Of War and Men: World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families

Of War and Men: World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families

by Ralph LaRossa

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Fathers in the fifties tend to be portrayed as wise and genial pipe-smokers or distant, emotionless patriarchs. This common but limited stereotype obscures the remarkable diversity of their experiences and those of their children. To uncover the real story of fatherhood during this transformative era, Ralph LaRossa takes the long view—from the attack on Pearl Harbor up to the election of John F. Kennedy—revealing the myriad ways that World War II and its aftermath shaped men.

Offering compelling accounts of people both ordinary and extraordinary, Of War and Men digs deep into the terrain of fatherhood. LaRossa explores the nature and aftereffects of combat, the culture of fear during the Cold War, the ways that fear altered the lives of racial and sexual minorities, and how the civil rights movement affected families both black and white. Overturning some calcified myths, LaRossa also analyzes the impact of suburbanization on fathers and their kids, discovering that living in the suburbs often strengthened their bond. And finally, looking beyond the idealized dad enshrined in TV sitcoms, Of War and Men explores the brutal side of family life in the postwar years. LaRossa’s richly researched book dismantles stereotypes while offering up a fascinating and incisive chronicle of fatherhood in all its complexity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226467436
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/15/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ralph LaRossa is professor of sociology at Georgia State University and the author of several books, including The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History.

Read an Excerpt

Of War and Men

World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families
By Ralph LaRossa

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-46742-9

Chapter One


Pearl Harbor is located on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. In December 1941 it was a major base for the U.S. Pacific fleet, and housed not only servicemen and servicewomen but also, in some cases, their families. Japanese fighter aircraft attacked the base at 7:55 on a Sunday morning. The bombardment lasted for more than two hours. Almost the entire Pacific fleet was destroyed; more than three hundred U.S. aircraft were demolished or crippled. Casualties on the American side added up to 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded. Japan lost twenty-nine of its 350 planes.

The attack had come as a complete surprise. Sailors fired back at the planes as best they could, but there was not much they could do; the Japanese held the advantage. Servicemen who happened to be home had to choose between protecting their loved ones and defending the base. One sailor recalled trying to get his wife and child to safety and, with the benefit of hindsight, was able see a bit of humor amid the shock. "When we're almost to the car, my wife says, The baby doesn't have any diapers! Get some!' ... Bear in mind that this is Armageddon, the end of the world, and my wife has me chasing diapers!" Local residents were caught in the crossfire as well. A Hawaiian father reported that he "drove his family into the sugarcane fields above the harbor, where they hid among the tall cane stalks."

As news of the attack spread throughout the United States, Americans absorbed the terrible truth that the country was at war. A ten-year-old boy saw his father weeping in front of the radio: "Dad was bent over, his head in his hands ... his shoulders were faintly shaking as the announcer rattled on." Some parents took their anger out on their children—screaming at them, even striking them. Others vented their fury at the Japanese. One man, visibly drunk, kept repeating, "I'm gonna get me a machine gun and kill every one of those slant eyed sons-of-bitches I can find."

Although Pearl Harbor precipitated America's formal entrance into World War II, the social reality of the conflict gripped the country long before the attack, particularly after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Believing that the aggression overseas would continue unabated, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had taken steps to prepare the United States for battle. Coastal installations were placed on high alert. Factories were built, industries were retooled, and new military gear was ordered. All the while, newspapers printed daily reports of war, while letters from family members in Europe described "the ominous drone of German bombers, [and] the fire and rubble of the Blitz." For some, the anxiety over what lay ahead was too much to bear. A twenty-three-year-old farmer in Monmouth, New Jersey, shot and killed himself—after scribbling a note saying he did not want to be drafted.

Fear became a central element in America's collective consciousness and altered the shape and tenor of people's lives. Even advertisements projected alarm. Seventeen months before the Japanese attack, the Bell Aircraft Corporation published an ad that showed a father and son looking across a tarmac where several U.S. fighter planes were lined up. The father, with his hand on the shoulder of the boy, counsels, "Remember Lincoln's words, my son: 'The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends[,]' [is] the keynote to the Nation's future." Fourteen months before the attack, the Lehigh Portland Cement Company declared, "Hurry! Hurry! America's call is urgent for more armament, more tools for its manufacturers, more facilities for making both." By "speeding up [their] construction" with "Lehigh Early Strength Cement," the builders would be "speeding up the first lines of defense." Nine months before, the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company equated buying a life insurance policy with creating a "Defense Committee of One." Said a man pictured in the ad, "Although our defense program is much smaller than the Government's, they're a lot alike. Both are aimed at the same thing—protection now and independence in the future. Both are important—to neglect either would leave us open to the worries and hazards of the unprepared." And just five months before, the White Motor Company, manufacturer of trucks and buses, assured people, "America is secure against any wave of the future pounding at her shores ... as long as there are men and machines to build America's ramparts stronger, faster and better."

After Pearl Harbor, the tone of advertising changed. The actions of the Japanese, coupled with the early success of German submarines (in the first three months of 1942, German U-boats patrolling off the East Coast sank 216 ships) heightened people's sense that the United States was vulnerable. America's industries responded in kind. A March advertisement for Warner and Swasey Turret Lathes began, "Did you ever face the sobering thought that your country may not win this war?" Another Warner and Swasey ad showed a youngster left homeless by the bombing raids in Europe. "It can happen here. If workmen in the machine shops of now-conquered countries had worked harder and longer in time, there would have been enough planes and guns to beat off the Nazi raiders who bombed this pitiable little child." In yet another ad, the company cautioned,

"Pearl Harbor is inviolate"—yet it was attacked

"Singapore is impregnable"—but it fell.

"America and Britain control the seas"—yet Nazis sink tankers in sight of New York; the Japs shell California.

"Our Navy can repel any invasion"—but now the Axis Navy outnumbers ours.

We lull ourselves to sleep with things we want to believe, and while we sleep our enemies close in from either side.... The enemy who will take [our comfortable lives] all away is closing in.

In April 1943 the Magazine Publishers of America ran an advertisement that proclaimed "every civilian" to be "a fighter." The MPA's forecast of what would happen if the United States lost the war was clearly intended to scare: "If they win ... only our dead are free. These are our enemies. They have only one idea—to kill, and kill, and kill, until they conquer the world. Then, by the whip, the sword and gallows, they will rule.... Make no mistake about it—you cannot think of this as other wars. You cannot regard your foe this time simply as people with the wrong idea. This time you win—or die."

In the summer of 1943 the United Gas Pipe Line Company followed with an ad that included photos of two boys—one in Nazi youth garb, the other in a Boy Scout uniform—and asked, "Which will Johnny be?" The answer provided for the reader: "Without question, no red-blooded, freedom-loving American father or mother would want Johnny to be like that misguided, regimented Nazi lad. America's sons have a priceless heritage of Freedom that no fuehrer-trained, goose-stepping Nazi youth can understand or enjoy."

In communicating alarm, the advertisements paled in comparison to the venomous illustrations and texts in war propaganda posters. In these, the enemies of the United States were routinely portrayed as "murderers" and "rapists" bent on crushing everything people in America held dear. (The opposing side's characterizations of Americans could be equally raw.) Because Japan had directly attacked the United States, and because of the xenophobia toward Eastern cultures, the posters tended to single out the Japanese more than the Germans—or the Italians, with whom America also was at war (until September 1943, when Italy surrendered). "Remember Pearl Harbor" became a rallying call. The emphasis of the posters, however, did not necessarily reflect the perceptions of all individuals or groups. Jewish American soldiers tended to focus on battling Germany because of the Nazis' anti-Semitic persecutions.

Accounts of captured U.S. soldiers being harmed also fueled people's rage. One poster—which displayed the newspaper headline, "5200 Yank Prisoners Killed by Jap Torture in Philippines; Cruel 'March of Death' Described"—encouraged Americans to "Stay on the Job Until Every Murdering Jap is Wiped Out!" Even more incendiary was a full-color illustration of a Japanese soldier, with sharpened teeth and dark complexion, grabbing a light-skinned woman by the mouth and holding a knife to her throat. "Keep This Horror From Your Home," men in the United States were told.

Another reason why the Japanese were especially targeted is that they were perceived as manifestly different from America's other enemies. As one woman put it, whereas German soldiers were recognized as "fathers/sons/ brothers," the Japanese were stereotyped as "family-less" and as "unspeakably evil, vicious, and subhuman."

* * *

The Japanese started to come to the United States in significant numbers in the early 1900s, in response to the jobs that had become available to them after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which restricted how many Chinese could enter the country). At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, approximately 127,000 Japanese Americans lived in the United States. Of these, 93,000 resided in California, while another 19,000 lived in Oregon and Washington. The population included both those born in Japan (Issei, the first generation) and those born in the United States (Nisei, the second generation, and Sansei, the third generation). Some Issei were naturalized U.S. citizens. All Nisei and Sansei were U.S. citizens by birth.

Once word of the attack hit the U.S. mainland, the lives of Japanese American men, women, and children—citizens and noncitizens alike—took a dramatic turn. One man recalled, "Well, one hour after Pearl Harbor, I was very, you know, this innocent kid that opens the door. And this is one hour after Pearl Harbor now and here two big white gentlemen would say, 'We're the FBI, where is Mr. Jimmie Raisaku Fujii?' And I say, 'Oh, Dad's here somewhere.' And I get him and they took him. I didn't see him after that for three-and-a-half years." Another remembered how his father was escorted away: "He was taken without any explaining. He was taken right away. The men from the FBI or police station came.... They told my father to get [his] suitcase and toothbrush and so forth. He didn't understand why he had to do that, but anyway without reason, he was taken." Yet another talked of how his father and several other men were jailed after a family celebration:

On the evening of December 7, 1941, my father was at a wedding. He was dressed in a tuxedo. When the reception was over, the FBI agents were waiting. They rounded up at least a dozen wedding guests and took 'em to county jail. For a few days we didn't know what happened. We heard nothing. When we found out, my mother, my sister, and myself went to jail. I can still remember waiting in the lobby. When my father walked through the door, my mother was so humiliated. She didn't say anything. She cried. He was in prisoner's clothing, with a denim jacket and a number on the back.

One Japanese child, coming home to an empty house, initially believed—or wanted to believe—that his father had been called upon to serve as an interpreter.

My mother and I were not home that evening.... When we came home, they had ransacked the apartment, taken a lot of things, and left the door open, unlocked.... At the time we thought it was because he spoke English well and because he was quite prominent in the community, that they probably needed him for some interpreting or some darn thing like that. Never, you know, realizing that he was going to be interned.

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was something of a surprise, the possibility that Japan and the United States would be adversaries some day had been on people's minds for years. (Some categorize Japan's invasion of China in 1937, rather than Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, as "the first battle of World War II.") A San Francisco man, who had come to the United States in 1923 and who had "never dreamt there could be [a] war between Japan and the United States" (he said it would be "like ants poking an elephant"), talked of receiving letters from his father in Japan who warned of a "great tragedy" and how his father implored him to bring his family back to his home country. But the man decided to remain, figuring that since his two sons were Nisei citizens of the United States, they would be safer in California if a war were to break out. He said that he "trust[ed] the United States" to "protect" his "two boys." In another case, a father was said to have destroyed many of his personal belongings the day after the attack in an effort to play down his connection to Japan. "Dad got scared and started to burn all the books, Japanese books. He was panicking; he said to get everything out—all the records—and we just built a bonfire, busted everything, you know. When you panic and you don't know what's going to happen, I think you do these things without thinking."

Hatred toward the Japanese was widespread and intense. Japanese parents were fired from their jobs. Hospitals turned away Japanese needing treatment. Japanese children were scorned and ridiculed at school. People were denounced as "dirty Japs" or "dirty yellow Japs" or "little slant-eyed bastards." Signs outside restaurants and other establishments read "No Dogs or Japs Allowed." Comic books and movies included Japanese stereotypes. Toys and other items stamped "made in Japan" were destroyed or thrown away.

Not everyone in the United States displayed bigotry. One father and mother, after hearing their daughter sing an offensive limerick, sat her down and told her, "Japanese children were loved by their parents just as [she] was by them." Theirs was not the predominant attitude, however. By and large, the war tended to magnify an attitude of "us" versus "them."

What to do with Japanese Americans was bandied back and forth. The U.S. government was not satisfied with the curfews that had been imposed and the detention of "suspicious" individuals. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which restricted where residents could live. Although the order did not refer to any particular group, it clearly was directed at Japanese Americans residing in the Pacific Coastal Zone (i.e., California, Oregon, and Washington State). One month later, on March 18, 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority. This order, which was implemented throughout the spring, authorized the incarceration of thousands of Japanese in what were euphemistically called "assembly centers" or "relocation centers," situated mainly in California, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and Arkansas. (Military installations throughout the country also were used in some capacity.) Ultimately, more than 110,000 were exiled.

In some instances, only certain members of a family were required to leave. Fathers might be carted away, while their wives and children remained behind. One man recalled the date he was woken up in the middle of the night and imprisoned. It was his daughter's birthday—February 21, 1942—two days following the circulation of Executive Order 9066. After a month and a half of being detained in the local jail, he was shipped off to Montana. His family came to the station to say goodbye. As he boarded the train, his daughters yelled out, "Papa, Papa." Years later, he could "still hear the ring of their crying."

Fathers maintained contact with their families through letters, which allowed them to experience their children's growth and development from afar. While on a driving trip with his mother, a three-year-old boy recognized a turn in the road and said that he had passed the same place before—only with his father. The mother used the occasion to let her husband know that his children remembered him: "They mention you in that way often. Since they saw you leave with the authorities, they say that you are with men who look like the mailman. A few days ago they wanted me to call you over the phone and ask you to return. I had to tell them you were so far away, I couldn't reach you."

The father was in the Lordsburg, New Mexico, camp. He had been there since March 1942. In May 1942, mother and children were incarcerated, too, but they were sent to the Colorado River camp near Poston, Arizona. The couple continued to correspond. "Masahiro is being registered today in the nursery school which is just across the road from us. Misao is still too young to go.... Masahiro has his grief when his playmates say, 'My daddy came back. You're [sic] daddy isn't coming back.' Then I'd have to tell him you will return—some day." In July 1943, after a number of appeals, the father was permitted to join his family in Poston.


Excerpted from Of War and Men by Ralph LaRossa Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I
ONE / Attacked
TWO / “The Bodies That We Need”
THREE / The Fog and the Sun
FOUR / “Giving It the Best They’ve Got”

Part II
FIVE / “Rights” of Passage
SIX / Reentry

Part III
SEVEN / Father’s Proper Place
EIGHT / Baby Boom
NINE / “Adventure . . . Begins at Home”

Part IV
TEN / Picture Imperfect
ELEVEN / “What a Man!”
TWELVE / “Daddy, That’s Not Your Job”
THIRTEEN / “Tempered by War, Disciplined by . . . Peace”


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