In the days after 2,400 sailors, soldiers and civilians were killed at Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands Americans rushed to enlist in the armed forces.
On Dec. 8, 1941, the newspapers were filled with predictions that the Japanese would soon invade and take the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island, that the British would have to surrender in Hong Kong and Singapore. Other stories reported that Germany and Italy would soon honor the terms of the Axis Treaty and declare war on the United States. Japan might have submarines ready to attack the West Coast. Germany could already have long-range bombers capable of reaching America’s East Coast. For two years, the country had been following the destruction caused by the bombing of London.
So for many young Americans, enlisting was a practical matter of national survival as well as patriotism.
Jazz band leader Count Basie put out “Draftin’ Blues” urging women to do their patriotic duty by encouraging their men to join up. “To hold him back might make him slack,” the lyric went. “Just say you got those draftin’ blues.”
All across the country, in urban and rural communities, military recruiting offices were jammed. Some offices announced they would stay open 24 hours, seven days a week to accept enlistments. Veterans of the first World War wanted to enlist, even though most were too old.
Despite the surge in patriotism, it was clear that enlistments alone would not bring enough men and women into the military to support the war effort. Even before the war began, Congress enacted a draft law in September 1940, but it limited the number of service men and women to less than one million. After war was declared, millions were called to duty.
In the months following Pearl Harbor,
Jim Chenault (left) was still a high school senior but he wanted to get into the war. Through that spring of 1942, he followed the news closely. Two months before his graduation, he couldn’t take it anymore. “I was afraid it was going to get over before I got into it,” he says. So, he joined the Army and got into the Army Air Corps.
But, not everyone was excited about fighting.
Winifred “Freddie” Oglesby worked in a bar and restaurant when one young man came in shortly after getting his orders to ship overseas. “He was despondent,” she says. “He went into the restroom and put his – both hands through the window. Cut himself up badly. And that was traumatic for me.”
After the war began, every man between the ages of 18 and 65 had to register for the draft. In this war, only men were liable for the draft. Women who served volunteered. Able-bodied men up to age 45 were liable for military service. Local draft boards were set up to process the registrants. Each registrant was given a classification indicating whether or not he was eligible to be drafted. It’s significant that farming was considered so important to the war effort that there was a specific deferment for farm workers. These are some of the classifications:
- 1A: fit for general active military service.
- 2A: deferred for critical civilian work – including farmers.
- 3A: deferred due to dependents.
- 4A: already served in the armed forces or too old.
- 4B: deferred by law, i. e. draft officials.
- 4C: enemy alien, i. e.: Japanese-American citizens.
- 4D: ministers.
- 4E: conscientious objectors.
- 4F: physically, mentally or morally unfit for service.
Before the war ended, well over 16 million men and women were enrolled in the armed forces, over 12 percent of the total U.S. population at the time.
Of the 16 million people in uniform –
- 1 million were African Americans
- 44,500 were Native Americans
- 11,000 were Japanese-Americans
- 250,000 were women.
- Most of the rest – over 14 million – were Caucasian males