To Ruth, from Red

In 1944 Ruth Racke left Claryville,Kentucky. She went north to Covington, a city on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, and lived there with her sister and her sister’s two kids while her brother- in- law was off at war. Ruth was eighteen, a sensible and responsible brunette with brown eyes, who just had finished high school. Her father ran the general store and gas station in Claryville, her mother raised chickens with five boys and five girls on the family farm. Ruth might have stayed with her family in Claryville, if not for the war. The war had split her family apart, with four of her five brothers and a sister overseas with the Army and Navy.

Ruth Racke (second from left) and Norma Combs (second from right) at Grote Manufacturing 1944. (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Ruth Racke (second from left) and Norma Combs (second from right) at Grote Manufacturing in 1944. (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

In Covington, Ruth worked at Grote Manufacturing, painting the tail fins of bombs. At Grote, Ruth met other girls, girls who had come from different cities and towns across the state and America. She met Norma Combs, a girl who grew up poor in the countryside of Carollton, Kentucky. They complimented each other, each being what the other was not. Ruth was thoughtful and practical, Norma was impulsive with a wild streak. Norma’s mother had died when Norma was young. Her father was abusive and had worked off and on for the railroad until his kids were old enough to work for him and he could stay home. Norma had a brother too, his name was Hubert but she called him “Red” because everyone else did. Red left school after the eighth grade to work in construction, earning money to support the family because his father wouldn’t. He was drafted a month after Pearl Harbor and had been overseas since 1942 when he was sent to Australia. Now he was somewhere in the China-Burma-India Theater. She had a picture of him, he was handsome in his uniform with a look of quiet, amused confidence.  He didn’t have a girl to send him mail other than his sister, and Norma wondered if Ruth would write him.

Ruth and Red began a correspondence, friendly notes between people who never met and did not know much about each other. Ruth wrote him things about her life and Red’s sister, mundane things about work and her thoughts and feelings. Ordinary things that brought the touch of home and femininity that mean so much to a man. Red wrote Ruth of his life in India, of his travels from Assam to Bengal to New Delhi. He wrote about the bugs that crawled into the dough and got baked in the bread and the wild monkeys that sat on his shoulders in the cafes. He saw the Ganges river, where people bathed and drank the water as dead bodies floated by. Red saw the kindness of the Indian people and learned of Ghandi, a man he came to admire.

Hubert "Red" Combs in uniform (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Hubert “Red” Combs in uniform (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

He wrote other things to Ruth. He told her how much her letters meant to him. How much he enjoyed hearing from her and of his plans for the future. If Ruth had known Red when he left Kentucky, she would have seen a man from a poor and broken home with little education; a man beat down physically and emotionally by his father; a man who saw no way to pull himself up.

But in India, Red saw people from poverty worse than his. It gave him perspective on his situation and helped him realize the opportunities that were awaiting him in the U.S.A. By 1944 Red was a confident man. He had been commended by his commanding officer out of hundreds of others for his military appearance and bearing. He was a radio operator, trusted with valuable machinery, and charged with important communication duties. For the first time in his life, Red felt valued and gained a sense of self worth.

He began to send Ruth things: handkerchiefs, aprons, hosiery bags and a gold laced purse with the map of India on it. Small things he could imagine her being beautiful with. As Red’s time overseas came to a close he wrote her “I can’t give you the world, but I’ll work hard and do the best I can to make a good life for you.”

Red came back to the U.S.A. in January 1945. Ruth met him as he stopped in Kentucky before being sent to an Infantry Training Battalion in Arkansas. Their life returned to what it was, separated but connected by letters. But things had changed since they met and there was future that was waiting for them. World War II ended on September 2nd 1945 and there was no more need for painting bombs or training soldiers. On September 24th 1945 Ruth Racke and Red Combs married in Little Rock, Arkansas. A month later Red was discharged from the U.S. Army and went home to Kentucky with his wife.

Front and back of a gold laced purse Red sent Ruth from India in 1944

Front and back of a gold laced purse Red sent Ruth from India in 1944

The two eventually settled down in the city of Independence. They had their only child, Vera in July 1946 and raised her to respect people of all races, religions and backgrounds. Red opened his own construction business and Ruth became a housewife. They were well known in the church and became active in the community. As the years went by the only reminder of the war that brought them together was a book about India Vera flipped through as a child. Even the gifts Red sent Ruth from overseas were put away in boxes. The two didn’t talk much about the war and the part they played in it. They didn’t see the need to dwell on the past. Ruth and Red Combs were more interested in their future, busy living the rest of their lives together as a family, in peace.

Red and Ruth Combs as husband and wife with their daughter Vera (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Red and Ruth Combs as husband and wife with their daughter Vera
(Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)


Mistakes to be made

Cavalry and Tanks on the move in Louisiana

Cavalry and Tanks on the move in Louisiana

In two years Nazi Germany had occupied Poland, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, France and Belgium, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Greece. The Axis Powers were pushing into North Africa, White Russia, the Ukraine, and the heart of the Soviet Union. In Europe, Britain stood alone, saved only by a channel of water that Germany’s tanks could not roll over.

In those two years, the United States had lain dormant, save lend lease and troops sent to Iceland, it remained in a state of self imposed hibernation from European affairs. In 1939 America’s Military ranked the seventeenth largest in the world with a standing army of 187,000 men and about 200,000 National Guardsmen . In October 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first peace time draft in United States history raising the number to 1.6 million men in 1941. As the Axis conquered Europe, America trained its soldiers with World War I rifles, broomsticks labeled “machine guns”, and cars with “tank” written on them.

1941 Maneuvers Medal

1941 Maneuvers Medal

In 1941 General George Marshall decided to try the new Army in real combat conditions. Marshall wanted to see how his commanders adapted to modern warfare and how the soldiers performed through hardship. In September 1941, almost 500,000 troops battled on 3,400 square miles of Louisiana. The Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941 were the biggest war games ever seen on American soil. The men were split into two forces, the Blue Army was the invader, with blue armbands and fatigue caps; the Red Army, the defender with Red Armbands and steel helmets. Marshall knew his army would make mistakes. He wanted the mistakes to happen in Louisiana, not in Europe.

Blue and Red Armbands from the Louisiana Maneuvers

Blue and Red Armbands from the Louisiana Maneuvers

Massive battles took place around towns like Shreveport, Nachitoches, and Winnfield. The Maneuvers saw the US Army’s last use of mounted cavalry and its first use of paratroopers. Twenty six men died in the games, most in car accidents or drowning in river crossings. The Blue Army won in both defensive and offensive operations thanks in large part to plans from Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower and the tanks of George S. Patton.

Three months after the maneuvers finished, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on America. The Army of Louisiana took the lessons it learned in the summer of 1941 and prepared to do what it had trained for. Units that had performed well in the games were already in the Philippines or were embarking overseas to prepare to fight in North Africa and New Guinea. When they would enter combat, only gained territory and body counts would tell the score. After Louisiana there would be no more umpires to watch the rules and any mistakes would be fatal.

Ink for Ammunition

Mr. Hook

Mr. Hook

In 1942, Henry K. Ketcham was sworn into the Naval Reserve. Henry was from Washington State, where he had dropped out of college in his freshman year.  He had hitchhiked to Los Angeles, California in 1938 where he lived until he joined The Navy.

Navy poster with artwork by Henry Ketcham

Navy poster with artwork by Henry Ketcham

Mr. Hook eyes his target after coming home rich on war bonds

Mr. Hook eyes his target after coming home rich from investing in war bonds

The War brought thousands of men like Henry together; Americans who were ready to serve their country in its time of need. Henry was going to fight the Japanese and his weapon would be his pen.
Henry was an animator. He had worked on Woody Woodpecker films until he made it to the big show at Disney, working on films like Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Studios such as Disney and Warner Brothers threw themselves into supporting the war effort by designing insignias and creating military films.

Many of Hollywood’s best and most talented men served their country in the Armed Forces. Henry’s job was to make war posters. He came up with catchy slogans mixed with funny pictures: A fat sailor eying a curvy beauty is told to  “Watch your own waistline”  being reminded that “Food is scarce, don’t waste it on your waist!”. Cartoons were a fun and innocuous way to teach and indoctrinate. It gave Henry an outlet for his humor and creativity. He created Half Hitch, a comic strip about everyday navy life.

He also worked on propaganda films for The Navy. He created a character named Mr. Hook,  a sailor who fought treacherous, buck-toothed Japanese. Henry wrote four short films with titles like “Tokyo Woes” and “Take heed Mr. Tojo” featuring Mr. Hook  winning his battles by using war bonds.  Henry reminded the viewers to “Sink the Rising Sun with war bonds as your gun. War Bonds are ammunition!” and “Be a hero down a Zero with war bonds”.

Ketcham at work for the US Navy

Ketcham at work for the US Navy

Henry also appreciated women and the roles they played in providing humor for a male audience. Wolves were a common way of depicting overactive and excited males. One of Henry’s works of this period was entitled “COMWOLFPAC STAFF” a play on navy acronyms of “Com” short for “Commander” and “Pac” for “Pacific”. One wonders how much of Henry’s art imitated his own life.

Henry served in The Navy until 1946 when he returned to being a civilian. He married and had a son.  He changed his focus from animation to comic strips. He started to sign his work “Hank Ketcham” and in 1951 created a character based on his son entitled “Dennis the Menace”.

Zero being attacked by War Bond in "Take heed Mr. Tojo"

Zero being attacked by War Bonds in “Take heed Mr. Tojo”

Ketcham's "ComWolfPac Staff"

Ketcham’s “ComWolfPac Staff”

Henry’s four years in World War II continued to find it’s way into his work.  Dennis the Menace’s father Henry was a navy man and Henry’s wartime character Half Hitch was revived into a comic strip in the 1960’s.

Though The War was just an interlude in his career, Henry Ketcham and many other talented young men and women served their country in its time of need, using their wit as a weapon and ink for ammunition.

Eating like there’s a War on


On December 11th 1941,  rubber tires were the first item to be rationed in the United States.  By 1943 almost all consumer goods were rationed including typewriters, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, silk, Nylon, fuel oilww1645-33_500, stoves, dairy products, margarine, processed foods, dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal.

In 1942, people at home were encouraged to limit themselves to  2.5 pounds of meat per week or 130 pounds a year. By 1943 meat was rationed and became scarce. Beef in particular was in short supply. The law of the markets clashed with government regulations. Military necessity took precedence for supplies, but the civilian market was hampered by poorly conceived Government Price Administration regulations. Beef, for example, was priced too low for meat packers to make a profit. Meat growers had a supply available but could not get it packed for the consumer. Available meat was not worth the effort of packing for the prices allowed.

A black market for meat not inspected by the government appeared. Farmers who slaughtered their own animals also exempt from the rationing quota.

Meat that did reach the consumer was used to get the maximum benefit  from the limited supply. People were reminded not to waste anything. Special wartime recipe books were written to help families cope with the lack of ingredients and smaller available amounts.

For those who would like to try, here are some wartime recipes. (Click on them to enlarge)

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