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Anno Domini: Pictures of home in a world at war
December 08, 2011 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis

Jerry Purvis
Citizen News Editor

Yesterday, Americans (at least some of us) observed 70 years since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a day that will live in infamy. It was also a day that changed the world as we knew it.

Polls from 1940 showed that 85 percent of Americans wanted to stay out of the fighting going on around the world, although we were giving material aid to the British. That attitude changed suddenly after December 7, 1941.

In 1941, America was hardly a world power. We were still trying to shake off the decade-long ill effects of the Great Depression. Then on the quiet Sunday morning, Japanese bombers struck the U.S. naval base in Hawaii. And for that one day, the battle front and the home front were one and the same.

Telephone relayed the news to the White House almost immediately. Then it began to spread like wildfire across the nation, by word of mouth and by radio. Throughout the day, families were riveted to the radio in their living rooms, trying to make some sense out of such insanity.

Just like today, when people don’t have many facts, they fill in the rest of the picture with rumor and speculation. So on that day of December 7, 1941, the Japanese has sunk U.S. ships at sea and the Panama Canal had been blocked. California had come under siege with air strikes in San Francisco, where the Japanese established a beachhead. And they landed at Long Beach and were on the march toward Los Angeles.

Interesting scenario, but that picture was more “War of the Worlds” than reality. It’s kind of strange how that radio broadcast had caused a similar panic just a few years prior.

As the sun was rising on the morning of December 8, about 30 young men were lined up at the front door of the Army recruiting center in New York City. Across the country, record numbers of men signed up, knowing they wouldn’t be back until we’d won the war. They left behind family and friends, wives and girlfriends.

Thousands of these new recruits were barely 18. And some who were only 17 tried to sneak in as well. Most had never been far from home before. Now they were headed a half a world away to fight for liberty.

Those who didn’t qualify for military service flocked to the Civil Defense offices to sign up as air raid wardens, those enemy plane spotters and enforcers of “lights out” in their communities.

By early 1942, “Remember Pearl Harbor” was on top of the hit parade and the American people were trying to deal with life on the home front. Making sense of it was hard to do in the war’s early years, when Japan was kicking our collective backside off every island in the Pacific and many wondered whether American could be victorious. But after the Battle of Midway, we knew it was only time before the Axis would fall.

Still, loved ones were separated during the war years. Uncertainty only made the longing worse. Those feelings showed up in “Til Then,” another popular song of the day by the Mills Brothers:
“Our dreams will live though we are apart. Our love, I know it’ll keep in our hearts. Til then, when all the world will be free, please wait for me.”

I can only imagine, but it must have been hard for the folks to get through the Christmas season. Santa was still there to gladden the hearts of the children. The lights were still aglow on the trees and presents were still exchanged.

But the war had cast a pall over the holidays, mocking the song of peace on earth, good will to men (hat tip to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). People anxiously read the news and prayed that every telegraph delivery boy would pass them by.

In those dark days of uncertainty, New York lyricist Kim Gannon penned a few lines in 1942 that captured what the folks were feeling. The resulting song represented the hopes, dreams and prayers of everyone at home and at war – “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

The song was short, direct and uncomplicated. And while the words carried some real sadness, they also contained real hopefulness that families would be reunited, once our nation’s security and liberty were assured. Those at war would be home for Christmas, if only in their dreams.

On October 4, 1943, Bing Crosby recorded the song as a follow-up to his previous year’s hit “White Christmas.” And “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” quickly became the most requested song at USO shows around the world and received even more airplay than Crosby’s “other hit.”

Through wars to come, with names like Korea and Vietnam, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was recorded countless times by scores of artists. And the song stirred new emotions every time, as it represented a picture of home.

A colleague, a veteran far removed from World War II, once told me the song reminds him of home and all that Christmas entails. So in a way, what started out as a secular Christmas song turned into almost a prayer for those separated from loved ones.

World War II has been called “the good war,” if there is such a thing. It was a time when Americans, perhaps for the last time, were united in understanding the difference between good and evil.
Since then, powerful forces in our society have done their worst to blur those distinctions for their own gain. And that’s a bleeping shame.

The home front is still alive today as families wait for the return of loved ones who serve in the military across the world, many in places with names that end in “stan.”

So til then, when all the world will be free, we need to carry on, to hold the fort and to continue our support of those whose sacrifices make freedom possible.

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