Sacrifices & Obligations – Civilian Efforts During WWII

Part of the Historical Society of Easton’s “Easton in the Service” Series.

A few weeks ago, we decided to visit the History Center at the Bridgeport Public Library in an effort to discover some information about a couple of our local WWII veterans that has thus far eluded us. While we were unable to find everything we had been searching for, like all research missions, we discovered a few new pieces of local history that caught our attention and fit nicely into this year’s Easton in the Service theme. Most notably were the sacrifices made and cooperation offered by the civilian population who our men and women in uniform overseas were fighting to protect.

While practically all history is interesting, there are certain aspects of our past that lend themselves to comparison of present-day conflicts and how we as a society go about resolving them.

The war we are fighting today isn’t against the aggression of the Germans or the Japanese. There are no bullets. There are no bombs. There are no torpedoes aimed at sinking our ships. Today, our war is against Covid-19, its staggering economic disruption to the world economy, and its seemingly unending ability to produce variants that make it more difficult to overcome and defeat.

But there are similarities. One that practically jumps off the page when seen in print is the number of deaths. In all of World War II, the United States lost 405,399 people to the ravages of war. 291,577 were attributed to combat deaths, while an additional 113,846 lives were lost in related incidents involving training, transport, sabotage, and enemy bombings of our staging areas in Great Britain and other countries. Compare that to the number of Americans killed by Covid-19 since January of 2020. According to the New York Times, 767,419 as of November 18th! Over 362,000 more U.S. dead than in all of World War II!!!

In both WWII and in today’s war against Covid-19 there was a distinguishable enemy. But during the Second World War, almost all Americans united in fighting that enemy. No sacrifice was too large. One’s political party, ethnicity, religion, or economic status – none of that mattered. The citizens of this country put their political differences aside and fought like hell to defeat their common enemy. To our parents and grandparents, uniting to overcome that enemy was their duty and obligation, not just as U.S. citizens, but as human beings.

None of what our ancestors did during the 1940’s has even come close to happening today in the fight against Covid-19. For some inexplicable reason, many have made a disease that knows no geographical, ethnic, or political boundaries, part of an ideological debate. Too many people have chosen to ignore the wisdom of the only “generals” who can lead us to victory against this disease – the scientists and the medical profession.

Sacrifice a little personal freedom by wearing a mask or lining up to get a vaccine that has been proven to be effective? Far too many people talk about the “rights” of American citizens to do as they please, yet those same folks seem to never mention that our citizens also have “obligations” to their fellow Americans. But throughout our nation’s history, rights and obligations have always gone hand in hand in keeping the country free, safe, and prosperous.

So, with that in mind, let’s look back to the 1940’s and World War Two to see just how much our civilian population was willing to sacrifice to support their fellow Americans and conquer their enemy.

The Office of Price Administration set ceiling prices during WWII for most items that were deemed essential in order to keep inflation low and goods available for the average American family.

On August 28, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8875 and created the Office of Price Administration (OPA). The OPA’s main responsibility was to place a ceiling on prices of most essential goods, and to limit their consumption by rationing their sales. In a society where supply and demand determines prices, temporary supply restraints can easily drive prices so high that the average consumer can no longer afford to purchase the product. By controlling both price and availability of certain necessary goods, the OPA could assure that American citizens could get what they needed at a cost that was not prohibitively expensive. Civilian volunteers were recruited to report both price gouging and unauthorized sales of more products than the board allowed individuals and corporations to purchase. While there was a certain amount of black-market activity in many commodities, aggressive OPA advertising stressing the patriotic obligations of the nation’s citizenry to conserve, kept such activity at a manageable minimum.

When the United States entered the war in December of 1941, the country was responsible for about 60 percent of the world’s oil production. While there was no real shortage of the product, it quickly became evident that moving petroleum products to where they were to be refined or consumed was going to be an ongoing issue. Within the United States, 95 percent of petroleum products were being transported by ocean-going tankers as of early 1942. Ships carried the oil from the Texas Gulf coast region to refiners and distributors in the industrialized Northeastern states. With hostile, torpedo laden German submarines suddenly patrolling the east coast of the Atlantic, the government realized that shipping routes along the eastern seaboard were extremely vulnerable.

Just during the single month of February of 1942, German submarines sank twelve U.S. oil tankers along the east coast. With a shortage of Naval vessels to protect the tankers, the government limited the sea going route to trans-Atlantic crossings to supply U.S. forces in North Africa and Great Britain. That meant that all the required oil for both the Northeast and the war in the European theater coming from Texas had to be transported by trucks and rail to the industrial Northeast. Just the time it would take to produce all those needed extra rail oil tank cars was going to be a logistical nightmare.

On May 15, 1942, gasoline rationing began in 17 Eastern states in an attempt to reduce the limited number of locomotives, tank cars, and trucks needed to move petroleum to that area. By the end of the year, President Roosevelt would put in place mandatory gasoline rationing for all 48 states.

OPA posters like this one were everywhere reminding Americans of their obligations to purchase only what the government allowed.

Ration stickers for gasoline were issued by local boards and pasted to the windshield of an individual or business owned automobile. The type of sticker determined the gasoline allotment for that automobile or truck. A black “A” ration sticker signified non-essential travel and allowed the operator no more than four gallons per week. This was by far the most common sticker issued during the war. Green “B” stickers were issued mainly to businesses that required more fuel, upping the allotment to about eight gallons weekly. Red “C” stickers were for essential workers who also needed more gas to get to and from their places of employment. Those occupations included policemen, nurses, construction workers, and mail carriers, as well as thirteen other job classifications that were considered essential by the OPA. “M” stickers were for motorcycles and were carried in a pouch along with the registration. Motorcycles were considered essential for Air-Raid Wardens and certain postal and telegraph messengers. “T” stickers were issued for trucks and “X” stickers were for those few professions that required unlimited amounts of fuel.

My grandfather at the right with his Bridgeport Hydraulic truck in 1943 wearing its “T” rationing gasoline sticker.

In Easton, there were 554 “A” ration stickers issued and two “M” stickers given out for motorcycles. Stickers and ration books that contained the stamps needed to obtain fuel, coffee, sugar, and other limited commodities were dispensed at the Staples School on Morehouse Road. To obtain a vehicle ration sticker, the owner needed to present the vehicle to have it, as well as the tires on its rims, inspected and registered with the board. No passenger vehicle was allowed more than five tires.

While vehicle owners were encouraged to surrender their spare tire, it wasn’t a requirement. Many photos of that era show cars with no spare tires mounted on either the fenders or the rear. The reason for this wasn’t necessarily that the owner was no longer carrying a spare, but rather that he was then carrying it either in the trunk or the rear passenger compartment where it couldn’t be easily stolen. Tires were also being rationed, but for a different reason.

In the 1940’s most tires were made with natural rubber. After the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of the Dutch East Indies in 1942 cut off the largest global supplier, rubber was one of the first non-food commodities to be rationed. The shortage of rubber affected the availability of products such as tires and shoes. The rationing of gasoline was thought to aid in the conservation of rubber by reducing the number of miles the American public would drive. It helped with the problem, but it didn’t solve it.

In 1941, the toll station on the Merritt Parkway in Greenwich recorded 101,000 vehicles passing through, but by August of 1942, only 32,000 had stopped to pay the ten-cent fare. While Merritt Parkway service stations had been open twenty-four hours a day before the war, they limited their hours during the conflict to only twelve, being open only between 7 AM and 7 PM. In an additional attempt to reduce gasoline and rubber consumption, the government enacted a mandatory wartime speed limit of 35 mph and dubbed it the “Victory Speed.”

Greenwich Toll Plaza on the Merritt Parkway c.1940

Further efforts were practiced to conserve rubber. Shoes were rationed at three pairs per year per citizen, but families were allowed to pool individual coupons in order to purchase additional boots and shoes for members of their household who needed them. Home milk delivery was limited to every other day. Bicycle sales were limited to people who could provide proof of employment, and to students whose parents could supply proof that their child used the bike to get to and from school.

During the war years, rationing boards needed to approve all new tire sales, and the proof of need required owners to produce the worn-out casings of the old tires so that they could be recycled. Even the purchase of tire tubes needed approval of the local rationing board. Due to shortages of natural rubber and the limited amount petroleum that could be transported, recapping-which used far less natural rubber and only about half of the amount of petroleum consumed in producing a new tire- blossomed into a huge business.

1943. Worn out tire casings being made ready to ship via rail in Bridgeport. Mayor Jasper McLevy is standing at the far right.

For a limited period of time after the rationing of rubber began, only essential trucks were allowed to purchase recapped tires. But with the increased production of synthetic rubber that replaced natural rubber in the tire making process, between 1942 and 1944 the recapping industry grew nearly five-fold. While purchases of recapped tires still required approval by the local rationing board, it did increase the number of available replacement tires. In addition, some local businesses offered to regroove worn out tires, thereby extending their life a little longer.

With tires in such short supply, Bridgeport area Firestone dealers offered a unique way of protecting tires from theft. They branded tires with the owner’s initials.

On January 1, 1942, all sales of new cars, including the delivery of cars to customers who had previously entered purchase contracts or placed orders, were frozen by the government’s Office of Production Management (OPM). All civilian automobile production was halted as of February 22, 1942. There were approximately a half-million unsold new vehicles in the hands of the nation’s automobile dealers by the end of February. That supply would need to last until the end of the war. Dealers could hold the vehicles, but sales could only be consummated with customers approved by the local ration boards. This meant that only those operators deemed essential by the government could qualify to purchase a new automobile. The OPA set the ceiling price and dealers were awarded one percent per month of the suggested list price to cover the costs of storage, financing, insurance, and taxes while the vehicle was in their possession. The government also considered rationing used car sales, but in the end, deemed it unnecessary. With the rationing of oil, gasoline, rubber, and new cars sales, it has been estimated that as many as one million civilian automobiles were voluntarily taken off the road and stored for the duration of the war.

Home heating oil was also rationed. Coupons were issued for ten-gallon increments. Many consumers who had recently converted their coal or wood burning furnaces to oil were then encouraged to convert them back to coal. All houses heated with oil needed to be measured – including closets and hallways – and those measurements needed to be tallied and presented to local ration boards to qualify for heating oil allotments.

Sugar was the first food commodity rationed beginning in April of 1942. Limits were a half pound per person per week. That amounted to about fifty percent of the prewar usage. Restaurants, bakeries, ice cream producers, and other commercial users received rations of about seventy percent of their previous consumption.

Only two unused coupons for sugar remain from this 1942 ration book Number One.

In November of 1942, coffee was rationed at one pound for every five weeks for household residents 15-years in age or older. This amounted to about fifty percent of prewar sales. The rationing of coffee was less about the available supply than it was about the dangerous conditions of maritime shipping from Brazil to the United States. German submarines were disrupting supply chains all along the eastern coasts of both North and South America.

By November of 1943, beef, pork, butter, cooking oils, cheese, many commercially processed canned and frozen foods, canned milk, jams, and jellies made from fruit, and several other consumables were also being rationed. In many cases, retailers were actually relieved that the government was sparing them the need to limit sales as dwindling inventories persisted; some of those shortages being quite similar to the ones we are experiencing today with supply chain issues and labor shortages.

Diners such as this one in Bridgeport were often forced to curtail hours as their rations of food products were less than they had been before the war.

If we can learn anything from studying our history, it is that virtually anything is possible to overcome when we band together and work in unison towards a common goal.

We defeated the Axis powers in WWII through a unified sacrifice by both civilians and members of our armed forces.

We also overcame and defeated Polio in the 1950’s. How? By having virtually every child in the country receive a free – relatively untested by today’s standards – vaccine. I remember standing in line with my little classmates waiting to get poked by a needle that seemed much larger than it actually was. There were no parents protesting outside our school, no self-centered politicians looking to make political hay by crowing about American “rights”, no internet saturated with disinformation, and virtually no one refusing to take the shot. We did it because it needed to be done and we did it together as a nation. Within three years, Polio was all but eliminated from the American landscape and the horrors of that crippling and sometimes fatal disease were no longer a major concern for parents of young children.

What are the chances that we’ll be that successful this time around?

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