Those who experienced World War II, whether abroad or on the Home Front, were exposed to a moment in history in which statistical superlatives were commonplace. Never before, and certainly never again would a farmer in England look aloft to see a continuous stream of four-engine bombers fifty miles wide and one hundred miles long on their way to or from targets in Europe, or witness an armada of 4000 sea-going vessels heading toward the Normandy coast and crowding the width of the English Channel as if it were a duck pond to unload millions of tons of materiel on docks and wharves not yet in existence, but which would be built, under enemy fire, only in time for their virtual arrival. It was a time when the output of an industrial complex thought to be crippled by years of depression developed overnight the capacity to supply the bulk of military hardware – trucks, guns, ships, planes and munitions, and yes even the food - needed to supply the armies and navies of all the Allied Powers, including the supine Russia for four long years to come. The numbers are staggering to ponder, even today, when we have really no other yardstick by which to assess their historic significance.
One by-product of this remarkable and prodigious effort for America, was the unifying effect it had on our citizens; those were not just men and ships and tanks and planes, those were OUR men and ships and tanks and planes, and wherever one traveled in this country, the pride in what was taking place was everywhere-evident. Our ancestral family home on the New Jersey Palisades directly overlooked the widening Hudson River and the Port of New York. We were surrounded by military flying installations and the world’s busiest military embarkation centers. Because German U-boats were sinking ships just offshore in 1942, we were frequently subjected to nighttime “blackouts” in an effort to mitigate the background illumination which made our ships sitting targets. An older brother owned a Hallicrafters S-40 short-wave radio receiver, and many the night we stayed up late, headphones glued to our ears listening in to what was going on all around us, over and beyond the “official” war news which was a constant in our house. Because of our location, our home became a literal “nexus” for cousins, uncles and a wide circle of family friends (and even perfect strangers) from every part of the country on their way to or from fighting zones, and I found myself sticking colored pins into the huge world maps covering every section of bedroom wall not already filled with aircraft photos garnered from such sources as Boeing, Consolidated, Grumman and North American Aviation. The war effort was very personal.
Victory when it came, first in Europe, then the Pacific, hit everyone in a deeply-felt and profound way. I was only twelve years of age at war’s end, but the WWII era would prove to be for me the defining years of my life on many levels. One of those memories comes powerfully to mind as I explore how we processed the meaning of final victory.
“Navy Day” had been an annual tradition in the United States ever since being introduced on October 27th, 1922, and would continue to be until 1949. Navy Day, 1945 – just 60 days after Japan’s surrender on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri -- was the capstone of all military celebrations, and for me it was a day of sheer glory. The Hudson River, my very “doorstep” had become the anchorage of America’s “hero ships”, from both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, with the battleship “Missouri” herself at the center and the aircraft carrier “Enterprise” – “The Big ‘E’” – moored nearby. In all a pantheon of warships seven miles long stretched before the eyes of nearly 50,000 people who came to see, while 1,200 Naval aircraft flew back and forth overhead and New York City’s flamboyant fire boats cruised about, shooting great plumes of haloed water into the air.
President Harry Truman gave a speech, but that was hardly the best part. For me, that was a ride in a Coast Guard launch threading its way through the gauntlet of galleons, and a visit aboard the greatest “flattop” of the war, and the deck of a U.S. submarine (probably No. 477, the newly minted USS Conger), surrounded by fluttering flags and an overwhelming sense of belonging to the greatest country on earth.
Launched too late to complete a war patrol, but in proud display for Navy Day 1945, the USS Conger (No. 477) stands in for “The Silent Service”. Altogether, the U.S. deployed 288 submarines – almost all to The Pacific Theater – in WWII, carrying out nearly 1700 war patrols. For 22% of those undersea sailors, there was no coming home from the final one. (We will pursue this story in a future column).
U.S. Navy Photos