By Ryan Richardson
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Rev. Daniel Wermuth II knows the anxiety and longing that many Americans felt during the holidays in the 1940s.
Wermuth, a pastor at the Joplin Family Worship Center, has a son who has been serving overseas in a different war.
Wermuth also knows the joys that many family members felt during World War II when their sons, brothers and husbands returned.
Daniel Wermuth III, 25, just recently returned to the United States after serving as a U.S. Army combat medic in Afghanistan. He is now at Fort Lewis, Wash., and although he won’t be back in Joplin for Christmas, he will come home toward the end of January, his father said.
“He has served what equals nearly two or three missions a day in some of the most dangerous areas over there. It is over 300 missions in a 7 1/2-month period of time,” Wermuth, 49, said of his son. “The comparison for a father like me with what they went through is clear.
“It has been almost 70 years, and times have changed, but people’s duty to this country hasn’t. It isn’t just on the military side of things. When tragedy strikes in our own backyard, people step up. They find ways to make it through with the help of each other.”
The Joplin Family Worship Center put on a two-hour production earlier this month titled “A 1940s Christmas Homecoming,” which painted a picture of the sacrifice men and women made at home and on the battlefield during World War II.
Wermuth said it wasn’t a coincidence that “A 1940s Christmas Homecoming” premiered on Dec. 7 — the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, only 18 days before Christmas of 1941.
The musical tells the story of the fictional Lt. Edwin Berry, who is deployed to Italy during World War II, and his wife, Rose, and their two children back in the United States. It is set against a Christmas-themed USO show. Berry finds that his original plans to make it home for Christmas are disrupted when he has to participate in a dangerous mission. Berry returns alive, but he has to sacrifice his chance to be home with his family.
“That time period was very trying for everyone involved,” Wermuth said. “But people knew what it was like to sacrifice for the greater good. There was support for helping free the world from something so unspeakably bad.”
Christmas during the first half of the 1940s was defined by World War II, remembers Betty Reed, a 1946 Joplin High School graduate.
Even during the holidays, it was impossible not to think about what the country was going through from 1941 to 1945. While their men were fighting through France, Italy and the Pacific, Americans on the homefront were experiencing rationing of everything from food and liquor to gasoline and metal.
“A lot of people forget that things were rationed like sugar, and that we went for more than a few years without some of the traditional Christmas baked goods,” Reed said. “It’s very strange to think (that) what is so common now was completely rare then. Cookies and cakes were a real treat then.”
While the war was going on overseas, there was still a focus on people at home, Reed said.
“Life went on here, but they were never far from our mind,” she said. “When the war ended, there was the sense of excitement for all of those coming back. Those first Christmases with everyone back, we were thankful because we still had that compassion for the people who didn’t make it back here. When they were gone, they weren’t far from our mind. We were thinking of them, but our lives went on.”
Celebrating the Christmas season was much more scaled back, she said.
“There was a lot more church-oriented events going on at the time, which was true for a lot of things,” Reed said. “The time was spent with our families. You got presents and you gave them, but it was nowhere near what it has become today. It was more like sharing time with your family than feeling an obligation about it. That’s what I really remember.”
ON THE RADIO: One of the most popular songs written during the decade, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” tells the story of a soldier who is eager to be home for the holidays — back to the snow, the mistletoe and presents under the tree — but in the end acknowledges that it’s all a dream. Bing Crosby made the song into a major hit during the war, and it has been a standard every Christmas season since.
AT THE TOY STORE: One of the most popular toys of the era, the Slinky, was a byproduct of a new line of springs that was invented during the war and designed to keep fragile equipment steady on ships at sea.