Columbia showed support for war


The Dec. 11, 1941, edition of The Columbian-Progress published just four days after Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, yet young men from Marion County had already both signed up for duty and shipped out for training.

“Before the echoes of President Roosevelt’s formal declaration of war against Japan had died in the historic White House Monday, these Columbia boys and many others were offering their services,” a front-page story noted.

Among the first young men from the city to join the Navy were Benny Hammond, Jack Johnson, Carl Robertson and R.H. Dale Jr., who boarded a train the same day they signed up to depart for training on the West Coast.

“I like the spirited attitude these Marion County boys show,” a Navy recruiting officer was quoted as saying. “Records show that in the past the Navy has received outstanding men from here and these boys we are getting now should prove just as good.”

That prediction turned out to be fact. Columbia and Marion County showed strong support for the American cause throughout World War II, with large numbers of volunteers signing up for duty and huge war bond drives.

The attack at Pearl Harbor had hit home perhaps even more strongly than elsewhere in America because of local connections. Three Marion Countians, Arthur “Hoss” Blackwell, Thompson Stringer and Nolan Culp, were at Pearl Harbor when attacked and were reported safe, but others were not so lucky.

Former Columbia resident Paxton Carter and 1st Class Seaman Volmer D. White, whose parents lived in the Darbun community, were both aboard the U.S.S. Arizona that sank during the attack. White's parents received a telegram Dec. 24 stating he was missing, and it took until February for the government to officially send word that White was deceased.

They were not the only ones from Marion County who would perish in the lengthy, worldwide conflict. Week by week the C-P would report on casualties and those missing in action, leaving families in limbo for often months and in some cases even years after the war concluded as the bodies of their loved ones were not recovered.

By the end of the war in 1945, the count of the dead from Marion County had reached 66.

Yet despite those losses the enrollment into the war continued strong locally and throughout Mississippi. Col. L.W. Long, state director of the Selective Service System, reported at the war’s conclusion in August 1945 that more than 200,000 male Mississippians between 18 and 38 had enlisted in defense of the nation since 1940. Marion County had 1,790 enlisted.

Considering the county’s population was 24,085 at the 1940 census, that means about 7.4% of the county’s population served in active duty during World War II. Of course, the eligible population to actually join was restricted first of all to half the population (men) and then to only those in that 20-year age range. According to the 1940 census in Mississippi, about 16.4% of the state’s population fell into that category of men between 18 and 38.

So that means a full 45% of those eligible in Marion County fought in the war.

Imagine taking nearly half of the male high school graduates in this year’s classes and sending them off to Iraq or Afghanistan. That was the impact World War II made.

And those who didn’t fight still did their part. At the same time they were facing rations of products from sugar to coffee to peanuts to tires, Marion County residents were buying large amounts of U.S. war bonds.

Throughout the nation, each year during the war communities had quotas of bonds they needed to buy to fund the American war effort, and they were to receive interest back after the war. Marion County hit its quota every year and reached a high of $667,430 during the 1944 bond drive, which was 18% above its quota. That would be $9.8 million in today's money.

"Each of the War Loan drives has been oversubscribed, and we have put up every dollar asked, and then some, for the Red Cross, the War Fund, various causes and relief organizations," a C-P editorial stated after the 1944 bond drive concluded. "We have gathered the scrap, saved the fat, collected the tin cans, made surgical dressings, produced the food, observed OPA regulations, and in general backed the war effort."

Publisher Lester Williams noted in another editorial that the best part was Columbia did not have to resort to high-pressure tactics to raise the funds.

"Other towns put on bond auctions, have speeches by heroes, and otherwise beat the drums somewhat. But in Marion County, we just say, 'Well, folks, we've got to raise such-and-such a sum.' And you raise it," he wrote.

The newspaper was at the center of the town's war efforts. It sponsored a Victory Club beginning in 1943 that recruited 50 firms to finance one page a week for the year to be used for war-time advertising. The space promoted things like the war bond drives, Red Cross and other causes. Essentially every major business in Columbia participated.

The paper also published an honor roll of members of the service from the area, a book that included photos and information on some 1,500 service members, which was the first of its kind in the nation. The C-P was named the second-best weekly newspaper in the United States by the National Editorial Association in 1944 for its wartime campaigns.

And Williams came up with an idea for a Food for Freedom program that resulted in U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard visiting the Columbia and Tylertown area to launch the program, which promoted the importance of agriculture toward the war effort. The National Freedoms Foundation gave Williams the Freedoms Foundation Award for this and other work.

Finally, by the close of the war Americas were ready to celebrate. The Columbian-Progress appropriately marked it with a huge headline in all caps across the top of the front page that read, “MacARTHUR NOW HIROHITO’S BOSS.” That was a reference to U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur accepting the unconditional surrender from Japan’s emperor. The newspaper also ran a front-page editorial entitled simply, “Peace."

“Peace has come again to the world.

“Many families will soon be reunited after years of separation.

“Unfortunately, some cannot. Thousands of chairs around family firesides will always remain vacant.

“It was probably only a co-incident, but the Japs gave up on the anniversary of the signing of the Atlantic Charter. Announcements were made of the unconditional surrender simultaneously from the capitals of the four major Allied powers at 6:00 o’clock Tuesday.

“Fighting has ceased.

“Aggression, perhaps, has ended forever.

“But the task of rehabilitating the world and maintaining peace is of great importance – greater perhaps than winning the war.

“Enemy countries must be taught to again produce what they need instead of stealing it, or taking it from a weaker nation who cannot help themselves.

“Occupied countries must be fed and clothed and nursed back to a position where they can again find their place in the brotherhood of nations.

“America, because of its power and leadership, unscarred by bombs and battles, must lead the way.

“We must not only lead the way but be ready to furnish food, clothing and force if necessary, to rehabilitate the world and maintain peace.”

Thus, after America’s great military triumph, began the greatest period of economic growth in the history of the world as the soldiers who returned from war grew businesses to unseen heights. And that was not only here but also abroad, as American leadership helped rebuild Western Europe and Japan, both utterly destroyed by wars, back into economic superpowers in just a few short years.

Those who remember that time of growth and prosperity are aged and few now. The likelihood of returning to those heights they reached of peace and prosperity grows dimmer by the day. But the ideals the Greatest Generation lived out are still a model for how we can return there: service, responsibility, leadership, backbone, generosity.

Let us not forget their witness. 

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