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Thanksgiving in World War II

Thanksgiving in World War II: how Thanksgiving was celebrated in the military and on the US home front during World War II.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

“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)

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)

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)

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

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

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

US poster, WWII

Football

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

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)

Thanksgiving grace, 1942 (US Library of Congress)

Resources

“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.

14 Responses to “Thanksgiving in World War II”

  1. stella

    Loved reading the History about Thanksgiving during the war

  2. Janice Laird

    During a recent visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum, the docent mentioned how uncomfortable he was with “Freedom from Want” in March 1943. It seemed all wrong to him to illustrate American plenty when so many were starving in the war zones, but the setting fit the Four Freedoms theme. He found a way out of his discomfort with his Saturday Evening Post cover of November 1943, which depicts a starving refugee wrapped in an American GI’s service jacket.

    • Sarah Sundin

      I’m so sorry to hear that, since I know Rockwell’s intention wasn’t to gloat in our plenty, but to remind Americans what they were fighting for – freedom from want both at home and abroad. Since the US was just coming out of the Depression and rationing was in effect, I’m sure most Americans saw it that way too – the ideal to strive for.

      • Ed palmer

        Dear Sarah,
        Thank You for your books & your blog!
        Both are a breath of fresh air in a world of political discord.
        I was born in a time before television, when Radio and Magazines were, to use an arcaic word, Rave.
        I loved & still love Norman Rockwell’s Art. Every Rockwell Painting was a story without words. Now & then there would be a title or some advertising jargon, but that was largely not needed. The picture told the story. As a Norman Rockwell wannabe, I studied the way he did things and I read he always painted something of himself in every painting. In the “Four Freedoms” he painted his Heart. I can picture him struggling with his emotions as he painted “Freedom From Want”. While depicting the plentiful blessing of the Thanksgiving Meal with the blessing of being together with Family & Friends, Rockwell realized that many would not know the same blessings and I know he would wish that all could be so blessed. A truly wonderful artist.

        And You, dear Lady are also a wonderful artist, even if you are the polar opposite to Norman Rockwell.
        You paint pictures with words and we, the readers, imagin / visualize the stories you tell. Thank You.

        PS: Where Rockwell used text sparingly, You use wonderful cover art wonderfully. Your first book with the B17 in the background caught my attention and you prose made me a fan.
        edp.

        • Sarah Sundin

          Thank you so much, Ed! I also love Rockwell’s art and I’m thrilled that it inspired you. We need more uplifting art in this world! And thank you for your extremely kind words about my writing. Now, I just pray I can live up to it 🙂

  3. Pat Jeanne Davis

    Thank you, Sarah, for this informative artice on Thanksgiving during WWII. In a scene from Nov. 1942 in my WWII novel, the women in the family rely on the consumer report to see how they can best use their ration points. They combine their ration points in order to have what was needed for Thanksgiving dinner, even enough sugar. One complains that butter is hard to get and another complains about this awful oleo. Butter was 8 points a pound, while oleo only cost five points a pound.

    • Sarah Sundin

      Thanks, Pat! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes, the rationing system was cumbersome but necessary. And those point values constantly changed over time – and even from region to region. It was a job to keep up with!

  4. Charlene Durham

    Thank you so much for this interesting historical information on Thanksgiving during WWII. My Paw Paw was an MP during the war and it is interesting to read how he and my Granny celebrated Thanksgiving during that time. May God bless all. 🙂

  5. Sharon Sparks

    Hi, Sarah. I loved reading the Thanksgiving Dinner menu on the USS Wake Island. Back then food was so simple, but delicious. I love everything on that menu! lol!

    Happy Thanksgiving.!

    • Sarah Sundin

      I could do without the giblet gravy, creamed carrots & peas – and the cigars & cigarettes – but the rest sounds perfectly fine to me!

  6. Mary

    Thank you for sharing this history. I grew up listening to the stories about rationing and making do or doing without. Nearly everyone had someone in the military and knew the necessity. My mom worked in a grocery store while waiting for my dad to come home from the Pacific Theater. They got married after the war and started out with very little. What a tremendous generation they were.
    Love your books!