Three Squares

One thing a lot of us will remember about the coronavirus pandemic is the shortages of things at the store, most importantly toilet paper. Who hasn’t seen news articles and internet memes talking about barren shelves and people hoarding tons of the precious rolls.

You might have even seen it for yourself in your own neighborhood.

As you can probably guess, this isn’t the first time Americans have been rationing supplies and consumer goods, or toilet paper for that matter. Here’s one.

In his Pulitzer-winning book The “Good” War, Studs Terkel interviewed Garson Kanin and recorded a great story about his experiences in World War II. Kanin was a well known writer and director and had a long career in Hollywood before and after the war.

Garson Kanin
Garson Kanin, witness one of history’s greatest toiler paper rationing efforts of the 20th century. National Portrait Gallery.

During the war he was part of a team of British and American filmmakers who made The True Glory, a documentary chronicling Allied forces from the Invasion of Normandy all the way to the final days of the war.

When Kanin was filming the preparations for D-Day in 1944, he was a witness to one of the greatest logistical feats of the war. Millions of men and endless tons of supplies of every kind. And one of the most precious supplies there was, you may have guess by now, toilet paper! Here’s an excerpt from Kanin’s interview where he notes how it was carefully rationed out at one latrine. Enjoy!

The preparation for D-Day was almost as exciting as D–Day itself. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of men. Food, water, fuel, hygienic supplies, sleeping equipment. Things had been planned down to the last button. We had one whole department of sixty men working on nothing but toilet paper.

Once in the British sector, Carol Reed and I had to go relieve ourselves. The facility was a slit trench about fourteen inches wide. Sitting at one end of it was a lance corporal, at a table. He had stacks of toilet paper in front of him. As you came up to him he’d wet the tip of his finger and count off the little squares, one, two, three. Reed, tall, elegant, asked, “May I have another, please?” The corporal said, “I beg your pardon, sir?” Reed said, “I’m making this film for General Eisenhower. May I have an extra sheet of toilet paper?” “Oh no, sir, I can’t do that. I have orders.” Reed said, “But I do need another piece.” The corporal: “No, sir. you’ll find the three easily sufficient, sir. It’s one up, one down, and one polish.”

The “Good” War is full of incredible stories like this covering every aspect of World War you can possibly imagine. Find it and read up if you haven’t already!

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