A look at high school newspapers and essays in Indianapolis during the second world war shows that teenagers during the war still acted like teenagers. Some reacted to wartime hardships with youthful egotism. “This war is affecting the lives of youth even more than those of older people,” wrote one boy from Arsenal High School. His peers complained of everything from not being able to have their formal gowns cleaned to having friends and relatives leave for war.
Others realized that in many ways, they were far less affected by the war than were other Americans. With the financial problems of the Depression behind them, they dated and went on joy-rides, and had what fun they could. “This war doesn’t mean much to me,” wrote another Indianapolis high school student, “except that we have to get along with less sugar and maybe other things”.
However, Indianapolis teenagers were not oblivious to the troubles around them. Instead, their patriotism, mixed with teenage emotions, left them frustrated about what they could do to help. Many kept in touch with soldiers fighting abroad. Although most students could not identify Yugoslavia on a map, they followed where their friends and family members were stationed or had been in battle.
Old enough to understand some of the implications of the war, they were still too young to do anything about it. As one girl put it, “Being sixteen and seventeen, we’re considered too young for the armed forces and too young for work in war factories”. Organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, some felt, did not make the type of contribution they sought. Others tried part-time war work, but found that even that was not enough.
Most Indianapolis students dreamed of other, bigger, ways to help their nation. Some students dropped out when they could at age sixteen to work in wartime industries, even though their parents pressured them to stay in school and work towards longer term goals. As one girl from Shortridge High School expressed: “We know we can never fight; we know we must go to school to help rebuild the world for tomorrow”.
For boys who dreamed of making a more immediate contribution, there was the chance that they too would soon be fighting for their country. One boy, using an epithet common in the day, explained that “merely to dream of shooting a gun or diving in a plane at unsuspecting Japs while learning of past things, will be harder to do than face death itself”.
Despite this romanticized sense of war and patriotism, many Hoosier teenagers understood that being at war meant more than going without sugar: “Knowing that I am going to war,” one said, “I like to get a little fun that can be still had before I go…Many people think there will be happiness after the war; I hope so, but I don’t see how there can be, with all those that will never come back and with all those that come back cripples…so I figure the fun is before you go”.
As Americans gave their lives in Europe and the Pacific, the teenagers of Indianapolis were caught in-between: old enough to want to help, but too young to act on that desire. As one adult observer of the time explained, “History is being made – and they are being left out”.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.
Source Article: Richard M. Ugland, “Viewpoints and Morale of Urban High School Students during World War II – Indianapolis as a Case Study,” Indiana Magazine of History 77 (June 1981), 150-178.