When the Lights Came on Again All Over the World

Spectator - August 2001

Spectator — August 2001

By Tom Fexas

When the Lights Came on Again All Over the World
The state of the American pleasureboat industry during WWII.
 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Lights
• Part 2: Lights continued
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Sunday, December 7, 1941: A day of infamy and the day of my christening at a Greek Orthodox Church in Astoria, New York. As I lay there naked, kicking and screaming while some big, scary guy with a long beard in a puffy robe and funny hat dunked me in a little pool of water, someone burst into the church with the big news. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into war with them and that funny little guy with the spastic right arm and the Fuller brush mustache.

As it turned out, America was lucky. Our aircraft carriers happened to be out to sea at the time of the attack, and while Admiral Yamamoto got all of our battleships, it turned out that battleships were obsolete anyway–although no one knew it at the time. Major sea battles in World War II would be fought using aircraft, as opposed to past battles in which huge, armored battlewagons faced off and pounded each other into oblivion using their big guns.

When America entered the war in 1941, nearly all recreational boat manufacturers turned their production to wartime projects. Chris-Craft and Owens built landing barges, Elco built its famous PT boats, Trumpy built air/sea rescue craft, and countless other builders produced small war craft such as service boats, submarine chasers, and utility craft. New pleasureboats would not be built again until 1946.

The beginning of the war did not look promising for the United States. Our military was in a sad state, and the Japanese were on a roll. Private boats and yachts alike were pressed into military service to patrol our shores. Manicured varnish was painted over with flat gray applied with a government-issued broom, and machine guns were bolted on deck.

Throughout all this pleasureboating magazines continued to be printed, and today, as you read through the publications from the war years, you can see optimism increasing with every issue. With no new boats to write about, most of the articles concerned craft built for the war effort. Pleasureboat builders continued to advertise, but rather than show their latest and greatest vessels, their ads were about promise and hope for better times, with grandiose visions of what would come when "the lights came on again."

Even companies that made marine equipment ran ads describing how the Army/Navy "E" flags they had earned were helping the war effort. Wyatts was building Higgins PT boats in Texas and ran an ad showing dramatic pictures of the PTs underway. The copy read, "Bottoms up to Tojo’s navy. The Jap navy is on its way…to the bottom of the ocean. These little Higgins ‘warships’ are a major factor in the wholesale slaughter now underway. As the Nips say (those who survive), ‘These mystery dragons on water come from nowhere, like lightning, shoot us with everything, and disappear to nowhere.’"

Next page > Part 2: Luggage Sales Increase! > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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