Defense Media Network

The Early Months of U.S. Entry Into World War II

‘Don’t You Know There’s a War on?!’

“[American] bathers and sometimes entire coastal cities are witnesses to that drama of war whose visual climaxes area constituted by the red glorioles of blazing tankers.”

– Adm. Karl Dönitz, U-boat commander in chief

As of Dec. 8, 1941, the United States was officially at war. But, for several months following the declaration of war, the domestic American population experienced an almost schizophrenic bifurcation of acceptance and denial of the nation’s changed status. Reactions ran the gamut, ranging from large-scale enlistment in the military or signing up for various civilian defense volunteer duties, to refusing to adjust habits and behavior “just because there’s a war on.”

Hand-in-glove with patriotic fervor was war anxiety. The most extreme example was the imagined threat of fifth columnist attack.

The term “fifth column” first appeared in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. In preparation for his siege of Republican-held Madrid, Nationalist Gen. Emilio Mola divided his army into four columns and in a radio broadcast stated he had a “fifth column” of supporters in Madrid undermining the government.

The term caught on like wildfire. Newspapers across America regularly featured columns recounting fifth column activities in South America and elsewhere.

Warnings about the global fifth column threat reached a high point in August 1940 with a four-part article series in the New York Times co-written by Col. William Donovan and foreign correspondent Edgar Mower and authorized by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who, in his introduction, wrote that the articles were “designed to make Americans fully conscious of methods used by totalitarian powers, so that, if or when such methods are used here, they will instantly be recognized for what they were and their effect nullified” [italics added].

While the articles may not have been like gasoline thrown on hot coals, with such inflammatory statements as “It is in a democracy that the ‘fifth column’ can function most freely and effectively” and “The masterpiece of the ‘fifth column’ was unquestionably the French debacle [its defeat to Germany],” the articles probably increased rather than allayed fears. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans became the unfortunate “face” of a domestic fifth-column threat, ultimately causing them to be forcibly relocated to internment camps.

At the extreme other end of the spectrum were individuals who selfishly refused to adjust, going so far as to see the anticipated death and destruction in America’s littoral waters as money-making entertainment. Baltimore mayor Clifford B. Cropper was the most notable proponent of this callous attitude. As Thomas Parrish, in his history The Submarine, wrote, Cropper declared “submarine activity off the beaches would create a great new tourist attraction for shore resorts.” For months this outrageous claim was backed up by fact.

Up and down the East Coast, as early as Dec. 14, people would hear explosions offshore and see their flash in the night sky, and the next day walk the beaches and find the flotsam and jetsam of bodies and ship wreckage being washed ashore. Miami and its suburbs refused to impose blackouts, claiming such a move would hurt tourism. As a result tankers and freighters steaming past were perfectly silhouetted for U-boats. As one seaman rescued off the New Jersey shore bitterly said, the tanker he was on was sunk and twenty of his crewmates were lost because the shore “was lit up like daylight all along the beach. That submarine was right there, waiting for the first boat to come along.”

Obsessed with the war in the Pacific, and with warships needed to fight a two-ocean war still under construction, the U.S. Navy was slow to respond to the growing disaster along the Atlantic coast. When it did, its actions were limited and astonishingly predictable. Adm. Ernest J. King stubbornly refused to employ convoys, instead choosing to use Navy destroyers and Coast Guard cutters on U-boat patrols. Unfortunately the vessels on U-boat patrols operated singly and on a schedule and route so regular it would have made a railroad stationmaster proud. A U-boat could either leave until the destroyer passed, or lie in wait and eliminate it, which is what happened to the USS Jacob Jones on Feb. 28, 1942.

But increasingly Americans shook off the lethargic complacency of peace. Some men even closed their businesses and enlisted. Typical of such sentiment was the proprietor of Joe’s Country Lunch in Alabama, who left a note on his shuttered cafeteria stating, “Maybe you don’t know there’s a war on. Have gone to see what it’s all about. Meanwhile good luck and best wishes until we all come home.”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...