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Life Health > Life Insurance

Echoes From The Past

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The date was Dec. 6, 1941 and I was stationed at an Army Air Corps facility at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. On that Saturday, Frank Birch, my best friend, and I went downtown to make arrangements for a trip home at Christmas–our first leave since enlisting the previous June. The next morning Frank roused me from a mid-morning snooze by saying, “You can forget about going home, Pearl Harbor has just been bombed.”

Of course, he was right and I didnt experience a “home Christmas” until four years later.

Patriotism was raised to a high level and optimism for a quick end to the conflict that was to ensue ran high. No one realized how ill-prepared we were, thanks largely to isolationists like Senators Wheeler and Vandenberg, who tried to end the draft even before we were attacked. Though I was stationed at a military installation, there was not a gun in sight. In order to guard the facility, which was mandated, the commander had to lend us his shotgun, normally used for hunting birds.

In time, optimism for a quick end began to fade and sacrifices that needed to be made became real. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to conserve on gasoline and tires, both of which were rationed, along with many food items. But we bore those sacrifices with patience and perseverance for almost four years.

The biggest sacrifice was the interruption in the lives of 13 million service men and women, and of course, the hundreds of thousands of casualties–touching every family in America in one way or another.

There was a subtle change that took place during those years that had a profound and long-term effect upon our business. Most of the young people going into the service during this period had relatively small amounts of life insurance. Typical face amounts ranged from $200 to $1,000.

Upon entering the service, they had the opportunity to buy up to $10,000 of what became known as “G.I. Insurance.” If you were a pilot or flight crew member drawing flight pay, coverage was mandatory. Thus, the bar was raised insofar as the amount of life insurance that was considered “adequate” at that time.

When the war was over and we returned to civilian life, most of us did not wish to reduce coverage to previous levels. In time, the $10,000 special became the featured product of most companies, indicating that our sights had been permanently raised.

On Sept. 11, memories of the previous “day in infamy” came flooding back as I sat glued to the television set. While we have been in a state of readiness on many fronts, again we were unprepared for this particular kind of assault. We are now told that sacrifices will need to be madebut so far, aside from the casualties, we have been asked simply to be patient. I suspect that before it is over, more will be required and I pray that we will be up to the challenges as were 60 years ago.

Flags are flying all over the country and patriotism is running high. With one exception, the Congress is united and proving how effective it can be when partisan politics gives way to the exigencies of fighting terrorists.

Again, however, I believe there is a clear message coming to our business out of all the turmoil. As I watched television interviews of families of the victims, dead or missing in the World Trade Center, I have been struck by how often someone declared that they would be hard pressed or even destitute because there was little or no insurance on the breadwinner.

Considering that, for the most part, the people working in the WTC were not minimum salaried people and not the 17- to 21-year-olds that filled the military ranks in the 1940s, the lack of life insurance is shocking. Many of these people were employed by financial services companies and were the beneficiaries of a booming economy rather than the Depression era of the 1930s.

Not surprisingly, the country has responded by opening its heart and pocketbooks to alleviate any suffering this may cause. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged to provide relief for families left in dire circumstances.

In many ways, though, this is also a “wake up” call for our business, in that we need to do a better job with respect to our core products. I also believe it is a job that only the agency force can do and we had best be about the task.

Shortly before his retirement, Burke Huey, the president of LIMRA, related a World War II incident to an insurance gathering. During the war Huey was employed by the Veterans’ Administration and his job was to process applications for G.I. insurance. Among the applications was a bunch smuggled out of Corregidor before it fell. They were not formal applications–just bits of paper, the back of an envelope, a matchbook cover, even toilet paper–but each applying for the insurance and naming a beneficiary.

Huey said that the remarkable thing was that despite the fact that they were facing certain capture and probable death, none of the applicants applied for the maximum $10,000. Most applied for only $1,000 to $2,000.

It is inconceivable to me that this would have happened if a soldier who was an agent had been present on that island. Our job is to help people face reality and we need to get serious about doing a better job of it.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, October 8, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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