Suzanne Mills
ECI 435
7 Sep 2010
A Look at 1944

The war had been going on for three years; even longer than that over in Europe, but no one really talked about what was happening there. Too many folks were struggling just to get by after the Great Depression. Only now that she was a senior in high school did it really start to “sink in” that the United States was even involved. Most of the boys she’d known since grade school were eagerly joining up, answering Uncle Sam’s call.
She thought back to the day when the bombing over in Hawaii changed everything. Her brother had just walked through the kitchen door with his friend Benny when the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced over the radio. Benny had stood silent then turned around and left without even saying goodbye. They never saw him again. The news had meant something different for Benny and his family than for others she knew; Benny was Japanese American.
Since that day, things hadn’t been the same. With the men going off to war there was a shortage in the workforce at home. Women began taking jobs in factories and plants to fill the void. Her mother, who had never worked outside of the home, was currently at a metal pressing plant making license plates and signs.
As the war progressed, rationing of various items became necessary. Sugar, coffee, gasoline, cigarettes; all had to be purchased with government-issued rationing stamps. Even shoes and butter were scarce. Meat could be purchased on the black market, but her mother didn’t buy it because she didn’t trust the quality.
Though there had been several scares over Japanese planes appearing in the skies and German U-Boats lurking off the coast, things hadn’t changed all that much for seventeen year old Maryalyce Williams. Currently in her senior year at Bell High School, her days were filled with school, work, and going out with friends. The worst effect the war had had on her life was making it difficult to get chocolate bars, nylon stockings, and space on the trolley downtown. She’d heard the news and read the headlines of course, but it all seemed so far away.


In January 1944 the news told of U.S. forces attacking at Monte Cassino in Italy. The operation was a dismal failure, with all but 40 of the 2,100 men in the 36th division killed or missing. Days later, the United States Navy was successful in penetrating the “outer ring” of the Japanese Pacific Sphere, in the Battle of Kwajalein. Though the victory was encouraging for the United States, the Japanese had learned a valuable lesson and they vastly reinforced their beach-line defenses. The ground troops in Europe were also met with success as the Americans broke through the German lines in another region of Italy and liberated Rome.
Artists, playwrights, and authors influenced by the recent economic devastation and the tragic effects of a world at war, produced work which mirrored the human condition of the times. American artists began a movement which would take over the art world. Abstract Expressionism, a movement originating in New York City, rejected true visual representation. The feelings or emotions of the artist were valued above all else; a complete rejection of dominant European styles. Soon, New York replaced Paris as the chief worldwide influence in visual art.
The famed author W. Somerset Maugham released his last major novel in July. The story of one man’s rejection of traditional cultural values, The Razor’s Edge anticipated the Beat writers of the 1950s and the 1960s counter culture movement. Like their artist counterparts, many writers explored the failing of the “American Dream” and traditional culture, emphasizing emotions, feelings, and spirituality in a materialistic world. It would be the dominant theme for the remainder of the decade.
Tennessee Williams’ latest play, The Glass Menagerie, opened in Chicago to critical and popular acclaim. With its themes of escaping reality and living a life of illusion, it resonated with a nation struggling to overcome a failed economy and fighting a horrible war. The movie Casablanca won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. Set during World War II, the protagonist’s struggle between his personal desires and the needs of others paralleled what many American citizens felt as they made the many sacrifices required of a nation at war.
Though stories of Europe’s plight filled news headlines and served as subject matter for writers, artists, and directors, the desperation and terror felt by the many citizens overseas wouldn’t be completely understood until well after the war had ended. A little girl living in Amsterdam had begun writing in a diary she’d received for her thirteenth birthday. Detailing her family’s plight during the Nazi occupation, she chronicled the days spent hiding in an attic over the family business. Discovered in late 1944, Anne and her family would be sent to concentration camps. Her father Otto would be the only one to survive. His decision to publish his daughter’s diary would allow Anne to live in the hearts and minds of readers for generations to come.
As the war waged on in both the Pacific and European theaters, author Ernest Hemingway began working as a war correspondent. Though his well respected talents were welcomed, he got himself into trouble for playing “infantry captain” to a band of Resistance fighters in France. Present at the liberation of Paris, his exploits, whether fact or fiction, became part of his legendary persona and one of the many mythical stories to arise from the era.
In June, Americans learned of Operation Overlord, headed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The West Point graduate led the invasion of over 5,300 ships and 11,000 planes into Normandy, France. The goal of the British, American, and Canadian troops was to drive the Germans back to Berlin and open a western front in Europe. The success of Operation Overlord was due in part to Operation Fortitude. Manned by a fictitious army and fortified with cardboard tanks, Operation Fortitude was truly the stuff of mythical legend. Led by General Patton, this “army” positioned at Calais radioed messages detailing a false plan for reinforcement. The deception influenced Germany’s response to the surprise landing at Normandy. Believing the only General who would be tasked with leading an invasion was Patton, Hitler focused on the situation at Calais. The decision to forgo attacking the forces at the beach heads would prove to be a fatal mistake.
In July, a conference between the forty-four allied nations took place in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Amidst the raging war and after the crippling effects of the Great Depression, delegates hoped to rebuild the international economic system. Establishing the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, participants were certain they could ensure post-war prosperity through economic cooperation. Ultimately, the United States, with its gold based currency emerged the dominant force in the world’s economy.
Vietnam, a colony of France since 1885, was one of the small countries which wouldn’t benefit from the Bretton Woods System. Though few Americans had ever heard of the small country, its decision to decolonize would have lasting effects on the U.S. The plantation colony’s requests for civil rights and self government went largely ignored by France, leading to increased unrest. The war in the Pacific along with the defeat of France to Germany forced France to surrender control of French Indochina to Japan. The exploitation of its people and natural resources by both France and Japan left Vietnam a starving and destitute land. Ho Chi Min, a Communist leader, would become the principal force behind the Vietnamese resistance.
Subsequent to Operation Overlord in France, American naval forces left Pearl Harbor for the island of Saipan. The Battle of Saipan, an American victory, was followed by the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The largest aircraft carrier battle in history, the engagement proved disastrous for the Japanese, due in part to its obsolete aircraft and inexperienced aircrew.
In contrast, the United States Navy had modern equipment, better trained and experienced personnel, and radar-directed air patrols. Radio Detection and Ranging was a key factor in the Allied victory of WWII. Highly classified, the technology which came to be known as Radar had rapidly progressed from its discovery in the late 19th century. The Navy’s development of radar was notable and it would come to be known by many as the beginning of modern technology.
When he joined the Navy in 1942 at the age of sixteen, William Lentz didn’t have any thought of becoming one of the few to wear the Radarman insignia on his uniform. Having lived on the street for the past year in Venice Beach, California his decision to join was largely influenced by the threat of a jail term for petty theft. At six-foot-four and 210 pounds, “Dutch” as he was known, wasn’t questioned about his age when he enlisted; plenty of young men were lying to get in.
Aptitude tests quickly designated him as a candidate for the more technical job fields and there weren’t many more technical than the radar program. He took to it quickly, and after graduating from the Naval Training Center in San Diego, he was assigned to some of the most hazardous duty the Navy had to offer. He loved being at sea and reveled in the intensity that came with war. Serving in the Pacific theater, his port calls included China, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia.
In 1944 he was stationed onboard the USS Hilo, a refitted yacht purchased from the Vanderbilt family. Serving as a supply ship, she ran through dangerous waters, reporting incoming attacks to other vessels and running much needed supplies to the fleet. After a long tour in the Pacific, the USS Hilo was heading to Long Beach for repairs. Dutch hadn’t been home since he joined and while he was anxious to get back to the States, he wasn’t sure what to expect. His bunkmate Jimmy was also a California native and his enthusiasm to return was almost contagious.
Jimmy, who had graduated from Bell High School, had joined the Navy immediately afterward. Dutch had noticed a photograph of a beautiful redhead on his bunkmate’s locker. The girl in the picture had become somewhat of a companion to him during the long months at sea. Her smile was more comforting than Betty Grable and Lana Turner’s combined. As they approached Long Beach, Dutch asked Jimmy about the girl and discovered she lived in nearby Bell. Maryalyce was a “good kid” who’d had a terrible crush on Jimmy all through high school. Getting her number, the sailor quickly headed for the pier phones as soon as they docked. Without hesitation, her mother informed him that Maryalyce was now at the dorms at UCLA and gave him the number. Slightly confused by the call, the young coed nevertheless agreed to a lunch date the following Thursday.
During lunch that Thursday the young woman was taken aback by the sailor. Only a year older than she, he was incredibly worldly wise and very rough around the edges. William was clean and good looking, but he seemed somewhat…barbaric. Still, she was intrigued, and after three weeks of dating they were wed.
William had been assigned to the USS New Mexico earlier that month, but didn’t want to leave when the ship sailed. Absent without leave for 29 days, he turned himself in just shy of the 30th day, avoiding desertion charges. As he left for his new assignment in Bremerton, Washington, he had no idea how fateful his decision to go AWOL had truly been. In December, the USS New Mexico would take a disastrous hit by kamikaze aircraft, killing the ship’s captain and destroying the bridge. Had he been onboard, William wouldn’t have survived. Getting on the train with a weak smile and a wave, he wouldn’t see his bride again for nearly two years.


In November, as Allied forces continued to make progress through Europe, news came of baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s honorable discharge from the Army. Robinson never saw combat; he was arrested on a military bus for refusing to sit in the back. Reduced to a charge of insubordination, the true nature of Robinson’s “crime” wasn’t revealed during court proceedings. A similar incident involving a woman named Rosa Parks in the years to come would have far greater consequences.
Toward the end of the year, it was reported that the rapid advancement of American troops toward Germany had left the Allies with tremendous supply shortages. Because of the beach landing tactics at Normandy, no deepwater port access had been established for supplying the ground forces. With disagreement between American and British leaders over who had priority regarding supply distribution, the troops found themselves without adequate resources.
A convoy system coined the “Red Ball Express” was developed to get the much needed supplies to the advancing army. Manned primarily by African American soldiers who were denied front line service due to discrimination, the Express would run for three months. It would then be discontinued due to maintenance issues and a shortage of drivers.
On December 16th, Hitler made a last ditch attempt to split the Allied forces. The Battle of the Bulge preyed on the logistical problems of the army. Though the Germans were initially successful in their attacks, a lack of fuel prevented them from capitalizing on their victory. Plagued with foul weather for days, when it finally began to clear the Allies were able to call in their air power. Their counter attacks would eventually prove victorious, but the battle would last for over a month.

As she sat in her parents’ living room staring at the Christmas tree, Maryalyce slowly sipped her tea. News of her husband had been slow to arrive, and she’d decided that no news was good news. Japan’s Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, had resigned late last summer after the fall of Saipan. Tojo was responsible for the war in the Pacific and she was certain the end would be soon. She put down her tea. She’d been quite sick during the past few weeks. A trip to the doctor revealed the reason why; she was carrying her husband’s child. William Jr. would be the first of three. Michael and Suzanne would follow in the years to come.