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Life under WWII rationing
Scripps Howard News Service


May 21, 2005

The biggest problem of growing old is that you outlive friends and relatives. Someone asked me to tell them what it was like to live under rationing, and I had trouble finding people old enough to discuss it with me.

Randall Hatcher, a boyhood friend from Illinois, was a farmer while I was playing war games in the South Pacific. He remembered rationing very clearly, and reminded me that it lasted for some time after World War II was over.

I asked what a farmer had to do to buy a new repair of overalls. The answer: "They were not available. We had to wear the old ones." That was true of many items. Those on the home front made great sacrifices so we, on the war front, could have everything we needed. Local rationing boards controlled purchases to just the essentials, and merchants checked permits before selling anything.

By that time most farmers had tractors and trucks or cars, but gasoline was controlled, as were repair parts and tires. The motto was: Use it up, fix it up, wear it out. The war had been over for many months before new equipment and the supply of gas became available.

Items like dresses, children's clothes and diapers were rationed. Many mothers bought cloth and made their own, but cloth was also very carefully controlled. Mills were busy making uniforms for us servicemen. Cloth sacks, containers for flour, etc., were printed cloth, so they could be used for making dresses.

I suppose rationing of food was the greatest concern. I know sugar was usually available only in 5-pound bags. A coupon (permit) was required and to buy extra you needed to be canning fruit or making preserves.

People who normally would not think of cheating sometimes relaxed the rules on rationing. I remember visiting an older sister. When she opened the pantry door I saw five or six bags of sugar stored there. I found it easy to excuse her. She had always been poor, and she was terribly afraid of two things: of being alone and of her family being hungry.

Farmers were encouraged to produce all the feed grain they could, and were allowed tractor fuel to permit for large crops. The fuel allocation was for tractors, and gas for the car was to be kept separate, but no doubt many farmers just pulled the car up to the tractor tank and filled it up. I asked my friend if this happened. He laughed and said, "Probably so."

Footwear was another area of concern. Cobblers were common and all were busy. A new pair of shoes was a rarity. At home, my father repaired the family's shoes. I learned to do it, too. We sometimes used rubber glue on replacement shoe soles.

Stores carried replacement shoe heels and most homes had a box or two of various sizes of shoe tacks. I haven't seen a pair of four-buckle overshoes for some time, but they were once common. Many farmers wore (maybe they still do) "gum boots," knee-high rubber boots. With heavy socks they can be warm in cold weather, and you are always dry. One old fellow I once knew wore them all year long. Why his feet didn't decay and fall off I never knew, for I saw him wear them in the mid-summer heat.

I am a little ashamed and somewhat embarrassed now to realize how selfish we servicemen were. We became so engrossed with being trained, and then training others, that the thought of rationing hardly touched us. Less self-concerned, I believe the families at home seldom mentioned it to us.

Now, 60 years later, I remember that overseas we had nearly everything America could give us. Example: A K-ration was a complete meal sealed in a moisture-proof box, light enough to carry in your pack.

Candy may have been scarce at home but in the Pacific area we had a bar of tropical chocolate that didn't melt in the heat, Nescafe, a soluble coffee needing only water, and a dry soup mix, and I believe a small can of Spam. If you were hungry it was all delicious.

If you have someone in the armed forces, please write or e-mail today. And any day is a good one to visit a veteran in a nursing home. That contact will make you feel good.


Stewart Elliott is a nursing-home resident who writes the column "Notes From a Nursing Home" for the Evansville Courier & Press in Evansville, Ind. For more information about his book, "Over What Hill?," contact him at thepilgrimSE(at)

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