American Home Front
Men and Women during the Great Emergency
Urgent demands of World War II swept millions away from their regular rigors of peacetime work. Life in the Home Front was no picnic.
Scarcities and changes appeared. This was an emergency. The following is from a world 75 years ago when there existed no nuclear bombs or nuclear radiation.
The majority of people in the United States lived in cramped quarters—those owning homes found themselves renting a room or two to war workers or servicemen—worked extremely long hours, and stood in line to buy what they needed at “undermanned” and often under stocked stores.
While there were no hardships in the United States, or all of the Americas, to compare with those of the rest of the world or of the armed forces, there was a genuine self-denial of accustomed habits. It is found as excellent source material in A Toast For You and Me, America's Participation, Sacrifice and Victory.
The most widespread form of these was rationing of scarce foods and supplies. Rationing was handled by the Office of Price Administration. Rationing commenced with sugar, then coffee, then meat, canned goods and fuel oil. Things got so critical, OPA even found it necessary to add shoes to the list of scarce articles. By 1943, gasoline and rubber, especially rubber tires, became rationed; the OPA also functioned as a price control authority, establishing ceilings on consumer commodities as well as rent.
Oil and synthetic rubbers in WW II
The Allies, fortunately, possessed vast supplies of oil throughout the war, and the chief problem was that of transporting it to the fighting front. Japan had no shortage supply until 1945; Germany had an inadequate supply, but compensated by Ploesti (an oil plant that was deep in Rumania which was first hit in August of 1943, but not knocked out til 1944), and by production of large-scale production of synthetics from lignite and coal.
Oil is the lifeblood of any modern industrialized society if you think about it, and it was also the lifeblood of mechanized war. In 1940, the Axis controlled 146,050,000 barrels of oil produced during the year; the Allies controlled 2,003,328,000. By 1942, petroleum production available to the Axis plummeted to 68,200,000, while United States production of 1,385,000,000 barrels accounted for 69 per cent of the world’s total of 2,043,600,000 barrels.
Not many people know that oil turns into rubber, and that huge plants near the Gulf made synthetic rubber from the principal components of butadiene and styrene. The petroleum industry met America’s essential civilian needs, providing 75% of the raw material for the production of synthetic rubber—which by 1943 reached 800,000 tons.
To a large extent, they could be manufactured out of such varying materials as coal, salt, petroleum, limestone and even water. The people of the United States expanded her manufacture of synthetic rubber, particularly buna S, under the American Synthetic Rubber Research Program. (At the bottom to this link is a nice series of illustrations in color how that was done.) With rubber scarce—it took 1,250,000 pounds to equip one B-17—Americans turned in old tires and other rubber articles in special collected drives for Uncle Sam.
Sometimes, however, scrap rubber would be unsuitable for industry needs, because unfortunately, the rubber had been “reclaimed” before. SO, the production of rubber became very important. With the Allied troops on the other side of the world having enough, civilian supplies were curtailed considerably. More than any prior conflict in history, World War II was a home front war.
Of the greatest contribution to the war’s home front, the participation by the American woman would be no doubt the most.
Characteristic of the home front by 1943, moreover, would be the improving acceleration of the war plants, rationing techniques, the combined variety of the war-workers and most important, their diligence in their hard-work ethic, and their mobility. Speed held a top priority.
Shortages were acute and often unpredictable as emphasis in production shifted from one weapon to another with the progress of war.
To meet the emergency, many different ways of life were changed. The War Manpower Commission (this was its title) and its subsidiaries, imposed curbs on job shifting, and these were tied into the Selection Service System. From nineteen forty-two onward, America’s factories worked on day, night and graveyard shifts: 24 hours non-stop. The story of change in industrial factories explained to a civilian audience in 1944.
In my forthcoming book, I will not only tell you about the so-called miracle of production, but the varied little things that kept people from going cuckoo. (Have you ever worked on overtime for some period of time? Working on a job to an excessive degree can drive you crazy.)
More than 22 billion dollars alone were expended for expansion of industrial facilities—of this total about eight billion were privately owned with the remaining larger sum coming from government expenditures. U.S workers’ hours rose from an average of 37.4 per week to 45.4, and even so, many worked longer hours in critical fields; weekly earnings naturally increased.
Thousands trekked across the country; in fact, 15 million by wars end packed their bags and moved by crowded train, bus or car from places such as New York, Tennessee and little New England to coast cities, like San Diego or Seattle or Huntsville, Alabama, and newly formed strategic sites. Link to railroads at war. From the small to the big. Rain or shine, an estimated 30-40 million people left their homes and pre-war jobs and schools for work in unfamiliar states and cities and places. A film for Home Front audiences on Fortress Europe.
Can you believe it? but in the last year of war (1945) the number of teens in school decreased by 1.2 million as they too were swept up in job employment. That is a little known fact.
More Emergency Facts
No single product was put to more universal or diversified use in the World War than steel, and that came out of huge furnaces.
Huge guns of warships, and ad infinitum were made of steel. New types of steel were developed, including a special family of alloys called national emergency steels. Pennies were not made of copper but were made of this national emergency steel. It has been estimated that for every American soldier in the war, it required a fabrication and delivery of five tons of metal to make him an effective fighting person.
Aluminum was another vital war material.
More than 825,000 metric tons were processed in the United States. While people remember the Academy Award movie Casablanca and the Technicolor cartoon Education for Death, The Making of the Nazi, released by Walt Disney and RKO Radio Pictures, both in 1943, Housewives (or homemakers), in providing quantity for production, gave up their pots and pans to the tune of 11,173,979 pounds in 1943. Toward the end of 1943, moreover, the capacity of primary aluminum plants in the U.S. was 1,000,000 short tons a year, a remarkable aggregate.
In 1943, American production of aluminum forgings was forty-five times as great as in 1939; tubing, thirteen times; rod and wire, twelve times; aluminum sheets, seven times. Huge generating plants of the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) supplied the great amounts of electric power required to obtain aluminum from bauxite. The shipshaw hydroelectric development was another complex serving the process for aluminum in the war, at Arvida, Quebec, our Canadian neighbor.
Direction of household scrap paper into proper collection channels was the work of some 17,000 volunteer committees affiliated with local CD Councils. More than a million salvage volunteers reached eight million homes. By March 1943, some 200 foods were rationed, items like dried fruits and vegetables, meat, butter, all canned and frozen foods, fish and cheese. The Second World War forced people to rely upon themselves, whether they liked it or not.
Adventuring American imagination grasped new ways.
People learned to heat homes with kindling and logs; learned how to salvage fat; learned to fix plumbing and their own or their neighbor's automobiles. rode more bikes than automobiles; wrote letters instead of phoning; found out how to read public transportation time-tables and schedules; learned how to sharpen knives and scissors instead of just buying a new set; tried to make-do without radio music; just to name a few of the little things. Press arrow for a short clip of Dinah Shore singing America the Beautiful.
There was also the victory garden task which you could say was really a campaign of sorts.
Nationwide, V-gardens were common indeed. Intended as supplementary substance, the American public responded overwhelmingly.
People grew their own fresh fruits and vegetables to the tune of 20 million (20.5 to be exact) Victory gardens in 1943 alone. They were all over the place, from homes with big back yards to apartments.
An estimated forty-two percent of all vegetables consumed fresh were from Victory Gardens. In the following year a total of 3,400,000,000 quarts of vegetables and fruits were canned at home.
One major reason in making vegetables and fruits top choice to diet was to offset the loss of other foods, especially beef. Examples of food which were common no longer, were most especially bacon and eggs, butter, coffee, European wines, luncheons like salami and frankfurters, hamburger and steak.
Where did it go?—mostly, to the Services and overseas via Lend-Lease. You had millions of people that were in need, and many young people today forget that. Perhaps, they think that America was only into the realm of gun, airplane, tank and ship production.
Prodigious numbers of guns, planes, tanks, shells, trucks and jeeps, balloons, aircraft carriers, and myriad other tangibles of modern warfare were indeed made however, no doubt important. They were needed to supply the fighting forces of our own country and those of our allies.
Labor and industry, like commerce and government, was brought face to face with unprecedented responsibilities and tasks, and production was the key problem. Everything had to be delivered right away and correctly; and all this needed people to make’em, inspect’em, ship’em—for our two ocean fronts.
World War II was a home front war. Civilians in all lands worked as vital auxiliaries of troops in battle. The factories. The fields. The kitchens and Red Cross depots. Men and women all over the world fought the war, thought about the war, lived the war.
The war, in all its kaleidoscopic themes lasted until 1945. A few were unique in Europe: the midnight Gestapo raid, the concentration camp horror, the Russian Soviet women who fought in their frontlines, and just as easily lost arms and eyes, and had their legs torn apart by gun-shrapnel. World War Two was no subjective thing in the mind. All this and in people’s minds, it was not over til it was finally over. It was very real 75 years ago. It would have most probably been a longer world war had not the determination, self-sacrifice of many people, besides prayer, been accomplished. One must remember, in many Allied lands, civilian casualties ranked with those of the military; but the U.S. was spared.
Below is an interesting bit of history. A new housing complex was dedicated in Washington DC in Oct of ’43, called Arlington Farms. Nothing to do with farms, they were temporary housing for wartime workers; single and double workers—pretty famous in 1944-45; 40% housed WAVES, 60% government employees. Nicknamed "Girl Town." Perspective captions: reading paper outside Idaho Hall, Girls Town; time for a refreshing drink; and time for looking for a date.
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