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OPINION

The effort expended to win WWII then reshaped America

By FRED ZILIAN | Newport (R.I.) Daily News | Published: August 14, 2020

Seventy-five years ago, Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, ending World War II. In 1984, historian, actor and broadcaster Studs Terkel published an oral history of the war and titled it “The Good War,” winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. It was indeed the last of America’s “good wars”: clear provocation, clear enemies, clear battle lines, clear objectives, a unified nation, and — most important — a clear and satisfying victory.

There was jubilation across America, especially in midtown Manhattan in New York City, where police estimated that 2 million people celebrated. One of those people was Middletown, R.I., native George Mendonsa, a sailor on leave. Amid all the celebration and revelry, George suddenly grabbed and kissed a woman unknown to him, dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman, an iconic moment captured by photographer George Eisenstaedt.

In an interview in 2012, George said: “The excitement of the war bein’ over, plus I had a few drinks. So when I saw the nurse I grabbed her, and I kissed her.” For her part, Greta explained: “I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip.”

In human terms, over 16.1 million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces. There were 406,000 deaths — 292,000 battle deaths and 114,000 noncombat deaths — and 672,000 wounded.

Because of the opportunities and training available in the services, minorities enlisted in unusually high numbers, but prejudice and segregation remained high. In the Army, Blacks were given generally noncombat roles; in the Navy, they served as cooks and servants. The American Red Cross kept plasma separated for Blacks and whites, with a touch of irony as the process for storing plasma was invented by a Black physician, Charles Drew.

Despite these handicaps, more than one million African American men and women served during the war. Included in these were the Tuskegee airmen, the first Black military aviators in the Army Air Corps. Over two years, they flew over 15,000 sorties in Europe and North Africa, earning over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

The war had tremendous impacts on our country on many levels. Economically, the Gross National Product shot up from $91 billion annually to $166 billion. The war put a definitive end to the Great Depression of the 1930s. New industries, such as synthetic rubber, were created, and others, such as electronics, were greatly boosted.

The federal government became larger and more complex, centralizing more power and extending its reach into American life, a process begun in World War I.

Internationally, the United States now became the world’s greatest power, soon to be labeled a superpower, accentuated by our vast production capabilities, our untouched homeland, and our monopoly of atomic weapons. While France and the United Kingdom were on the winning side, they were devastated and exhausted from six years of war. The Soviet Union, our other major ally, had lost 26 million military and civilians.

Close to home, long before the U.S. entered the war, the Naval War College was preparing for it, specifically, how to wage war against Japan. During the inter-war period (1919-1941), naval officers war-gamed the many scenarios of such a war and refined the Navy’s war plan against it — War Plan Orange. When war came, the Navy was well-prepared for all contingencies.

After the war concluded, Adm. Chester Nimitz said that every tactic used by Japan, except for the kamikaze attacks, had been anticipated and planned for.

Naval Station Newport, of course, was a very busy place during the war. About 150,000 sailors trained there. On Goat and Gould islands, thousands of torpedoes were made by the Torpedo Station. At Melville in Portsmouth, sailors — including future President John F. Kennedy — underwent PT boat training.

In 1943, 15-year-old Nora Sliva, sister of three brothers serving in the military, saw a notice on a school bulletin board at Durfee High School, Fall River, Mass. The Torpedo Station was seeking workers. In an interview for the Newport Daily News in 2016, she related her story. “It was the war. They needed help.” Hired in June 1943, she had three different jobs before the war ended: nuts and bolts, explosives, and finally office work.

Every Friday night, she and her friends would stay in Newport and go dancing at the local USO club. Sailors were everywhere.

I am sure that one of the songs she danced to many times was “Moonlight Serenade,” a song released in 1939 that became the signature song of the Glenn Miller Band.

I stand at your gate and the song that I sing is of moonlight/I stand and I wait for the touch of your hand in the June night/The roses are sighing a moonlight serenade ...

In 1942, Glenn Miller, 38 years old, chose to leave his successful civilian career as bandleader and volunteer for military service, eventually forming a 50-piece military band. On Dec. 15, 1944, Miller was flying from England to Paris when his airplane disappeared over the English Channel.

He once said: “America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music.”

Fred Zilian, a retired Army officer, is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University in Newport and a regular Newport Daily News columnist.