15 January 2021

Nothing Was Certain

I'm a huge fan of history, particularly WWII history. America was never better, never lived her ideals more fully, than when she sent millions of her sons and daughters out to liberate the world. From the Japanese home islands to the Elbe River in Germany, America, along with her allies, stepped into the breach and stopped tyranny in its tracks. 

Over 400,000 Americans never came home, and we're still recovering their remains today.

Until late 1943, the ultimate outcome was not a sure thing. Until then, the war was the Allies' to lose. Our enemies were smart, well trained, experienced, well equipped and motivated. All we could do was hold in some areas, nibble away at the enemy in others, play for time, gather our resources, and wait for the right opportunities.  

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, America found it relatively easy to turn on the industrial production tap. War materiel began to flow from our factories and shipyards in staggering and ever increasing volumes. But the one thing we couldn't manufacture was men. America's entry into the war created an immediate manpower crisis. There simply were not enough bodies to fill the military drafts, the factories, the farms and the shipyards, to man the merchant fleets, to build the training camps, to operate the railroads, the ammunition plants, the steel mills. To take pressure off of the manpower demands, all services, the Army, Navy, Marines, and the Coast Guard, were forced to do something they had never done before - integrate women into key roles.

Of course we've all heard the stories of women in uniform serving as nurses, medical technicians, clerks and secretaries, as aircraft ferry pilots, as switchboard operators, vehicle drivers, statisticians.

And, of course, thousands of women in all services were trained as radio operators and were taught Morse code. They served in a huge variety of communication roles - as radio watch officers listening for any hint of enemy submarine activity, manning air traffic control networks across the country, coordinating coastal ship movements, sending critical command and control messages across the vast open spaces of the Atlantic and Pacific. Most of this radio traffic was routine and boring, but all too often these operators had a front-row seat to the realities of war: Atlantic convoys reporting their desperate attempts to shake off the attacking U-Boat wolfpacks, merchant ships calling for help while being torn apart by fierce North Atlantic storms, aircraft lost in heavy fog and searching for a safe place to set down, or tiny Pacific islands reporting the sudden appearance of Japanese landing forces, and sending what the operators on both ends of the conversation know will likely be the last transmission.

A few days ago I stumbled on this poster done by John Falter, a famous illustrator who, before the war, was known for his advertising work and magazine covers. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the US Navy Reserves and did a series of well known recruiting and motivational posters. While I've seen and admired a lot of Falter's work, I don't remember ever seeing this poster until just recently. Falter painted it in 1942, when America was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese and Germans were still moving from victory to victory. Our enemies seemed unstoppable and, for a time, they were. From the American perspective, everything was in doubt, nothing was certain, and we were suffering setbacks on every front.

In this poster, Falter beautifully and poignantly captures the seriousness and reality of the time. It isn't the all-too-familiar and jaunty 'Join The Navy And See The World!' recruiting poster. This poster says, "We need you. We need you for serious, demanding, and often heartbreaking work."

...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...

The headphones are in place, her hand is on the key. She's listening intently. There's a look of concern, almost fear, in her eyes. Is it an Allied convoy under attack? An aircraft pilot desperately trying to land? A Navy ship that's not answering the call? 

We'll never know - we can't know. All we do know is, it's a tough fight, and we're all in it.

W8BYH out

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