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ByGone Muncie: Thanksgiving with a world at war

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MUNCIE, Ind. ― Munsonians celebrated Thanksgiving 80 years ago this week under shadow of the Second World War. Between 1942-43, thousands of Delaware County men and women left home to serve in American military units overseas. Many more remained in Muncie to produce armaments for the defense industry. The war impacted all aspects of life and hung like a cloud over everyone, especially around the holidays.

The Muncie Star encouraged readers on Thanksgiving Day 1943 to remain grateful, “many articles may be missing from the stores, due to demands of war; food may be limited and the public weary of rationing; efficient help may have been drained by the armed forces and swollen pay for war industries, and yet, the normal pattern of life has not been rudely shaken by the world upheaval.”

War news dominated local headlines during Thanksgiving week of 1943. The violence was incredible, but Allied armies made significant advancements. American, Canadian, and British forces had invaded Italy earlier in September, but were bogged down that Thanksgiving by Germans at the Sangro River. The eventual liberation of southern Italy, coupled with Allied victories at Midway, Stalingrad, and North Africa, turned the tide of war against Axis powers.

In the Pacific, Muncie papers reported that the United States Navy sunk no less than four Japanese destroyers about 90 miles off the coast of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea. Just before Thanksgiving in 1943, American forces had captured the Gilbert Islands from the Japanese in the Battle of Tarawa Atoll.

In Europe that week, Royal Air Force Mosquito bombers began dropping an insane amount of ordinance on Berlin. The AP article the Muncie Star ran on Thanksgiving concluded that the RAF bombing raids were transforming “the world’s third largest city into the world’s most-bombed city.” Thousands of Berliners died and 175,000 left homeless.

By war’s end, over 9,000 residents of Delaware County had served in American armed forces, including pilots George Rieman and Bill Worth. The Evening Press reported on Thanksgiving 1943 that both men had completed their flight training and, “as naval aviators, they will go on active duty at one of the navy’s air operational training centers before being assigned to a combat zone.”

The Evening Press also reported that Lt. George Kimball, a B-24 pilot from Hartford City, had been shot down by Japanese fighters near Pakokku in what is today Myanmar. The Press reported that Kimball had flown in the Burma Theater of the war for “11 months and had 350 hours of combat flying to his credit.”

Nearly 338,000 Hoosiers served in the military during World War Two, 13,370 of whom gave their lives. The United States National Archives identifies 158 soldiers from Delaware County having died in service of their country.

Despite the conflict’s many disruptions, our forebears attempted a relatively normal holiday season in 1943. Turkeys were limited and expensive, but still available. Kneip Market at 407 S. Walnut was selling young birds for 49¢ a pound, which is a staggering $8.67 today after adjusting for inflation. Beatson Food Market on East Main Street offered fully dressed turkeys for 60¢ a pound and three pounds of sweet potatoes for 27¢. Muncie’s eight Marsh grocery stores sold processed pumpkin for 17¢ a can and a dozen Florida oranges for 25¢.

Munsonians found reprieve from the war that Thanksgiving with classic American past times. On Wednesday night, 4,000 fans packed the Field House to watch the Muncie Central Bearcats narrowly beat the New Castle Trojans 36-35 at a boys basketball game. Central’s senior class held a dance after at the YWCA titled the Gobblers Gambol. That same night, Burris’ boys basketball team defeated the Tipton Blue Devils 30-22 at an away game.

Some Munsonians caught a movie after dinner at one of five theaters downtown. The Strand on East Jackson ran the comedy “Fired Wife,” while the musical “Is Everybody Happy?” played over at the Rivoli. Uptown Theatre at 208 East Main screened the western, “Buckskin Frontier. At the Hoosier Theater, what is today Muncie Civic, patrons could watch James Cagney in a re-release of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Wysor Grand’s managers showed two movies on Thanksgiving day, the war film, “They Came to Blow Up America” and the mystery, “Unknown Guest.”

Just like today, Thanksgiving weekend was the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season. Ball Stores announced in both Muncie Star and Evening Press ads that Toyland was officially open the Friday after Thanksgiving. War bonds were also being sold on the fourth floor.

Stillman’s on Walnut Street was running an after Thanksgiving Day sale on fur coats, which ranged in price from $15-$40 ($265-$700 today). A two piece sofa and chair was going for $119 at Sears and neck ties at S.S. Kresge’s on Walnut ranged from 25¢ to $1. Engagement rings at Morton’s Jewelers began at $50 and topped out near $125 ($885-$2,200 today). Women’s hosiery at Stillman’s sold for 57¢ a pair, though rayon cost only 49¢.

Nellie Brown, the superintendent of Ball Memorial Hospital, reported that 632 patients had been admitted in the month of October. BMH physicians performed 189 surgeries, delivered 120 babies, conducted 98 blood transfusions, and set 25 broken limbs in plaster casts.

There was much to be grateful for on Thanksgiving in 1943. The Muncie Evening Press editor Wilbur Sutton noted in his holiday editorial that “the people of Muncie and Delaware County have done their part willingly” by donating labor and money to the war effort. “Thousands of them have given of their time and their energy to the promotion of all efforts that have to do with winning the war, and often without hope or wish for reward…for this spirit of generosity we have reason to be thankful today.”

Chris Flook is a Delaware County Historical Society board member and a Senior Lecturer of Media at Ball State University.

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