The following is excerpted from the speech of Roger Neighborgall slated to be delivered Monday at the Memorial Day observance in front of the Community Center at 11 a.m.
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a national day of remembrance dedicated to those who have died in service to our nation.
As I look out here today, and recall past Memorial Days here at Veterans Memorial, it seems to me that Falls Church, Virginia, is second to none in its tradition of remembering the sacrifices of the men and women who have given their lives in defense of our country. But it really doesn’t matter who was first – what is important is that we, citizens of Falls Church, as a grateful people, have continued faithfully over time to come together each year on Memorial Day and remember the many soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, medics, nurses, chaplains and others, who have honored us all with their service.
As a fellow soldier, I honor all of you here today who served in time of conflict and war. I was one of the fortunate ones who fought in World War II and came home to tell the tale. Let’s look back at the United States leading up to our entry into that war.
Sixty-three years ago, Nazi Germany had overrun almost all of Europe. England was exhausted, and on the verge of bankruptcy and defeat. The Nazis had sunk more than 400 British ships that were carrying food and war materials from the United States to England. Japan had overrun much of the Pacific west of Pearl Harbor.
Here at home, there was limited comprehension of the seriousness of the situation in Europe and Asia. The US was in an isolationist mood; most Americans felt unaffected by the war and wanted nothing to do with it. The foreign wars were not front page news. The Japanese invasion of China in 1928 went virtually unnoticed.
Then along came Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. An outraged United States swiftly retaliated by declaring war on Japan and, shortly thereafter, on Germany, which had not yet attacked us. Taking the long view, Japan and Germany had plans to invade Canada and Mexico after they finished gaining control of Asia and Europe, in preparation for entering and conquering the United States over our northern and southern borders. When we entered the war, our military readiness was low. Most of our Navy was sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor. Following World War I, the US had drastically downgraded most of its military forces because of the depression. At the outbreak of World War II, Army units were training with broomsticks because they didn’t have guns, and in cars with “tank” painted on the doors because they didn’t have real tanks.
Our entry into the war was controversial, and victory was not assured. We had few allies. England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Australia and Russia. All the rest of Europe, from Norway to Italy (except Russia in the East) was already under Nazi heel. Belgium had not been able to oppose the German forces; she surrendered after one day, even after the surrender Brussels reduced to rubble by German bombs. England was nearly crippled after two years of German onslaught, including the near decimation of its Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. Only because Hitler mistakenly considered England a relatively minor threat at that point was England saved from being overrun by German forces.
Instead, Hitler first turned his attention to Russia, in the late summer of 1940 at a time when England was on the edge of collapse. Russia’s desperate battle against Germany for the next two years bought the United States time to gear up production of war material and troop strength, and enabled us to begin driving Germany to its ultimate defeat.
Unlike the case in later wars, there was broad consensus that those remaining here on the home front also served in World War II. United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, in an address to the nation in April 1942:
“One front and one battle where everyone in the United States – every man, woman, and child – is in action. That front it right here at home, in our daily lives.”
Some of my contemporaries will remember the strong sense of commitment of those who served the war effort here at home. The Civil Air Patrol was established, and it mobilized citizens as “spotters” of enemy aircraft in towers that were constructed in coastal and border towns. The USO was established in 1941, in response to a request from President Roosevelt to provide for the morale and recreation of our uniformed military personnel. Civilian organizations, including the Salvation Army, the YMCA and YWCA, Travelers Aid, the National Jewish Welfare Board and National Catholic Community Service Organization, contributed to the effort.
Civilian commitment to the war effort was fostered by cooperation between government, industries and the media to mobilize the nation through news reports, movies and posters that pressed the goals of the war and sought to make the war’s aims the personal mission of every citizen – I guess some would call that “propaganda.”
Americans on the home front – farmers, and especially women, who filled in at the factories and businesses as more and more of our countrymen went overseas to fight – willingly worked long and hard to boost production of the materials necessary for the conduct of the war and to sustain us here at home. By 1944, supplies and material for the war accounted for 40% of our gross national product. And we supported the war effort by purchasing War Bonds.
Some of you in the audience today probably remember that many commodities were rationed – meat, coffee, butter, shoes, gasoline, clothing and sugar. Stations were set up at local schools for the distribution of ration tickets. Production of home appliances all but ceased – which was okay, I suppose, because construction of new houses in which appliances could be put to use was at a standstill. There was no silk or nylon for stockings – that material was needed to make parachutes. No tires for our automobiles, and a speed limit of 35 miles an hour on the road, not to mention, no new automobiles. Here in Virginia, one of our famous products of that more innocent commercial era – Lucky Strike cigarettes – got a wartime “makeover.” Its red “bull’s-eye” logo remained the same, but its green package turned white in order to conserve copper – which was necessary to make green ink – for production of war material. Their slogan was “Lucky Strike has gone to war.”
Some people credit World War II as the start of the recycling movement in the United States. Local recycling drives were organized to recycle everyday commodities that were vital to the war effort: rubber, paper, steel, lumber, tin and kitchen fats – a necessary raw material of explosives and pharmaceuticals. The U.S. government promoted such recycling drives with the slogan: “Get some cash for your trash!” The great blues man Fats Waller even recorded a song by that title. So, let us take a moment to remember the contributions of those on the home front, as we also remember and honor the lives lost by those who went to war.
The costs of war have been heavy here at home, and most certainly on the battlefields on which our brave men and women have fought and given their lives. World War II, alone, cost America more than 400,000 soldiers killed in action – more than 4,000 on D-Day, alone, with others still missing in action. Even today, our heroes are fighting in far-away lands to defend the principles of freedom and democracy which we hold so dear. And so, we celebrate today those Americans who lost their lives in service; and we hold in our hearts the troops currently servicing, and we hope, perhaps against hope, for a future in which there will be no more wars and no more lives lost.