By 1943 the United States was in the midst of the Second World War. Its soldiers and sailors were spread around the globe and the people at home were banded together in an all-out effort to support our troops in any way they could. Rationing of everything from tires to gasoline, sugar to pork, home heating oil to shoes. If it was vital to the war effort and the economy, it was being doled out on a need basis to avoid shortages and price gouging. Every American was somehow involved in making certain that our men and women in uniform would prevail. That included the nation’s youth.
Today, we live in an age when most parents of high school age students want curriculums and teachers to reflect a certain neutrality towards the mores and politics that their children will soon face in the real world. The thought of adjusting the activities and classroom lessons to prepare teens for military service and sacrifice is more than just a little difficult to conceive as a viable option in today’s world. The indoctrination and preparation that the students of 1943 experienced is first seen as a real eye-opener, and then as one of the many reasons that the United States was so successful in transitioning from peacetime to war during WWII.
Most of what you will learn here comes from a rather detailed report written by the administration of Bassick High School in Bridgeport in the spring of 1944. It lays out exactly how that school prepared their students for the real world they would soon embark upon. Bassick was the high school that most Easton teenagers attended after receiving their elementary education at Samuel Staples on Morehouse Road.
There were eighty-eight male students in the Class of 1945 who would reach the draft age prior to July 1, 1945. Nine would become eligible during the summer of 1944 and twenty-four more would reach the age of 18 before January 1, 1945. Eleven of those young men had already left school and entered the armed forces during the 1943-1944 school year. In addition, five members of the Class of 1946 had also joined the service prior to the end of the 1943-1944 school year.
Some of those young men had seen their educational needs adjusted in order to allow them to complete their studies and graduate prior to the end of their senior year.
In October of 1943, a school survey indicated that four hundred and eleven Bassick students were already employed part-time in factories, stores, restaurants, and other industrial and business concerns throughout Bridgeport and the surrounding towns. By the middle of the school year, nearly all the students who were legally eligible for employment were already working. It became almost impossible to find any Bassick students available to fill the positions that personnel workers of local industries and businesses were telephoning the school for help in supplying.
Every academic department at Bassick saw major changes to its curriculum and all were aimed at better preparing the students for facing the realities of war.
The English Department encouraged students to read books of fiction that included wartime experiences of their characters, as well as real journal accounts of both soldiers and citizens who lived through bombings and the deprivations experienced in war torn countries around the globe.
Magazines and periodicals such as the Reader’s Digest were suggested as reading material that would stimulate classroom discussions on current topics relating to war.
Students were given preparation for writing friendly letters to members of the armed forces, including V-mail – a new form of condensed written communication that greatly reduced the space needed for carrying mail on ships crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to reach the troops on foreign soil. In addition, students were given instruction for filling out forms for both the army and the navy, with careful attention to making certain that the information within would be precise and correct in nature.
Military terms were taught as part of the high school vocabulary curriculum and students were given detailed preparation for taking some of the many written tests that would be required by either the army or the navy. Fifty young men were given specific training for taking the standard A-5, A-12, V-5, and V-12 tests. Eleven female students were given practice for preparing for the tests required to gain admittance to nurses training schools. Forty other students received help for various screening tests for the selective service and eighteen more were given practice for preparing for their SAT’s.
Special training was given in secretarial classes to prepare some of the young women for jobs in the offices of the manufacturers of war supplies.
The Mathematics Department added courses designed to apply principals in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry to solving problems relating to the mechanics, heat, electricity, and shop work that many of the young men and women would face either in the military or in some of the industrial occupations that would provide weapons and armaments to the ongoing war efforts.
Courses were either added or altered to the Science Department that placed emphasis on subjects such as biology health. There, students were trained to interpret blood counts and blood pressure results. They were taught the importance of balanced diets for workers, food preservation methods, and how to administer inoculations.
A new course in physical geography was introduced that included instruction in map making, map reading, and spatial relations. It also included training in reading and producing meteorological maps.
Another course offered training in radio usage and code. Ninety-four young men signed up for it. Twenty-three more learned how to read blue prints.
An aeronautics course was specially developed to meet the needs of the war. It was modeled after the introductory courses of the army and the navy. After the first year of this program, three young men from Bassick were already successfully training in the military learning to fly. A total of twenty-three young men and women opted to take the course during its first year. Four more took an ancillary course for the Civil Air Patrol.
In chemistry, special emphasis was put on the science of combustion with the intent of teaching students how to control fires that result from bombing – including aerial delivery and ground level sabotage. The needs of salvaging and reclaiming tin from cans and toothpaste tubes was taught. The conservation and saving of fats and grease from cooking was also explained and practiced.
The History Department added classes that taught more world history in an attempt to prepare students for a post-war world where countries were going to need to better understand one another in an effort to avoid future conflicts. Studies involving China and Pan-America were expanded.
The importance of rationing – its methods and purpose – was taught as part of the school’s Problems of American Democracy classes. Those studies also included strategic military and political events of the recent past in an effort to teach students the rational behind the current events of the day.
Almost amazingly, Spanish was introduced as a foreign language for the first time in the history of the Bridgeport school system. It was added to French, German, and Latin. Spanish was considered important in solidifying recent stronger alliances with Mexico and South American nations.
The Home Economics Department saw major additions to its curriculum. The importance of training young women for their increasing roles in the workplace was still in its infancy in 1943, but educators did recognize how women could help the war effort through their traditional roles as wives and homemakers.
Conservation was emphasized in cooking classes. Rationing of certain food items, re-use of cooking oils and fat, conserving heat and power were all taught and practiced.
A “Pack-a-Lunch” campaign was introduced, and every girl in the school was instructed on how to prepare balanced meals using non-rationed foods as substitutes for the traditional ingredients that were then in short supply.
Cookies made with sugar substitutes were baked and then sent to men in the armed services as part of a Christmas project.
Nutrition and canteen classes were taught by instructors of the Home Economics Department.
Young women in some of the home economics classes at Bassick made men’s bed jackets for convalescing soldiers, volunteered their services for Red Cross work, worked as assistants at local draft boards, and as messengers in local hospitals. Some made doughnuts for the local U.S.O. lounge.
The Industrial Arts Department increased its emphasis on shop fundamentals that factory workers would require. Teams of young men worked together to construct six working models of aircraft that would be sent to the army air corps for training purposes. Building a working model aircraft allowed the students the opportunity to learn some of the basic aeronautical principles involved in flight.
The school’s guidance counselors provided a total of five hundred and seventy-nine young men with information regarding military induction and civilian preparation for war activities.
There were also multiple extra-curricular activities at Bassick that were intended to aid in the war effort.
The Student League collected approximately ten tons of paper during the 1944 Paper Salvage Drive. During the year, their members also helped in several metal salvage drives in the community.
The Bassick Student Council not only promoted the purchase of War Stamps and War Bonds, but through its war committee, it prepared and maintained a War Bulletin Board with displays that honored young Bassick men and women who were then serving in the armed services.
The Leaders of American Welfare not only raised money for the war effort, but also volunteered to make sweaters for the Red Cross, provided volunteers to work at local draft boards and rationing boards, and sent students to work at the Community Chest for the United War Fund. Some worked at the Emergency Fuel Board, while others collected metal and made surgical dressings for the Red Cross. Still others volunteered to check ceiling prices at retail stores and did typing for the Fifth War Loan Drive.
The school newspaper, The Bassick Voice, published six issues with editorials and articles that stimulated the purchasing of War Stamps and War Bonds.
The National Honor Society sent boxes of useful articles and food to the young men of the class of 1944 who had left school early to serve in the military.
The Emergency Nursing Group trained thirty-seven of its members in the elementary techniques of nursing that would enable the young women to render emergency service in hospitals and at home. The students purchased their own uniforms and upon receiving their Emergency Nursing Certificates, twenty-three young women volunteered for service in area hospitals to care for the sick.
A pre-induction swimming course was offered at the Y.M.C.A. where one hundred and forty-four young men from Bassick participated. A course in advanced physical fitness that prepared young men for the rigors of basic training attracted a total of two hundred and eighty-one students.
There were a total of thirteen schoolwide assembly programs that featured speakers and a variety of films and newsreels about America’s war efforts.
Bassick was but one high school in America. The same scenario was repeated in hundreds of communities across the country. The country was unified, and its educational institutions trained their students to contribute while still in school and then to continue to serve their country after graduation.
While it seems extremely doubtful that this could happen in today’s world, one should remember that America was deeply divided about getting involved in WWII heading into the 1940’s. America had established a rather strong policy of isolationism during the 1930’s. Congress had passed several pieces of legislation commonly referred to as Neutrality Acts that were meant to prevent future involvement in foreign wars by banning American citizens and corporations from trading with nations at war, traveling on their ships, or loaning them money.
The America First Committee was established in the 1930’s to promote isolationism. Well known personalities such as Charles Lindbergh and the popular radio priest Father Charles Coughlin became some of the Committee’s most ardent spokespersons. Lindbergh spoke at Committee sponsored rallies where he declared that the United States should only defend itself against nations that attempted to directly interfere in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. He argued that American soldiers should not be obligated to “fight everybody in the world who prefers some other system of life to ours.” American involvement in the ongoing war in Western Europe was not an American affair according to Lindbergh.
In January of 1941, one nationwide poll found that well over eighty percent of American population was against the idea of declaring war against Germany and her allies in ongoing European conflict. As late as June, only about thirty-five percent of country’s populace believed the United States should risk going to war to help Great Britain survive the onslaught of German bombs raining down on English cities.
Had it not been for the German occupation of France that summer and Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, the United States may have hesitated too long to have prevailed in that war.
So, why we may feel that America’s current divisions may be destroying us, if we study our history, we may be underestimating our ability to somehow come together in a true time of need.