Gone with the Draft

I have already discussed the power of American industry during World War II.  And no doubt, I will again, because many people and entire sectors of the economy changed gears and pumped out an amazing quantity and quality of goods to aid in the war effort.  But today, I want to get back to the men.

If you had to guess, how many men would you say were in the United States Army of 1939?  A million?  No.  500,000?  No.  250,000?  No.

137,000 strong.  17th in the world, behind Romania.

But let’s play another guessing game.   How big was the United States Army at its peak strength of World War II?  Two million?  No.  Four million?  Eight million?  Yes.  Pretty close – 8.3 million.

So how did we get from 137,000 to 8.3 million in six years?

Of course you know the answer: the draft.  But I thought I would take some time to let you know a little bit more about the draft pulled your fathers or grandfathers or great-grandfathers from their homes to places in Europe or the Pacific.

Well, the United States wasn’t completely clueless and isolated from what was happening in the world around them in 1940.  Not wanting to be caught flat-footed if the US were drawn into war, Congress passed the Burke-Wadsworth Act, also known as the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940.  This legislation provided for the Army to induct 900,000 men (21-36 years old) per year to serve for one year.   The first group of draftees was inducted into the Army in October of that year.

Soon, though, Roosevelt asked and received from Congress an extension of the mandatory service period.  As you can imagine, many of those October draftees were pretty angry.  In defiance, they wrote OHIO, meaning “Over the Hill In October,” on barracks, notes, and helmets.  They threatened to desert as a group come the October end of their year of service.  Very few, however followed through.  And as we all know, Pearl Harbor was hit a short two months later.

Once Pearl Harbor was hit and the United States entered the war, the Army wanted more and more men from Selective Service.  They increased their per-month call to draft boards.  In December 1941 (before Pearl Harbor), they called for 20,000 men.   In December 1942, the call was for nearly  500,000.  In 1942, they also expanded the age range to 18-37.

Lloyd Briggs, somewhere in Europe. Photo courtesy of Terry Briggs.

As the Army got hungrier for men, health and fitness standards went down.  At first, tooth issues may have meant you were not qualified for Army service.   But the Army decided it would rather fix the tooth issues than turn down good men.  As a result, the Army employed 250 dentists in 1939 and 25,000 in 1945!  My own Grandfather Briggs had most or all of his teeth pulled and replaced with dentures during his Army service.  In fact, if the Army had maintained higher dental standards, I might never have  been born.  You see, my grandmother was working at the USO at the time and she felt sorry for the guy with no teeth.  She brought him home with her and the rest is history.

The Army also downgraded its education standards.  At first, they required a fourth grade education and knowledge of English.  But draft boards thought that all Americans should contribute to the war effort, and so the Army developed classes to improve the education level of draftees.

Finally, the Army budged on at least one more point: felony conviction.  In 1940, they refused to allow felons into their ranks.  But as the conflict wore on, some criminals were released or given shorter prison terms if they entered the Army.

As we all know, most of the men drafted served honorably and courageously.  And most of them never wanted to serve in the first place.  Those two facts together will never fail to amaze me.

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy

Note: Most of the information in this blog post is from Lee Kennett’s G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II.

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