As parents and siblings shipped out to war, American children shipped out to the playground.

On the Saturday morning following the attack on Pearl Harbor, an Iowa housewife took her egg money to Toyland to purchase two Tom Thumb tanks. “I’ll probably step on one of these in the night and break a leg,” she told the clerk. “But it’ll at least keep us reminded that we’re in a war!”

Some parents were less enthusiastic about war invading children’s lives, and letters from concerned parents began pouring in to the Washington Post: “My 11-year-old son seems delighted at the war. His walls are full of maps; he gets the news eagerly. He and his friends talk constantly about going out and ‘blasting Hitler.’‘Just my luck,’ he says, ‘to live where there’s no fighting. Boy! Would I love to have an air raid.’ I find it hard to believe he is really so bloodthirsty.” Another mother complained, “The boys on our block play nothing but war these days. Their belts fairly bristle with toy guns and makeshift warplanes are constantly zooming through the air. Isn’t the world full enough of this sort of thing without the children having to play at it? How can we stop it?”

The Post responded similarly to both parents: “Play is the language of children, their way of working out the matters that concern them deeply at the moment….Their need is even greater today when war surges all about them. Girls, too, feel this need now. They have to play out their heightened feelings, just as many of us older people need to talk ours out.” A July 1942 Parents magazine article, “When Play Goes Warlike,” agreed, and counseled parents to regard such phrases as “shoot those Japs” or “ bomb those Nazis” as a simple unbottling of fear and tension. “The war may last for some time,” the article concluded. “This is our children’s one childhood: we must do all that is possible to let them grow and stretch to the very limit of the opportunities under the changing circumstances.”

American parents, unlike those in war-torn countries, could afford—economically and emotionally—to outfit their children with everything they needed to turn neighborhood streets into “war” zones. Gift ideas abounded for what the Los Angeles Times called the “Grim Yuletide” of December 1941: antiaircraft guns, two-person sidewalk tanks, model airplanes, miniature trains with attached camouflage cars, toy soldiers, board games with titles like “Axe the Axis,” and dolls with little sailor or nurse uniforms. Later, books such as Soldier Sammy and uniforms for dress-up would provide even more fuel for vivid imaginations. As the Times concluded, “War is here—as far as toys are concerned.”

Working and middle class parents found themselves with greater discretionary household income for the first time since the onset of the Great Depression. As two boys in a holiday cartoon quipped, “This ain’t no time to be cynical about Santa Claus—what with Pop drawing a lot of overtime and Mom earning a buck and a half an hour as a welder!”

Just as parents had more to spend, toy shelves became sparse as war production scooped up the metal and rubber formerly used to make most toys. To show parents—and the War Production Board—that playtime could go hand in hand with the war effort, manufacturers rolled out new designs with rationing in mind. A jeep featured in the October 1944 Popular Mechanics was composed almost entirely of wood, including the wheels. “Coasting along easily on velocipede ball bearings, this sidewalk Jeep will be the pride of any boy when he goes out on ‘reconnaissance patrols.’” Parents could purchase cardboard and wooden soldiers, tanks, forts, trucks, trains, even PT boats with mounted machine guns—all without metal parts.

Board games made of paper with wooden pieces more easily met wartime production standards, and became popular with older children who could become armchair generals by playing “Air Combat Trainer.” Homemade versions flourished as well; Popular Mechanics produced several board game designs for children: “Military Chessman Maneuver on War Map” featured a WAC for the queen. “Battle Wagons” placed the Yank at Hawaii and the other player at Japan. And the “Grenade Dart Game” promised boys could have a lot of fun “tossing wooden hand-grenade darts or ‘pineapples’ at enemy objectives.”

Toy soldiers were immensely popular, but production initially suffered from lead rationing until plastic, wood, and cardboard replicas stood in. Good Housekeeping promoted one creative kit that used rubber forms for “plast-modeling” soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, so children could build as large a force as desired. By 1943 parents could purchase complete toy units such as the “Fighting Yank Soldier” Set for $1.98, which contained “sixteen soldiers in field dress, each with his own type of weapon – a repeating rubber band rifle – a cloth mess hall with table and benches – 2 army tents and 6 cloths tents – a movable flag on pole.” To catch the eye of would-be generals, each soldier had “useful military information printed on his back.”

Though toy shelves were sparse as toy production shifted gears, books abounded. As Life hinted during the holiday season: “Dear Mr. Santa Claus: In case you’re worrying ’bout the scarcity of metal toys, we’d like to inform you that the market is flooded with beautiful books for children, which make delightful Christmas presents, colorful and educational too.” Teachers and parents who hoped to shield children from the grisly nature of war often turned to classic literature, though children yearned for titles like The Junior Air Raid Wardens and Sailor Jack.

Comic books, much to the dismay of parents, accounted for three-quarters of the leisure reading of children between ages 9 and 14. A Chicago Daily News reporter decried the genre as “a poisonous mushroom growth” in a 1940 column: “Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed—a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems—the effect of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant.” As the global conflict escalated, at least the torrid pages turned patriotic. Prewar heroes like Superman and the Sub-Mariner turned from fighting crime to fighting the Axis, endorsing rationing and scrap drives. Captain America, a super-soldier created to fight the war’s real and fictional villains, punched Hitler on his debut cover; Captain America Comics went on to become the bestselling series of the war.

While reading encouraged imaginations, uniform-inspired play clothes brought them to life. A 1942 headline in Parents proclaimed “Military Fashions Lead Christmas Parade.” Even cartoon figures donned military dress. Little Orphan Annie organized the Junior Commandos, both in the comic world and in real life; club members collected scrap and other recyclables while emulating servicemen and women. “To look like them,” Annie explained to her readers, “takes uniforms.”

Large department stores such as Abraham & Straus in New York City offered reasonably priced children’s military play clothing. For the little WAC, parents could purchase an official hat, blouse, skirt, and insignia for $2.29. The complete WAVE uniform cost slightly more at $2.89. The little soldier’s uniform came with a Sam Browne belt; the ensemble cost $2.29. Advertisements assured parents that these uniform playsuits used official colors and durable fabrics for authenticity. Even babies could dress in uniform; sometimes parents photographed their outfitted infants propped up next to real military items.

For some, dressing the part was still a poor substitute for enlistment, and numerous children wrote to service branches seeking an exception to the age requirement. One 5-year-old girl applied to enlist with the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, the SPARS. Though she was rejected, due to “an age deficiency of fifteen years,” her display of energy, initiative, and patriotism was rewarded with a specially produced uniform. Anticipating a deluge of requests from other little girls, the commanding officer felt compelled to announce that the quota for “Junior SPARS” remained soundly filled, although they were still looking for older girls.

Airplanes grew in popularity as the real thing became crucial to Allied efforts. Again, Good Housekeeping offered a creative solution to circumvent wartime shortages: “Enemy planes, cut out of luminous paper that glows when the lights turn out. Pasted on the ceiling, they enable the junior ‘air-raid warden’ to go plane spotting in the dark of his own room. Really exciting!” The kit offered by the magazine also included a civilian defense manual for “young wardens.”

Model airplanes amounted to a $25 million business in the United States. High school woodshop students and community clubs had the opportunity to hone their skills by crafting models for the armed forces and air wardens for use in training programs. With plans and technical advice distributed by the Office of Education, youths across the nation meticulously produced 200,000 models at 1/72 scale. Though not exactly child’s play, the army and navy trusted young adults would find the activity enjoyable and inspire lifelong passion. As a 1942 Life magazine reported, the military hoped“that boys who have worked long hours in classrooms, lovingly finishing miniature P-40s and PBYs, may some day join the services to fly the real thing.”

War toys were conspicuously absent from one group’s playtime: interned Japanese American children. Thousands of children and their families were moved from their West Coast homes to camps throughout the West, leaving most, if not all, of their toys behind. Camp newspapers would later advertise mail-order wares; those for the first Christmas of 1942 included a variety of nonviolent toys for sale, including dolls, sewing kits, tea sets, stuffed animals, wood vehicles, and musical rattles.

But not one military or war toy was ever offered by merchants or made by parents in the camps. For the incarcerated Japanese American children, anything representing aggressive behavior was officially banned for the duration, even during playtime. Despite strict rules, the children could not contain their enthusiasm for war, especially since a number of boys and girls had brothers fighting in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment. A sketch by an artist interned at Heart Mountain shows a rebellious little boy, standing in a group of his peers, holding a wood board in the manner of an army rifle. And Japanese American boys, just like other boys across the country, were prone to running around yelling “Kill the Jap!” at one another.

To some, buying toys at all during a global war seemed frivolous and unpatriotic—or so war-bond propaganda would have liked parents and children to believe. The relentless Treasury Department suggested that parents attach war bonds to homemade toys while explaining to children that iron, steel, copper, zinc, and rubber were now consigned to real battlefields. One advertisement showed Uncle Sam angrily pointing at a little boy—“I want you!” The nervous boy replies, “Bu—but I like to PLAY!” Uncle Sam’s harsh response:“And you’ll find there’s no play in all the world that’s as much fun as helping to build the world of the future.”

Each December, the Treasury Department urged parents to purchase “more significant gifts” than toys, recommending defense bonds: “something that expresses the spirit of the season and at the same time helps the nation arm.” It’s easy to imagine the disappointment as a young boy or girl opened a gift to discover a government document rather than a brand new set of toy soldiers or a gleaming model airplane. Practicality probably did little to comfort crushed hearts at holidays and birthdays. War bonds always remained abstract; toys were real.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.