Commonwealth Journal

May 20, 2013

War ration books remind us of difficult times during WWII

By BILL MARDIS, Editor Emeritus
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

With 24/7 news channels spouting horrendous tales of terror and rampant crime, it’s easy to conclude the world has gone to the dogs; that these are dangerous times.
Sadly, horrific events are nothing new. For those old enough to remember World War II, nothing since has matched the impact this global conflict had on the American people.
Fear was enhanced by a lack of knowledge. Radio was coming into its own, but there was no television. During World War II people in this country mostly depended on the voice of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow. Believe it or not, many homes did not have a radio.
Blackouts –– all lights turned out during mock bombing raids –– sent chills up the most manly of spines. Mothers crying on front porches as sons went off to war were pictures of pain beyond comprehension. They had seen the ghostly octagonal structures on practically every courthouse lawn with gold stars by names of those who already had paid the ultimate price.
Young people during those terrible times grew up thinking war was in their future. Dreams of dying on a battlefield were more realistic than fantasy.
With urging, an old soldier, now deceased, told this writer about the Beaches of Normandy. He shuddered as he remembered how they were warned before the landing they might not make it to shore. To the day of his death he never avoided nightmares and the screams of his buddies as they fell by his side.
  The Invasion of Normandy was the establishment of Allied forces in Normandy, France, during Operation Overlord in 1944 during World War II. At the time it was the largest amphibious invasion to ever take place.
  Not to diminish sacrifices of our men and women in today’s Armed Forces, most Americans during these times of wars and rumors of wars go about their daily lives. There are new cars, plenty of gasoline at a high price, several pairs of shoes and sugar to sweeten our coffee.
 No so between 1941 and 1945. We were reminded of these terrible times recently while looking at two War Ration Books issued to Samuel and Elizabeth Mulcahy, great-grandparents of Rob McCullough, publisher of the Commonwealth Journal. The ration books are well preserved, each containing several unused stamps.
  Beginning in May 1942, war ration books and tokens were issued to each American family, dictating how much gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, silk, shoes, nylon and other items any one person could buy. Across the country 8000 rationing boards were created to administer these restrictions. 
 The main purpose of the restrictions on gas purchasing was to conserve tires. Japanese armies in the Far East had cut the U.S. off from its chief supply of rubber.
  There were four rationing classifications. An "A" classification entitled the holder to four gallons a week. A "B" classification was worth about eight gallons a week. "C" was reserved for occupations like doctors. "X" went to people whose very survival required that they be able to purchase gasoline in unlimited quantities. Rationing was handled through the federal Office of Price Administration. 
  To get a classification and rationing stamps, citizens appeared at the OPA office in person and swore they (1) needed gas desperately and (2) owned no more than five automobile tires (any in excess of five were confiscated by the government). 
  Each driver was given a windshield sticker that proclaimed his classification. The buyer surrendered his stamp at the point of purchase, and the vendor forwarded the records to the OPA.
  Gas rationing began on a nationwide basis on December 1, 1942. It ended on August 15, 1945. Speed limits were 35 mph for the duration. For a short time in 1943, rations were reduced further and all pleasure driving was outlawed.
  Having a stamp didn’t always mean rationed items were available. Self-service was still in the future and clerks in retail stores “waited” on customers. If a store got in a supply of a rationed items, specifically sugar, it often was saved for regular customers. Signs, often hastily printed on cardboard, would say, for example, “No Sugar.” If you were a regular customer, the sign didn’t mean you.
  Silk stockings were treasured by women and “scuffles” among female customers for the popular leg wear were not uncommon.
  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941 dramatically ended the debate over America's entrance into the war that raged around the world. 
 Almost overnight the economy shifted to war production. Consumer goods now took a back seat to military production as nationwide rationing began almost immediately. 
  The U.S. Office of Price Administration in May 1942 froze prices on practically all everyday goods, starting with sugar and coffee.