The many events commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, reminded us of dramatic changes that World War II imposed upon the world, including rural south Georgia.
Other 20th century developments had already scrambled the lifeways of back country folk. New counties were created out of shifts in economic and political power due to towns established by railroads. The boll weevil invasion wrecked cotton’s dominance and led to the introduction of tobacco culture with its system of auction markets. The highway era dawned, first federal thoroughfares then farm-to-market roads. The Great Depression stripped families of their farms and sent many away to find ways to make a living as migrant laborers or bottom-of-the-ladder urban workers. New Deal programs and policies provided relief for the unemployed, stabilized prices for farm products, built farm homes and provided farm credit. World War II eclipsed these in its sweeping impact.
No conflict except the Civil War sent as many south Georgians into military service, including young women. The number of casualties was staggering: killed, wounded, imprisoned and victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (although that term was not created until post-Vietnam). Those rows of crosses at Normandy stand guard over part of the soul of this nation. Those left at home — parents, wives, children, sweethearts — lived with pervasive fear buried deep inside. Few of those who served came back unchanged.
There were shortages of all sorts of things, most of which were rationed. Fuel and tires became precious. My problem was shoes. I wore them out and tore them up faster than my folks had the option to buy new ones.
Farm families did not suffer from food restrictions as badly as others. They continued to produce most of what they consumed as they always had. Meat was scarce, but they raised their own hogs and cured meat to last most of the year. Shortening was rationed but those hogs produced lard. They had chickens, wild game and fish. Sometimes the cured meat ran out and the lard became rank (rancid). They were not immune to shortages and rationing.
The outside world came rushing in. Military training facilities sprang up. Army units set up searchlight emplacements and the soldiers who manned them pierced the night skies with beams of light tracking an airplane as if to shoot it down. By day, they might answer questions by curious youngsters. A bomber training field was built between Vidalia and Lyons and they were always low taking off or landing. It was some time before my fifth grade teacher could restrain us from rushing to the windows.
Granted passes during off-duty times, young soldiers sought entertainment, particularly the company of local young females. With the boys from home no longer at home but somewhere over there, many of them were interested. There were marriages and eventually many “Yankee” bridegrooms returned to settle among in-laws. Strange surnames suddenly joined those from England, Ireland and Scotland.
Those tearful promises between sweethearts to remain forever true sometimes dissolved into “Dear John” letters. On the other hand, sometimes boys from home found ladies fair over there and brought back brides from England, France, Germany, Australia and other faraway places. New accents punctuated the native drawl.
The war brought unprecedented prosperity to the region. Although there were ceilings on prices farmers could receive for their products, cost of things they had to buy was also controlled. Overproduction was not a problem. All of the cotton, tobacco, livestock — whatever they took to market — was swept up to feed, clothe and comfort millions of American service personnel and our allies.
There were jobs — well-paying jobs — off the farm. Military bases and smaller sites were being built. There were shipyards in Savannah and elsewhere. Men who were not subject to the military draft and who could do non-farm work had no difficulty in finding full-time or part-time employment. Women suddenly found jobs that paid much more than being a clerk in a “five and dime” store. People made money, learned new skills and functioned successfully in places other than the farm. Small wonder that some never returned to that world to live and work.
Although information on the war was carefully controlled, there was a constant flow of the news that was permitted, coming through daily radio reports and comments, newspapers and “news reels” at the movies. Indeed, there were many war movies. All of this pushed back the intellectual horizons of people who previously had lived locally, some never leaving the community of their birth.
The end of the war did not slow the current of change. It became swifter. The returning warriors were forever different. Few were ready to go back to picking cotton. Some brought skills that made them better farmers and educational programs for veterans armed them with further knowledge. Supported by GI Bill financing, they bought farms, built homes and replaced mules with tractors.
Some learned skills that allowed them to do other things than farming. Operators of Sherman tanks and bulldozers bought surplus bulldozers to go into business building ponds and removing lightered stumps from fields. Some established local radio stations, low in wattage but delightful to listeners and advertisers in the community.
At another level, the GI Bill sent veterans to college. Many of them would never have had that opportunity otherwise. While some settled elsewhere, those who came “back home” greatly enlarged the intellectual capital of the region, enriching their part of the world through their professions and community leadership.
Out of the crucible of World War II there was forged a new, better place.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.