Saturday, December 23, 2017

A season of sacrifice

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Seventy-five years ago, just before the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, an early December storm dumped almost a foot of snow on Kansas City. So much snow had not fallen so early in ten years.

Allied bombers were pummeling Japanese targets in Burma. The Russians had Nazis retreating in the Soviet Union. Americans were joining the fight in North Africa. Here in the States the coalition of government, business, and labor had speed-shifted the American war machine into high gear. Every region of the country was contributing.

Kansas City had its own government bomber plant, for which the city ran a downtown training center where civilians learned to fabricate aircraft sheet metal and other parts. Kansas City industries produced goods and materials for the military, which were distributed to bases in several Plains states through the Quartermaster Depot, a former coat factory at Independence avenue and Hardesty. Everyone was being asked to make sacrifices for the war effort.

The former Quartermaster Depot, Independence avenue at Hardesty.

A citywide blackout – civil defense testing – was mandated one December night: no lights anywhere, no smoking or lighted matches, no telephoning, no vehicles or people on the streets. Gasoline was being rationed to conserve rubber normally used for auto tires. Streetcars and busses overflowed with new riders who gave up driving. The government even ordered ice cream production cut through the winter to conserve butterfat.

At the defense training center, African-American women were told they must begin using an unpainted, poorly lit, separate bathroom from one they had been sharing with white women. The center’s supervisor did not explain what was being conserved there.

It was Christmastime, and some sacrifices were season-specific. The festive Santa Claus streetcar, for instance. It was canceled and refitted for normal service because of increased ridership. And mail. As military mail mixed with holiday mail, volume was 50 percent higher than normal. Mailbags and parcels piled high along railroad platforms. “Santa Claus is just going to have to be a little bit late this year for some people,” said the postmaster. “But he’ll get there.”

A Christmas card from 1942.
Mail was delaying train service. Packed trains carried double the normal number of mail cars. Passengers were standing between cars, or sitting on suitcases in aisles. Rail companies were asking that non-essential traffic be curtailed. The telephone company’s ads discouraged people from tying up lines with long-distance calls: “If your call will not aid somehow to pass the ammunition, please consider whether you can give it up.”

And Christmas trees. The weekend after Thanksgiving fire had ravaged a crowded night club in Boston, killing 492 patrons. For some reason Kansas City’s fire chief waited until mid-December to issue a ban on yuletide trees in public spaces. He cited the Boston fire. “We aren’t going to take any chances of having a Christmas tragedy in Kansas City,” he said.

Public trees that had been decorated came down. Fresh trees ready to be sold were packed up and shipped to other cities. The tree supplier explained: “We could not afford to unload 40,000 trees at Kansas City and gamble on a market depressed by the fire department edict when the demand in Chicago and St. Louis was so great.” Prices of now-scarce Christmas trees rose, and some sellers offered single evergreen branches at tree prices. 

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It was the year Holiday Inn was released, a movie that included a new song written by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby. By December the song had reached number 1 on the Hit Parade and was being heard at Christmas programs and parties everywhere.

The Quartermaster Depot at Independence and Hardesty had a party for the children of employees. There were songs and games, a ventriloquist and magician, and Santa Claus. Ice cream, soon to be precious, was served. And because the depot was not under city jurisdiction, and had its own fire brigade standing by with water buckets, there was a big beautiful Christmas tree. 

Actually there were two separate parties – one on the 23rd for black children and one on Christmas Eve for white children. Perhaps another unexplained sacrifice. Outside it was near 50 degrees. Almost all the snow was gone. 

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