A Different World

Columbia women during the years of World War II

By Katie McElveen

Photography by Robert Clark

As America’s entry into World War II went from probable to certain on Dec. 7, 1941, patriotic husbands, sons, brothers and fathers flocked to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, ready to defend their country and its allies. 

The men of Columbia were no exception, joining up as soon as they were eligible, heading in all directions with a single goal: to win the war. For those left behind, life changed — seemingly overnight. 

Sarah Clarkson, who grew up in Georgetown, was 15 in 1941 and clearly remembers the months leading up to America joining the war. “Even before the United States was directly involved in the fighting, we were in a great stage of tension,” she recalls. “As young girls, we were fervent about doing what we could for the British and spent hours rolling bandages and knitting warm clothing for the soldiers in the North Atlantic. I had never knitted before and was terrified that the scarf I made unraveled on the poor sailor who received it.”

She remembers Pearl Harbor as clearly as if it were yesterday. “We usually rode on Sunday afternoon to the Whistling Pig to drink cokes and listen to the radio,” she says. “On that day, the radio program was interrupted with the news. I raced home and found my family gathered around the radio. My mother was crying.”

Life soon changed dramatically for Sarah and her family. Food rationing meant careful use of staples like sugar and butter. “Instead of butter, we had to use this awful margarine. It came with a little packet of yellow dye that you could mix in if you wanted it to look more like butter. But nothing improved the taste!” Yet even with limited resources, the family never felt deprived. “Rich or poor, everyone was in the same boat,” Sarah explains. “No one had much, and we made do with what we had. It was actually a wonderful life lesson.”

During the summer of 1942, homes on the ocean side of Pawleys Island had to use blackout drapes at night while the Coast Guard began nighttime beach patrols on horseback, watching for enemy U-boats. At one point, one of Sarah’s neighbors, a German man with a family, was arrested for using lights to signal a Nazi U-boat as it cruised the waters off the coast. She also recalls in Columbia, a Japanese family was interned in one of the many camps the United States set up for Japanese immigrants. “It was so sad,” she says. “They had two sons fighting for the United States, and they were still taken away.”

Betty Maseng also saw the war separate families. “When I graduated from high school in 1944, girls who I knew went to college, and the boys enlisted. For the first time, many families were no longer secure.” Like Sarah, Betty and her family did what they could for the war effort even before America was directly involved, sending food to relatives living abroad — they later found out that the Nazis intercepted most of the packages — and mailing “Bundles for Britain,” which provided clothing and other supplies to British citizens. 

Once the United States joined the war, Betty saw many women take the places of men in the factories, who had left their jobs to join the armed services. Instead of driving, Betty and her friends found that they were walking everywhere; instead of purchasing new shoes, clothing and stockings, they resoled, repaired and learned how to mend runs. They also ate the horrible margarine, complete with the yellow packets, and installed blackout curtains in their homes. “Like everyone else, we went without, but we never felt like we were deprived,” she says, “it was just the way it was.” 

Without television, keeping track of what was going on in Europe was a challenge — the family relied on newspapers, the radio and movietone newsreels, which preceded the feature presentation in movie theaters and provided the only moving images of the war regularly available to civilians. It was while she was at college that Betty thought of a way that she could offer support to the boys who had graduated with her from high school, but were stationed all over the world. 

“Mothers tend to only write letters to their own children, and soldiers don’t write to each other,” she explains. “I corresponded with a group of friends. I realized one day that through my letters, I could give them information about other friends of ours who were also in the war.” Soon, Betty began writing letters in earnest, letting friends know who was stationed where, what they were doing and how they were faring. Before long, she was acting as a link between school friends who had no way to communicate with each other. 

Just a few years apart in age, sisters Mary Herbert Taylor and Georgia Herbert Hart had very different experiences during the war: Mary was in Virginia attending Sweetbriar College; Georgia was a newlywed living in Columbia. “You could really feel the friction and the terror in the years leading up to America’s involvement,” says Mary. “Before the war started, Georgia was away at school, but I was still at home. My parents were glued to the news.” The one experience they did share was the fact that their brothers, Jim and Beverley Herbert, were both fighting overseas. Jim was a pilot in the Air Force, and Beverley served first as a frog man in the Pacific and later worked in Naval Intelligence. 

Six months after President Roosevelt declared war in December, Georgia’s husband, George, a dental surgeon who was a member of the 118th infantry, was deployed. “He contracted malaria in Louisiana during maneuvers,” explains Georgia. “He was so sick, he barely remembers our wedding, which was in July 1941. But once he was gone, he was gone: he left right before our first anniversary, and I didn’t see him again until he came home in 1945.” As soon as George left for Europe, Georgia and her infant daughter, Becky, moved back in with Georgia’s parents. To stay busy, she volunteered wherever she could, rolling bandages, writing to soldiers through the Red Cross and working as a plane spotter. “Once we’d memorized what every airplane looked like, we worked shifts at the Filter Center at Columbia High, watching the sky with a huge map in front of us,” says Georgia. “If a plane went by, we’d have to identify it and mark its progress on the map. I missed George terribly, but it helped to be busy. I was so fortunate to have such wonderful family support.”

Away at school, Mary recalls being aware of the war, but found life to be fairly routine. “We were fine without gasoline — I took the bus and the train to and from school and no one came to my college graduation — or anything else because we knew it was part of the war effort. It gave us a sense of all being in it together.”

Both women recall dances at Trinity Cathedral and the USO for soldiers stationed at Fort Jackson. They’d also invite soldiers who came to church home for Sunday dinner. “The community came out in every way they could for the soldiers,” says Mary. “While we waited for our loved ones to return home.”

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