Holding Down the Homefront : The Oral History of Jessie Clark
There is perhaps no aspect of family life unaffected by World War II. The war tested families through dislocation, separation, and sacrifice but, in many cases, it also deepened their resilience and appreciation of togetherness. In Jessie Clark’s interview, she delves into the changes to her home life after the Pearl Harbor attack, from rationing and blackouts to housing and family relations.
Jessie Clark was born in Maynard, Texas. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was 32 living in Houston, Texas with her husband and two children. Her son, Kelly, was eight years old and her daughter, Kay, was a year and a half.
Well, I remember we had our radio going, of course, just listening to everything and then this shocking news came on about Pearl Harbor being bombed. Well, it was just a shell shock for us, because we couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen to us. And in such a magnitude, that so many ships were destroyed and men hurt… Well, of course, the minute it happened, and the minute war was declared by Roosevelt, well everyone’s life completely changed.
The safety she and her family had known dissipated as the reality of living in Houston, a military and manufacturing hub where petroleum products were produced, set in.
It was all very nerve-wracking (sic). And I guess we never did just settle down, because we had blackouts all the time. Because we felt that we were… would be a good target. Houston would be a good target… we fared all right and I wasn’t necessarily frightened or scared, but I was nervous. You’re just not comfortable.
Jessie discusses in length how rationing effected the family’s everyday life. Shoes were in particular demand with a young, growing boy. The grandparents gifted Jessie their shoe ration coupons, since they didn’t need new shoes. The lack of rubber and gas meant the family only went to places within walking distance. Then Kelly, a boy scout, collected scrap iron and gave up his trains. The scarcity of products was especially present during the holidays.
… then came Christmas time and you couldn’t find any toys to give to kids… My husband looked all over creation. We went to all these junk shops, and he finally found a bicycle made out of bits and pieces. And then also in one of the papers I saw a baby carriage advertised for sale… Oh, but it was hard to have any kind of a Christmas or anything like that… And I don’t know anyone that fared any differently.
Jessie’s husband worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Since he was in an essential industry, his job kept him from being drafted but it kept him away from home for long stretches of time.
Many times I would have to leave the children home at night and take him to the station to catch a train out about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. And he’d be back when he’d be back. He didn’t always know when he would be back. And he just went from coast to coast with troops and organizing the travel for the troops.
The change in living circumstances wasn’t limited to her husband’s work schedule. The wartime housing crisis led to the loss of their apartment and the search for a new home. The apartment landlord, realizing he could make a profit, evicted Jessie and her family to sell the property. Jessie and the children moved to a small town to live with her parents, while her husband rented a room in a friend’s house in the city until they could buy a house for themselves in Houston, which they lived in through the duration of the war.
We survived, it wasn’t the nicest way to live with your husband gone all the time, and having to look out for children, and run the house and all, but we survived. And thank the good Lord one more (laughter).
Click here to listen to Jessie Clark’s complete story.
Clara Snyder is a Digital Archivist at the National Museum of the Pacific War. She received a BA in International Studies from the University of Oklahoma before attending Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts for her master’s degree in Library and Information Science.