December 7, 2019, was the 78th anniversary of the attack by Imperial Japan on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In 1941, it was a typical early Sunday morning an entire lifetime ago.
Families were getting ready to head to worship services all over the Hawaiian islands. Others were enjoying the blessing of another day of beautiful weather in Hawaii. That included the Naval personnel not on duty at Pearl Harbor.
It began like any typical Sunday, with no one believing that only a few hours later, 2,400 of them would be dead. That only a few hours after sunrise on December 7, 1941, the world would change forever, putting a terrible lie to the phrase, a ‘typical’ Sunday.
The Children of the Great Depression Go to War
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was one that America didn’t see coming and we weren’t adequately prepared for it at the time. The nation was shocked and sorrowful and roused to righteous anger as America plunged into World War II.
The young Americans who fought and died in that war have been called the “greatest generation.” However, before they were the “greatest generation,” they were children in the Great Depression, which the country was still mired in more than a decade after it began when Japanese bombers and fighters ravaged the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.
It is no overstatement to say that these young warriors from America literally saved the world those many decades ago. Yet, many of World War II’s first American victims at Pearl Harbor lived their formative years steeped in poverty and desperation.
What made these children into men and women strong and courageous enough to overcome the fearsome enemies that threatened the freedom of the entire globe? There are many factors that affect the formation of any person, but arguably the most important of these is the family environment.
Therefore, a key to understanding the “greatest generation” is to understand something of what their families were like when they were children. What was family life like in America during the Great Depression and how did that shape those who would later be thrown into the greatest and most devastating war in history?
Family Life in the Great Depression
The family unit was strained and though divorce rates plummeted during the Depression, more men, in particular, were abandoning families than in the past. Yet, compared to such statistics today, the family was a far more stable unit during the 1930s.
Of course, survival in such tough times had a significant impact upon keeping many families together, as one would expect. Family life necessarily varied depending upon what part of the country a family occupied.
In both rural and urban areas, the hardships forced families and communities to become innovators at being co-operatively frugal. One such example was the creation of community “thrift gardens” in many urban areas which helped serve the needs of multitudes of people.
Many families strived for self-sufficiency by keeping small kitchen gardens with vegetables and herbs. Some towns and cities allowed for the conversion of vacant lots to community “thrift gardens” where residents could grow food. Between 1931 and 1932, Detroit’s thrift garden program provided food for about 20,000 people. Experienced gardeners could be seen helping former office workers—still dressed in white button-down shirts and slacks—to cultivate their plots.
Many rural families had to contend with the father leaving for extended periods to find work. Other families moved to the cities in search of better fortunes and small towns got smaller and the residents more tightly-knit together for mutual survival.
However, none of these facts and statistics can adequately tell the story of how the “greatest generation” was raised. It is the family stories alone that can provide better insight into what it was like to be a child in a Depression-era family.
“The Walton’s”, a True-to-life Family Story Amidst the Depression
December 19, 1971, a new Christmas movie entitled “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” aired on television and the world was introduced to the “Walton” family. The movie was characterized as the “pilot” episode of a new TV series which began a nine-year run with weekly episodes from 1972-1981.
The series was a fictionalized account based on the real-life of its creator, Earl Hamner Jr., who also narrated each episode. It became enormously popular especially in America and allowed viewers a glimpse into the life of a rural family through the Great Depression and World War II.
The role of John Walton Jr., aka “John-boy”, played by Richard Thomas, was modeled after Hamner himself, and the series revolved around his life in rural Virginia during the 1930s and 40s. This remarkable program showed many millions a family unlike the ‘modern’ family of the 70s and 80s, and totally alien to what are called “families” today.
For instance, three generations of Waltons lived under the same roof of a two-story country home in Virginia. Grandparents, parents, and children, 12 people in all, lived in the Walton/Hamner home.
Family life under the best of circumstances was a constant battle with soul-crushing poverty, and viewers of “The Waltons” observed the manifestation of an adopted motto from the Depression,
“Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”
One of the most profound parts of the Hamner’s personal, and the fictional “Waltons” family was the place of faith in the household. In this short video clip, that is reflected via a conversation between ‘John-boy’ and ‘Grandpa’ Walton about God at a moment of decision for the Walton family’s eldest child.
Were ‘The Waltons’ a perfect family? Far from it. Their weaknesses and setbacks were displayed many times during the series.
However, the portrait of a family such as the Waltons reveals that before the “greatest generation” went to war, they were molded in the toughest of times with fierce family loyalty and respect for God, country, and family values.
Life is far different nowadays, and of course, there is no going back in time no matter how much we may long to do so. What can be done is to bring the unchanging truths from the past into our individual lives and families first.
Relearn the truth that faith and patriotism must go hand-in-hand at the basic level of the family. This can be promoted even today if we start with one person, one family, and one community at a time.
Will there be loud opposition to those attempting to live with respect for God and dedication to a renewal of family values in the land? You can count on it.
But will it be any worse than the struggles of the Depression-era family in America? I think not, and moreover, whatever obstacles are placed before us should first drive us to our knees calling upon the God of the universe for strength and wisdom.
Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually! Psalm 105:4 [ESV]
Sources: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001
Featured and Top Image courtesy of Daly Sorvongsavanh’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 1 courtesy of Robert Huffstutter’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 2 courtesy of Evan Bench’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 3 courtesy of Kipp Teague’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
All other sources linked or cited in the text
Originally published in TIL Journal