“[You] will have the hatred of every mother, wife and sweethearts and also the boys themselves.”
– Mrs. Rose Lumetta June 24, 1941, letter to Gen. George Marshall
When Gen. George Marshall became Army Chief of Staff on Sept. 1, 1939, the same day Germany invaded Poland, the U.S. Army had just 190,000 men. With war now a reality in both Europe and Asia, Marshall knew America’s involvement was a question of “when,” not “if.” To prepare for that eventuality, he set goals of raising the Army’s strength to a million men by October 1941 and 2 million by January 1942. To reach even these modest levels a political miracle occurred: the passage of the nation’s first-ever peacetime conscription bill by Congress – during an election year! But passage was razor thin: one vote. Marshall had to act with care. As historian Geoffrey Perret wrote, “The Army was tied to the draft, and the draft boards were trying not to upset American mothers.”
With that constituency in mind, Congress set the draft’s minimum age at 20. Local draft boards went further, refusing to draft anyone under the age of 23. In an extreme case that occurred in early 1942, the average age of draftees in the 77th Division was 32, earning it the nickname “The Old Buzzards.” In addition, draftees’ terms of enlistment lasted only twelve months. This meant that just when draftees were beginning to learn their skills, they’d return to civilian life. For draftees to be properly trained the draft had to be extended. Marshall’s effort to do so in early 1941 became a political red-hot potato issue in the still strongly isolationist country.
To defuse the tension, in a May 17, 1941, memorandum to Maj. Gen. Robert C. Richardson, Jr., director of the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations, Marshall wrote, “I am wondering if it might not be a good thing to have some clever writer, whose stuff gets national circulation, prepare an article, a little of humor, and of more serious implications, as to what is now going on in relation to the work of the War Department in mobilizing and training an Army, and meeting the other requirements of planning, vital conferences, etc.” After recounting the importuning he daily received from Congress, Marshall added, “I am not mentioning hundreds of letters from mothers that come to me personally, because they are inevitable and natural reactions from the situation, and I can arrange to handle them and wish to sense their point of view.”
Marshall’s confidence in his ability to handle America’s mothers was put to the test when he received a stinging letter in late June 1941 from Mrs. Rose Lumetta. After questioning whether she could address Marshall as “dear sir,” she wrote that if he persisted in his draft extension plan he “will have the hatred of every mother, wife and sweethearts and also the boys themselves.”
Grumbling draftees weren’t a problem. Angry mothers were. Marshall demonstrated his tact and firmness in his response written on June 28: “I have your letter of June 24th and am sorry that you are so disturbed and angry over the possibility of your son’s remaining in the Army beyond one year. The War Department does not wish to keep your boy or any of the others in the service for one day longer than is necessary for the safety of the country, but it is impossible to tell at this time what that necessity is. It depends upon world conditions which change so rapidly that no one knows what the next 24 hours will bring forth.
“Unless the military situation becomes very acute the bulk of the selectees will be sent home after they complete their year of service. Some in key positions may be needed so badly that authority will be requested to retain them in service.
“Millions of European mothers would be offering grateful prayers of thanksgiving if the only sacrifice they were called upon to make for their country was to be separated from their sons by a few hundred peaceful miles. To preserve that peace is our sole objective.”
Marshall succeeded in getting the draft extended and in convincing President Roosevelt to lower the draft age to 18. Local draft boards were ordered to fall in line. By early 1942, the Army had 1.8 million draftees in uniform and the nation was at war. Millions more men – and thousands of women – would soon be in uniform.