University of Nebraska Press

American children of World War II have been called the forgotten or silent generation, overlooked between the Greatest Generation and the baby boomers, despite having a key role in the country’s wartime motivation and efforts. This study brings the wartime experience of children to fore, with a focus on the negotiation of contradictory themes of children as political objects and children as political agents. Through an analysis of familial letters written during the war, the essay demonstrates that the nation’s propaganda themes were ingrained in the daily home front lives of at least some American families.


World War II, propaganda, children, families, epistolary

Although they were a key part of the United States’ motivation to fight and its home front war efforts, the children of World War II have been called the forgotten generation because they were born before the baby boom but were still too young to be part of the socalled Greatest Generation. They are also known as the silent generation, a children’s home front army that was stoically proud of its patriotism and its loyalty, quietly pulling wagonloads of scrap, buying war bonds, and planting victory gardens while the adults took on the larger tasks.1

It is perhaps no surprise to find that the wartime experiences of a generation characterized as both forgotten and silent usually take a back seat to the contributions of its predecessor. True, the total war effort required mobilization of virtually all citizens, each of [End Page 59] them called to the aid of the country through cultural pressures and patriotic appeals to serve in the military, do production work, buy bonds, and conserve resources.2 But both history and memory have been rather selective as to which of those contributions deserve to be remembered. Military recruitment, which easily called upon established ideals of democracy and masculinity, has featured prominently in postwar attention. Similarly, women’s war work, with its creative reframing and expansion of gender roles, has garnered much attention. But because the mobilization of the home front’s children emerged from a context that was dominated by these sorts of adult roles, the ways that the culture depicted its youngest generation have been more easily overlooked.

For its part, military recruitment was premised largely on the reasons “why we fight,” as the saying went, justifying America’s involvement in the war as a fight for freedom in a global effort to crush fascist tyranny. Messages were crafted “with an eye to offering emotional reasons for supporting one’s own war effort; the cause of one’s allies; and for fearing and hating one’s enemies.”3 Frank Capra’s Why We Fight film series emphasized principles of equality, freedom, and liberty through compilations of newsreels, enemy footage, stirring music, dramatic animations, voiceover narration, and captured raw material. The radio program This Is War! featured halfhour episodes that wove data about US manufacturing, farm production, military mobilization, and enemy atrocities into dramatic and moving narratives about democracy and the indomitable human spirit. And the Writers’ War Board, a private organization that supported government propaganda goals, glamorized low-profile military personnel such as navigators, bombardiers, tail gunners, ground crews, and infantry.4 Manliness was evident in these assorted messages, in a variety of demonstrations of duty, calls for morality, and reminders of responsible self-restraint.

In contrast, the mobilization of women featured intense recruitment campaigns that aimed to assimilate them into the workforce and to generate social acceptance for women’s work in the war effort. Propaganda agencies, most notably the War Manpower Commission, the Office of War Information (OWI), the War Advertising Council, and the Joint Army-Navy Personnel Board, [End Page 60] encouraged women to enter, and be hired into, the workforce. These campaigns had to overcome traditional prejudices against working women, and so, women’s patriotic commitment was emphasized alongside representations of their commitment to beauty and domesticity.5 In her exploration of competing discourses of women’s mobilization during WWII, Marilyn E. Hegarty observes that “women’s bodies were nationalized and their sexuality militarized: women’s laboring and sexual bodies were, in a sense, drafted for the duration.”6 This dynamic emerged most obviously in the ubiquitous pinup art of the era. As art historian Maria Elena Buszek notes, such art combined cinematic ideals of femininity with wartime ideals for ordinary women on the American home front, reflecting “propaganda campaigns that encouraged women to emulate and men to idolize female types normally vilified during peacetime and actively discouraged during the depression—powerful, productive women in professions and the military.”7 The pinup was accordingly appreciated by men, both as representative of wives and sweethearts waiting at home and as a reason for soldiers to fight. It was also appreciated by women as an illustration of their newfound economic and public power.8

In many respects, the symbolization of the silent generation’s place in the war drew from the prominent campaigns that enveloped their parents. Children often emerged as young citizens, deemed heroic and capable in their own right, as a way to offset concerns about their becoming victims of the great national war machine. Such messages were consistent with the children’s propaganda of World War I, which presented war as an opportunity for younger citizens to learn valuable skills and virtues.9 But the subsequent war’s children, as historian Robert Wm Kirk argues, were trained to play soldier and nurse by parents, teachers, and popular media.10 Meanwhile, the propaganda images of the day alternated between emphasizing children’s helpless innocence and their useful abilities, consistent with political uses of children as both agents and objects in propaganda.11 Deemed little adults with a mixture of pride and anxiety in the face of wartime production demands, children took on greater responsibilities for the duration. On farms (where children as young as three were expected to contribute), they worked longer hours, to the detriment [End Page 61] of their schooling. Urban teenagers were sent to help local farmers with harvesting, in addition to making up a notable part of factory workforces. 12 At school, too, children participated in the war effort, their social studies lessons drawing them into war stamp and war bond sales, scrap drives, and rationing economics. Their curriculum emphasized patriotism, world affairs, and vocational skills useful in defense work. 13 Even their free time was marked by the war. Each holiday season brought more war-themed toys, and children’s play and leisure time was filled with imaginary battles against Nazis and Japanese enemies, letter writing to enlisted men, matinee newsreels and war films, and radio heroes standing for truth and justice. 14

Children’s physical contributions to the war effort are well documented. Less evident in scholarship, however, are studies of their cultural place within wartime America. Indeed, researchers have seldom discussed children’s propaganda, despite its prominence in American life, particularly in the WWII period. This study is, therefore, interested in children’s wartime roles, not in the national war effort but in the war-torn family.

Psychologists and sociologists have repeatedly studied how children were impacted during the war by changing family structures and new living arrangements, as extended family or friends combined households and moved in together. 15 And much attention was given at the time to the long-term influence of the war years on youth. Critics feared how the absence of both parents would affect America’s first latchkey children, and the latter years of the war were “marked by a growing fear that the conflict was creating a generation of juvenile delinquents,” with school dropout rates rising as teenagers sought employment or engaged in youthful promiscuity— and girls justified sexual liaisons with military men as a patriotic duty.16 But in WWII, it was ultimately the family’s responses to the changes wrought by the war that most affected the development and perception of the children. For example, in his effort to bring together sociological, psychological, and anthropological literature on American childhood during WWII, William M. Tuttle Jr. argues that the more traumatized a mother was by a father’s absence, the more quickly a child was likely to be pushed into adult roles.17 [End Page 62]

The importance of maternal responses to the cultural positioning of children during WWII suggests a means for examining the ways in which families defined their children in the context of wartime. The scholarship of women’s and gender studies professor Maureen Honey on home front women argues that studies focusing on how war work challenged restrictive ideas of womanhood “gained considerable insight into the ways in which the contradictory themes of woman as homemaker and woman as competent performer of male roles were meshed” in media recruitment campaigns.18

The present study, similarly interested in the negotiation of contradictory themes of children as political objects and children as political agents, focuses not on the propaganda narratives found in popular media but rather looks to the letters of war, especially those exchanged with a father (or occasionally an uncle or cousin) serving in the military. These include the letters written from the home front by mothers of young children, as well as by youths old enough to write, to those family members, especially fathers, who were stationed on the front lines. They also include letters from the war theater to the home front, particularly those from fathers writing to or about their children, sometimes including children they had not yet met.

Such personal documents are useful to social research as “documents of life” that record the merging of public and private events. Daily letters offer a particular combination of retrospective sensemaking and the recording of a changing present.19 Fortunately, letters were a significant source of family communication during the war years. Many face-to-face relationships were replaced with letter-toletter relationships, in which soldiers relied on home front reports of the mundane as a ritual of reassurance that life continued at homes to which they could return. Relationships and roles within the family were also maintained and occasionally renegotiated through epistolary. Children and adults alike understood the importance of written exchanges during the war, and even before they reached school age, children joined in families’ letter-writing rituals, the mothers of toddlers enclosing their scribbles in letters going overseas.20 Some families, whenever possible, even included absent fathers in their [End Page 63] decision-making, while soldiers deployed together enjoyed the opportunity to share news from home with one another. For their part, letters from soldiers to their families at home offered a mixture of war stories and fatherly advice, particularly admonishments to children to behave and to help their mothers.21

The letters in this analysis were found in eight collections in the Veterans History Project archives at the Library of Congress (accessed both through digital archives and on-site) and from eight curated and edited letter collections published as books. Using the principles of thematic analysis, as outlined by psychologists Virginia Braun and Victoria Clark, and of generative criticism, the analysis pointed to four broad topical categories in the letters that defined or situated wartime children: children as hope for the future; children as evidence of marital relations; children as war workers; and children as dependents.22 These topics were then considered in relation to the six programmatic themes promoted by OWI from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s January 6, 1942, message to Congress: the issues (why we fight); the enemy (whom we fight); the United Nations and peoples (with whom we fight); work and production (how each can fight); sacrifice (the cost to win the fight); and the fighting forces (the combatants at the front).23

Of OWI’s six narrative themes, the ones that most obviously filtered into the life of the children growing up in the United States during WWII were the issues (why we fight), which related to children as hope for the future; work and production (how each can fight), which related to children as war workers; and sacrifice (the cost of the fight), which related to children as dependents and evidence of marital relations. The balance of this article reveals how familial letters from the war period highlighted each of these three themes in turn.24

Why We Fight

Propaganda posters featuring curly-haired youngsters being threatened by Germany and Japan, beseeching Americans not to “let that shadow touch them” and to buy bonds to “protect his future,” [End Page 64] visually made a case for why we fight—the preservation of American ideals as embodied in the promise of American children.25 Letters to and from the home front echoed these sentiments with expressions about children and families as something to come home to and for, children as indicators of what the future would hold for returning soldiers and, especially, what the war meant for the future of the children. Lieutenant Henry O. Harwell III, for instance, observing that his newborn son was not “impressed with world affairs,” hoped the child would be “able to remain rather unconcerned about such things as wars for this is said to be the ‘war to end all wars.’”26 Lieutenant Charles E. Taylor wrote much the same to his wife, indicating that he hoped “this is one war to end all wars forever,” because he would hate to think of his daughter sitting at home waiting for her husband as her mother had before her.27

Birth announcements, particularly, gave the fighting men something to celebrate and a reason to carry on through the hardships of service and combat. Upon learning of her birth, Lieutenant Walter Schuette wrote to his daughter: “You will never know the joy I knew when I received word that you had arrived. Suddenly the sun shone through the fog. The mud paths seemed paved with gold. The boys thought I had gone stir crazy or maybe slap happy. I guess I was a little daft.”28 The letter was accompanied with a war bond gifted to the newborn from the men in Schuette’s company. As the new father noted, “I pray that the efforts of your daddy and his buddies will not have been in vain. That you will always be permitted to enjoy the great freedoms for which this war is being fought. It is not pleasant, but knowing that our efforts are to be for the good of our children makes it worth the hardships.”29

Captain George Rarey had a similar reaction when he learned he was a new father to a baby boy. He wrote to his wife, Junie, telling her that “all the boys in the squadron went wild. Oh it’s wonderful!”30 Rarey further indicated how his perception of the conditions at the front had suddenly altered, commenting, “I’m sort of delirious— Today everything is special—This iron hut looks like a castle— The low hanging overcast outside is the most beautiful kind of blue I’ve ever seen—I’m a father—I have a son! My darling Wife has had a fine boy and I’m a king.” But whereas Schuette suggested [End Page 65] that the war would help to secure the future for his daughter, Rarey reflected to his wife that the war was “ridiculous and worthless” compared to the wonder of a birth.31 The two perspectives were not, however, incompatible in viewing children as a reason to fight. Upon receiving the news of the birth of his second child, Lieutenant Dexter Bowker indicated that the war was “the bitterest pill I’ve ever had to swallow,” and yet he hoped that “somebody or something is deriving commensurate benefit from it.”32 In turn, Margaret Bowker told her husband: “Just think, when you went away you had a son and a wife, and now you also have a little daughter, so you’ve even more to come home to.”33

Children were symbolic of the why we fight narrative’s focus on manliness as well. History professor James Spiller, who specializes in politics, science, and technology, argues that the popular radio broadcasts of This Is War! infused “battle cries for civilization with gendered language that had long been used to promote America’s wars. The Axis powers not only threatened liberty, the series implied, they imperiled the delicate gender balances then credited as bases for advanced civilization.”34 Liberal democratic society, in this view, depended on men sublimating and channeling their masculine passions into moral and productive outlets.35 Accordingly, babies born in marriage were markers of appropriate masculine virility.

Wartime letters frequently channeled this perspective. In one sense of doing so, mothers and fathers alike devoted much attention in their correspondence to noting the physical resemblance of children to the parents. As Margaret Bowker wrote to her husband, describing the birth of their daughter: “She’s darling. She looks exactly like you. I really mean it.”36 Private Will Fahlberg touched on the same issue, writing to his wife: “As you know, I am so proud of Wee Willie, and when you say he looks like his dad, it makes me smile all over.”37 Similarly, Colonel Robert Coombs told his wife that “the boys used to think Dick looked like me, but now they insist he takes after you, which should prove at least that he is really ours.”38

On a related theme, couples contemplated the desire or likelihood of bearing more offspring after the war as marital relations resumed. Major Joseph Gurfein wrote of his desire to have more children, telling his parents: “We’ll have a couple of grandsons for you if I ever [End Page 66] can get back home.”39 Lieutenant Taylor, echoing the ideal of manly and moral self-control, even suggested to his wife that she be fitted with a diaphragm before he returned to the home front because “sexual intercourses are natural with persons who are together and married. But, when there are intercourses, there are bound to be children,” and he didn’t think they could afford more children for a few years and still “be fair” to themselves or their daughter.40

In some of these epistolary narratives, the why we fight theme blended seamlessly into with whom we fight as integral to the teamwork theme of the war effort and the notion of “the people’s war.”41 Parents compared the lives of their American children to those of children in Europe. Barbara Wooddall Taylor wrote regularly to her husband of the development of their daughter, Sandra Lee, to keep him in the family circle. In a letter dated October 1944, she remarked: “You know, I was just thinking how grand it is that we are Americans. Sandra Lee looks at airplanes in the sky and claps her hands and says ‘Purty’ (pretty). She’ll never have to realize the terror of an enemy plane that might drop a bomb on her. She gets a thrill out of soldiers and she’ll never see the ragged, bloody, dirty soldier who is tired and hungry but has to keep on the go, and that soldier might be her own Daddy.”42 Likewise, writing to his son from “somewhere in Belgium” on December 31, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Edwin “Ed” Sackett observed that “there is war all around me and the Belgian kids your age are not having a very happy new years. They are wondering if bombs will fall on their houses—some have had their homes destroyed and parents killed—yet they are cheerful and greet you with a smile saying ‘Hello, have you bon-bons?’”43 Such sentiments neatly complemented the propaganda messages of America media, such as a 1942 promotion by the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company that showed a terrified mother clinging to her daughter as a German bomber plane flies overhead, telling the public to buy war bonds “before it’s too late.”44

Historian Robert Westbrook suggests, in his analysis of why Americans chose to commit themselves to the war effort, that “war, perhaps more so than other experience, heightens reflection and debate about political obligation,” and that “once the question of ‘why we fight’ becomes concrete . . . we all take on the mantle of political [End Page 67] philosopher.”45 Philosophizing is certainly evident in the letters from fathers of newborns, who waxed hopeful that their service would mean that their children would grow up in a world without war. Westbrook further notes that the liberal tradition of political philosophy manifested “the peculiarities of political obligation” for Americans and, accordingly, that “propagandists also appealed to Americans both as individuals and as families to join the war effort” in support of their conceptions of why they fought, linking the why with the how.46

How We Fight

In his book Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, George L. Mosse identifies the “Myth of the War Experience” that emerged in WWI and thereafter came to dominate much of the twentieth century. The myth, Mosse suggests, sanctified war as a transformative experience. Yet it also trivialized war “through its association with objects of daily life, popular theater, or battlefield tourism.”47 In so doing, he concludes, the myth prepared people to accept war as inevitable. Communications and mass-media historian Ross F. Collins adds to this point, describing how the myth aided propaganda by demonstrating that “war might no longer be an evil to be feared; it could be like a game, an invitation to play football for glory greater than mere trophies.”48 Tellingly, when WWII propaganda blurred the distinction between the home front and the front line, this myth could be applied to total mobilization by encouraging children, and their mothers, to think like soldiers.49 Thus, the Myth of the War Experience ultimately fed campaigns of war work and production by making war a character-building and transformative experience for not only those on the front lines but also those on the home front. Each man, woman, and child, no matter their circumstances, contributed in some way to the how we fight theme.

Children were in fact transformed into little soldiers in propaganda and patriotic appeals throughout WWII. Consider a 1942 government poster by Irving Nurick that featured a children’s parade. A high school girl leads the way, wearing a “Buy War Savings” sash [End Page 68] and carrying a basket of patriotic ribbons and a war savings bond. Behind her comes a teenage boy wearing a tin pot like a helmet and carrying scrap metal and rubber. Last in line is a young boy in short pants and an aviator hat carrying a model airplane. The headline below proclaims: “We Are Ready. What about You? Schools at War.” Another poster featured three young children being threatened by an ominous, swastika-shaped shadow; here, a boy holds a model airplane in one hand as his other reaches out protectively to a younger boy, who is wearing a makeshift sailor’s hat and holding a small American flag against his shoulder, while a girl clutches her doll in fear.50 The children’s roles in the poster are tacitly militarized, a dynamic that would also play out more actively at events like school productions in which students playacted roles such as Uncle Sam, soldiers, sailors, farmers, and housewives.51

At home, too, children were cast into these wartime roles of fighters, war workers, or entertainers. As the correspondence of their parents reveals again and again, even children too young to conceive of such wartime roles were imagined into them. The letters Barbara Coombs wrote to her husband, which frequently placed her toddler, Dickie, into the drama of war, provide an excellent example. When Dickie acted up, she described it as having “a battle”; when he “got his finger mashed in the bathroom door,” she wrote, “we’ve had our first casualty here at home”; and when, a few months later, he “caught the little finger of his right hand in the door out into his room,” she told her husband that “Dick won another purple heart award this morning.”52 When Dickie showed fortitude or knowledge, his mother described him as acting “like a veteran.”53 Later, he emulated a family friend visiting on leave from the army. His mother wrote that Dickie “was all for going back to the Army with Bill. Packed his suitcase yesterday morning and told Bill to hurry. Bill picked up his barracks bag, Dick his suitcase and they trudged off down the road. Dick was really in earnest and Bill only got him turned around because he hadn’t kissed me goodbye. Was awful mad because I wouldn’t let him go until he was bigger.”54 Dickie’s mother attributed other adult behaviors to her son. He was found “with a cigarette in his mouth and trying to light it with Bill’s lighter. Bill finally lit it for him but he cried when the smoke went in his eyes.”55 [End Page 69] And after Barbara bought her husband an Alberto Vargas pinup calendar, she wrote to him that “Dick asked to see the pictures. Held it up and he took one look, rolled his eyes and said ‘Oh My’ turning his head away very coyly as he said it. . . . If you’d been here to teach him you couldn’t have done better.”56

Older children, meanwhile, took on more deliberate roles by engaging in war games. Sackett wrote to his son, Dick, who was recovering from the measles, that he hoped he would soon be “playing guns with the kids as before.” Sackett also compared real war to war games, noting: “I have a helmet just exactly like yours.”57 In another letter to Dick, he remarked, “[I] guess the woods are getting in shape for you + the other kinds to play ‘jungle warfare’ by now and you’re hard at it.”58 Adding realism to the war games, Sackett sent his son “a box of stuff . . . which you should enjoy. German flag, helmet, gas mask, buttons, insigna, + fur cap.”59 This dynamic was in fact typical of the era. During the war years, children frequently played war in imaginary neighborhood battles against the Nazis or played board games in which they bombed the Japanese enemy.60

Girls also enacted the how we fight theme by adopting war roles. Thirteen-year-old Charmaine Leavitt wrote to a neighbor who was stationed in North Africa: “I sure will hate to go back to school again. Now if I was old enough I would join the SPAR (?) or something like that.”61 Other girls, however, took on more traditional support roles. Pinups were one of the state-sanctioned and culturally acceptable roles for women in support of fighting men, providing surrogate objects of sexual and domestic desire.62 And while Hollywood provided plenty of provocative images for men’s enjoyment, the women and girls at home also became modest pinups. Sergeant Albert Webb, for example, wrote to his school-age cousin Betty Ann to say that he had “tacked your picture on the wall above my bed where I can see it every day and am very glad you sent it to me.”63

Another example of a wartime role tailored for girls appeared soon after the birth, in 1943, of Margie Gurfein. Her mother, Marion, sent her father at the front a “pin-up girl” card that she made using photographs of the baby. The front of the card displayed a window with a raised blind through which the child was peeking. The inside featured a horizontal photograph of the naked child stretched out [End Page 70] on her stomach, proclaiming: “Here’s one ‘pin-up’ that I bet you can’t forget!”64 In subsequent handmade newsletters and cards to her husband, Marion cast their infant daughter as a “glitter girl,” a “gorgeous glamour girl [who] wins leg contest,” “popular subdeb,” “society’s darling,” “dazzle-puss,” “society’s pet,” “heiress,” “Miss ‘Belle of Beach,’” and “the dazzler.”65 Such terms echoed the contributions to war morale and public self-perception issuing from Hollywood, with its language and images of wartime allure, luxury, class, privilege, and seduction.66

Another supportive role for many children related more generally to family entertainment in service of boosting adult morale, even if with less glamorous casting than Margie Gurfein received. Richard Wilson Scar, born in 1942 to a family with five brothers serving in the military, was charged with “a lot of entertaining to do now as he is the only boy you all have to divide among you.”67 And as he grew, he did “a lot of jabbering now—just like he was telling something so funny and then he laughs,” which got the family all laughing too.68 Barbara Coombs told her husband that their son was “certainly a good moral builder upper.”69 And Renee Pike told her husband: “I miss you an awful lot today, George. Even though Georgie keeps me busy and takes my mind off you sometimes.”70 On the war front, too, husbands were relieved that their wives had company and care from children. Before being forced by the Japanese into the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, Sergeant J. M. Smith told his wife, Martha, that he knew “you have suffered and grieved many times since I have left but chin up and look the world in the face for you have of the sweetest things in the world to brighten your life.”71 Similarly, Lieutenant Herman Krauss told his wife that he was glad their son gave her “a little companionship” in his absence.72

Beyond entertainment and companionship, children’s roles in the fight extended to specific contributions to the work of the household, which amounted to their own little area of responsibility within the greater war effort. Indeed, a preoccupation with family togetherness surfaced as the war dragged on,73 and children were increasingly expected to play a part in maintaining the family’s security on the home front. Boys, for example, were effectively asked to act as the man of the house while their fathers were away. Toddler Paul [End Page 71] Bowker, or “little Bowk” as he was most often called, was charged by his father to “take care of his Ma and new brother or sister.”74 Likewise, Sackett told his son to “take care of yourself, Mother, & Skippy [the dog].”75 Krauss even included a note to his still-teething son to say: “Take good care of your Mother just as she is taking care of you. . . . Soon you’ll be able to talk and walk and everything else that a young man should do and then you’ll be able to help your mother a bit.”76 In like manner, Barbara Coombs told her husband how she was “training” Dickie “to be quite a helper now. He carries off all the leaves and other junk we rake up around in his wheel barrow way up back to the dump. Quite proud of himself you can tell by the way he swaggers up the field pushing the w.barrow.”77 And when winter came, she wrote, Dickie even helped put chains on the car: “You should have seen how hard he worked trying to fix the car as he called it. He grunts and puffs like sixty and is oh so serious about it.”78 Other children seemed to simply sense that they were needed. Alice Unker told her husband, Private Leo Unker, about their son’s gracious offer: “If Mommy is sick, let me rub her belly.”79

Children also played roles in the war effort through the purchase of bonds. War bonds were gifted to them for birthdays and special occasions or were purchased on their behalf with moneys they collected or received. As Sackett wrote to his son: “Your birthday will soon be here, but I can’t find anything I can send you—so I am sending a war bond.”80 After Dickie’s second birthday, Barbara Coombs told her husband that she bought the child “another bond yesterday with the five your father gave him, the five Mom gave, five out of his dime bank plus 3.75 out of my pocketbook. He really didn’t need any clothes or toys so I thought I’d better invest it before it was spent on something silly.”81 In purchasing bonds in lieu of toys, Coombs effectively enacted war bond marketing that was aimed at children and childish interests; toy stores marketed war savings playbooks, and even Santa Claus promoted bonds over trinkets.82

Those sorts of wartime messages were, to be sure, a direct reflection of the Myth of the War Experience, which sanctified war as transformative and trivialized it as banal, to pave the way for all citizens to come eagerly to the aid of their country. Families could [End Page 72] not avoid this myth, since it infiltrated the propaganda messages that ceaselessly entreated Americans to enlist, come into the factories, can food, carpool, work on a farm, do with less, and buy bonds. It should be no surprise, then, that similar themes found their way into private conversations about familial relations and children’s wartime roles in the fight. Mothers, themselves being told that war work was glamorous, exciting, and patriotic, in turn transformed their infants into tiny soldiers, pinups, or war workers, even as fathers passed the head-of-household mantle to their offspring. In these ways, the contribution of each man, woman, and child to the war effort—faithfully hewing to the how we fight theme—was highlighted. So, too, was the cost of those contributions, in the ways the war made traditional family roles remote and temporarily irrelevant.83

What It Costs

Despite the war functioning to hasten their maturation, children, especially babies, were children first. In most cases, they were the offspring of married couples, many of whom had their romance or honeymoon cut short by the war. No matter how much the children contributed to the household chores and family morale, they were dependents and they required care. As such, they represented everything that had to be given up by families to win the fight: they marked the interruption of traditional home and family lives and roles, and they made scarce resources and rationing more worrisome. In short, the very presence of the war’s children inevitably pointed to the myriad costs of raising a family in wartime—and both mothers and fathers expressed variations on the what it costs theme as they wrote about their children.

On one level, many parents shared concerns about what postwar life would be like, especially in those cases when fathers and children would meet for the first time. Barbara Taylor wrote to her husband of raising their daughter on her own: “Oh, it’s lots of fun and sure keeps me busy—I wouldn’t take anything for Sandra Lee. It’s just that I’m trying to say we are living entirely different lives. [End Page 73] Therefore, when you come home we will have quite an adjustment to make. I’ll have to realize that a home, wife, and baby is new to you—and you’ll have to understand that a husband and boss is new for me.”84

Similarly, Milton Cantor worried about how his daughter would accept him upon his return. He told his wife in a July 1942 letter that she “would have to be the disciplinarian in our little family. . . . The baby will be strange towards me and. . . . I therefore, won’t be able to chastise her for a long time, at least until she feels towards me like a daughter and that I’m her Daddy.”85 Krauss, more optimistically, hoped that his son’s interactions with his grandfather would make the child more receptive to his eventual return.86

A more immediate concern for many families was the financial and temporal burden that children placed on their circumstantially single mothers. Giving birth with the father at the front was a grand accomplishment for women. Bowker told his wife that he “knew you’d come thru it in superior fashion, but it was most reassuring to read all the reports from Mom and Dad and you about just how smoothly things went.”87 Rarey was far more effusive, telling his wife, Junie: “I’m so proud of you I’m beside myself. . . . And they say that the Woman is weaker of the sex—Fooie—You’re terrific!”88

Yet raising children during the war—even more than birthing them—was the true challenge for many solo mothers. Some women had the support of extended family, such as sisters, cousins, mothers, or in-laws, to share in the childcare. Even uncles overseas helped where they could. Staff Sergeant W. Scott Westerman Jr. was just sixteen when Pearl Harbor was bombed and so still a child himself. He volunteered for service while a senior in high school, with the understanding he would not be called to duty until after his eighteenth birthday. In January 1945 he wrote to his parents that he was sending them his ration sheet because they would “need some more points” while his sister and nephew were staying with them.89 Other families were not as fortunate to have extra rations, and wartime supply shortages were restrictive no matter a family’s ability to afford necessities. Barbara Coombs repeatedly noted how scarce children’s clothes were, telling her husband she had to give [End Page 74] up “a precious Coupon” to get their son new shoes and that it was an “awful job to get shoes for children” because supply was limited.90 Marjorie Haselton, faced with a young family and a meager allotment check while her husband served in the navy, also had difficulty paying for necessities. “As I see it, I, am no one’s responsibility but my own, and whether Meri and I live, die or starve to death, nobody really gives a damn,” she wrote to her husband. “That excludes you of course, but you are powerless to do anything for us.”91 Yet such challenges were considered minor to those of the fighting men. As Renee Pike told her husband: “As I hung out Georgie’s wash this a.m. my hands became so cold that I could hardly move them. It made me think about you. Gosh, Honey, how can you shoot when your hands are stiff?”92

Pike’s expression of sympathy laced with self-pity was consistent with American propaganda messages that called on women to serve the military or war production to best aid the fighting men, whether or not they were facing the many challenges of the solitary parent. And the experiences of Pike and Haselton together echoed the sentiment of a war bonds poster showing a war-widowed mother holding an infant in her arms, a young daughter clutched to her side, framed by these words: “I gave a man! Will you give at least T % of your pay in War Bonds?”93 There were costs to war, such messages admitted, and for families on the home front, those costs often involved the children.

In most cases, of course, those costs were to be subsumed under a rhetoric of sacrifice. As Dannagal Goldthwaite Young’s study of WWII advertising shows, advertisers during the war years consistently focused on two interrelated messages, asking American consumers “both to feel the weight of the sacrifices they were making, and to cherish and fight for the free market that gave them those items in the first place.”94 Such messages encouraged people to buy even as they praised them for the sacrifice of going without or for patiently waiting through supply delays. In this context, mothers on the home front had good reason to write gladly about their challenges in feeding or clothing their children, perceiving their sacrifices as far less than those that their husbands were making overseas. Still, in [End Page 75] every case, children were at the center of war’s costs, whether as the ones with the greatest needs, as the reason for making a sacrifice, or as representative of what was lost in terms of family and tradition.


During WWII, American messages of total mobilization aimed to elicit emotional commitment to individuals’ war efforts as well as to prompt both support for allies and antagonism for enemies. In accordance with these goals, multimedia content was crafted to reinforce numerous key themes, such as why we fight, how we each may and can fight, and the cost to win the fight. In support of these themes, propagandists fused patriotism and traditional gender and familial roles in order to create new war duties and responsibilities. In particular, the messaging encouraged those on the home front to view women in their war roles as “strong, competent, courageous” heroes and men as stalwart defenders of freedom and fighters against tyranny.95

This essay demonstrates that these very themes were ingrained in the daily home front lives of at least some American families. Their epistolary texts—essentially documents of life—provide compelling evidence that the various propaganda campaigns on the home front had found a receptive audience in the American family. For them, letter writing was not simply a means of maintaining familial ties. Rather, it unwittingly served as a microcosm of the larger propaganda war, just as the family was a microcosm of the larger wartime society.

It is precisely in that representational function that these letters begin to fill a gap in our understanding of how WWII propaganda shaped not only the lives but also the identities of the children in the silent generation. They were aged beyond their years, effectively acting as little adults. They even became small versions of their parents, playing aspects of the same roles as the women and men in their families. Their wartime work and wartime play reinforced the ascribed gender roles of their elders.96 Children, with their youthful innocence and whole lives ahead of them, were thus naturally [End Page 76] symbolic of the issues—what America was fighting for. And when fathers missed out on their children’s births or milestones, it was understood as part of the sacrifice needed to win the fight.

Still, the propaganda message that most strongly defined children and childhood in the United States during WWII was OWI’s theme of work and production—the war at home and how each can fight. Appropriately, the children of the war dutifully bought bonds. They emulated soldiers and starlets. They boosted morale. And they helped at home. In their experience, normal familial responsibilities like household chores took on added significance in the absence of fathers, even as the usual childish play became vital to the emotional well-being of mothers, grandparents, and extended family who had many worries and few entertainment options. These wartime children, it is evident, held both a symbolic and pragmatic significance that embodied the core national messages of why and how America fought.

Christina M. Knopf
Suny Cortland
Christina M. Knopf

christina m. knopf is an associate professor of communication and media studies at SUNY Cortland. She specializes in political rhetoric, popular culture, and military communication.


1. Lisa L. Ossian, The Forgotten Generation: American Children and World War II (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011), Kindle; Robert Wm Kirk, Earning Their Stripes: The Mobilization of American Children in the Second World War (New York: Peter Lang, 1994).

2. Mei-ling Yang, “Creating the Kitchen Patriot: Media Promotion of Food Rationing and Nutrition Campaigns on the American Home Front during World War I,” American Journalism 22, no. 3 (2005): 55–75, It is worth noting that nearly all war-era propaganda campaigns both targeted and featured predominantly White Americans. This study reflects how those pervasive propaganda themes became captured in war correspondence. Although there is no way to be certain about the racial or ethnic identities of all correspondents in the analysis, the discussion may unintentionally leave out the experiences of many of those Americans who did not feature as commonly in propaganda. There is, therefore, much room for additional research that consciously examines the epistolatory wartime messages of Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and Asian Americans, among other groups.

3. David Welch, World War II Propaganda: Analyzing the Art of Persuasion during Wartime (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017), chap. 3, Kindle; see also, James Spiller, “This Is War! Network Radio and World War II Propaganda in America,” Journal of Radio Studies 11, no. 1 (2004): 55–72,

4. For Capra, see Welch, World War II Propaganda, chap. 3; Claudia Springer, “Military Propaganda: Defense Department Films from World War II and Vietnam,” Cultural Critique, no. 3 (1986): 151–67, For radio, see Spiller, “This Is War!” For WWB, see Thomas Howell, “The Writers’ War Board: U.S. Domestic Propaganda in World War II,” Historian 59, no. 4 (1997): 795–813,

5. Bilge Yesil, “‘Who Said This Is a Man’s War?’: Propaganda, Advertising Discourse and the Representation of War Worker Women during the Second World War,” Media History 10, no. 2 (2004): 13–17,

6. Marilyn E. Hegarty, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 7.

7. Maria Elena Buszek, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), chap. 5, Kindle.

8. Robert B. Westbrook, Why We Fought: Forging American Obligations in World War II (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2010), chap. 3, Kindle; Buszek, Pin-Up Grrrls, chap. 5.

9. Ross F. Collins, “This Is Your Propaganda, Kids: Building a War Myth for World War I Children.” Journalism History 38, no. 1 (2012): 13–22,; Kirk, Earning Their Stripes, 57.

10. Kirk, Earning Their Stripes, 4 and 3.

11. For innocence, see Springer, “Military Propaganda,” 153. For usefulness, see Kirk, Earning Their Stripes, 57; Lisa L. Ossian, “‘Too Young for a Uniform’: Children’s War Work on the Iowa Farm Front, 1941–1945,” in Children and War: A Historical Anthology, ed. James Marten (New York: New York University Press, 2002), chap. 19, Kindle. For propaganda, see Johanna Sköld and Ingrid Söderlind, “Agentic Subjects and Objects of Political Propaganda: Swedish Media Representations of Children in the Mobilization for Supporting Finland during World War II,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 11, no. 1 (2018): 27–46,

12. Ossian, Forgotten Generation, introduction; Ossian, “Too Young for a Uniform.”

13. Sherry L. Field, “Scrap Drives, Stamp Sales, and School Spirit: Examples of Elementary Social Studies during World War II,” Theory and Research in Social Education 22, no. 4 (1994): 441–60,; Perry R. Duis, “No Time for Privacy: World War II and Chicago’s Families,” in The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II, ed. Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), chap. 1, Kindle.

14. Gary Gerstle, “The Working Class Goes to War,” in Erenberg and Hirsch, War in American Culture, chap. 4; Duis, “No Time for Privacy”; Ossian, Forgotten Generation, introduction; Kirk, Earning Their Stripes, 24–28.

15. Reuben Hill, in collaboration with Elise Boulding, assisted by Lowell Dunigan and Rachel Ann Elder, Families under Stress: Adjustment to the Crises of War Separation and Reunion (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949); William M. Tuttle Jr., “Daddy’s Gone to War”: The Second World War in the Lives of America’s Children (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), Kindle; Ralph LaRossa, Of War and Men: World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle; Duis, “No Time for Privacy.”

16. Duis, “No Time for Privacy”; William M. Tuttle Jr., “Rosie the Riveter and Her Latchkey Children: What Americans Can Learn about Child Day Care from the Second World War,” Child Welfare 74, no. 1 (1995): 92–114.

17. Tuttle, “Daddy’s Gone to War,” chap. 3.

18. Maureen Honey, “The Working-Class Woman and Recruitment Propaganda during World War II: Class Differences in the Portrayal of War Work,” Signs 8, no. 4 (1983): 673,

19. Kenneth Plummer, Documents of Life: An Introduction to the Problems and Literature of a Humanistic Method (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983); Gordon Allport, The Use of Personal Documents in Psychological Science (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1943).

20. Gerald F. Linderman, The World within War: America’s Combat Experience in World War II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), Kindle; Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, “Since You Went Away: The World War II Letters of Barbara Wooddall Taylor,” Women’s Studies 17, no. 3–4 (1990): 249–76,

21. LaRossa, Of War and Men, chap. 3; Tuttle, “Daddy’s Gone to War,” chap. 3.

22. Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke, “Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology,” Qualitative Research in Psychology 3, no. 2 (2006): 77–101, doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa. Generative criticism is a textual research method in which the unit of analysis is derived from a relevant concept or theory; for examples, see Robert C. Rowland and Thea Rademacher, “The Passive Style of Rhetorical Crisis Management: A Case Study of the Superfund Controversy,” Communication Studies 41, no. 4 (1990): 327–42,; Robert E. Terrill, “Put on a Happy Face: Batman as Schizophrenic Savior,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 79, no. 3 (1993): 319–35,

23. United States Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures, Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry (Washington, DC: Office of War Information, 1942).

24. All quotations from the letters preserve, as much as possible, the original grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

25. Lawrence Beall Smith, Don’t Let That Shadow Touch Them: Buy War Bonds, poster (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1942), Government and Geographic Information Collection, Northwestern University Libraries, World War II Poster Collection, Evanston, IL,; Protect His Future, Buy and Keep War Bonds, poster (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1944), University of Illinois Library, Urbana,

26. Henry O. Harwell to his son, December 3, 1943, Henry Osgood Harwell Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

27. Charles E. Taylor to Barbara W. Taylor, September 25, 1944, in Judy Barrett Litoff, David C. Smith, Barbara Wooddall Taylor, and Charles E. Taylor, Miss You: The World War II Letters of Barbara Wooddall Taylor and Charles E. Taylor (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), chap. 4, Kindle.

28. Walter Schuette to Anna Mary Schuette, December 21, 1943, in Andrew C. Carroll, War Letters (New York: Scribner, 2001), 227.

29. Carroll, War Letters, 227.

30. George Rarey to Betty Lou “Junie” Rarey, March 22, 1944, in Carroll, War Letters, 229.

31. March 22, 1944, in Carroll, War Letters, 230.

32. Dexter Bowker to Margaret “Peggy” Bowker, February 3, 1944, in Margaret Ellen Bowker Johnson, A Dance to Eternity: Story of Love and Honor; 1st Lieutenant Dexter Bowker World War II Letters and Memoir Excerpts, 29th Infantry Division Combat Officer (self-pub., 2015), section 4, Kindle.

33. December 13, 1943, Johnson, Dance to Eternity, section 3. Emphasis added.

34. Spiller, “This Is War!,” 61.

35. Spiller, “This Is War!,” 61–62.

36. December 11, 1943, in Johnson, Dance to Eternity, section 3.

37. Will Fahlberg to Audrey “Audsie” Syse Fahlberg, December 28, 1944, in Audrey Syse Fahlberg, World War II Letters Home (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2015), “Letters 1936–1938,” Kindle.

38. Robert Coombs to Barbara Coombs, May 18, 1945, Robert Coombs Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

39. Joseph Ingram Gurfein to his parents, September 28, 1944, Joseph Ingram Gurfein Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

40. May 13, 1945, in Litoff et al., Miss You, chap. 4.

41. Susan A. Brewer, To Win the Peace: British Propaganda in the United States during World War II (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 6.

42. October 24, 1944, in Litoff et al., Miss You, chap. 3.

43. Benjamin Edwin Sackett to Dick Sackett, December 13, 1944, Benjamin Edwin Sackett Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

44. Kroger Grocery and Baking Company, “Before It’s Too Late,” in William L. Bird and Harry R. Rubenstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 90.

45. Westbrook, Why We Fought, 39.

46. Westbrook, Why We Fought, 40.

47. George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), introduction, Kindle.

48. Collins, “This Is Your Propaganda,” 15.

49. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers, chap. 10; for how the myth appeared in children’s propaganda of WWI, see Collins, “This Is Your Propaganda,” 15–16, 21.

50. Smith, Don’t Let That Shadow.

51. Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information, New York, New York Finale in a Play on America at War, photograph, Library of Congress, Washington, DC,

52. Barbara Coombs to Robert Coombs, December 28, 1943; December 29, 1943; April 4, 1944 (respectively), Coombs Collection.

53. January 5, 1944, and December 26, 1944 (respectively), Coombs Collection. Emphases added.

54. September 16, 1945, Coombs Collection.

55. September 28, 1945, Coombs Collection.

56. December 8, 1944, Coombs Collection.

57. April 17, 1944, Sackett Collection.

58. May 5, 1944, Sackett Collection.

59. October 15, 1944, Sackett Collection.

60. Ossian, Forgotten Generation, introduction.

61. Charmaine Leavitt to Private Justin J. Slager, December 29, 1943, in Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, Since You Went Away: World War II Letters from American Women on the Home Front (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 236.

62. Henry Elkin, “Aggressive and Erotic Tendencies in Army Life,” American Journal of Sociology 51, no. 5 (1946): 408–13,; Westbrook, Why We Fought.

63. Albert J. Webb to Betty Ann Monahan, August 17, 1942, Albert J. Webb Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

64. Marion Reh Gurfein to Joseph Ingram Gurfein, “Pin-Up Girl . . .” Card, Marion Reh Gurfein Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

65. “The Goofein Journal” [mock newspaper], January 1944, February 1944, March–April 1944, May 1944, November 1944, December 1944, June 1945, and July 1945 (respectively), Marion Reh Gurfein Collection.

66. Stephen Gundle, “Hollywood Glamour and Mass Consumption in Postwar Italy,” Journal of Cold War Studies 4, no. 3 (2002): 95–118,

67. Evelyn Wilson to parents, December 1943, in Joy Neal Kidney, with Robin Grunder, Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family during World War II (self-pub., 2019), chap. 9, 62, Kindle.

68. Leora Wilson to Dale Wilson, December 29, 1943, in Kidney and Grunder, Leora’s Letters, chap. 9, 70.

69. October 21, 1943, Coombs Collection.

70. Renee Pike to George Pike, April 21, 1943, in Litoff and Smith, Since You Went Away, 86.

71. J. M. Smith to Martha Smith, February 22, 1942, in Carroll, War Letters, 193.

72. Herman Krauss to Bernice and Jeff Krauss, June 3, 1944, Herman Krauss Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

73. Lewis A. Erenberg, “Swing Goes to War: Glenn Miller and the Popular Music of World War II,” in Erenberg and Hirsch, War in American Culture, chap. 6, Kindle.

74. Dexter Bowker to Margaret “Peggy” Bowker, December 11, 1943, in Johnson, Dance to Eternity, section 3.

75. May 2, 1944, Sackett Collection.

76. Herman Krauss to Bernice and Jeff Krauss, May 25, 1944, Krauss Collection.

77. March 17, 1945, Coombs Collection.

78. January 10, 1945, Coombs Collection.

79. Alice Unker to Leo Unker, January 10, 1945, Leo Unker Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

80. October 15, 1944, Sackett Collection.

81. December 16, 1944, Coombs Collection.

82. Ossian, Forgotten Generation, chap. 1.

83. Tuttle, “Daddy’s Gone to War,” chap. 5; Linderman, World within War, chap. 8.

84. February 20, 1945, in Litoff et al., Miss You, chap. 3. Emphasis added.

85. Milton Cantor to Rose Cantor, July 29, 1942, in In My Father’s Words: The World War II Letters of an Army Doctor, by Laura Cantor Zelman (self-pub., 2016), chap. 6, Kindle.

86. Herman Krauss to Bernice and Jeff Krauss, May 17, 1944, Krauss Collection.

87. January 5, 1944, in Johnson, Dance to Eternity, section 4.

88. March 22, 1944, in Carroll, War Letters, 229–30.

89. W. Scott Westerman Jr. to Scott and Frieda Westerman, January 7, 1945, in Letters Home: World War II through the Eyes of a Soldier, by W. Scott Westerman Jr. (self-pub., 2015), chap. 7, Kindle.

90. Barbara Coombs to Robert Coombs, January 4, 1944, and August 30, 1944 (respectively), Coombs Collection.

91. Marjorie Haselton to Richard “Dick” A. Haselton, July 19, 1944, in Litoff and Smith, Since You Went Away, 104.

92. November 25, 1944, in Litoff and Smith, Since You Went Away, 89.

93. I Gave a Man! Will You Give at Least 10% of Your Pay in War Bonds?, poster (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1942), World War II Poster Collection, Government and Geographic Information Collection, Northwestern University Libraries, Evanston, IL,

94. Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, “Sacrifice, Consumption, and the American Way of Life: Advertising and Domestic Propaganda during World War II,” Communication Review 8, no. 1 (2005): 32,

95. Yesil, “‘Who Said This Is a Man’s War?,’” 103; Welch, World War II Propaganda, chap. 3.

96. Kirk, Earning Their Stripes, 4.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.