Most of us living today have never seen anything like what we’re experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic. We now all live in some state of worry and fear. As leaders, as employees, and as members, these are scary times. And I would never try to minimize how serious it is to realize that hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions worldwide may die from this terrible health threat. And countless others are and will be impacted financially.
And for baby boomers like me, and for my children and grandchildren, we have never had to face a major national or international crisis in our lifetimes. Not like this one. But there are some World War II veterans and families who might have a different perspective.
So, it might be time to invoke a reality check. That is, our world and our lives have always been prone to sudden threats and even monumental domestic and world crises. And the world has always made it through stronger and better prepared for the next challenge.
History helps us remember times that were far more daunting than what we face today. For instance, we can be inspired by the courage and commitment by that “Greatest Generation,” also known as the World War II generation. These were our parents and grandparents born between 1901 and 1927. They were shaped by the Great Depression and were the primary participants in World War II.
I often wonder what life must have been like for the soldiers, for the young men about to enlist or to be drafted, and for the countless families who waited at home anxiously for their loved ones to return home. And consider the cumulative years of stress and worry between the outbreak of the war in 1939, the war in the pacific between 1941 and ‘43, and until the end of the war in August of 1945, when over 400,000 American lives and over 70 million worldwide were lost.
One of my most loyal and dedicated employees, Karen Biestek, is leaving our organization on April 6th, in the middle of our Michigan “Work from Home” order. We won’t be able to celebrate Karen’s 40 years of service until our lives return to normal someday soon. But there will be a celebration to thank Karen then.
Karen lives with and provides support for her 96-year-old mother Jane, one of the original “Rosie the Riveters” from that Greatest Generation during World War II.
Jane came from Bearcreek, Montana, a town of only 300. Her father worked in the Smith Mine that was working overtime producing coal for the war. The mine exploded on February 27, 1943, killing 74 miners. She lost her dad, her uncle and her cousin. And the mine explosion pretty much shut down the town. The residents of Bearcreek knew then what true hopelessness felt like.
Karen’s mom moved to Detroit to take a job with Ford Motor Company at a plant where she worked on the assembly line. But during wartime, the factories halted production of automobiles for civilian use and began rapidly producing jeeps, M-5 tanks and B-24 bombers. By the summer of 1944, Ford’s Willow Run plant cranked out one bomber an hour. And Jane and the other “Rosies” riveted the cockpits of the B-24 bomber, also known as the “Liberator.”
Within the first year and a half following the attack on Pearl Harbor, 350,000 workers from the American south and elsewhere moved to Detroit to join the war effort in producing planes, trucks and munitions for the war.
Consider some staggering statistics from World War II and try to imagine how the challenges of that era help keep our current crisis in perspective.
First of all, the casualties. Over 24 million soldiers lost their lives, over 400,000 of them were Americans. Fathers, brothers, sons, cousins, friends of millions of families who never saw their loved ones return home. And an unbelievable additional 34 million civilians were killed worldwide. And of course, the life-altering injuries and the incredible impact on family after family were unimaginable.
The U.S. produced 325,000 aircraft, 88,000 tanks and 2.4 million military trucks during the war. And I’m proud to say that no American city contributed more to the Allied powers during the war than Detroit. Detroit became known as “The Arsenal of Democracy” after a fireside chat conducted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In that speech, the president made a ‘call to arm and support’ the Allied power with weapons, planes, trucks and tanks. He said this production would “enable the allies to fight for their liberty and for our security.”
At the time of the president’s speech, the U.S. had not yet entered World War II, but the president implored Americans to stand up as the “arsenal of democracy” as though it was their own country at war. He called on the nation to unite with swift cooperation in producing vast shipments of weaponry to aid Europe.
Back to the story of Jane the Riveter…
She was one of Michigan’s original “Rosie the Riveters,” among the millions of women encouraged to work in factories due to the massive conscription of men leading to a shortage of available workers. “Rosie the Riveter” was a cultural icon of the war, representing these courageous and dedicated women who took up the call to arm and support the war. Their iconic slogan was “We can do it!”
What an apt slogan for the time and one for our current crisis as well. That self-determination, courage and hope in the face of adversity is what we need today.
Many of the women who took these jobs were mothers, like Karen’s mom, Jane. They pooled together in their efforts to raise their families. They assembled into groups and shared such chores as cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. Many who had young children shared apartments and houses so they could save time, money, utilities and food. If they both worked, they worked different shifts so they could take turns babysitting.
Over 6 million women took on these WWII jobs; African American, Hispanic, White and Asian American women worked side by side. For a time, the world put gender and ethnic bias aside to unite for a cause.
What an inspiration in a time of great international crisis!
In March of 2016, Karen’s mom, Jane was among 31 original Michigan “Rosies” honored in Washington, D.C., in celebration of Women’s History Month. The majority of those honored were in their 90s and they had worked at Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant. They wore their red bandanas and were honored in ceremonies throughout the day culminating in a visit to the World War II Memorial. I can picture them flexing their arms while uttering, “We can do it!” or the new slogan, “We did it!”
One of the Rosies, Frances Masters, had this reflection: “It gives me chills,” she said. “I feel like I should still be working to fight this enemy. I would do it tomorrow if I had to.”
And so it is today, in this international crisis, our generation is now called upon to arm and support in the battle against a new and unseen enemy, one that struck as suddenly as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into a devastating worldwide war that would ultimately take over 70 million lives.
But today’s war will ultimately pale in comparison. And our worries and sacrifices will be miniscule compared to those of the Greatest Generation. Perhaps our worries and fears can be tempered by the memory of past crises that were far more catastrophic.
I’m sure that Jane the Riveter and other living survivors of the Greatest Generation would give us wise counsel, that we can do this!
Credit unions nationwide and their 200,000 employees are now called on to provide essential financial services during a major health risk that puts their health and lives in jeopardy. And while all protective measures are being taken for the well-being of members and those who serve them, I can’t help but think of the tremendous credit union commitment as one that is a call to arm and support during this crisis. Not a crisis brought on by war, but rather a health and financial threat that creates a different kind of physical and mental stress for millions of Americans.
The story of not-for-profit credit unions is rarely thought of as “life or death” activities like those during wartime, but the financial well-being of families during these unprecedented times is a significant need that credit unions are courageously addressing with deferred loan payments, emergency loans, waived fees and words of financial encouragement that calm and support.
Behind the scenes, these employees and the over 100 million members whom they serve are living during a time of great worry and strife. But credit unions are there to help, just like they always are.
Karen’s mom, Jane, and the millions of men and women who took up the call to arm and support the war with necessary planes, weapons, munitions and vehicles necessary to maintain our liberty and freedom remind us that patience, sacrifice, and service are what define true heroes. And the millions of families who endured the perils of the Great Depression and World War II remind us what true sacrifice means. To that Greatest Generation, we are forever grateful, and we now learn from their stories.
And to Rosie and Jane, and the millions of “Rosie the Riveters” who sacrificed and inspired us so much, we gladly adopt your slogan “We can do it!” as we face these difficult months that lie ahead.