14. Meanwhile, Back on the Ranch

"…Rounding up the horses and… planting spuds again today."

"Food will win the war!" That's what they told my dad when they excused him from military service during World War I. "We need you back on the ranch to raise horses and produce food for our boys in the trenches."

That motto was reiterated during WW II as our agricultural and industrial back-up system became more and more critical to the sustainability of the war machine. Again, during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, adjustments were made to "maintain our food production potential." As late as the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of President Kennedy's first orders was to tie up all CCC grain stocks until our future relationships with the USSR could be clarified. (1)

Major wars have always had a significant impact on agricultural history. Even though a country at peace may be in a period of apparent surplus production, the outbreak of war produces food problems of immediate international concern. After WW I, one economist with the US Department of Agriculture stated: (2)

"Then came the World War."
"Suddenly the productive industries felt the impact of a force wholly new to that generation, a force so powerful that it could and did dominate the economy of this country and of much of the world. Almost overnight, as history is reckoned, production had to fit itself to an altered pattern of trade and consumption… Under the stimulus of price and patriotism--finally of outright inflation--the farm business labored and expanded and provided the sinews…. Every form of educational propaganda that could be devised was employed to stimulate wheat acreage… and the US produced."

The experiences of WW II were similar. One of the greatest food shortages occurred in the province of Honan, China, in 1943. An excellent description of this famine and the conflicts between Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communist leaders, which led to mass starvation, is contained in Theodore White's book In Search of History White reported that: (3)

"Five million people starved to death in the province of Honan…. In a famine where there are no marks on the people who die: nature itself is the enemy…. Following famine and widespread corruption, came anarchy… a condition where no order prevails…. Compassion, kinship, customs and morals were swept away…. Food was the only idea, hunger the only command."

During the siege of Stalingrad and Leningrad, virtually no food supplies could get through to the cities. Thousands died of starvation. Similar situations were occurring all over Europe. Russia's serious food shortages were only partially offset by the numerous convoys that moved into Murmansk--convoys that were protected by the antisub patrols of VT-4 and many other squadrons of Avengers that operated from aircraft carriers in the north Atlantic.

As the war progressed in the Pacific theater, Japan became increasingly vulnerable to food shortages. Our Naval blockades, which preceded the occupation of each Japanese-held island, brought a virtual halt to supplemental food supplies. Even though the vast Japanese Empire encompassed some highly productive farm areas, there was no way, without Naval support, to move rice and other essentials to the homeland.

As a final blow to the hungry Japanese, OPERATION STARVATION was put in place in the summer of 1945. The impact was devastating to the far-flung Japanese Empire. Food shortages became so acute that the government called on the civilian population to collect 2.5 million bushels of acorns to be converted into eating material. The average Japanese had to survive on a daily intake of 1680 calories, or about 78 percent of the minimum required for health and physical performance. Agricultural experts were projecting over 7 million deaths by starvation if Japan stayed at war through 1946. (4)

On May 24, 1945, shortly after the defeat of the German armies, War Food Administrator Jones sent a letter to all members of Congress in which he stated:

"The United States has produced 50 percent more food annually in this war than in World War I. With 10 percent fewer workers on farms, twice as much food has gone annually to the armed services and for overseas shipments as was used for these noncivilian outlets each year of the last war." (5)

Food had helped win the war. And it would certainly shape the peace that followed. But some of those left "back on the farm" did not fully appreciate their role in the war effort. In our family, Byron and I had joined the Navy, Daniel was married and working in Alaska as a carpenter for the Army, John and Bill were too young to work. So that meant my teenage brother Walter was left to help Dad and Mother with the farm and ranch chores. Walter, therefore, became one of my primary sources of back-home information and, without his knowledge, a sort of counselor.

Walter's letters became a focal point for many of my discussions with Squadron buddies. In one of the earlier letters I received from Walter, he wrote that he and his cousin Bill had spent the day rounding up horses and, after considerable trouble, corralled a part of the herd: "When daddy seen them he said that we had rounded up every horse except the right ones." Dad often said, "that Walter, he can't ever do anything right!"

This and other statements that Dad made about Walter's work on the ranch led to the Squadron label of my favorite brother as "Worthless Walter." We all looked forward to the next mail call outlining Walter's troubles back on the ranch.

I saved most of Walter's letters and reread them many times while awaiting the next strike. These letters revealed something of the struggle and sacrifices made by our civilian population. Those of us in the service may have been subject to more risks, but we also held the glory assignments.

"Sept. 2, 1943"
"Small, Idaho"
"Dear Gerald,"
"Mother bought a place in Montana, around $5000… school starts up there the 7th. I wanted to start but daddy said I had to stay home and help thresh, pick spuds, fix fence and a million other things… a feller never gets to do anything he wants to anyway so I shouldn't have ever figured on it…. I'm going to get in the Navy when I get old enough so I can help get this war over with…."

So Walter stayed in Idaho to help on the ranch. The workload increased even more when the folks rented Lidy Hot Springs. Lidy's was the traditional summer resort for Clark County, Idaho. It had natural hot water for the large outdoor swimming pool, a bar, and dance hall. In addition, Dad and Walter moved most of our cattle from Medicine Lodge to Lidy's.

The move meant that Walter had to ride 10 miles to school from Lidy's to Medicine Lodge on old "Dime." As he stated in one letter, School District N 24 had just received a typewriter and he "kinda liked" learning to type.

"This typewriter cost the school $19.00… so I could learn on it last winter please dont mind the mistakes im out of practitous and spilling too."

I don't think Walter knew the location of the keys for the commas or periods. That gave the letters more of the flavor of the rural environment. Those of us on the ship particularly enjoyed those letters that covered a sequence of events.

"May 21, 1943"
"Winsper, Idaho"
"Dear Gerald,"
"…School is out thank goodness I passed isnt that surprising. The old ford is still running good having a little truble keeping it in gas though sence gas rationing."
"…Neil was staying with me last week we went out to the big hill last night seen one Bobcat five rattle snakes…."
”Robbin isnt going to have a colt this year she has a lot of life and is sure fat Daddy is going to sell Buster about four people want him he sure has a lot of life now he pranced and rared up on his hind leges all the way out to deep creek with me the other day."
"Business isnt so good this year too many young men gone to the war."
"Lynn was home last week he was asking all about all you kids. You know you guys never was home long enough for me to find the wrong side of you you sure have a good reputation every body in the country knows you and asks about you. Sure is nice to have a bunch of brothers that every body thinks a lot of it helps the reputation of the rest of the family too…."

"May 22, 1943"
"Well today Daddy and I went over to the Lodge he harrowed while I cut spudes…. Milk nine cows now about $28.00 a week of cream. Sold two Pigs the other day got $35.00 a peace for them they were just seven months old…."

"May 23, 1943"
"Went to the Lodge today befor noon Daddy finished harrowing and sold buster for $60.00 I cut spudes…. The saddle horse got out and run off I left the gate open when I got the cows…."

"May 24, 1943"
"What'a day I and Daddy planted spudes till i'm SICK of them came home and milked then caught old Dime and learned him to jump then went swimming and now am going to bed Daddy doesn't feel too good got a prety bad cold…."

"May 25, 1943"
"Mother and Henry bought a cow and a calf today for one hundred a piece they are broke to milk but you cant milk them they are so hard. I hased cows today up on Bblue Ccreek had a duce of a time caught one fish but didnt look for any more. I dednt have no saddle to ride got mad and was running Dime through that big sagebrush after a cow when I cough my foot in a sagebrush and I got sent a rolling I finnaly got the cow though. I had to get off at the spring and fix the water on my way back my horse run off and left me afoot with a cow to drive from the upper spring…."

"May 26, 1943"
"Same old thing today milked cows and planted spudes me and paw are on the lift today the spud planter keeps breaking down…. John Foster fell of the bed just now he done about everything today ate the chickens clabored milk drank the pigs swill waded in the ditch pulled fethers out of the gobbler dumpted ashes in my bed broke his dish at the table and what not?????? Well no excitement today so I guess i'l quite."

"May 27, 1943"
"I planted spudes while Daddy stayed home and irrigated Mother and Henry went to town and helped brand their bucks. They hauled the cows they bought down here…."

"May 29, 1943"
"…Today we planted spudes while Mother cought eleven fish they were big ones we will finish planting spudes tomorrow thank goodness. Bought three new parts for the spud planter and it wont plant… it went on the bum today so we planted by hand Steve was telling us how to fix it and Daddy told him all we needed to do was jack the middle of it up and put a new in there."

"June 3, 1943"
"Well we finnished planting spudes today…."

The Squadron breathed a sigh of relief when Walter finished planting potatoes. Someone said, "I wish he would quit planting spuds and send us more of those beef steaks. And, I mean real beef… not the horse meat they served us when we were in Newfoundland!"

While Walter and Dad were busy trying to grow more potatoes, agricultural scientists back home were also busy trying to find better ways to preserve and transport the crop to those of us in the service. Dehydration of potatoes was in its infancy during WW I. But in the last two years of WW II, the US dehydrated and packaged 20 million bushels of potatos. (6) Food shortages in Europe raised the demand for potato flour to 10 times the normal US output.

Powdered potatoes may have been OK for the Europeans, but those of us in the Service complained about as much about powdered potatoes as the cooks did about the old kind that required peeling. This was part of the power, peel, and politics of the potato. In VT-4 we were darned glad to see Walter shift to a more glamorous subject.

"June 3, 1943"
"Dear Gerald,"
"Went to the falls [Idaho Falls] yesterday I bought a new pare of shoes. It snowed here yesterday and is still colder than a bugger. The water master turned our water out today. Got to brand the rest of the calves soon maybe tomorrow. Daddy and I are going to round up all of the stray horses and tin can them they keep all of the feed ate off so the milk cows dont get any. We are milking 12 cows now get about thirty gallons to a milking. I have got to irrigate tomorrow so no branding."

"June 6, 1943"
"Had a dance last night (at Lidy Hot Springs) not a very big crowd they left about five thirty this morning I went to the Lodge today and irrigated…."

"June 11, 1943"
"Painted the ford yesterday you ought to see it blue finders gray body black trimmings green on the cover over the moter it runnes better sence I painted it…."

"August 29, 1943"
"Dear Gerald,"
"Well Daddy and I went to the Lodge today we branded colts. Billy helped me ride we didnt get all of the horses…. I rode that bronk of mine he lasted all day but just as we hit the upper spring four head split away from the bunch I took after them I ran them about two miles up a one way trial couldnt get out of it to head them finally when I reached the top I gave my horse a kick he got about even with them and gave out he came to a big rock and ensted of jumping it he stoped and wouldnt go a step fauther I unsaddled him and let him rest pretty soon he came up to me and started pushing me toward home with his nose so I saddled him up and caught up with Bill the other bunch had got clear of the sight we brought them in and corraled them when daddy seen them he said that we had brought every horse but the right ones… that goes to show what a lot of encouragement you get for trying."

All the ranchers on Medicine Lodge Creek ran horses on the open range during the Great Depression. The range was vastly overstocked and the ownership of the horses depended to a degree on who helped with the fall roundups. It was always good to be represented when the horses were corralled to claim a share of the "slicks" or unbranded colts. Uncle Henry always knew which colt belonged to which mare and which stallion was the likely parent.

With the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, the era of the free range ended. Grazing allotments were established and everyone had to go to town to put in a claim for a share of the open range. Allotments were supposedly based on historic grazing use. Our family had to take severe cuts in both horse and cow herds because Dad was not as aggressive as some of the newcomers to the area. He hated to "deal with the Federal government."

Most of the surplus or trespass horses on Medicine Lodge were rounded up and trailed over the divide to the cannery in Butte, Montana. I remember Mother sitting on the corral fence and saying as Dad helped cut out the horses that had to go. "Oh, Dan," she would say, "Do you have to sell that beautiful bay mare and colt?" But, she knew they had to go. The horses sold for $10 a head--the same for a mare with colt at her side.

Our family still had 30 - 40 head of horses when WW II started. I claimed several of these and I wanted Dad and Walter to take good care of them. Many of those missed in the fall roundup would likely winterkill in the high ranges up around Black Mountain. I kept writing the folks that "I wish I could help ride for those lost horses on Deep Creek." I could always write about horses even though I could not say much about our Navy activities.

At the time of the fall roundup, Dad, Mother, and Walter named the new colts that might turn out to be saddle horses after aircraft carriers while Byron and I were in the Navy. On the ranch we now had a "Ranger" and a "Kasaan Bay." The Navy censors prevented us from revealing the names of the ships where we served in the Pacific or we probably would have had horses named "Essex" and "Bunker Hill."

Both Ranger and Kasaan Bay were geldings. I guess the folks did not realize that Navy ships always carried the female identification. "The Bunker Hill recovered her aircraft and she set a course for the Philippines."

"August 29, 1943"
"Dear Gerald,"
"…I and Bill rode deep creek yesterday we left the horses in the corral last night those dirty sportsmen had season oppened on chickens the hunters went through there at daylight this morning and left the corral gate open let the horses out on the hay and in the grain Daddy was sure mad by the time we got over there the sage chickens were all killed and the men had gone I wish we had of cought them in there we would have sure fixed them."

"August 30, 1943"
"…I sure wanted to go to school (in Montana)… but Daddy said I had to stay home and help with the work."

"August 31, 1943"
"Went to the rodeo at the Falls… Dad, mom, William, the cook, and I left at six o'clock with four head of calves in the wonderful trailer we bought from Den Sullivan… I had brought the calves from Blue Creek that morning."
"We got down this side of Roberts a ways and lost a front wheel on the trawler lugges stripted out… along came Harold decided he couldnt help us so the way he went and took the cook with him… the rodeo was to start at eight thirty and it was eight now me and Daddy got the wheel on the best we could and started off again had to go affual slow got to the Falls at nine thirty I got out and went to the rodeo while Daddy was unloading the cattle I got to see most of the rodeo but Daddy and mother didnt get to go."

"Sept. 1, 1943"
"The coyotes are starting to come in again this year like they did last year we havent been able to get shells for the rifle yet but if we do the coyotes better run cause I emproved my aim this sommer and I think I can hit them Well the load of grain is comming so Id better quit for today."

"Sept. 2, 1943"
"…We are having a Dance Sunday starting at Midnight wish you were here to help tend bar or help get my courage up enough to go dance you guys never had much courage that way either from what ive seen and heard The old ford sprung a leak in the water pump I put some iron cement on it hope it stops the leak well got some Geemonetry to do so will close."

"Sept. 28, 1943"
"…Say I sure wish you were home so you could learn me how to hunt I had to go to school when Antelope season was open so I went hunting the other day saddled up old Dime and got that hunting knife you sent me and your old thirty-thirty and headed up over the hill went out the head of the spring and over the cedars and into Blue Creek while I was ridding up Blue Creek canyon I came face to face with a Buck and a Doe deer I hopped off old Dime yanked the gun out of the schabbard and let fly at the buck went over him throwed another shell into the chamber and let fly again hit a rock about two inches over his front sholders he dodged behind a cliff and was out of sight I glanced up on the hill and there stood the doe I thought I had good aim on her so I fired and when high…. I started cussing and headed after her the hill was afful rocky and it took me quite a while to get up it when i reached the top I could'nt see a sign of her there were a lot of little draws that she could have gone up I could'nt see her tracks so I headed up the lickiest one…. Which was of course the wrong one… I told Daddy I wouldnt be gone long so I started for home when I got to the upper spring there were three head of antelope going out of water I stoped and got off they heard me so they stopped too they were a long ways away but I thought I'd take a shot at them any way I amed a little high and let drive at the buck there was a rock right in back of him and I hit it I don't think I hit the antelope but he started runing and ran south around the hill the other two went north I stood and watched and a little while later I saw him go between a draw and up the hill toward the other two he wasnt limping or any thing so I guess he wasnt hurt although I would have liked to stalked him."
"Well that ended the hunt as usual I came in home with out any thing Daddy said other people get antelope but none of us kids ever did and probably never will could'nt even get a coyote last winter"

After I received this letter about Walter's exciting hunt, I wrote back.

"Walter's unsuccessful attempt to shoot the coyote reminds me of a similar occasion about five years ago. And, as in Walter's case, I distinctly remember Daddy saying that we never hit anything in our life that needed killing. All of which tends to make me homesick for those good old days so I'll drop the subject."

"When are we going to get another letter from Worthless Walter?" became a common greeting as I entered the Carrier Wardroom. This gave me a feeling of pride so I capitalized on my ranch background with some experiences of my own.

"By Doggies, I remember the time old Buster bucked me off six times in a row and each time Dad made me get right back on…."

It seemed to me that Walter's image was coming through to the Squadron as that of an unappreciated laborer, while Dad seemed to be a slave driver. Perhaps this sense of guilt on my part prompted the following letter:

"August 28, 1943"
"Torpedo Squadron Four"
"Dear Dad,"
"I suppose that you are wondering why this letter is written and addressed specifically to you. Well, the occasion is your approaching birthday. I have taken the privilege to deviate from the customary "Dear Folks" to pay my respects to you alone. This is only an inadequate effort to show you that I am thankful for the many things you have done for me. I know that I speak for not one, but six boys, when I say that we are honored to have you as a father."
"You know, every so often, during periods of inactivity, I get terrifically homesick--for you, and mother, and the ranch--and I begin reminiscing. Certain instances become outstanding and always you are present as a part of the picture."
"I can see you leaning against the Round Corral fence while the herd of horses that Daniel and I had just brought off Deep Creek restlessly mill around. You calmly chew on a stem of alfalfa and Daniel and I, all het up inside, talk profusely about the possibilities of making a good saddle horse out of Dixie's new colt. You say we ought to halter-break Babe's yearling, or advertise that stray black mare because she has been with this bunch since last fall. In the excitement I drop Dime's reins and he walks sidewards as he drags them over to the manger. You cuss as one of the geldings kicks with both hind feet at the young stud and William gets too close. Then there is lots of confusion as Daniel and I try to rope the colts we have to brand. After we just about run them down and maybe accidentally catch one or two you take the lasso rope and finish up."
"There is the smell of burning hair and possibly warm blood if a two year old stud happens along. Finally we start the remainder of the herd back to Deep Creek on a high lope so the bay mare won't lead them out in the lavies. Then we unsaddle and go to the house where we finish the discussion of horses with Mother and Henry."
"That night we are pretty darned tired and we dread the thought of milking those few cows. But with your initiative we all chip in and it really wasn't so bad after all."
"When haying season comes around you again lead the way. Stelzer was right when he said you raised yourself a hay crew. We made short work of that Reno contract despite that old broken down derrick and the wind, and that roan stud that no one could bridle but you. You let Frank gyp you on the hay measurement, but then you always gave the other ranchers the best deal because you were easy to get along with."
"There were numerous times following a long night at Lidy's when you let us boys sleep in while you milked and done the chores all alone. You went out and harnessed up and fed the stock during those winter blizzards when we were in school. You did all the hard work on the Fourth and 24th and at those little rodeos we put on while the rest of us had fun. These are only a few of the things that make us indebted to you as the best father in the world."
"Well, Dad, I guess you know that all this adds up to me wishing you a happy birthday this year and many years to come."
"Your Son,"

This nostalgic letter to my Dad reflected my desire to get back to the ranch after the war. I wrote, "I'm getting additional pay for sea duty--about $15 a month…. I only had to pay $7 income tax for 1942. I can probably send some money home… invest it in cattle or sheep because I have a feeling money won't be worth much after the war…."

At the time this letter was written, no one realized that the government policies of price support and the accelerated demand for agricultural products due to the war created an artificial situation that could not last during the peace. Our ranch and many others were soon in a state of collapse. (*) As former Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman stated

"Throughout World War II and the Korean conflict, the farmer produced to intense demand and reaped fair returns and grateful recognition. But the technological advances that enabled him to meet the wartime demands betrayed him once the emergencies were over." (7)

Photo: Walter Thomas on "Dime" at Lidy Hot Springs.

Photo: Walter Thomas with "Robin," "Dime," and "Buster."

Photo: Medicine Lodge Creek, Small, Idaho.

Photo: Home on Leave.

Photo: Haying with Buckrake.

(1) Thomas, Gerald W. 1982. Food and Fiber for a Changing World. (Second Edition). Interstate Printers.
(2) Genung, A. B. 1940. "Agriculture in the World War Period." In Farmers In a Changing World. USDA Yearbook of Agriculture.
(3) White, Theodore. 1978. In Search of History. Harper and Row, New York.
(4) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(5) Wilcox, Walter W. 1947. The Farmer in the Second World War. Iowa State College Press, Ames, Iowa.
(6) Eskew, R. K. and Paul Edwards. 1950 - 1951. "Food and Feed from White Potatos." In Crops in Peace and War. USDA Yearbook of Agriculture.
(7) Freeman, Orville L. 1940. "The Development of Agricultural Policy Since the End of the World War." In Farmers in a Changing World. USDA Yearbook of Agriculture.
(*) I applied for a discharge on the basis of points in September, 1945, and my wife and I returned to Idaho. I still believed that there must be some way to get into the ranching business. An inventory of my assets revealed that I had no cattle that could be clearly identified as mine, and only 2 or 3 horses. My saddle was worn out and I owed 3 years of back income taxes.

As a WW II veteran I was invited to participate in a random drawing for sagebrush land in southern Idaho. The size of these blocks ranged from 40 - 80 acres--supposedly with underground water for potential irrigation. I was lucky. My name was not drawn. These parcels of land, that seemed to promise immediate wealth for the lucky vets after the war, provided only hard work and poverty-level living a few years later. I decided to accept an offer to work for the US Soil Conservation Service--an outdoor job as close to farming and ranching as I could find. This decision shaped my future professional career.

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Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas