Life Goes On

Posted on February 10, 2014


Not too long ago I was looking at newspapers from 1942.

As I read the front pages of some newspapers, like the New York Times, Atlanta Constitution, etc., I expected the news of the war to trump everything else. After all, the greatest generation was at war, the world was at war, and the very existence of this nation as a free nation was at stake. Just look at the Military Channel for a while. World War II, now in color, does indeed trump everything else.

A blurb from a new book by the University of Georgia Press underscores the immense importance of the war in everyone’s life:

“During World War II, the millions of letters American servicemen exchanged with their wives and sweethearts were a lifeline, a vital way of sustaining morale on both fronts. Intimate and poignant, Miss You offers a rich selection from the correspondence of one such couple, revealing their longings, affection, hopes, and fears and affording a privileged look at how ordinary people lived through the upheavals of the last century’s greatest conflict.”

So, when I found the front page of the New York Times for February 10, 1942—a date related to a project I’m working on—I was astounded to find news of the war playing second fiddle to a fire that destroyed the great ocean liner Normandie tied up at the 48th Street Pier in Manhattan. The ship was still smoking, listing heavily, and I thought, “wow, German saboteurs at work, the war splashing the front page,” just like I figured it would.

Alas, some welder set off a fire among mattresses piled in the bowels of the ship with his torch, the fire spread rapidly, and the Normandie, one of the magnificent transatlantic liners—renamed the USS Lafayette to serve as a troop transport during the war—capsized and was destroyed. A picture of the listing, smoking giant almost took the whole top third page of the Times.

I skimmed along the top of the page to the left, expecting, of course, war news. In the first article, on the top of the page, the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was in a cat fight with the House of Representatives to preserve funds for the arts, dance, and theater in a $100 million appropriations bill for national civil defense. The House said nothing will be appropriated for such “frivolous” activities. They even refused to reimburse the Treasury $80,000 for a Donald Duck cartoon to lift the morale of wartime taxpayers.

“Not a buck for Donald Duck,” championed the bill’s supporters.

Well, I thought, that was kind of wartime news. Not a buck for the duck. I bet news like that didn’t make it into the comparable newspapers in Berlin or Tokyo.

As I studied the front page, it became evident that while life went on in America, with ducks, the First Lady squabbling with congressmen, and fire fighters on Pier Forty Eight, the war was actually not too distant or too remote.

A long column described the advancing Japanese attacks on British Singapore. The old European empires were under assault as the Japanese drove to take some of the major sources of rubber and oil in the Pacific. Meanwhile the German Afrika Corps was driving the British back towards Egypt and the vital Suez Canal.

A two column article, The War Summarized, gave a rundown on the global war, including the titanic struggle between the Germans and Russians on the eastern front. Both Russians and Germans claimed victories in various battles.

The only son of General John J. Pershing, the leader of the U. S. Expeditionary Force in Europe in the First World War, enlisted as a private and was sent to Fort Belvoir. A broker on Wall Street, married and with one child, he asked that no publicity be attached to his enlistment.

The war did, in fact, really occupy a lot of space, although politics, as usual, had its place: Governor Thomas E. Dewey decided to run again for governor, while New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia intended to establish a regiment of volunteers to be known as the City Guard. Republican Governor Dewey’s administration told Democratic Mayor La Guardia to junk that idea on how best to defend New York City.

So life went on, even during the most widespread and significant war in the modern era.

The monumental task of defeating the Axis powers had not been visited on the American people yet. I suspect most, like Francis Warren Pershing and millions of other American men and women, only vaguely knew what lay ahead as he left his wife and small child behind. But he did know his freedom and the liberty of his country was at stake. That was worth the ultimate sacrifice.

Published in my column, The Port Rail, The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Feb. 9, 2014 as Life Muddles on Even as History is Made.