During World War II, political wrangling over the date to celebrate Thanksgiving, rationing and shortages, restrictions on travel, and disruptions to treasured traditions might have altered plans, but the spirit prevailed. The country paused to gather with family, reflect on blessings, and thank the Lord—the giver of all good gifts.
Norman Rockwell’s beautiful “Freedom from Want” painting made its debut in 1943 and has come to symbolize the holiday.
“Freedom from Want,” by Norman Rockwell, 1943
Which Date Do We Celebrate?
In the summer of 1939, concerned retailers approached President Franklin Roosevelt. The Christmas shopping season never started before Thanksgiving (refreshing!). But in 1939, Thanksgiving—which had been celebrated on the last Thursday of November since 1863—would land on November 30, which would curtail revenue. In August 1939, Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation changing Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November.
This was a hugely unpopular decision. While 32 states adopted the earlier date, 16 refused to. In 1939, 1940, and 1941, two dates were celebrated, depending on the state. The later original date was nicknamed “Republican Thanksgiving” and the new early date “Democrat Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving.”
By mid-1941, Roosevelt admitted the earlier date had no effect on retail sales figures. On October 6, 1941, the House of Representatives voted to move Thanksgiving back to the last Thursday of November. The Senate amended the bill on December 9, 1941 (despite the previous day’s declaration of war on Japan) to make the holiday fall on the fourth Thursday, an accommodation for five-Thursday Novembers. The president signed the legislation on December 26, 1941.
Thanksgiving in the Military
After receiving permission from the farm owner, these American airmen, stationed at an airbase in Norfolk, England, invade a turkey pen to choose their annual Thanksgiving dinner, 6 November 1943 (US Army Air Force photo)
Throughout the war, the US military went out of its way to provide traditional meals for the men overseas. Thousands of turkeys and all the trimmings were sent to the front lines all over the world, and a serious effort was made to give each man a hot holiday meal, no matter where he served.
At Alexai Point, Attu, Aleutian Islands, officers of the US 77th Bomb Group and the 54th Fighter Group do justice to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner –the first one celebrated by military personnel on former American territory recaptured from the Japanese, 25 November 1943 (US Army Air Force photo)
Sailors at sea, already blessed with the Navy’s excellent food, enjoyed sumptuous Thanksgiving meals, as seen from the 1943 menu from the escort carrier USS Wake Island.
Thanksgiving menu from escort carrier USS Wake Island, 25 Nov 1943 (US Navy)
Rationing and Shortages
In 1942, the first wartime Thanksgiving in America, only sugar was rationed, but shortages of meat and butter challenged housewives to create innovative menus. Many of the spices used in traditional foods were scarce, since they came from areas of the world conquered by the Japanese, and precious cargo space was reserved for more vital supplies.
US poster, WWII
In 1943 and 1944, the challenges increased. In early 1943, meat, cheese, butter and fats, and canned and processed foods were rationed. The clever cook saved ration stamps for the holiday and improvised substitutions. While poultry was never rationed in the US, turkey was scarce for Thanksgiving, since so many of the birds were shipped overseas for the servicemen’s feasts.
US poster, WWII
To Grandmother’s House We Go?
For most Americans, the family gathering is even more important than the turkey. During the war, many men and women served overseas and were missed at home. Also, gasoline and tire rationing prohibited people from traveling long distances by car, and civilian travel by train was strongly discouraged—and seats were often unavailable. Gatherings might have been smaller, but no less appreciated.
US poster, WWII
That American tradition—the Thanksgiving football game—was battered by the war. Professional and college teams were decimated by the draft, and many professional teams closed down for the duration, including the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Rams. The Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers combined for the 1943 season, a team nicknamed the “Steagles.”
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Rubber was one of the most critical wartime shortages, since 92 percent of America’s supply came from Japanese-occupied lands. On November 13, 1942, Macy’s department stores ceremonially handed over their famous giant rubber balloons used for their annual parade, including Superman, who had only made his debut in 1939. The balloons were shredded for scrap rubber, and the parade was cancelled for the duration, not to resume again until November 1945.
US poster, WWII
We Gather Together
No matter where they were or what hardships they faced, Americans still gathered together to celebrate and to give thanks.
Thanksgiving grace, 1942 (US Library of Congress)
“Congress Establishes Thanksgiving,” on US National Archives website.
Crowley, Patrice. “Thankful Anyway.” America in WWII magazine, December 2009.
“Stories about a World War II Thanksgiving.” On Fold3.com website, 25 August 2016.