Chester Martin Remembers Chattanooga Christmases In War Times

Monday, December 11, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Along Market Street
Along Market Street
- photo by Chattanooga Yesterday and Today, Volume 1

Today as I begin this writing it has been exactly 76 years since that terrible attack on our U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Admiral Kimmell was stunned when he saw the skies filled with Japanese attack aircraft on that fateful Sunday morning and could scarcely imagine, nor face, the reality of what was taking place. Long rumored, the U.S. was very skeptical that such an attack could actually happen - but here it was! Despite its significance and gravity I have not a single memory of the actual day, and I suspect that my parents were too upset to tell me about it.

Neither was it discussed at school the following morning for about the same reason.

The "sleeping giant" (meaning the U.S.) DID slowly awaken and spring to life as the Japanese brass had suspected. The Japanese had all the advantage of a surprise attack, and it would be hard for that sleeping giant to change into battle-gear instantaneously. An immense national "war effort" soon started up all across the country which involved every level of Society - from business executives down to school children. The new "war  effort" demanded money, so War Bonds were quickly put on the market and the public urged to buy. Our young men were, of course, needed most of all, so were drafted by the thousands from the tranquility of civilian life directly into the military. Nearby Fort Oglethorpe, which had been a major Cavalry base in WWI and was still under Army control, suddenly grew again to the size of a small self-contained city. On weekends the streets of Chattanooga were filled with uniformed service-men and women trying to escape the rigors of their basic training for a few hours of liberty. Military Police jeeps were a common sight downtown.

Fact is, however, that both me and my school friends heard very little about the new war which President Roosevelt had just declared. We knew very little of what was actually going on ; it was like our parents were trying to shield us from the realities of yet another "Great War" which they all vividly remembered . Our parents did most of the newspaper reading - and the radio stations - WDOD and WAPO mainly - only had 5 minute blurbs of news every hour - nothing to compare with all the TV news-channels we have today which bring every tiny detail to you in HD. Direct reports from overseas then came to the radio networks either by highly un-intelligible  short-wave broadcasts, or equally garbled undersea cables. No satellite yet existed to beam perfect audio from overseas. When you saw the "Movietone" newsreels in the theaters on Saturday afternoon you were seeing "news" that was already at least two weeks old. - and in only black-and white. So a youngster of 6 - 8 - or 10 years of age only got a highly filtered or inexact view of what was really happening on the war front. It was a convoluted story told in disjointed segments. After Germany got involved I remember how my dad would sit in the kitchen of a morning reading about what "Mr. Hitler" had done as reported in the Chattanooga Times newspaper. Then we would all three listen to "Elmer Davis and the News" to see what he would say. I was older by this time and was able to understand better.

But, as I said, the "war effort"  was cranking up, and everyone was asked to be "patriotic". Principal Ethel Stroud of Anna B. Lacey Elementary School (in present East Ridge) supported the national scheme of "scrap drives", where all students were asked to bring scrap paper, scrap tin and iron - anything made out of metal...and I can show you to this day where it was all piled up between school building and playground!  Someone would weigh your donation and students would later be awarded small prizes for bringing varying amounts of scrap material. Years afterward, a history teacher in my high school, (Kirkman) -  Miss Charlotte Roesslein - used to say those scrap drives were the best clean-up America had ever had to date!)

The war-effort also demanded some shifts in our comfortable civilian way of life, and as a result we were asked to give up MEAT, which became highly rationed on the home front so that "the boys" could eat well in the battlefields overseas. Such staples as SUGAR and COFFEE also vanished from our grocery-store shelves, meaning that our Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinner fixin's were severely cut short. Week-end jaunts by car to see Mama back in Whitwell, Soddy Daisy, or Sand Mountain became almost impossible because of GAS rationing. My dad had a windshield sticker on our '41 Plymouth entitling him to an extra gallon or two of gas per week as he was a government employee. Rationing of these staple items was seen as the greatest hardship to American citizens. You can readily imagine that some "black-marketeering" just might have existed back then!

In earlier writings I have told how the mark of a decent child's toy had always been its METAL content, and its WEIGHT. Now, during the war years, the metal toys (mainly for boys) - wagons, tricycles, bicycles, etc., were all gone - as were items - like balls - which were made out of rubber. Rubber was another commodity needed for the war effort, and the synthetic stuff that replaced it simply did not match the quality of real rubber. Lack of plastic items was not even a consideration then, as plastics were still very much in their infancy. (At that time we had only"celluloid" - a hard pre-plastic composition material, and "cellophane", somewhat like the saran-wrap of today, but which tore readily). Many new toys made out of wood and cardboard were feeble efforts to replace metal and were frequently disgusting to even look at. After the war when better plastics produced by the "war effort" came on the market, Christmas trees made out of the new plastic appeared - and were widely ridiculed and rejected.

Regardless of the war raging in Asia we did always manage to have a Christmas party at school with the traditional cookies or cake and ice-cream. Certain small quantities of sugar were available - especially to schools - for such events. We made and strung paper chains of red and green construction paper - probably like what is done even today. We definitely enjoyed Christmas, which was always a bright spot on our calendars. In town the city lighting on Market and Broad Streets was a pretty sight to behold. I actually think that some of our city's FIRST street lighting dates from the WWII era because I remember how my dad (who worked downtown) would come home from work talking about them. Market Street was an absolutely straight thoroughfare at that time, without the funny offsets of today. A view to the north from 9th Street looked like a magical tunnel created by the overhead festooned lights. Store windows of the day were all tastefully decorated by some highly skilled Display crews. Miller and Lovemans department stores always had superb displays which started at Thanksgiving with Santa Claus themes - then gradually changed to a more serious religious vein by Christmas Eve. Chattanooga stores were a delight to visit at Christmas - and many people will remember the great displays of the old Electric Power Board (at the northeast corner of 6th and Market Streets), and the awesome annual life-size Nativity scenes assembled by the Coca Cola Bottling Company on their parking lot between Market and Chestnut Streets at 3rd. An old-line jewelry store - Edwards and LeBron - (which was approximately next door to the present Fischer-Evans store) had only a comparatively small show-room which had an almost Dickensian "feel" to it and a Victorian color scheme to match.  They would decorate their ceiling with festoons of red crepe-paper crowned by huge red bells made out of the same kind of paper - the kind that fold flat when not in use. Those bells along with the browns of the display cases, shining brass etc., served to create a quaint and almost magical effect.

1942 had been the year of our air-raid drills - which in their way were almost fun - though we understood their meaning. Ms. Stroud (school principal) rang a handbell manually to signify either a "fire drill" or and "air-raid drill". I forget the difference, but we always obeyed orders - always hearing from her later in chapel as to how we had done.

As the war proceeded, Fort Oglethorpe continued its very useful service to the nation. Local churches got into the act by arranging places for the servicemen and women to meet with  civilian folk and enjoy a Christmas dinner in the warmth of a private family's home. Definitely only "second best" to their own homes, but a very decent gesture and substitute. The Reverend Mr. Joe M. Hampton encouraged that at our church - and I think it was repeated throughout Chattanooga. That was possibly during 1942, '43, and '44.

The "doughboys" of World War ONE  had returned home to their family farms - content to be home again and in familiar surroundings. However the boys of World War TWO returned home to a far more sophisticated world than their fathers had known. Their aspirations were higher and their demands greater. You can almost prove that statement (about the farms) by looking at photos of Moccasin Bend made in the 1940's - where in that decade and earlier the bend was a crazy-quilt layout (as seen from Point Park on Lookout Mountain) of small farms with many fields - all of a different color. Compare those pictures with later pictures and you see the amazing difference - the concept of a "family farm" had all but disappeared. The boys of WWII wanted college degrees which would lead to some field of engineering and ultimately to the "American Dream". The newly-instigated "G.I. Bill of Rights" headed many of them in that direction. (Incidentally, you should check some of those pictures of Moccasin Bend - and of earlier Christmas lighting - in one or more of John Wilson's great books on Chattanooga).


* * *

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.
Farming at Moccasin Bend
Farming at Moccasin Bend


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