Magazine article America in WWII

The Other Boys in Uniform: America's Boy Scouts Threw Themselves into the War Effort with a Vigor and Effectiveness That Shocked Government Officials

Magazine article America in WWII

The Other Boys in Uniform: America's Boy Scouts Threw Themselves into the War Effort with a Vigor and Effectiveness That Shocked Government Officials

Article excerpt

THE US MILITARY WAS CAUGHT OFF GUARD when Japanese planes swooped down on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Over the ensuing days, as soldiers, sailors, and civilians scrambled to recover from the attack, working alongside them beneath the pall of smoke that hung over the remains of America's Pacific Fleet were Hawaii's Boy Scouts--by no means the least prepared workers on the scene.

Within days of the air raid, Frederick B. Forbes of the Honolulu Council of the Boy Scouts of America cabled national Scout headquarters to report, first, that none of the 7,772 Scouts of Hawaii's three councils or their adult volunteer leaders had been injured in the attack, and second, that the Hawaiian Scouts were already doing their part for the war effort. According to a report published in the New York Times, Forbes assured Chief Scout Executive James West that all the Scouts were "engaged in emergency service, acting as messengers, giving first aid, and helping the authorities." West, in turn, released a bulletin to Scout leaders nationwide, urging them "to make sure that the local organization is kept in high gear so as to insure a high quality of Scouting in every Cub Pack and Boy Scout Troop." America's Boy Scouts were officially on the job.

Ten months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had commemorated the 31st anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America in a speech broadcast by NBC, CBS, and the Mutual Broadcasting System. Roosevelt was an avid supporter of the BSA; in 1930 he had received the organization's highest honor, the Silver Buffalo Award, for his service to Scouting. In his address on February 9, 1941, he lauded the principles of the Scouting movement and noted, "The Boy Scouts of today are approaching manhood at a grave hour in the world's history.... The United States must be strong if our free way of life is to be maintained, and for our national policy we, as a nation, have adopted the motto of the Boy Scout organization--Be Prepared."

The day after Pearl Harbor, Americans with a good memory and the leisure for reflection might have wished that the nation had been a bit better prepared. But Roosevelt had been right to look to the Boy Scouts for inspiration and help. "The nation is confident that the Boy Scouts stand ready to contribute to the national welfare in these critical hours," Roosevelt had said. The coming war would prove him correct.

The Scouts starting preparing for their wartime contribution within the first month after Roosevelt's broadcast, well before the Japanese attack. Early in 1941, Boy Scouts across the country began to receive training in preparation for the creation of Emergency Service Units. On March 14 the New York Times announced the creation of the first such unit in the city and the enrollment of its first six members. The service units' mission, the newspaper reported, was "to train young men for effective service in any future emergencies." Before December 7, news reports and presidential addresses alike typically described the Scouts' training in terms of readiness IS for emergencies rather than war--probably to avoid raising the hackles of isolationists who still hoped the nation could stay on the sidelines of the growing world conflict. But it was clear the Boy Scouts were preparing for homefront war service.

Roosevelt wrote to the president of the BSA on April 26 to formally request that the Scouts "lend their aid to the Secretary of the Treasury as special messengers in the distribution of the official Government posters announcing the United States Savings Bonds and Stamps for Defense, and cooperate in such other ways as may be determined suitable for boys of Scout age and Scout training." The Scouts responded vigorously. The BSA annual report for 1941 notes that by year's end the Scouts had distributed 1,607,500 posters.

Fundraising ranked high among the other ways Scouts cooperated in the months before Pearl Harbor. In the same article that documented the creation of the first Emergency Service Unit, the Times noted that local Scouts were making good progress toward their goal of raising $430,400 for national defense before the end of 1941. …

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