Rhode Island's Youth
The War through Yearbooks
Recently, Rhode Island has been calling attention to a different aspect of home-front activity during the Second World War; rather than continue to emphasize the large Rhode Island naval contribution to the war effort, people are beginning to look more closely at the actions of individual citizens, in particular the efforts of Rhode Island youth.
As is common in all areas of a country at the start of a war, numerous Rhode Islanders, including multiple high schoolers, decided to serve their country by joining the armed forces. One can hardly crack open a yearbook from the war years without seeing the dedications to those who left the halls of Rhode Island's high schools in favor of a uniform and foreign soil. One high school newspaper details the departure of two students, one for the Marine Corps and the other for the Navy; the paper remarked that along with their fellow classmate, around 150 other Rhode Island youths were sworn into the Navy on what was referred to as "Avenge Pearl Harbor Day," Sunday, June 7, 1942. Should one continue to flip through a WWII-era yearbook, past the dedication pages one will find the class photographs. Next to the pictures are student activities, quotes, and plans for the future. On every page there are a handful of students who, instead of continuing their studies or finding work, planned to join one of the nation's military branches.
However, by remaining in the United States, too young to enlist or without any desire to enlist, the American teenager must have felt much more anxious by inactivity, and thus sought ways to do their own bit for the United States during the war.
For those at home in Rhode Island, the war was as part of everyday life as their uniformed comrades. The Rhode Island Office of Price Administration established a nationally-recognized rationing system, one which even required high school students to keep a ration book. Eileen Hughes, a high school student in Narragansett for most of the war, recalled the Great Depression, remarking that as Americans "were just beginning to get used to having a few things more... we got cut back." The process of rationing in Rhode Island would have a similarly profound impact on other high school students during the war. The concept of prudence was a simple way for teenagers to be involved in mobilizing in the nation.
At Rhode Island high schools, teens were forming Air Raid groups, installing siren signals, and holding practice drills; in this flurry of war activity, high schoolers carried their at-home frugality with them. Central High School in Providence, Rhode Island created an entire council around the subject of and promotion of "war thrift." At Cumberland High School, their "Schools at War Program" wrote that "apparently meaningless trifles may spell victory or defeat" for the nation. Many shortages of goods or services urged high schoolers to make certain sacrifices and begin doing things for their community during the war. For example, when a shortage of farm labor occurred in Rhode Island, Junior ROTC students assisted in picking potatoes.
Rhode Island high schoolers were soon caught up in a whirlwind of patriotism, and continued to create or join school clubs that linked them directly to the national war effort. In many cases, clubs not associated with the war effort were discontinued due to student participation in war jobs. The same Cumberland "Schools at War Program" held multiple successful bond rallies which raised approximately $6,500. Rogers High School established an entire War Bonds and Stamps Committee in 1942, which, between September 1944 and March 1945 alone, raised exactly $11,609.80.
Also at Rogers High School, like at other schools, the Junior Red Cross worked closely with hospitals, particularly the Navy Hospital. Favors, scrapbooks, books, and recycled boutonnieres, among other things, were given to convalescent military men; blankets were replaced at emergency stations.
However, the major contribution of high schools and their students was much more subtle. Whether rolling bandages, selling war bonds, or filling out a ration book, Rhode Island teenagers were exercising the basic right the United States sought to defend—freedom. The ability of these students to do so much for their country while also dealing with the general struggles of coming of age depicts a generation with a staggering amount of potential to find its place in America's future. The Rhode Island teens of the 1940s were, in this manner, the physical personification of the state's own motto: Hope.