Despite the difficulties,
dangers, and deprivations of the World War II era, Americans still gave thanks.
Norman Rockwell’s beautiful “Freedom from Want” painting made its debut in 1943
and has come to symbolize the holiday.
During the war, political wrangling over the date, rationing and shortages,
restrictions on travel, and disruptions to treasured traditions might have altered
plans, but the spirit prevailed. As one, the country paused to gather with
family, reflect on blessings, and thank the Lord—the giver of all good gifts.
Which Date Do We Celebrate?
In the summer of 1939, concerned retailers approached President Franklin
Roosevelt. The Christmas shopping season never started before Thanksgiving
(refreshing!) But in 1939, Thanksgiving—which was the last Thursday of November
since 1863—would land on November 30, which would curtail revenue. Roosevelt
immediately issued a Presidential Proclamation changing Thanksgiving to the
third Thursday of November.
This was a hugely unpopular decision. While 32 states adopted the earlier date,
18 refused to. In 1939, 1940, and 1941, two dates were celebrated, depending on
the state. The later original date was nicknamed “Republican Thanksgiving” and
the new early date “Democrat Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving.”
By mid-1941, even Roosevelt admitted the earlier date had no effect on retail
sales figures. On October 6, 1941, the House of Representatives voted to move
Thanksgiving back to the last Thursday of November. The Senate amended the bill
on December 9, 1941 (despite the previous day’s declaration of war) to make the
holiday fall on the fourth Thursday, an accommodation for five-Thursday
Novembers. The president signed the legislation on December 26, 1941.
Thanksgiving in the Military
|Menus from USS Wake Island, November 1943 (US Navy photo)|
Throughout the war, the US military went out of its way to provide traditional
meals for the men overseas. Thousands of turkeys and all the trimmings were
sent to the front lines all over the world, and a serious effort was made to
give each man a hot holiday meal, no matter where he served. Sailors at sea,
already blessed with the Navy’s excellent food, enjoyed sumptuous Thanksgiving
meals, as seen from the 1943 menu from the USS Wake Island.
Rationing and Shortages
In 1942, the first wartime Thanksgiving in America, only sugar was rationed,
but shortages of meat and butter challenged housewives to create innovative
menus. Many of the spices used in traditional foods were scarce, since they came
from areas of the world conquered by the Japanese, and precious cargo space was
reserved for more vital supplies.
In 1943 and 1944, the challenges increased. In early 1943, meat, cheese, butter and fats, and canned and processed foods were rationed. The clever cook saved
her ration stamps for the holiday and improvised substitutions. While poultry
was never rationed in the US, turkey was scarce for Thanksgiving, since so many
of the birds were shipped overseas for the servicemen’s feasts.
To Grandmother’s House We Go?
For most Americans, the family gathering is even more important than the
turkey. During the war, many men and women served overseas and were missed at
home. Also, gasoline and tire rationing prohibited people from traveling long
distances by car, and civilian travel by train was strongly discouraged—and seats
were often unavailable. Gatherings might have been smaller, but no less
That American tradition—the Thanksgiving football game—was battered by the war.
Professional and college teams were decimated by the draft, and many
professional teams closed down for the duration, including the Detroit Lions
and Cleveland Rams. The Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers
combined for the 1943 season, a team nicknamed the “Steagles.”
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Rubber was one of the most critical wartime shortages, since 92 percent of
America’s supply came from Japanese-occupied lands. On November 13, 1942, Macy’s
department stores ceremonially handed over their famous giant rubber balloons
used for their annual parade, including Superman, who had only made his debut
in 1939. The balloons were shredded for scrap rubber, and the parade was cancelled
for the duration, not to resume again until November 1945.
We Gather Together
|Thanksgiving grace, 1942 (US Library of Congress)|
No matter where they were or what hardships they faced, Americans still
gathered together to celebrate and to give thanks.
"Congress Establishes Thanksgiving," on US National Archives website: http://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving/
Crowley, Patrice. "Thankful Anyway." America in WWII magazine
, December 2009.
Labels: Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving in WWII, World War II