Sept. 11: Another date that will live in infamy

COMMENT
John K. Teahen Jr. is the senior editor of Automotive News

I remember Pearl Harbor.

I remember Sept. 11, 2001.

They were similar in some ways, and they were also very different.

Dec. 7, 1941, was a Sunday. The Washington Redskins were playing at home to their usual sellout crowd. Early in the game, the announcer began ordering military personnel to report to their bases.

Pearl Harbor was not a household name in the United States at that time. Upon hearing of the Japanese bombing, many Americans asked, "What's Pearl Harbor?"

There was panic on the West Coast. With our Pacific fleet crippled, would the Japanese unleash their bombers against Los Angeles and San Francisco? They didn't, but the fear was there.

I was 16, a junior in high school. On Dec. 8, after President Franklin Roosevelt's "a date which will live in infamy" speech, several of my classmates rushed to military recruiting offices to sign up. They were turned away, but they all were in uniform a year or two later.

1941 vs. 2001

Similarities and differences: Both Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 were sneak attacks on the United States. But one was 3,000 miles from our shores, and the other was in the heart of our largest city.

In 1941, we knew who the enemy was, we knew where the enemy was, and our military leaders knew the enemy's approximate strength in troops and materiel of war. This time, we know none of those things.

In 1941, Selective Service - the draft - was in effect. This time, no such call-up of civilians has been mentioned.

Last time, the auto industry was the prime mover of our defense and offense. It is not out of line to say that the auto industry won the war. Civilian car and truck production ended Feb. 1, 1942. No such plans have been mentioned this time.

The auto industry went to war in 1941. In our family, we didn't see much of my father for several months. He was a Fisher Body executive and was much involved in the changeover of Fisher and General Motors plants to war production. He worked days, nights and weekends.

Tough time for dealers

America's lifestyles changed. Gasoline was rationed, meat was rationed and so was butter. Civilian goods became scarce. People saved money. Folks were making good money in the war plants, and there was nothing to spend it on.

Auto dealers were in deep trouble. They had no new cars to sell. Used cars were profitable, but there weren't many of them. There were no trade-ins. And nobody would give up a car that couldn't be replaced. Service was the dealer's only profit center. With no new cars available, motorists realized that they had to keep their present cars in good shape.

Some dealers were innovative. A Ford dealer friend of my family set up his own mini war plant. He bought equipment and became a subcontractor to companies with government work.

Travel was restricted, not by government edict but by logistics. Airline travel was in its infancy. My parents had never set foot in an airplane, and that was not unusual for the adults of 1941. And during World War II, you didn't fly unless you were on government business. The trains were jammed to the doors.

Auto travel? Forget it. If you had an "A" sticker, which most people did, you were limited to four gallons of gasoline a week. If you were lucky, your car averaged 15 mpg. Figure it out. People with "A" stickers drove to church, to the grocery, to the doctor's. You didn't drive the kids to school; they walked or took the bus.

"B" and "C" stickers were more liberal, but they were for emergency or war-related business use. The driver who was found 200 miles from home on a pleasure jaunt might lose his "C" sticker and with it his job.

It wasn't a fun time on the home front, but nobody was shooting at us or crashing airplanes into tall buildings. It was a different story in the trenches. But Americans are a hardy lot. They came through World War II stronger and more united than ever before. The stage is set again.

John K. Teahen Jr. is the senior editor of Automotive News. You can e-mail him at .

You can reach John K. Teahen Jr. at autonews@crain.com

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