership -- Taylor teamed with his father to help keep Washington's skies safe. The pair was part of the Air Warning Service; Saturday mornings, the 13-year-old studied at American Legion Post 130 so that he could identify any enemy plane by its silhouette.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company