The Flag in the Window

Flatridge was a self-contained, self-sufficient community in the years prior to American involvement in World War II. The farms and gardens kept us fed and provided the resources we needed to purchase things we couldn’t provide for ourselves. The hub of the community was J. M. Jerkins General Merchandise, where men’s work clothes and shoes, household items, hardware, nonperishable food items and other necessities could be purchased. Things not available at Jerkins’ store could be ordered from the Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs.

Except for our annual trip to Marion to the dentist or an occasional trip to Independence to the bank or to buy school books, my family seldom ventured beyond the familiar reaches of the community we knew. Ours was the way of life enjoyed by most of the rural residents of Grayson County, in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia.

When I was a child in Flatridge, what lay beyond the mountains was of passive concern to me, something I occasionally wondered about when I scaled the Yellow Transparent apple tree and looked out from its topmost branches. News of the world outside reached us once a week by way of The Galax Gazette, delivered by mail. We were also the proud owners of one of the few radios in the community, a Silvertone. It brought us “The Grand Old Opery” from Nashville, Tennessee, every Saturday night and other entertainers during the week, such as Jack Benny, Amos ‘n Andy, and Lum ‘n Abner. The radio was a large, heavy structure with dials. It ran on a battery that we frequently took to Uncle Bill’s water-powered mill to be recharged. Electricity was still in our future.

Dad had always been interested in geography and so the radio allowed him to keep up with events on the other side of the world where a madman named Adolph Hitler was pursuing his quest for control of the world. Although Hitler’s aggressive behavior began early in the 1930’s, it was his invasion of Poland in 1939 that drew the line. The resistance formed as a group of nations allied in a declaration of war. Great Britain and France were joined by Canada, India, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, with others joining forces later.

The resistance seemed to accelerate Hitler’s resolve. One by one, he took over places with strange-sounding names, such as Czechoslovakia, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg. It was when he moved into France that I began to pay attention to his activities. I knew about France from my fourth grade history book and I was aware of the debt America owed to the French people for helping us win the Revolutionary War.

Hitler had his sights on other European nations beyond France, such as Norway and Denmark. Dad and my two older sisters followed the events as they unfolded. I listened to the names of the places radio reporters talked about, but to me, they were still far away and I couldn’t comprehend the war ever reaching us.

I doubt that even my Dad suspected that we were on the verge of a turning point in history. Soon almost every household in Flatridge would be involved in some way, from the richest landowners to the poorest farmers trying to scratch out a living on the rocky slopes of Buck Mountain.

News of that turning point reached us on a sunny, unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon: December 7, 1941. My little sister, Garnetta, and I had played outside and when we came in about mid-afternoon we found our parents and Mildred around the Silvertone listening intently to what was being said. It was not the Georgia Tech football game Mildred and Dad had been listening to earlier that afternoon. I recognized the familiar voice of President Roosevelt. He was speaking in an urgent-sounding tone. I associated the voice of our president with good things because he always gave his “fireside chat” on Christmas Eve, beginning with his familiar greeting, “Friends, and you are my friends …,” and containing his holiday greetings to all Americans. Our family always gathered to listen. But this time the intensity with which he was speaking made me realized that this was no fireside chat and that what he was saying had grave consequences.

When the broadcast ended, our parents were worried and tense as they explained to Garnetta and me what the President had just announced. The Japanese had bombed the American base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and our nation was now at war. Our world had suddenly and inexorably been changed. America was now a part of the Allied Forces aligned against the self-proclaimed Axis Powers: Germany, Italy and Japan.

Changes began to take place immediately in our secluded mountain community. Young friends, neighbors and some of Mildred’s older schoolmates began volunteering to go fight for our country. In a short time most families in Grayson County were drawn into the conflict as young men either volunteered or were called up for military duty. A Selective Service system was already in place, enacted in 1940, in which every young male was registered for the draft. Boys who had never been outside Grayson County came out of their remote hollows and off the family farms, headed to places far away, places neither they nor their parents had ever heard of. Our family was an exception. We had no boys to go.

Soon most homes had a service flag hanging in a window. A service flag was a banner, about 11″x16″, white with a red border and gold fringe at the bottom. A blue star in the center signified that a young man of the household was in military service. Sometimes the blue star was replaced with a gold one, indicating that a family member had given his life for his country.

At that time war was considered a man’s job. That began to change, though, early in the U.S. involvement in the war. The armed services began to accept woman to do office work and other non-combative tasks. The first was the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or the WAAC, later changed to the Women’s Army Corps, then the navy’s counterpart, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Our oldest sister, Winifred, who was living and working in Knoxville, Tennessee, made it known that she was waiting for the Marines to begin accepting women. In February 1943, the United States Marine Corps, Women’s Reserve, USMCWR, was initiated. In June of that year, we got a letter from Winifred, telling us that she had joined the Marines and was on her way to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for boot training. Mom, Mildred, Garnetta and I were excited. Dad was not, but he didn’t say much. We girls were all aware that not everyone supported the idea of women in the armed forces, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Mom immediately ordered a service flag from Sears Roebuck, and we proudly took our place among most other households as a family represented in the Armed Forces defending our nation. It was soon obvious to everyone who was open-minded enough to accept it that women had a vital role in the war effort.

Winifred finished her 6 weeks of boot camp and was stationed in Philadelphia for the remainder of the war. She looked snappy in her olive drab uniform and soon earned the rank of Sergeant. Garnetta and I did our share of boasting at school that we, too, had someone in the military. Our someone was special because she was a woman and she was a Marine. We knew that some of the teachers at Oak Hill Academy, as well as other adults in the community, were not open to the idea of women in the service. Although there were no confrontations, the silence on the subject should have reminded us to curb our enthusiasm.

At home, our nightly routine revolved around finishing supper in time to get the radio news broadcast. The smooth mellow tones of Lowell Thomas gave us a summary of what was current. After his report, we girls settled down to our studies, but Dad tuned in to other reporters and as a background to our studies we heard H. V. Kaltenborne’s high-pitched introduction to his newscast: “Well, there’s good (or bad) news tonight.” Walter Winchell always spoke rapidly, nearly shouting, and Edward R. Murrow’s in-depth reports usually clarified the day’s events. Dad listened to all of them, sometimes with a National Geographic map in front of him so that he could track the action. These reporters introduced us to specific places such as Dunkirk, Kiev, Luzon, Midway, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Tunisia.

Two places that stood out for me in the fighting were Iwo Jima and Normandy. Iwo Jima especially was a demonstration of valor. The Marines who invaded this Japanese Island fought long and hard against determined enemy resistance in one of the deadliest battles of the war. Some twenty-two were decorated for their valor.

Normandy was another costly situation that demonstrated the valor of our armed forces. We heard radio reports of the Americans’ brave performance under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but pictures in the Saturday Evening Post and Life Magazine brought to life the landing of the Allied troops on June 6, 1944, with tanks and machine guns and soldiers wading the final distance to the beaches, weapons in hand, for the task of liberating France, then driving on into Germany. The well-planned, massive Allied invasion was hard-fought with many American casualties, but it marked the beginning of the end for Hitler.

During the years of American participation in the War, from December 7, 1941 to the surrender of Japan on August 10, 1945, most Americans were involved in some way. The main topic of conversation around the potbellied stove in Mr. Jerkins’ store was not the weather or the crops but what was going on overseas. The common greeting was, “Have you heard any war news today?”

Early in the war it was stressed by our president and his advisors that sacrifices had to be made. Every household was required to register for rationing stamps with which to purchase an allotment of sugar. Later the same system went into effect for gasoline and shoes. A popular slogan was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” I never heard of anyone in Flatridge complaining about the rationing, although I’m sure some did. In the early summer farm families received an extra allotment of sugar that was to be used in all the canning we did during the summer.

I remember one time when I was old enough to know better, probably 11, when Dad had the wheat thrashing crew at our house for the noon meal. My mother, sisters and I had worked hard all morning to prepare a big dinner. As I was setting the table, I noticed the large bag of sugar sitting in the small dining room taking up space, so I moved it to the landing on the stairs. A summer shower came up during dinner. When it rained, the roof above the stairs leaked and we always put buckets under the drips. We were so busy with the dinner and the cleanup that I forgot about the leaks and the sugar. When I retrieved the sugar later, some it was wet. My mother gave me a scolding, and I felt terrible, knowing that I had ruined some of all the sugar we were going to get for the rest of the summer’s canning.

Another way Americans could help with the war effort was by purchasing Series E government bonds. President Roosevelt renamed them “War Bonds,” and buying them was made easy enough for almost anyone to participate. Americans could put their quarters to work by investing in “war stamps” toward the purchase of a bond. The bonds were loans to the government to finance the war. A bond could be purchased for $18.75, and cashed ten years later for $25.00.

My sister, Mildred, was in charge of a campaign at school to encourage the purchase of “war stamps.” She constantly worked on her next speech to be given at the weekly War Bond rally. Dad assisted her with ideas. Another way she contributed her talents was writing to servicemen overseas. She wrote to every soldier she knew and some she didn’t know. Our leaders encouraged writing to servicemen as a way to boost their morale. To make it more efficient, V-mail (Victory-mail) was initiated. A V-mail letter was a very thin, light sheet of paper that incorporated both the message and the envelope. It was folded, stamped, addressed and sent by air mail. These letters took up very little space and weight.

The war was everyone’s responsibility. Even children could contribute. Garnetta and I went about the farm, collecting bits of scrap iron that could be recycled and made into weapons. When we had what we thought was enough to be a worthwhile contribution we hauled it to the road where the milkman picked it up. The milkman, Mr. Hash, had a daily route to the Carnation Milk Plant in Galax. He picked up cans of milk from each farm every morning and brought back the empty cans in the afternoon to be filled again. He was more than happy to deliver the scrap metal to a collection point in Galax.

We also spent our spare time in the summer collecting and drying wild herbs that we could sell for a few cents per pound, then we used the money we earned to purchase savings stamps. We collected Pennyroyal, Mullein leaves, and Mayapple roots. In the fall we collected and shelled black walnuts to sell in Galax. That was a hard job, but it was our best paying endeavor. Both Garnetta and I eventually were able to buy a bond, a little at a time. To us, it was a patriotic duty and made us feel that we could serve our country, too. The idea of interest on our investment wasn’t very important. We couldn’t really comprehend the return in some distant future.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t comprehend either that our zeal for helping defeat the Germans and the Japanese was permanently destroying the beautiful Mayapple plants and the fragrant Pennyroyal on our farm. Soon there were none of the plants left. We didn’t know about extinction nor did we give much thought to the environment. I’m happy to say that Mayapple plants still grow in Flatridge, although not on the Anderson farm.

Among other developments on the home front was the building of an ammunition plant in Radford, about ninety miles northeast of Flatridge. Dad and some other farmers who had carpentry skills signed on for the winter months. They worked five day weeks, coming home on the weekends. Garnetta and I looked forward to the treats Dad would bring home on Friday. We were introduced to bananas and tutti-frutti chewing gum and enjoyed chocolate bars that were a rarity to us. The men were paid well—a dollar an hour was really striking it rich! Dad’s earnings enabled us to get a start on the new house our parents had dreamed of and planned for.

Throughout the country, women were assuming more and more of the roles hitherto considered masculine. Many factory jobs, particularly those relating to the war, were filled by women. Popular songs, such as “Rosie the Riveter,” and magazine ads encouraged women to get involved in the war effort. Women who had never earned a paycheck before enjoyed not only doing their bit for Uncle Sam, but having the personal satisfaction of contributing to the family’s financial security.

People living in cities were encouraged to grow some of their own food in their yards as another way of economizing. These small vegetable plots, appropriately called “Victory Gardens” were very popular. We, to whom gardening was a way of life, endured our city cousins’ bragging about their super tomatoes and beans.

In spite of the economic advantages of war jobs and the enthusiasm and support for our cause, the constant focus on the fighting and the carnage of war eventually had its effect on all of us. We wanted the war to end and things to return to normal. We sang songs of our dreams for peace. One of those I remember said:

There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow just you wait and see;
There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after,
Tomorrow when the world is free.
The shepherd will tend his sheep,
The valley will bloom again;
And Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again.
There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow when the world is free.

For me, the trauma of war became real at Christmas, 1944, when Winifred came home for a few days leave. While she was there, she told us that she had volunteered to go overseas and would go as soon as overseas duty for women Marines was approved. I think that until then I had been fascinated by the idea of having a Marine sister and by the fact that she was forging a new era for women. Besides, I liked the smart-looking uniform that was just like the men’s, except with a skirt. But the idea of her going over there where the actual fighting was going on was a sobering thought. I remember the day she left to go back to Philadelphia. It was cold and rainy. I sat watching the rain pelt the window and thought about the war. I was not a little kid anymore; I was 13. I had a classmate whose father was “missing in action,” and I knew men who came home disabled and some who would never come home at all. On that gray day, someone on the radio was singing “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” The war, as the rain, seemed relentless, and I wondered if the peace the angels sang of was not just a dream.

On April 12, 1945, America suffered a blow at home. President Roosevelt died suddenly in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he often went for treatment for his polio. I remember first hearing the news on the radio. I was in the kitchen preparing supper while my parents and Garnetta were doing the chores.

In the days that followed, our nation was in shock. We had been making good progress pushing the Axis powers back. Now what? How could we continue this effort without our leader? The Vice-President, Harry S. Truman, lacked the experience, the leadership ability and the charisma of Roosevelt. He was very humble as he took the oath of office and he asked the American people to pray for him.

But Truman proved to be as tough as his predecessor, continuing where Roosevelt had left off. The Allied forces defeated the Germans in May of 1945. Truman pushed the work on a secret weapon, known as the Manhattan Project, being developed at a munitions plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. According to some cousins who worked there, the project was so secret that no one knew what it was that was being developed. But the secret became world knowledge in the late summer when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, followed by a second one that targeted Nagasaki three days later. Japan surrendered on August 10.

I remember well the hot August day when we heard the news of Japan’s surrender. We were working in the hay field when the mail carrier, Herbert Russell, drove by, blowing his horn. He was stopping and shouting “Japan has surrendered! The war is over!” to everyone he saw on his route. It was days later when the now familiar picture of the ominous cloud caused by the deadly bomb reached us in the newspaper and we finally learned the extent of the damage the bomb had caused. Four square miles of Hiroshima were destroyed, and unprecedented death and destruction had been wrought. Our elation that the war was finally over was mixed with the horror of it all, although we wanted to think, Those dirty little Japs got what they deserved! Little did anyone realize that the world would never get over the consequences of those two bombs. Unleashing the knowledge of such power was like opening a Pandora’s box. It was H. V. Kaltenborne who observed that we may have created our own Frankenstein.

In the months that followed, the young Flatridge boys who had hung up their overalls, put on uniforms and gone to war with new GI haircuts came home. But they weren’t boys anymore. They had grown up on the battlefield. They knew about fear and survival, and the knew about life on the other side of the mountains. Many of them weren’t content to return to the struggles of farming. They were ready to try out new options. Our government provided a way for those who wanted to get an education to do so through the GI Bill of Rights. High schools and colleges made way for adult students, some married with families. Sgt. Winifred L. Anderson enrolled in the University of Tennessee and realized her dream of a college education. For others, it was the appeal of jobs in nearby towns, removed from the backbreaking long hours in the fields. The era of the family farm was gradually phased out forever.

The higher economic level of the community meant that most families could now have cars, radios and other conveniences. Women were no longer content to be merely homemakers and preservers of tradition. They liked the new independence they had gained during the war. With all the change, Flatridge would never again be an isolated, peaceful, self-sufficient mountain community. As with all change, in some ways it was regrettable, and in some ways it was good; but for sure, it was inevitable.

People change. Communities change. But some things never change. It would seem that a hard-fought worldwide conflict such as World War II would bring about a mindset that would view war as something to be eradicated and would see diplomacy and communication as a better way to solve world problems. But not so. The demise of one Hitler gives rise to another, and so the push for dominance goes on and probably will continue until the world destroys itself. Within five years we were at it again in Korea, followed in 1965 with our involvement in the Vietnam War, neither of which led to a decisive solution, nor was the world any safer from wars and violence.

While the attitude of war hasn’t changed, the way America fights wars has changed. We now expect war to be fought by a few while most Americans go on about their business of amassing more wealth and accumulating more “things.” Personal sacrificing in order to help the fighting troops is a concept few Americans can now comprehend. Today’s Americans seem to think that it is our God-given right to pursue consumerism and to pass the bill for our costly war on to the next generations in the form of an unfathomable national debt. The kind of patriotism that was once symbolized by Service Flags in windows has faded along with the flags that were long ago packed into trunks and forgotten.

We are attempting to fight the war in Iraq by pushing consumerism in the name of boosting the economy. What we have really boosted is greed, self-interest, and fraud. Americans keep reaching for more instead of conserving the precious resources we have. We have sought morality, or so we say. The next generation will question a morality that has wasted the earth’s resources and left them an insurmountable debt.

While we refuse to make the sacrifices necessary to involve ourselves in a war, we are quick to think that we hold the answer to the world’s conflicts. We are Americans! We can fix it! Americans would do well to remember the words of John Quincy Adams who said that America’s heart would always be with free people wherever they are; “but she goes not abroad searching for monsters to destroy.” Concerning the promotion of freedom, Adams said “She will recommend the general cause [of freedom] by the countenance of her voice, and by the benignant sympathy of her example.” Otherwise, the United States “would involve herself beyond the power of extrication.” America could, he said, “become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”(Quoted from Freedom, A History of Us, by Joy Hakim, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 348)

We have departed from the standards of our founders whose stated ideal was that America would never aggressively attack another nation. It is also a grave matter that we no longer treat international agreements, such as those outlined in the Geneva Convention, with the same respect as when we entered into them. In these ways we are forfeiting our position as the leader of the free world.

America could yet become a new leader in a new world if we would pursue peace with the same fervor as we are now pushing war. In his speech at Camp David, following Manachem Begin and Anwar Sadat’s signing of the Peace Accords that ended ongoing hostilities between Israel and Egypt, then President Jimmy Carter spoke about “waging peace.” There has never been a time in the history of mankind when the world was completely free from the undercurrents of war. “Waging peace” would be a worthy goal to pursue.

August, 2006

Freedom, A History of Us, by Joy Hakim, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 347-348);
“Let the Good Times Roll (Life at Home in America in World War II)” by Paul D. Casdo, Encyclopedia Britannica