That episode of The Waltons opened in a churchyard with the camera focused on the day’s sermon title, “Peace -- Man’s Gift to Man Under God.” The camera panned down the sign to reveal the date, December 7, 1941. For the next several months, the show’s weekly programs allowed John Boy’s journal to give us a glimpse into life on Walton’s Mountain during World War II. That fictitious television serial taught us some basic truths about sacrifice, Christian love, community spirit and unquestionable patriotism.
It occurred to me that life in Rhea County during those same World War II years might have been filled with similar experiences and comparable acts on the home front which showed the best of humanity. I wanted to discover the facts.
With this year’s 79th anniversary of December 7, 1941, named by President Franklin Roosevelt as “A Day that will Live in Infamy,” I invite readers to learn more about how Rhea County experienced the 1940s from people who lived here during that period.
My delving gave me much more information than could be told in a single article. This article and the following three will share some of the memories of Charlie Carney, Billie Vaughn Fine, Ralph Green, Lois Sharp Hall, Bill Hilleary, Helen Green Morgan, and W.E. Robinson from those years.
Accounts from these individuals who were children and teenagers in the 1940s were quite different. Some knew there was a world war going on, but had no family or friends directly affected by the fighting and had only a few specific memories of events from those years. Others with family members and friends in the service or war-related jobs were detailed in their remembrances even to the exact words of conversations.
One common theme from all the contributors was that of a patriotic country ready to sacrifice and serve to ensure military and moral victory.
Charles Carney was 7 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. At their house they had a battery-operated radio. His father and older sister heard one of the early news announcements. “Papa, what are we going to do?” she asked. His father’s reply, “Sister, all we can do is pray.”
Ralph Green remembered December 7, 1941. He and his family heard about the attack on the radio on that Sunday afternoon before going to church in the evening. “I asked Dad, ‘What does this mean?’ He said, ‘war’.” At church that night, Ralph recalled everybody talking about the impending war.
For Helen Morgan it was a vague remembrance of walking up the hill with her father after getting something out of the mailbox and him explaining that the country was going to be fighting in a war.
When asked about President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, many remembered the radio delivery, but no one could recall the content of his messages. Charlie Carney came closest when he spoke with FDR’s New England accent the words “We are at waar.”
Though they did not remember any specifics, Bill Hilleary and W.E. Robinson both remembered the calming effect of the radio messages. It “just made the people feel good,” Bill said. W.E. expressed it this way, “We sat in front of the radio to listen, and Roosevelt’s fireside chats felt like he was talking directly to us, and this brought comfort to us in the troubling times.”
How did the country, specifically Rhea County, gear up for a world war? Prayer meetings, blackouts, rationing, war bonds, victory gardens, scrap metal collections, conversions in local manufacturing plants, and above all a spirit of loyalty, devotion and service to the country and our Allies who were fighting for democracy. Local memories showed that it was a time when neighbor depended on neighbor during the uncertainty of the years that lay ahead.
Charlie remembered throughout the war years that mothers met together to pray both for the safety of the boys in service and for victory for the Allies. Billie Fine remembered the prayers of area preachers who came to her Spring City school for chapel. “I don’t remember them (the preachers) discussing the war, but they always prayed for our soldiers.” Billie continued by saying that every week at chapel we sang God Bless America with our hands over our hearts.
Both Bill Hilleary and Ralph Green told how the churches gave particular attention to soldiers leaving or returning from the war, and how the pastors regularly informed them of the war efforts and the people involved. They, too, remembered special prayer meetings.
A few years ago after reading about blackouts in Oak Ridge, I mentioned them to a cousin who responded, “Oh, we had blackouts here.” Helen remembered specific times that citizens were instructed to turn off or blow out all lights to prevent any enemy from seeing a cluster of lights and being able to locate populated areas from the air.
As I began to question others, I learned blackout exercises were done throughout Rhea County. From Charlie in Old Washington, “I remember distinctly. We blew the (kerosene) lamps out.”
Ralph remembered the blackouts as being termed “practice” with the signal (in town) being the fire siren at City Hall on Main Street. While I had wondered if the blackouts were a result of Dayton’s proximity to Oak Ridge, Ralph thought perhaps they were done to help citizens understand the seriousness of the war and the need for immediate preparedness.
Everyone who contributed to these articles remembered rationing, the national policy restricting the purchase of specific items. Citizens throughout the country were expected to limit their use of certain resources in order to make them readily available for the military. Bill Hilleary’s father had been a member of the local rationing board. All told that each family received a book of rationing stamps, and that the purchase of rationed items required not only the cash purchase price, but also the appropriate number of stamps. Included in the list of rationed items that they mentioned were butter, lard, meat, milk, coffee, sugar, shoes, gasoline, and car tires.
No one indicated that rationing greatly affected their family’s diet or way of life. Perhaps as children, they simply didn’t realize any food differences because they were of a generation which was expected to eat whatever was served. Ralph remembered that after his younger brother was born in 1944 their family received extra coupons for evaporated milk for him.
It’s true, car travel was not nearly as extensive then as it is today; however, all indicated that their families used their cars in a way similar to their use before the war. One notable fact was that no new cars were available in Dayton during the war years. Charlie’s remembrance was that several in his community seldom used their cars because of the scarcity of gasoline and tires.
Lois Hall and Ralph Green reported walking to and from City School, but that it was a regular practice for them before and after the war. Charlie, too, recalled his ¼ mile walk to school as routine.
Some knew little about the location of Pearl Harbor or the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, but for all, it was clear that an enemy had attacked and killed many of our men, and it was time to respond. Families in Rhea County were following guidelines of national programs and banding
This four-part series of articles will continue with memories which will include letters to a soldier, patriotic music, local military contracts, the Missing in Action telegram, and the “automatic bomb.”