The Home Front
At that time, our army had more horses than tanks and didn't have a single
combat unit confronting the enemy. And America wasn't even able to function, as
it had up to then, as the arsenal of democracy, supplying armaments to England
and the Soviet Union. Nazi U-boats were sinking American merchant ships with
shocking ease. Many of these merchantmen were sunk within sight of shore
because coastal cities like New York and Miami refused to enforce a blackout,
fearing a loss of their tourist trade. Their bright lights gave U-boat captains
a perfect background to site and sink ships headed for Europe. That spring, the
American task wasn't victory -- it was holding off defeat.
It took a tremendous exercise of American will and power to turn the tide, a
national mobilization such as this country had never seen before, and may never
see again. And fueling it was raw revenge, retribution for the humiliating
defeat at Pearl Harbor. Pearl might be the greatest American victory of the
war. It awoke a sleeping giant.
But it took almost no time to re-tool the economy for wartime production. The
world's greatest automobile society stopped making cars during the war and
geared its auto plants to the production of every imaginable instrument of
mobile warfare. At Henry Ford's gigantic new plant at Willow Run, outside
Detroit, an assembly line a mile long poured out B-24 bombers at a rate of a
plane every 63 minutes. While out on the West Coast, the industrialist Henry J.
Kaiser used women welders and Ford's assembly line techniques to build Liberty
Ships.These were the "Model Ts of the Seas," slow, ungainly looking ships that
carried prodigious amounts of military cargo to the war. And it was Kaiser who
convinced Roosevelt to use small escort carriers against the U-boat menace.
Kaiser built these baby flattops, as he called them, and they, along with the
navy's new convoy system, drove off Nazi wolf packs from the North American
waters and out into the central Atlantic, opening sea lanes to the Allies.
Germany's armaments minister wrote Hitler an interesting memorandum describing
the war as a contest between two different systems of industrial organization:
the German system, based on skilled, high-quality production; and the American
system based on unskilled, high-volume production. Unless we change, he warned
the Führer, the Americas will bury us.
But Americans needed time to bury Germany, and that was provided by the Russian
army on Germany's eastern front, which suffered more than three million
casualties in 1941 alone.
America was a third rate military power in 1940. By 1945 it was producing more
weapons and firepower than the rest of the world put together. To take these
new war-production jobs, over l5 million Americans changed their place of
residence, a great number of them moving to the West Coast.
The war lured black people by the millions from cotton fields in the south to
northern industrial centers. And in a war against the world's most vicious
racist, blacks were discriminated against in war work as well as in the armed
forces, where soldiers, and even blood plasma, were segregated by race.
Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces in the war, and that
opened up jobs for women as well. Women made airplanes, bombs, and ships, and
performed secret administrative work on the atomic bomb project. They joined
the WACS and the WAVES, auxiliary forces of the Army and Navy. And some 12,000
women served with the lesser-known WASPs, the Women Air Force Service Pilots.
The WASPs piloted bombers from assembly lines to air fields in the United
States, taught male pilots how to strafe and bomb, and flight tested repaired
aircraft before sending them back into service. They were eager to fly in
combat, but only the Soviet Union would let women fight.
For many Americans, wartime prosperity, coming on the heels of the Great
Depression was "an absolute miracle." Working with her mother and sister in a
shell-loading plant, Peggy Terry, a mountain woman from Kentucky, made what she
called the "fabulous sum of thirty-two dollars a week. Before that," she said,
"we made nothing....We were just a bunch of hillbilly women laughing and
talking. Now we'd have money to buy shoes and a dress and pay rent and get
some food on the table."
But at this point, Peggy Terry pauses and adds, "But when I look back and think
of him." That was her husband, a paratrooper who made 26 drops over Europe and
North Africa. "Until the war," Peggy continues, "he never drank. When he came
back he was an absolute drunkard. And he used to have the most awful
nightmares. He'd get up in the middle of the night and start screaming. I'd
just sit there for hours and hold him while he just shook. Then he started to
beat me and the kids. Combat does things like that to men."
My grandfather, on my father's side, returned from the trenches of World War I,
where he had been wounded, a broken man, unable to keep his life or his
marriage together. One evening, when my father was very young, he slipped away
and never came back.