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.

On duty, he would use one of the tower telephones to call the operator with an "Army flash" whenever he saw aircraft. Taylor would describe what he'd spotted, its location and direction. The thrill wore off after a while: "You knew you were never going to see a German airplane." But he never regretted the hours spent up there. Still doesn't.

"It was to help the country," he said recently from his home in Falls Church.

Cassell, now retired and a resident of Hagerstown, Md., voiced a parallel sentiment: "Everybody was for the war in those days."

Goading them on were the lopsided newsreels playing at movie theaters from coast to coast. In Keystone, W.Va., Cassell and his friends went and cheered and talked nonstop about killing the Germans and the Japanese. They searched for dregs of copper and iron along the railroad tracks. The trains riding those tracks, loaded with troops and armament, came through town morning, noon and night, and the soldiers always grinned back at the youngsters shouting "Good luck!" and "Hooray!"

People learned to do without, not always voluntarily. In May 1942, compulsory sugar rationing began. Appeals to conserve gasoline failed despite such slogans as "Should brave men die so you can drive?" and by September, national gasoline rationing restricted most Americans to three gallons a week. Limits on tires, meat, coffee, nylons and shoes were imposed. Most conveniences of modern-day living simply stopped being made.

Nancy Hall, then 5 years old, recalls mixing the little packet of orange coloring into the white, oozy oleo that was supposed to pass for butter. As the shortage of foodstuffs grew, she became adept at racing down the neighborhood A&P's aisles in Northwest Washington for needed items.

"For some reason, I remember the soap," said Hall, an Arlington resident. "Word got out that they were expecting a shipment of Rinso or Duz. The housewives would actually gather outside the store, and then the doors would open and you'd go. Because I was little, I could charge through." Her mother dubbed her "the supermarket sprinter."

Fashion was dramatically altered. To save material for the millions of uniforms needed for soldiers, the government demanded "victory suits," which lopped off men's trouser cuffs and narrowed their jacket lapels. Pleated skirts were banned, and hemlines climbed with official approval.

But when Uncle Sam asked women to help conserve rubber by going without their girdles, an outcry ensued. Another Pulitzer-honored account, "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, explained how the bureaucrats backed down. "The War Production Board announced that foundation garments were an essential part of a woman's wardrobe and as such could continue to be manufactured despite the precious rubber involved!"

Throughout those years, Madison Avenue met no consumer good that it couldn't link to the fighting. "Rich in victory vitamin C!" touted an ad for Florida grapefruit juice. A promotion for Palmolive soap showed a young woman pining for her man in battle. "I pledge myself to guard every bit of beauty that he cherishes in me," she vowed.

Government and industry marched together to sell the war effort. Their ubiquitous, inescapable message reinforced the role that every American needed to play -- and, quite intentionally after a decade of ugly labor strife, impressed upon workers that they were "production soldiers." Duty meant giving nothing less than 100 percent.

Perhaps the most stunning propaganda success: Having spent most of the Depression discouraging women from seeking employment, the government now encouraged millions to enter the workforce for the first time. "The more women at work, the sooner we win!" it declared. A dire labor shortage actually left leaders no choice.

Middle-class matrons answered the call along with sheltered ingenues, some becoming riveters like the iconic Rosie. The 21-year-old Bergan -- now June Bergan Brooker of Falls Church -- traced drafting plans for P-40 fighters in the Curtiss-Wright plant outside of Buffalo. In September 1942, she was waiting for her carpool ride home when a terrific explosion shattered the afternoon. A test pilot had bailed out of one of the P-40s, and the plane had "come home to its birthplace, crashing into the assembly line where it had been made."

Twelve charred bodies were carried out of the factory. But the next day, everyone was back on the job.

"We came back to work, yes," Brooker recalled. "It was wartime, and that was drilled into us."

The United States briefly experienced this kind of home-front unity in the first weeks and months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The casualties of World War II were signified with gold stars in their families' windows; those killed on 9/11 became the faces on T-shirts and fliers and buttons. Once there had been nationwide calls for used pots and pans, for salvage cloth, for old tires; now, tens of thousands of people spontaneously stepped up to donate blood and money.

Then the moment passed, the spirit fractured.

If there is now an aura about those days more than a half-century ago, much of it comes from those memories of common purpose.

"It's part of the nostalgia," said Harry R. Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. "We'd love to feel united and fighting for a common goal."

Tomorrow: Combat in a wintry German forest.

As a teenager during World War II, Cuyler Taylor was a lookout for enemy planes over the Falls Church area. Taylor recalls spending Saturday mornings studying planes' silhouettes.From tin cans to grease, everyday items were recycled for war-related production.June Bergan Brooker of Falls Church traced drafting plans for P-40 fighters at the Curtiss-Wright plant outside of Buffalo, pictured at top.