Youth played a key, unsung role, memorial historian explains
They weren’t old enough to go into battle, much less get a driver’s license or register to vote.
But 75 years after World War II ended, the young members of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts across the country deserve recognition for the way they advanced the war effort.
“Would we have won World War II without the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts? Certainly so. We won the war for a lot of other reasons,” says John Long, director of education for the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., in the territory of Southside Electric Cooperative.
“But with the service of the Scouts, the war was won with greater ease.”
Despite mountains of books, videos and studies on World War II, Long said the contribution of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts has gone underappreciated.
After all, basic Scouting skills translated well to military life — reading a compass, building a fire, walking stealthily in the dark, tying knots and pitching a tent in a rainstorm.
“There’s no way of knowing how many thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen put Scouting skills that they had learned in their teen years to use in winning a war,” Long says.
Scouts first came of age in World War I, representing energetic, service-oriented organizations that could gather refuse as diverse as peach and apricot pits, which were used for gas mask filters.
As a result, at the dawn of World War II, Long says it was a question of when — not whether — Scouts would be tapped to serve in five areas:
Scouts across the nation participated in scrap metal, rubber and paper drives, and gathered millions of milkweed pods for the buoyant lining of life jackets.
“They became expert scavengers, rounding up these products which could be recycled into the war effort,” Long says. Boy Scouts who reached a specified scrap metal quota earned a special medal named for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
Meanwhile, Girl Scouts focused their attention on keys made of copper, zinc and lead at a time when butter and sugar shortages halted production of Girl Scout cookies. They even conserved metal by replacing zippers on their uniforms with buttons.
“It was a symbolic sacrifice that the Girl Scouts could make for the war,” Long says.
In 1942, President Roosevelt made the 1.6 million-strong Boy Scouts “Official Dispatch Bearers” for the Office of War Information, employing them to put up posters supportive of the war effort. It only made sense to enlist the foot and bike power of Scouts at a time of gas shortages.
They also were designated as heralds should a crisis arise. Scouts were assigned to government officials as 1940s-era couriers about civil defense messages.
Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts helped to sell patriotic war bonds and war stamps, manning tables at stores and post offices to raise money for the war.
Scouts helped supplement a waning food supply by growing fruits and vegetables in “victory gardens,” Long says. While the gardens were not limited to Scouts, youths played a big role in emphasizing food self-sufficiency, Long says.
“Every squash or tomato that you grew was one that didn’t have to come away from the soldiers at the front,” he says. Victory gardening work also brought a special medal named for Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“I think it says a lot about the appreciation that the military had for the Scout contribution that both of the major generals, Eisenhower in Europe and MacArthur in the Pacific, lent their names and their likenesses to these Boy Scout medals,” Long says.
During World War II, 16 million Americans went into uniform. That meant a shortage of farmhands, so Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts often were pressed into service to do basic farm work.
Additionally, Scouts stepped in as forest rangers and fire watchers to replace lost labor, Long says. “It was an important job for all Scouts who worked in conservation,” he adds.
What if Japan or Germany attacked the United States? In retrospect, such an expedition seems unlikely, but Americans didn’t know that in 1941 and 1942, Long notes.
“The Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops were mobilized with instructions on where to go in case of emergency, where your bomb shelter might be, where you might have to go if there were an attack,” Long says. Some Boy Scouts served as night civilian defense guards, reminding locals to pull down blackout blinds, so their houses could elude detection from the air.
The war left a legacy on Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Returning soldiers became scoutmasters while surplus canteens and backpacks became staples for many Scouting troops, Long says.
Incredibly, despite the hardships, Scout membership in the United States actually increased during wartime.
“I believe that’s because they were being asked to play such an important role,” Long says. “They stepped up to the job and they made a difference in the United States’ war effort.”
For more information on the National D-Day Memorial, visit dday.org.