You’da thought we were a nation of rabbits! Soldiers and sailors came home from Europe and North Africa and Asia and bam! Their wives delivered babies nine months and twenty minutes later!
They were a fertile lot. The population increase from 1940 to 1950 was more than double the increase from 1930 to 1940.
There are stories of young men comparing military campaign notes in maternity waiting rooms. “Lessee: it’s June, ‘46; the bomb dropped last August ... So, you were in the Pacific when the Emperor surrendered. Am I right?”
“Mmm ... Good guess. Actually I came back from Berlin, walking the frontier with the Soviets.”
“What? I thought you said you were a Marine!”
“Who said anything about Marines! Airborne, my friend. All the way.”
These people were, quite simply, a different breed. Raised in the biggest economic bust in America’s history, they fueled one of the biggest booms. They came of age winning America’s last good war; but the horror of the victory was emotionally debilitating.
Women watched helplessly as men shut down. Permanently. Many Boomers grew up with male role models more like the Marlboro Man than, say, Santa Claus. They were silent, stoic, distant, disconnected—from their spouses and children ... everything but work, really. Sure it’s a stereotype; but nobody made it up. Those men had other, secret lives. Some because they went overseas, others because they didn’t.
And what do you suppose was the effect on the 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent who lost everything when they were relocated to camps from the California mountains to the Mississippi River? Hard to say. They mostly didn’t talk about it.
James Jones wrote about his war with horrible realism in The Thin Red Line. Joseph Heller wrote about his with equally horrible comedy in Catch 22. Everyone else stuck to the numbers. How many went ashore, how many fell from the sky, how much ground was covered, how many lives lost.
Or they remained silent.
World War II Casualties
The Good Guys
Belgium: 88,000 dead; 76,000 civilians.
Brazil: a thousand dead.
Australia: 24,000 dead.
Canada: 38,000 dead.
India: 24,000 dead.
New Zealand: 10,000 dead.
South Africa: 7,000 dead.
United Kingdom: 357,000 dead; 92,673 civilians.
The British Colonies: 7,000 dead.
China: 1,310,224 killed, wounded or in prison
Czechoslovakia: 225,000 dead; 215,000 civilians.
Denmark: 4,000 dead; half of them civilians.
France: 563,000 dead; 350,000 civilians.
Greece: 413,000 dead; 325,000 civilians.
Netherlands: 208,000 dead, 200,000 civilians.
Norway: 10,000 dead, 7,000 civilians.
Poland (better sit down): 5,800,000; 5,675,000 civilians.
Philippines: 118,000 dead; 91,000 civilians.
United States: 298,000 dead; 6,000 civilians.
USSR (still sitting I hope): 18,000,000 dead;
Yugoslavia: 1,505,000 dead; 1,200,000 civilians.
The Bad Guys
Bulgaria: 20,000 dead; half civilians.
Finland: 84,000 dead; 2,000 civilians.
Germany: 4,200,000 dead; 780,000 civilians.
Hungary: 490,000 dead; 290,000 civilians
Italy: 395,000 dead; 152,941 civilians.
Japan: 1,972,000 dead; 672,000 civilians
(most on Aug 6-9 1945)
Romania: 500,000 dead; 200,000 civilians.
Maybe men talked to each other, I don’t know. Maybe they talked about this stuff down at the lodge, or with their hunting buddies, their drinking pals, their shrinks, their mistresses. But not with us. They couldn’t say it ... or we couldn’t hear it.
They kept an awful lot to themselves. What they couldn’t keep quiet was a growing obsession with having done the right thing. That aching desperation echoes in the closing moments of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It’s 50 years since D-Day and the 70 year-old Ryan pleads, “Am I a good man? Tell me I lived a good life.”
You can’t make that stuff up; I wept when I heard it.
The picture was not any less complex for the women.
On September 2, 1945, the rules changed. Japan’s unconditional surrender ended one war and began another. The new war was about identity—who would everyone be in the new world order? Many of the women would be numbered among the casualties.
Imagine leaving home to join the war effort, taking a serious job, doing serious work in a serious cause. Forget Can-Do! spirit. Franklin Roosevelt rose from his wheelchair and said this was Do or Die! And nearly everyone believed him.
By golly, America’s women rose to the challenge. Women built tanks and airplanes and battle ships. Women manufactured bullets and bombs. But not all. Some stayed home and worked the farms and stores. They kept paying taxes and buying War Bonds; kept rationing gasoline and sugar; kept raising sons and sending them to Europe or North Africa or The Pacific; kept raising daughters and sending them to work in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Oakland or D.C.
Imagine ... take a moment ... Imagine the postpartum-sized depression when their services were no longer required. If not my services, then what? Am I no longer required? Who, exactly, am I now?
It’s not the first time American women stepped into the gap. Female colonists and pioneers did the hard work of colonizing and pioneering until they died. Their daughters or granddaughters settled down eventually; but not the first generation. They cleared fields and crossed rivers and drove teams and mended canvas. They did their part. And no question about it, so did 8 million American women who went to work during the Second World War.
Only this time there was an expiration date on their value in the workforce.
May 8, 1945: V.E. Day; well done! Now we finish it in the Pacific Theater.
August 6: The Atom Bomb bursts over Hiroshima. The end is near. August 9: Another Bomb over Nagasaki.
September 2: Surrender. Stand down.
A grateful nation thanks you. Now, go home.
And, just like that, American women were out of a job. The good news and the bad news were the same news.
In the 1930s more than half the states had laws against hiring married women. All that changed when we needed them in the 40s—and then abruptly changed again. About 800,000 women in the aircraft industry were laid off within two months of the peace. By 1948 the combined layoffs of women totaled 2 million.
I don’t know if women spoke much more about their experiences than men did. Perhaps it would have seemed un-American, maybe unwomanly, to complain.
There’s more. Imagine watching the one you love shut down. Imagine having babies in a flurry, moving to the suburbs, taking on a clerical job to help with the mortgage—spread thin between the workplace and your place as a wife and mother, as a homemaker. Meanwhile the guy across the living room, the one who shares your bed, gradually checks out into work or booze or both. You hardly know him anymore. And the children never knew the man you fell in love with. What now?
Did my grandparents’ generation watch all this and wonder who raised these people? That generation’s coming of age was plenty dramatic in its own right. Their families were buoyed along on an economic and technological high tide at the turn of the 20th century, only to be shipwrecked by the Great War in Europe and the 1917 Flu epidemic that killed maybe 30 million people worldwide. The survivors, you may recall, were called The Lost Generation. Nothing subtle about that.
As the 40s ended, young Americans were sucked into a vortex of change that made their heads spin. Geographical and social displacement; a gender crisis almost nobody talked about; babies everywhere; exploding college enrollment; a religious revival on the West Coast; labor disputes in the cities; globalization and a heavy tax burden driven by the Marshall Plan’s massive foreign aid; high-tech innovation; economic growth and work, work, work!
— from Raising Adults