Gilbert Sandler: Home Front Baltimore: An Album of Stories From World War II
“The great rememberer” explores Baltimore during World War II
Published: October 19, 2011
Home Front Baltimore: An Album of Stories From World War II
Johns Hopkins University Press, hardcover
The Baltimore Sun has called popular historian Gilbert Sandler—author of several books and countless columns and essays and the man behind WYPR-FM’s weekly “Baltimore Stories”—the city’s “great rememberer.” Yet Sandler doesn’t remember what Baltimore was like during World War II; that’s because, for most of the war, he was serving in the Pacific, aboard the USS Leonis. In an effort to fill this lacuna in his prodigious local memory, Sandler searched out people who were there to witness daily life in Baltimore at the time, and gathered their stories. The result is a charming collection of partially anecdotal history, Home Front Baltimore: An Album of Stories From World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, hardcover).
The book is composed of stories and quotes from those old enough to remember that era, interspersed with contemporary clips from newspapers—primarily The Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore News-Post, and The Baltimore Afro American. Sandler also frequently compares what was afoot “over there” with what was happening at the same time on the home front, to sometimes humbling effect. (The week of May 4, 1942, the navies of Imperial Japan and the United States were “locked in a fierce sea battle.” That same week, Sandler tells us, Minnie the Elephant played the harmonica for a crowd at the Druid Hill Park Zoo.)
The book is not, Sandler freely acknowledges, an official history. The people he’s chosen to speak with—from a generation whose ranks are rapidly dwindling—are perhaps not representative of the entirety of Baltimore. But the book is an engrossing piece of local lore nonetheless, dense with the details of daily life that one does not often see in more official accounts: what people talked about, what they ate, how present the war was in their lives—then, as now, it varied—what they wore, what they longed for, what they did for fun. All of this is heavily supplemented with captivating photographs. (Those of our local Rosie the Riveters are among the best.)
Through much of the book, the city is barely recognizable. The shipyards and steel mills were working at such a pace during the war, for instance, that swing-shift workers petitioned for midnight entertainment. The Century Theater on Lexington Street acquiesced, screening its first predawn movie in April of 1942. Two thousand workers attended. Dancing was another popular entertainment. In 1941, the city’s Department of Recreation carefully selected 80 young women—representing a certain percentage of religious affiliations—and put them on a bus to Edgewood Arsenal for one of the first staged socials for visiting servicemen. Different times, indeed.
Many of the accounts in the book have the patina of nostalgia. This is probably partly due to the reminiscent nature of oral history. But some things are also worth pining for—the plethora of jobs, for one, not to mention the estimated 20,000 backyard and vacant lot victory gardens the city boasted by 1943. And in these times it’s hard to imagine the sort of unity that would lead to a spontaneous conga line forming, as one did on V-J Day on Charles Street.
But it was war and all was not rosy. The intricacies of the ration system were maddening, and the presence of a truck fully stocked with potatoes was enough, one day in 1943, to cause a near riot. (Other hardships were less painful: Women’s nylon stockings were needed for the manufacture of parachutes, so women painted “seams” up their bare legs with crayon.) The subject of death is brought up only tangentially in the book, but Sandler does take pains to depict how much the individual home-front experience varied.
Racism, for one, did not take a pause during wartime. Despite the great need for women to work in the war plants, African-American women had a much harder time finding work. In one case, two black women with extensive training in welding and acetylene burning were repeatedly rejected from shipyards, despite being more than qualified for the positions. Another woman recalls taking the bus to visit her husband in Virginia, for a ceremony where he was to be commissioned second lieutenant just before heading overseas. She was forced to sit in the back of the bus despite her protestations and her husband’s service.
Books like this one—detailed, intimate, local accounts—may be a small part of the solution to what has been called a crisis in history education. If there’s a Baltimorean who’s not fascinated by some aspect of this book—even if it’s the fact that the featured photo in the servicemen’s edition of The Baltimore Sun was always “cheesecake,” e.g., a scantily clad woman—he or she really is a lost cause. Buy this for someone who lived through it, but read it yourself first.
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