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WW II Brought Changes in Travel
By Catherine C. Brooks

     One or more automobiles sat in practically every driveway by the year 1940. Some folks had purchased second hand models, others had new ones occasionally and some a new car every year. With the depression over, everyone who wanted work, had a job. Wages averaged $1.00 an hour, but you could purchase a road-hogging car for $1,500. Bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 changed lifestyles for everyone.
After President Roosevelt declared war, the draft of young men began. Women started working in factories, on farms and doing other work that would have been considered unladylike previously. Manufacturing meant more tanks, guns or bombs for the army, air force, navy and marine vehicles. The latter burnt gasoline and their use became priority. Thus gas rationing became necessary. We couldn’t send our men to fight without weapons, machines and fuel for power. 

     A gas shortage brought on by the sinking of tankers on the Atlantic worsened an already bad situation. Many gas stations along the East Coast closed in the summer of 1942. The few that remained open had lines of up to 300 cars waiting to get what their ration card allowed. Numbers of drivers became stranded on the side of the road. Tanker trucks became like pied pipers, with strings of fuel-hungry automobiles following them wherever they went. 

     When national gasoline rationing went in effect in December 1942, traffic thinned out visibly everywhere. Many parks and tourist attractions closed down temporarily. The government issued ration stickers to apply to windshields. An “A” sticker was good for four gallons per week (later reduced to three) which they estimated would give 60 miles of driving. A “T” sticker (for trucker) allowed unlimited gas; “B” stickers denoted essential driving; “C” stickers allotted to doctors, ministers, mail carriers and others in essential service provided the largest supply of gasoline. I lived on a small farm and a small tanker truck driver filled the farm tank when the need presented itself for the appropriate amount of money and ration coupons. However if anyone had to go to a doctor or hospital in Newport News or Richmond, they were allotted a coupon for 10 gallons of gas. One just hoped they would make it.

     In January 1943, the government banned “pleasure driving” all together. Anyone with an “A” sticker caught going anywhere for “pleasure” lost their gas ration coupons. One used “A” ration coupons for going to work, necessary shopping and attending worship.

     I graduated from high school in June 1943. The Juniors planned a prom, but we couldn’t have it because it would be “pleasure.” In order to have graduation exercises, we had a short baccalaureate service followed by commencement, omitting many of the usual honors. We never knew who would have been valedictorian or salutatorian except that it was between two of the ones taking part in the exercises. We all joined in singing patriotic songs, remembering class members who had to leave school before graduation for the service; one of whom had been killed. The parents accepted their diplomas in memory or honor of those absent. I would guess that it could be called the school’s most unusual graduation. Authorities found it hard to enforce the “no pleasure driving” law. Therefore the government discontinued it in September 1943. 

     Buses ran for all government workers outside the county. They had a bus to the shipyard, another to Naval Weapons Station and one to Langley Field. Mr. Estes ran a bus to Richmond three times a week for shopping and for those who needed to attend a doctor in that city. It left early morning and returned about 6 p.m. Often men drafted or who volunteered traveled on this same bus for their physicals and later for induction into the service. The bus service became a way of life and continued for some years after the war. Since Mathews was the first stop in the morning and last in the afternoon, the riders knew every stop along the way. Some people in King and Queen and New Kent gathered at the end of a lane and waved when the bus approached to indicate their desire to be picked up. Gradually after the war ended, people preferred to drive their own cars, and the lack of passengers forced the bus route to end.

     One morning in the school year of 1942-1943, a messenger from the principal’s office at Mathews High School toured the classrooms. She asked if any students had a family member on the Newport News Shipyard bus from New Point. Some turned almost white with fear when the messenger informed the class that the bus had almost gone overboard when it boarded the York River ferry. Before the bus’s rear wheels cleared the ferry, dock workers were able to choke them. A passenger aboard the bus opened the rear door, and the occupants formed a chain-line pulling upward and climbing out to safety. The bus suffered some damage, but those aboard escaped without a scratch. Another bus picked the dazed passengers up and returned them home for the day. Our principal feared word of the accident would reach the students without their knowing all aboard had been brought to safety. Relaxed students went back to their studies. 

     In the forties only teachers, some cafeteria workers and other adult employees drove their cars to school. Should we face a situation today like we did in the early forties, the lives of the older high school students would change drastically. No one, other than hired personnel, would have an automobile to leave in the school parking lot.

© 2001 Catherine C. Brooks All Rights reserved


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