Shortly after news of Pearl Harbor reached Chicago, Army Pvt. John Landers walked into the Warren Avenue police station and told the cops he'd gone AWOL from a base in Texas 13 days earlier. The 20-year-old had intended to the see the sights of the big city, the Tribune reported. But the news on Dec. 7, 1941, changed his mind.
"Things are different now," Landers said. "I want to go back and do my part."
Indeed, they were, though few could have foreseen the magnitude. As World War II was ending in August 1945, Marion Dunlevy, who lived on South Lavergne Avenue, sent her GI brother a letter catching him up on changes on the homefront.
"Dear Al, Welcome home … to the land of red stamps and blue stamps, sugar stamps and shoe stamps. The land of cigarette lines, meat lines and soap flakes lines. Where all females go stockingless. Where every other day is meatless."
The letter, which continues with complaints about bakeries picked clean and about having just two diapers a day per baby — a facetious refrain of "oh happy land!" following each affront — doesn't quite square with the rosier image of a nation eagerly sacrificing to give our boys a fighting chance, but the rant is also a lot more human. Yes, Americans came together for the common cause, but that doesn't mean it was a cakewalk, that life wasn't often very difficult, that sometimes you didn't have to blow off some steam. Dunlevy signed off, "Welcome home & join in the fun! We love it and so will you!"
Seven decades ago, Chicagoans were two years into a war that, while still looking like it could go either way, already had changed life dramatically. Women by the droves went to work in defense plants. Consumer goods were scarce and rationed, so many people bought war bonds instead. Even children got into the war effort, buying 25-cent savings stamps and bringing paper and kitchen fat to school during scrap drives. Families waited fearfully for news of loved ones overseas. But first, Chicagoans had to come to grips with a cold, hard fact: The country was at war again.
As Mayor Edward Kelly observed two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Chicagoans were gamely adapting to life on the homefront despite initial moments of panic. "Our worst enemy — hysteria — is already licked," he said in a radio broadcast over WGN. "Let's not be frightened by talk of that bogeyman called blackouts."
Events proved the mayor overly optimistic in suggesting air raid drills might be avoided. On Aug. 13, 1942, the Tribune ran photographs of Chicago's first blackout, with one showing surgeons at Cook County Hospital operating under battery-powered portable lights. The caption noted: "The rest of the hospital was blacked out." So, too, was the city's skyline, as illustrated by a virtually all-black photograph.
By then an army of volunteers stood watch over Chicago, monitoring and hectoring neighbors to cover windows during drills. On one block in the Northwest Side's Albany Park, the Tribune reported: "There are now 12 air raid wardens and four messengers ready to serve the block, with 28 more wardens in training."
Though an air raid was unlikely, given the limited range of World War II-era bombers, the city mounted some spectacular simulations. In April 1943, the Tribune reported: "Three waves of 24 enemy bombers (imaginary) will roar out of the north at 8 o'clock Friday evening. Their objective — the South Chicago steel mill section. The first wave will drop flares and incendiaries, the second, light bombs, and the third — block busters!"
In fact, the "bombs" were paper bags trailing color-coded streamers, but overseas the weaponry was deadly real. Memorial plaques went up on Chicago street corners honoring local GIs. Service flags that hung in front windows had blue stars for families with members in the military. A gold star marked a loved one killed on duty.
On Feb. 22, 1945, under a headline, "Double Gold Star Mother Requests 3rd Son Be Kept in U.S.," the Tribune reported on the distress felt by Mrs. Frank W. Benes, 9344 Ada St.: "The shock from the deaths of two of her sons was so great she did not believe she could survive another."
Memories of the fallen were evoked during the frequent appeals for Chicagoans to buy the government bonds that helped finance the war.
A 1945 rally at State and Madison streets featured Gene Oxley, a boatswain's mate who was blown out of two landing craft on D-Day and was the sole survivor of that second incident during the Normandy invasion.
"Don't let them down — those 36 men who died in the second LST — and the thousands of others who died for you," Oxley told the Loop crowd.
Patriotism was felt even in Chicago's honky-tonk districts, as the Tribune noted with a headline: "Burlesque Row Strips off $40,000 — for War Bonds!" But hospitality for servicemen wasn't limited to the city's tawdry neighborhoods.
More wholesome, nonalcoholic entertainment was offered at USO Centers, including the Auditorium Hotel, where a bowling alley was set up on the stage of the Louis Sullivan-designed theater. Chicago was widely known among servicemen as the place to be on furlough. Paul Hartman, a 17-year-old Kansas farm boy, was among the 1,200 attending a dance at the Chicago Service Men's Center, the night before Pearl Harbor, the draft having started before the war. "Why, everybody's so doggoned friendly," Hartman told a Trib reporter. "Makes you feel all tingly inside."
Of course, not all Chicagoans were as selfless as the volunteers who ran the USOs. A proclivity for gaming the system doesn't disappear in wartime, as witnessed by stories in the Trib's files of citizens defrauding the rationing regulations, the system of red and blue stamps that Dunlevy explained to her brother.
Shortly before she wrote that letter, the feds arrested Thomas Golden, proprietor of a gambling den on Irving Park Road. In his possession, the Tribune noted, were "three million bogus ration points on which the ink was still wet."
The previous year, four Chicago men were charged with possessing fake rationing cards for 2.9 million gallons of gasoline. The allotments for many motorists had recently been slashed to two gallons a week from three.
Yet for every Chicagoan who broke the rules governing scarce commodities, many others collected scrap metal and kitchen fats to be converted into weapons and munitions. Schoolchildren in the 2300 block of Devon Avenue collected 1,000 pounds of rubber bicycle tires, bird cages and baby carts. Victory Gardens, where Chicagoans grew their own vegetables, sprouted on empty lots and golf courses. The Tribune's society columnist saluted the Ambassador Hotel, whose erstwhile flower beds sprouted tomatoes, corn and beans, plus red geraniums planted in a V for victory.
When V-J day came on Aug. 14, 1945, it marked the end in the Pacific fight four months after the conclusion of the European war. When word of Japan's surrender spread through defense plants, Chicagoans who helped win the war went home to celebrate or to church to give thanks: "There were whistle blasts or bells or sudden cheers — and then a confusion of work stoppage and a stream of workers out of every door or gate."
Editor's note: Thanks to Catherine Tardy for sparking this Flashback after discovering the letter from her mother, Marion Dunlevy. To read Marion's letter in her own handwriting, go to chicagotribune.com/flashback.
Coming next week: Readers share their memories of life on the homefront during World War II.Copyright © 2015, CT Now