World War II, Julian M. Pleasants argues convincingly in his new book “Home Front,” had a profound role in shaping the North Carolina we know today — a modern state with diversified agriculture, strong industry, many people who have moved in from elsewhere and at least the beginnings of changes in the closed-minded, white male-dominated society that had prevailed since before the Civil War.
Like the rest of the United States, before World War II, North Carolina had been suffering through the Great Depression, and one of the beneficial side effects of the terrible war was that it jump-started the economy everywhere.
But, Pleasants maintains, the war had a greater effect in the South, and specifically in North Carolina, because those areas were in such dire straits and had so far to go. They were still struggling from the legacy of slavery, losing the Civil War and reconstruction.
Mincing no words, he says the South was a “rural, provincial, poor, racist society,” and North Carolina was:
“… one of the poorest states in the union, with its per capita income ranked 45th out of 48 states. Only one-third of the 67,000 miles of roads in the state were paved, and 66 percent of the state was rural. Over one-third of the farms had no electricity; only one in eight farms had a telephone.”
North Carolina’s leaders, Pleasants recounts, were embarrassed by the fact that the state had the highest rate of draft rejections during World War II, with the primary culprits being illiteracy, lack of education and poor health: rickets, pellagra, rotten teeth and malnutrition.
Through 11 chapters filled with fascinating details and anecdotes, Pleasants gives ample evidence of the profound changes the war brought in the state. The war effort and North Carolina’s important role in it didn’t get rid of all the problems — and Pleasants may be a little overly sanguine about the progress at times — but they certainly left the state a very different place.
A fair amount of the book is devoted to a history of World War II in the United States as a whole, placing what happened in North Carolina in context. Many people in my generation — early baby boomers — never had a good course in World War II history but instead grew up with an incomplete understanding of it based in part on listening to our parents and grandparents.
I suspect that many in later generations have only a superficial knowledge.
Pleasants’ book does a good job of filling those knowledge gaps and, through oral histories and newspaper stories as well as more formal accounts, shows us how the war touched nearly everyone in North Carolina and the rest of the country.
Most Americans today have no concept of a war effort that involves everyone and certainly none of a war that unites nearly all of us in a belief that our cause is just and important. The draft did mean that the Vietnam War affected many families, and that divisive war had profound effects of another sort on society. Since then, and especially with the all-volunteer military, fewer and fewer families have any military connections, and our country’s wars seem remote and separate from our lives.
But after Pearl Harbor, as the nation plunged into World War II, everyone was, in a way, called to service. Most families had at least one member in the military. Pleasants notes that families displayed a Blue Star in their windows for each family member in the armed forces, and that one North Carolina family had six stars. (My own grandmother, in Madison, was honored as a Five Star mother, with five sons, including my father, in uniform, plus a grandson and a foster son.) With resources needed for the war effort, many things including food, gasoline and tires were rationed at home. Families raised Victory Gardens, and children collected scrap metal. Women worked with the Red Cross. People saved their money to buy war bonds.
With the weather favorable and land available, North Carolina was chosen as the site of a number of military bases, several of which, including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, are still going strong.
Pleasants details the building of the bases and the effects their presence had on local communities. He talks about the reactions among the local people to black soldiers, and about how soldiers, black and white, from other regions viewed North Carolina.
One chapter is devoted to “Torpedo Junction” and the intense submarine warfare off the North Carolina coast, including such details as the British sailors buried in a cemetery on Ocracoke Island.
Other chapters deal with North Carolina’s war heroes, prisoners of war confined in the state, and the effects on and participation by the University of North Carolina system, including the pre-flight school at Carolina attended by both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and the all-black B-1 Band.
There are interesting chapters about how the war affected the status quo of racism and the role of women in the state, and how changes necessitated by the war sowed the seeds for the civil rights and women’s movements that would follow.
With all the construction, large numbers of troops in the state and a huge infusion of federal money, North Carolina found itself at war’s end a much wealthier state, able to pave roads, improve education and health care and be ready for the return of troops ready to buy homes, take advantage of the GI Bill and build new lives.
Although Pleasants packs a lot of information into the book, he also tells good stories. It’s quite readable and full of unexpected information and insights.
As is the case with most books, it would have benefited from more editing, to avoid the occasional repetition or confusion.
Toward the end, Pleasants writes of President Franklin’s Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 and says that: “President Harry Truman promised to take up the fallen leader’s banner and win the war in the Pacific. It took over a year of bitter clashes … for victory to be won.” Of course, that’s wrong, as he notes correctly a few sentences later that Japan agreed in August of that same year to surrender and signed the final documents on Sept. 2,1945.
All in all, though, the book has a lot to teach us, and it does so in an engaging and interesting way.