World War II: Iowans on the Home Front
While the actual battles of World War II took place thousands of miles away, the war was felt at home in Iowa. Few families were untouched by the war. Iowans worked in war industries, displayed flags, collected recycled materials and kept watch for spies in their midst. And newspapers and radio programs helped bring the far away places of war into Iowa homes.
Iowans Show Support
During World War II the people of Iowa took very seriously their support of the armed forces. The men, women and children who were left to carry on the routine tasks of living showed their support in many ways. Some worked in factories that produced war materials. Iowans worked in the Army Ordnance Plant near Burlington, in the converted John Deere factory in Ankeny, at Solar Aircraft in Des Moines, and many other manufacturing establishments.
One of the familiar sights in Iowa homes was a flag hanging in the front window. The flag contained a blue star for every man or woman from that household serving on active duty in the armed forces. A flag contained a gold star for every man or woman who was killed on active duty. The Sullivan family of Waterloo had a flag that contained five gold stars, representing the deaths of their five sons when the cruiser Juneau was sunk in the Pacific. That was the most gold stars on any flag in any window in the nation. Most Iowans considered it a mark of pride when their sons and daughters served in the armed forces.
Kids Help the War Effort
School children participated in the war effort. Historians aren’t sure whether or not the activities were actually helpful to the war effort. Some believe that the government encouraged these activities in an attempt to convince the civilian population that they could do something useful. But, at the time, children in Iowa took their contributions to the war effort very seriously.
They were encouraged to gather milk weed floss in mesh bags and turn them in to collection centers. The floss was used to stuff life jackets for people in the armed forces. The typical stuffing was kapok, but the enemy—Japan—controlled areas in the world that usually supplied the material.
School children also held drives to collect paper and scrap metal. In the scrap metal drives copper, iron and aluminum were collected and recycled in the production of war materials. Children even collected the tin foil from cigarette and gum packages.
Children also were encouraged to make scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about the war fronts and make reports in school about successes. They were encouraged to bring a dime to school each Monday morning to purchase a "war savings stamp." These were pasted in booklets issued by the United States treasury department. When $17.50 was saved, the war savings stamp booklets could be exchanged for “war savings bonds." The bonds would later be worth $25. Most children helped with the fundraising. It was common for classmates to pressure one another to contribute.
Aiding the War Effort
War bond drives were held for adults too. Goals were set for towns or counties. There was great excitement when a community met or passed its goal. Adults and children, whether they lived in urban areas or rural areas, participated in "black out" drills. Heavy drapes or blinds were placed over all windows in houses. When the drill was in effect, no light was supposed to shine outside the house. There were neighborhood wardens who went around checking that windows were completely blacked out. All of this was to prevent the enemy from attacking targets from the air. Many people believed their activities in Iowa helped the war effort in far away lands.
The phrase "war effort" was used to get people to follow the government’s suggestions. No one wanted to be called unpatriotic. Although America was at war with Germany again as in World War I, there was much less of the anti-German persecution than had occoured in Iowa during World War I. Though there were very few Japanese residents in Iowa at the time, making racist remarks about Japanese people—an enemy in World War II—was common.
There were many patriotic songs from World War II that caused people to swell with pride. Such songs as "Comin' In On a Wing and a Prayer," "Johnny Got a Zero," "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," and others were sung around the pianos in many parlors in Iowa from 1942 through 1945.
A lesser known part of the war effort was the expectation that everyone would be on the lookout for foreign spies. Espionage was not likely to be much of a problem in many parts of Iowa. But where there were factories or major transportation routes, real dangers were possible. People were on the lookout for what was called "5th column" activity. That was any act or speech which would interrupt war bond drives, recruiting drives for volunteer troops, or other activities being conducted for the war effort.
Hoarding of rationed products and selling of rationed products on the "black market" were two activities that caused many Iowans to get angry. Anyone found guilty of such activities was shunned, reported to the authorities, and sometimes subjected to violence. Iowans were proud of their efforts to support the government and the troops; they didn’t have much tolerance for anyone who they perceived as interfering with the war effort.
Newspapers in Iowa regularly reported on the battles in Europe and the Pacific. They printed maps of areas that many Iowans had never heard of. Names of little-known places became household words. Few Iowans knew about Tobruk, Anzio, Monte Cassino, Remagen or St-Lo before the war. Even fewer Iowans knew about Guadalcanal, Enewetak Atolls or Kwajalein Atolls. But Iowans avidly listened to radio news, read newspaper reports, bought atlases of the theaters of operation, and tried to keep up with where young men and women from the neighborhood were fighting. Letters from people in the armed forces were eagerly received and read, and often passed around. Even though the letters were censored, news of the well-being of a friend or relative was a welcome event.
With a world war raging in faraway lands, Iowans followed events in those distant places. Their lives were affected in many ways by actions that took place in remote areas of the world. While the war tore many lives apart, many who stayed behind in Iowa were drawn together to support the war effort.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Loren Horton.