As the United States began to emerge from the nightmare of The Great Depression, the start of World War II brought about a whole new set of obstacles. The rationing of gasoline, sugar, butter and among other things, meat, restricted the lives of every American, every day. Despite the massive challenges of fighting wars on two fronts, and then another one in Korea, the United States emerged as an undisputed world superpower. The men and women who made that happen through their hard work, loyalty and sacrifices are truly deserving of the moniker “the greatest generation.”
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Looking back 75 years to 1941 when America entered World War II, it is difficult to grasp the sense of peril that gripped the nation and our allies as totalitarian dictatorships ruled much of the world. Freedom and democracy were threatened.
Beginning in 1929, the Great Depression ground on into the late-1930s and many Americans doubted that our capitalistic and democratic institutions could bring about economic recovery. Political extremists attracted large followings: demagoguery filled the radio airwaves.
JEFFREY GRESSLER: World War II: Democracy on the ropes
The autocratic Louisiana Governor Huey “Kingfish” Long’s “Share the Wealth” program, Father Charles Coughlin’s (the Radio Priest) fascist scapegoating of Jewish businessman as the cause of the Great Depression and Dr. Francis Townsend’s impossible to deliver large government pensions for the elderly all had their followers. If FDR’s democratic New Deal programs failed, no one could predict the outcome. Fascism and socialism appealed to many.
Most Americans watched with concerned detachment as Germany, Italy and Japan became totalitarian states in the 1930s. These concerns intensified in the late 1930s as Nazi Germany invaded Austria, Czechoslovakia and then Poland in 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany and then German troops blitzkrieged through Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in 1940. FDR was re-elected to an unprecedented third term as Americans wanted experienced hands on the controls in such perilous times.
By 1940 England was the only European democracy still standing. Congress established America’s first peacetime draft and FDR started supplying our allies with munitions to defend themselves against German aggression. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Day of Infamy, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America was dragged into WWII.
Life would never be the same for the 1,688 men and 69 women from Little Falls who served during WWII. Sadly, 43 men and one woman were killed; another 131 local boys were wounded in action. By 1945, some 12.5 million Americans were in the Armed Forces. Around 292,000 Americans died in WWII and around 30,000,000 total deaths resulted from the war.
From America’s perspective, WWII was almost like two separate wars, in Europe and North Africa against Germany and Italy, and in the Pacific against Japan. The three totalitarian dictatorships formed the Triple Axis and democracy teetered. The first two years of war did not go well for America and our allies.
In 1943, the tide of WWII began to turn as the Allies assumed the offensive. Nazi troops surrendered in North Africa and the Allies invaded Italy, liberating the Italian people from Mussolini’s iron dictatorial grip.
Life on the home front changed dramatically. America’s success in WWII depended almost as much on the work of civilians as on our military forces. Factory production boomed, tanks, planes, bombs and bullets rolled off the nation’s assembly lines. America became “the arsenal of democracy.” As young men went off to war, “Rosie the Riveter” women filled the labor force. Americans on the home front lived with rationing, blackouts and the dread of receiving news that a loved one serving in the Armed Forces had been injured or killed.
June 6, 1944 brought our D-Day invasion of France and in August Paris was liberated from Nazi control and then Allied forces invaded Germany itself. The late 1944 Battle of the Bulge was the last German offensive, in April Hitler committed suicide and on May 7, 1945 Germany surrendered unconditionally. Two totalitarian dictatorships had been defeated, only Japan remained unconquered.
On Aug. 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and on Aug. 9, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On Sept. 2 Japan surrendered unconditionally. World War II was over; three totalitarian dictatorships had been defeated. The nation celebrated.
Once WWII was over, the full details of the darkest side of totalitarianism were revealed, the Holocaust. Around 10,000,000 people, including 6,000,000 Jews, perished in Nazi concentration camps.
Author Tom Brokaw has labeled those Americans who struggled through the Great Depression and then fought in WWII as the “greatest generation.” If America and our allies had not prevailed in WWII, democracy may have disappeared.
Threats to American security today are much different than during WWII. Even before 9/11, terrorist groups successfully attacked American interests. Al-Qaida, ISIS and other terrorist organizations pose substantial risks to American interests worldwide and potentially even here at home. The possibility that such groups could obtain nuclear weapons is remote but real and frightful.
Terrorism is a threat to the collective security of democratic societies, but democracy itself is not at risk as it was in World War II. Terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, London and elsewhere are horrific events, but stateless terrorist organizations do not rise to the level of threat posed by Germany and Japan in the 1930s-40s.
As we look back 75 years to the perilous times that were World War II, we need to give thanks to these men and women. They stood the test, won the war and saved democracy itself. As the “greatest generation” continues to fade away, we must once again give thanks for their collective steely determination, sense of duty and sacrifice.
The next article in this series is authored by Scott Kinville and is entitled “World War II and the Little Falls Home Front.” Please visit the Little Falls Historical Society Museum at 319 S. Ann St. to view our new World War II, Korean War and Myjava, Slovakia, exhibits.
JEFFREY GRESSLER: Korea: America’s forgotten war
Clifton Avery (5/30/51), Walter Bobak (12/30/51), William Grogan (3/22/51), Milan Mosny (1/6/55) and Thomas Ochar (9/10/50) were all Little Falls native sons killed during the Korean War. Nearly 400 Little Falls residents served in Korea. To honor their service, the Little Falls Historical Society has included a Korean War museum exhibit for 2016.
Why did President Harry Truman send more than 350,000 American troops to Korea when there was no direct threat to America?
On June 25, 1950, the Soviet Union-supplied North Korean army invaded South Korea. American forces were soon fighting in Korea. A three-year seesaw conflict ended with a 1953 ceasefire.
The American public did not support our involvement in Korea: Today, most Americans understand little about the conflict that claimed more than 33,000 American lives and left nearly 100,000 wounded.
World War II was a global conflict ending in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan and much-deserved praise for our troops. By comparison, the Korean War was a “limited war” with complicated causes and a stale-mated outcome. Our troops served honorably, suffered greatly and, as veterans, they receive scant recognition.
Japan’s 1945 surrender left Soviet troops in North Korea and American forces in South Korea, divided by the 38th Parallel. The United Nations was created in 1945 and the 1947 Truman Doctrine outlined the American Cold War foreign policy of containment — America would oppose the spread of communism. Two wars — in Korea and later in Vietnam — resulted.
America enters the conflict
Responding to North Korea’s invasion, the UN passed a resolution asking its members to “furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.”
Truman felt duty-bound to take military action. The Soviets and the Chinese backed North Korea. The very real possibility that the Korean War could escalate into World War III with nuclear weapons loomed in the background.
Following the invasion, North Korean forces drove the South Korean army to the southeast tip of Korea — the Pusan Perimeter. American-led UN forces entered the conflict and the dynamic changed.
On Sept. 15, General Douglas MacArthur launched a daring invasion at Inchon, far behind the invading North Koreans. UN forces fought out of the Pusan Perimeter and the North Koreans were assaulted on two fronts.
MacArthur vs. Truman — The Great Debate
Over the next two months, Communist forces retreated back across the 38th Parallel into North Korea. The fateful decision by MacArthur to defy Truman and send UN forces in pursuit was to have disastrous consequences.
MacArthur was stationed in Japan and hardly set foot in Korea. Ever vain, he dismissed evidence that China would send in troops if UN forces penetrated beyond the Chosin Reservoir in northern North Korea. The ensuing debate between Truman and MacArthur paralyzed American military policy. Disaster loomed.
“The Coldest Winter”
Despite repeated Chinese threats, MacArthur ordered UN forces to continue their advance; General Edward Almond moved the American Tenth Army forward toward Chosin. Major General O.P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, advanced more cautiously and established airfields and supply depots to support his troops.
The brutal 17-day Battle of Chosin Reservoir followed. 30,000 UN forces were surrounded by more than 120,000 Chinese. Temperatures dropped to minus 35 degrees; icy roads and weapon malfunctions complicated matters; Chinese forces attacked at nighttime in human waves. American air power dominated and Smith’s 1st Marine Division saved the American Tenth Army from destruction.
The UN breakout from entrapment was in two directions, along the road from the Chosin Reservoir to the port city of Hungnam and through Funchilin Pass southward toward the 38th Parallel.
The evacuation of our forces from Hungnam went smoothly, author David Halberstam has labeled the Funchilin Pass retreat “The Coldest Winter” due to the brutal conditions and heavy casualties.
Truman sought a negotiated settlement, but MacArthur sought the complete defeat of North Korea and possibly the invasion of China. The question: who controls military policy, the Chief Executive or a powerful military general? The result: Truman dismissed MacArthur.
UN forces set up a defensive perimeter south of the 38th Parallel protecting the South Korean capital of Seoul. Nearly two and a half more years of Korean War combat resulted in a military stalemate and a July 27, 1953 armistice.
Along the way, battles were fought at Twin Tunnels, Chipyong-ni, Wonsan, Hwach’on Reservoir, Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, T-Bone Hill, Pork Chop Hill and in July 1953 at Kumsong River Salient. These names were foreign and unfamiliar to all but the men who fought there and their agonizing families at home.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that so many died, including several Little Falls natives, while 1951-53 peace negotiations were under way. Both North and South Korea wanted complete victory, but in the end, there was no clear-cut victory, only more death. A mutually unsatisfactory compromise; a stalemate in a limited war. The sardonic catch-phrase for American troops was “don’t die for a tie.”
The Korean War had disastrous consequences for all sides. The loss of life was staggering. American casualties were dwarfed by the over two million Koreans and over 600,000 Chinese who perished.
Harry Truman was unpopular when he left office in 1953, but he is now rated as one of our most admired presidents. He was our first Cold War era president, he resisted pressure from conservative Republicans to broaden the conflict in Korea and he dealt with the dawning of the nuclear age with restraint. Despite the presence of delusional generals on both sides, World War III was never fought.
Tragic miscalculations abounded in Korea. The North Korean invasion, MacArthur’s misread of Chinese strategy and Chinese underestimation of American military resolve all drove events. The only real heroes were the American soldiers who fought in Korea, including 400 from Little Falls.
The Little Falls Wartime ‘Home Front’
LITTLE FALLS — For the 2016 season of the Little Falls Historical Society and Museum, we chose to highlight Little Falls’ involvement in World War II and the Korean Conflict. The reason was simple, really. 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the heinous attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese Imperial military forces. With their close proximity on the chronological timeline, it made sense to include both World War II and the Korean Conflict. As a matter of fact, one could argue Korea was actually a continuation of World War II.
Of course our displays and exhibits will salute the brave men and women who took up arms overseas and changed the world forever. Additionally, we will also recognize those who had to stay behind and tend to the “home front.” The museum opens for the season at 7 p.m. on May 26, please feel free to come down and check out the exhibits for yourself.
Rightfully so, the sacrifices made at Normandy, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Chosin Reservoir and hundreds of other battlefields are well known. In fact, 49 warriors from Little Falls paid the ultimate price to rid the world of Hitler, Tojo, and the “red menace” in Korea. While no one on the home front gave their lives, sacrifices were made none the less. All told, around 2,000 people left their homes here in Little Falls between 1941–1953 to answer our country’s call to arms. Parents said goodbye to children, wives to husbands, sisters to brothers; all hoping but unsure if they would ever see each other again.
While bombs and bullets flew all over the world, there was much to be done at home. Children needed to be raised and cared for, crops needed to be grown, and the war effort needed to be supported. Hundreds of jobs locally and millions across the country were now vacated by the departing servicemen. To fill these jobs, many women on the home front traded in their aprons for denim overalls to become “Rosie the Riveters.” The tanks, planes, bombs and bullets that won the war would never have existed were it not for these women.
The Little Falls Legion Post No. 31 played a huge role in supporting the local war effort as well. Many of its members had served in World War I and knew what needed to be done. They organized scrap metal drives to raise much needed funds the effort required. Knowing their brothers and sisters in arms overseas could use some relief from the daily stress of warfare, they collected records and playing cards for our Armed Forces. The post also held a cigarette drive for the soldiers. Today that would be shocking, but remember, this was a time when every soldiers ration kit included a pack of smokes.
The local Legion also worked hand in hand with the local Defense Council to ensure the home front was safe. While an attack here by the Axis was never imminent, the threat was always real. They recruited volunteers and held trainings for the Ground Observer Corps. The Ground Observer Corps was a civilian branch of the Army Air Forces 1st Fighter Command. The members of this corps would be set up in observation posts at various places around Little Falls scanning the skies for signs of a threat from above. At 9:12 p.m. on Jan. 7, 1942, the entire city was involved in its first practice “blackout.” All lights throughout Little Falls were shut down for 15 minutes as a trial run in the event enemy aircraft was spotted by the Ground Observer Corps. The test was a success, and fortunately the real attack never came.
Life was not easy during these times. As the United States began to emerge from the nightmare of The Great Depression, the start of World War II brought about a whole new set of obstacles. The rationing of gasoline, sugar, butter and among other things, meat, restricted the lives of every American, every day. Despite the massive challenges of fighting wars on two fronts, and then another one in Korea, the United States emerged as an undisputed world superpower. The men and women who made that happen through their hard work, loyalty and sacrifices are truly deserving of the moniker “the greatest generation.”
I hope you have enjoyed this article. The “home front” was just part of the story that was the World War II and Korea era. That story continues next week with an article by Pat Frezza-Gressler titled “The Four Freedoms.” We’ll see you then.
PAT FREZZA-GRESSLER: FDR’S Four Freedoms
LITTLE FALLS — The Little Falls Historical Society Museum is honored to have as part of our 2016 exhibits an original set of Norman Rockwell illustrations which were painted in response to what has been called President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech. This article provides relevant background to this exhibit.
Roosevelt, along with Washington and Lincoln, is consistently ranked as one of our three greatest presidents. He skillfully used the power of communication throughout his 1931-1945 stewardship of our country. Many of Roosevelt’s words spoken in his 30 fireside chats, numerous formal speeches and various news conferences resonated powerfully when given and still have meaning today. Especially true of this contemporary relevance is his 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress, more familiarly known today as the Four Freedoms Speech.
FDR’s historic and unprecedented third term State of the Union speech was given to Congress prior to America’s entry into World War II. He spoke about the urgency of supporting the nations that were already threatened by Hitler’s Nazi Germany. At the time of his speech, Austria, Poland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the Channel Islands and Romania were already under German control. Threatened and ultimately facing defeat were Yugoslavia, Greece, Serbia, Crete and Estonia. Plans for a German invasion of the Soviet Union were being made and were carried out in 1941.
Our greatest ally, Great Britain, was under unrelenting nightly attacks from Nazi Germany. Beginning in September 1940, London alone was bombed for 57 consecutive nights. Despite these portentous events, Americans were not ready to enter WWII. FDR meant to convince Americans of the need to support our allies and its relationship to our own national security. Part of this Jan. 6, 1941 speech to Congress was devoted to this.
“They do not need man power, but they do need billions of dollars worth of the weapons of defense. The time is near when they will not be able to pay for them all in ready cash. We cannot, and we will not, tell them that they must surrender, merely because of present inability to pay for the weapons which we know they must have.”
It was near the end of this speech when FDR addressed what America had to lose if Nazi fascism continued to spread. He eloquently spoke of the strengths of our form of government, the ideals of freedom on which it stood and in doing so, created a sharp contrast with the then present threat of Nazism.
Here was FDR at his oratorical best, in what has become known as the Four Freedoms Speech.
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”
He closed with these words:
“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”
Saturday Evening Post artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell was among the many Americans who were touched by President Roosevelt’s words. He created his Four Freedoms illustration series depicting Roosevelt’s powerful words in images Americans could feel. Released in 1943, this project reinforced Roosevelt’s words by illustrating Rockwell’s interpretations of the human rights that Roosevelt said must be made universal.
The series was reproduced in the Saturday Evening Post and the paintings toured the country in what was known as the War Bond Show. Over a million Americans viewed the paintings and $132 million was raised. Those who purchased a war bond received full-color reproduction sets.
These four paintings, known as Rockwell’s most famous works, continue to speak to the simple blessings of freedom so directly contrasting with authoritarian governments. Historic charters, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were built around these words reflecting democracy’s ideals.
Both FDR’s words and Rockwell’s images continue to resonate and serve as ideals to which democratic governments aspire.
The Little Falls Historical Society Museum is honored and grateful to display an original set of the Four Freedom series purchased the by the Walter Sheehan family. This display is one of a number that will be featured during our 2016 season. All are invited to visit the museum at 319 S. Ann St.
Little Falls Historical Society Museum
319 South Ann Street
Little Falls, NY, (Get directions)
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For appointment or in case of emergency please call:
Jeffrey Gressler at (315) 823-2799
Louis Baum at (315) 823-0620 or (315) 867-3527