Friday, December 9th, 2016

“I had no idea, until I became a war worker myself, how low wages actually were. When my skimpy little paycheck of $23 a week came to me, I wondered how on earth I could ever live on that in wartime Washington if I were forced to pay my own room, board, transportation, doctors’ bills and other necessities out of it. Then I would look around the shop and wonder how the married women and mothers – the majority there – could support their children and parents as well as themselves on these wages.

“Not only do the women start at a low wage – they stay at it. At the Washington yard and at the other navy yards in the East and West, there are no automatic raises. Raises were accorded on some indeterminate basis. Promotions to supervisory jobs seem to be unknown not only at Washington but elsewhere in navy yards. Equal pay and promotions for women are one of the government standards of employment supported in writing by the Navy Department and seven other federal agencies. The navy yards themselves seem to be unaware of the fact; nor do they observe other standards adhered to on paper by the Department.

“I quickly adapted myself to eating sandwiches held between grimy hands. The yard gave us 20 minutes for lunch, but at least five minutes were gone by the time you had raced and waited at the understaffed canteen for cold,k watery chocolate milk or cola drinks (no coffee except on the midnight shift). The government standard of 30-minute lunch periods, hot lunches and a decent place to eat them is ignored by the Washington yard, which is nearer being the rule than the exception.

“I had mistakenly thought before going to work at the yard that minutes were precious in production. Once on the job, personnel officers and posters proclaimed the need for punctuality and perfect attendance. I was naturally surprised to learn after one day’s work that the main method of disciplining these “precious” workers was to lay them off for as much as a week at a time.l If you were one minute late in the morning, you were made to stand idle for one hour and be docked accordingly. If you forgot to tag in upon arrival at work or at lunch time, after three offenses you were laid off for a day.

“The women whom I met at the yard would stand for practically anything – five months without sleeping in a bed, a solid year on the graveyard shift so as to be home with the kids during the day, the double job,k indigestible lunches, long hours and no promise of a future after the war – all for miserably low wages. The longer I worked side by side with them, the more I admired their endurance – but the more I seethed to see them organized in a union that would help solve their problems. And the more I saw the necessity for really planned production, planned community service, labor-utilization inspectors, planned community service, labor-utilization inspectors, labor-management committees that function and are recognized, and a program to educate the workers about the issues of the war abroad and at home. I admired the patience of the women who stuck by their jobs, day after day, though it was obvious that their usefulness to the war effort was cut in half by the very working conditions which they endured.”

— Susan B. Anthony II, writing in The New Republic, May 1, 1944

I just came home from a visit to Half Price Books, where I scored a copy of “Reporting World War II Part Two: American Journalism 1944 – 1946,” an edition from The Library of America. One of my many dreams would be to line the walls of my house with shelves, and to stock those shelves of all the books published by The Library of America. Each sturdy, clothbound volume, clad in The Library’s trademark black dust jacket, seems to be just the right size to hold in one hand. The text of each page is set in a compact, clear font, and each volume comes with a ribbon sewn into the binding which you can use to mark your place. They are designed to be, and indeed are, classy books for a home library.

I’m especially happy to have found this particular volume because the people of my generation tend to glorify the second world war in a way that borders on indecency, and reading the work of Ernie Pyle, Bill Mauldin, Lee Miller, Edward R. Murrow, John Hersey and their like is such a bracing antidote to the most romantic notions floating around out there.

Which is not to say the men and women of “The Greatest Generation” didn’t do amazing things; they did. But I’ve never read a first-hand report that made them out to be any more than ordinary people who were doing what they were more or less forced to do until the war was over, which wouldn’t be soon enough, as far as they were concerned. Life during the war years was very hard; nobody thought it was all that glorious or romantic, and they said so.

I’m glad The Library of America put this volume together, and I’m going to look for Part One.

“The Greatest Generation” | 3:16 pm CDT
Category: books
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