American History

“Your Number Came Up!”

For many mid-20th century Americans, October 16, 1940, was and is R-Day—the date on which all men between ages 21 and 45 were required to register for the draft. As men were forming long lines at registration facilities, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation on radio. “On this day, more than 16 million young Americans are reviving the 300-year-old American custom of the muster,” FDR said. “On this day, we Americans proclaim the vitality of our history, the singleness of our will and the unity of our nation.”

The District of Columbia opened 47 registration centers to accommodate the 113,371 men who lined up there in a cold rain to register. Almost half a million registered in Chicago. The level of cooperation achieved by a nation still divided philosophically between isolation and intervention was remarkable. Newspapers set up special bureaus providing draft information to answer questions about registration, and radio stations made sure their listeners knew how and where to register.

The registration form itself was simple, with 12 boxes to be filled in by examiners who asked registrants a dozen basic questions. An examiner then eyeballed each man to determine whether his build was slender, medium, or stout. In characterizing registrants by race, examiners had five choices: White, Negro, Oriental, Indian, and Filipino.

A wallet-size card handed back to each registrant contained basic information, including date of birth. This document was proof that the signer had registered, and he was advised to keep it with him at all times. Known instantly as the “draft card,” the slip came into immediate use in verifying the age of males purchasing alcoholic beverages.

If you were not 21—the legal drinking age in

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