May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
The world about us is strewn with relics that are quietly eloquent of the struggle that ended half a century ago
Finger some old magazines from the world War II years. Among the earthy-scented, kaolincoated slicks or the brittle, decomposing butterfly wings of newsprint, advertisements acknowledge cutbacks in consumer goods while the advertisers produced war essentials “for the Duration.” Americans knew what that meant: The Duration was the duration of the war, an unknown length of time right up to the end in the Pacific.
What people probably did not consider as the war raged was the subtle way in which the Duration would outlive actual combat. All around us evidence of World War II still affects our lives. It may be in the form of slang or political thinking, our very mores, and, in an immense physical legacy, tangible and enduring yet all but unnoticed.
Figure that during the war years several factories produced 1.9 million .45-caliber pistols and about 4 million M-I rifles. Steel freighters to carry war matériel abroad were launched from the shipyards at ninety-six-hour intervals. When the war ended, the luxury of having tons of new equipment on hand led to vast prodigality: jeeps driven off docks into the sea to get them out of the way, and planes pushed off the decks of aircraft carriers to make way for higher-priority homebound items. We saw pictures of German and Japanese warriors abandoning vast quantities of equipment in defeat; we did the same thing in victory, because it seemed too expensive to haul it all back to the United States. Yet tons of it did come home, to join thousands of pieces of war surplus that had never made it outbound by war’s end. Thanks in large part to this phenomenal wartime production, the Duration lived on.
War-surplus stores of the forties and fifties had a smell of their own, an almost sweet odor of canvas goods, not really musty and not really mildewed. Regular patrons recognized it and became seduced by its promise of genuine GI goods at bargain prices. Kids outfitted themselves for imaginary battles with patches, uniforms, and dummy ammunition, while adults rummaged through bins of mechanical parts and tried to justify the fun by finding practical uses for the stuff.
Some things caught the fancy of the surplus-buying public more than others. Ubiquitous sheet-metal practice bombs, sometimes called blue beetles for the pastel hue they came in, became shop signs and ashtrays throughout postwar America. They still can be seen, occasionally, with sand in their cutoff lower halves, stuffed with cigarette butts outside the door of an establishment. Campers and overnight guests slept on hardwood-framed, stretched-canvas Army cots in pre-hide-a-bed days, and stainless steel kitchenware dished up countless Boy Scout meals at church social halls.
The magnetic appeal of large pieces of military hardware led to the use of planes and tanks as billboard advertisements. Broad wing panels from Catalina seaplanes were overpainted as signboards in Utah and Idaho; teardrop-shaped fuel tanks from fighter planes soon sported painted fish faces and advertising jargon; even a whole B-17 bomber on pylons helped sell gasoline in a Portland, Oregon, suburb into the 1990s.
Meanwhile, American farmers and ranchers converted war-surplus items into work savers: trucks that once carried training guns for aerial marksmen hauled wheat in made-over bins after the war; electric motors that had rotated bomber gun turrets found new life in rural Oregon turning television antennas. In wheat country the blower sections from aircraft superchargers helped keep grain dry in storage. Almost literally beating the tools of war into plowshares, farmers met the challenge of making their uncertain budgets stretch as far as possible with cheap surplus equipment.
Vestiges of the Duration linger on American military bases. At Fort Lewis, sprawling over miles of Douglas fir forests and oak-dotted prairies south of Tacoma, Washington, the bodies of World War II troop-carrier railroad cars were used as shelters on gunnery ranges for years. Like prefabricated buildings, the windowed boxcars could be dragged to different parts of the big base as needed. A few can be found there still.
In western Washington Sherman-tank drive trains, tracks, and some hull castings have been reincarnated as the carriages for modern-day self-propelled well-drilling rigs. Other born-again Sherman parts clatter through Pacific Northwest forests, supporting new steel booms to help loggers skid felled trees to truck-loading sites. At the modern steel building that houses the S. Madill company beside the Columbia River at Kalama, Washington, pieces of Shermans, imported from overseas armories, are mated to new bodies to create special-purpose logging and construction vehicles.
And it is still possible to drive the back roads of America and uncover derelict World War II trucks. Trailing blackberry vines or scoured with the sands of the intervening years, these unintended memorials to the Duration sometimes speak more eloquently than the finest museum examples. Bought by farmers and truckers who wanted cheap, sturdy transportation, by municipalities for firetruck beds and ambulances, these thick-fendered workhorses are a living tribute to the quality of materials and workmanship that Americans put into the equipment that won World War II.
Giants still slumber among us as we conduct our lives oblivious of them. A boat ride up Suisun Bay, north of San Francisco, reveals row after row of gray World War II freighters, moored together for years.
In a sleepy, pine-forested suburb east of Spokane, Washington, a photo portrait studio contains skylights made of three-inch-thick slabs of glass molded into the poured concrete of the building. The owner would hardly have commissioned a glass company to create such monumental slabs from scratch, but he had access to war-surplus armor glazing from the tail turrets of B-24 Liberator bombers.
Fifty years later evidence of the Duration is still all around you. Even this text is a secondhand reference to it. What else surrounds and infuses your life with evidence of the passing of World War II? Is there an artillery piece in the city park on your way to work? Do you take off and land on a runway originally built to handle war traffic? Do the roads that lead from your town bear the heritage of the defense highway system envisioned to carry war matériel? Can you still find a genuine GI mess kit with a World War II date stamp in a local surplus store?
We’re all still in it, for the Duration.