Defense Media Network

The Home Front in 1943: Strikes, Stress, and Scandals

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In contrast to the improving military fortunes of the Allies on battlefields around the world, in 1943 the American home front was in a state of turmoil. Problems that had been festering for some time, including shortages of all kinds, labor issues, war fraud scandals, and more reached their peak in 1943.

World War II Home Front

Women workers install fixtures and assemblies to a tail fuselage section of a B-17 bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant, Long Beach, Calif., ca. Oct. 1942. World War II saw a dramatic increase in the number of women joining the American workforce. Library of Congress photo

The lead sentence of a June 20, 1943, article in the New York Times announced, “The most critical period on the home front since the United States entered the war is at hand.” Another New York Times article, comparing federal handling of war production industries to that of Germany, asserted “. . . we are not running it any too well.” The article observed totalitarian German industry worked under “military discipline,” making it more efficient compared to messy American democracy’s way of doing things. Had Germany’s Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer read the article, it probably would have elicited a wry smile given the incompetent handling of Gernamy’s economy and war production by his predecessor Reichmarschall Hermann Göring and the deadly Byzantine challenges to his authority by his rivals.

“Estimates of the number of Americans who left their homes to seek work elsewhere – in a different county, a different state or even a different region – ranged as high as 20,000,000.” In 1940 the continental United States population was 131.7 million, so this meant about 15 percent of the population moved. Put another way, it was as if everyone in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Arkansas packed up and left.

Given the breathtaking pace of the country’s economic growth in order to become a globe-spanning Arsenal of Democracy, growing pains, some severe, were inevitable. In 1940 the entire Federal budget was $20 billion. On June 12,1943, for FY 1943 the War Production Board reported the nation would spend $106 billion, or 76 percent of the Federal budget, on war materials – an 80 percent increase over military spending in 1942.

But, the war had done more than rocket the American economy out of the Great Depression. It also inspired the greatest population migration in the nation’s history. In his book Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front 1941-1945, author Richard R. Lingeman wrote, “Estimates of the number of Americans who left their homes to seek work elsewhere – in a different county, a different state or even a different region – ranged as high as 20,000,000.” In 1940 the continental United States population was 131.7 million, so this meant about 15 percent of the population moved. Put another way, it was as if everyone in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Arkansas packed up and left.

World War II Home Front

Martha Bryant and Eulalie Hampden operate a bolt cutting machine, ca. 1943. The migration of African-Americans to the north saw a rise in racial tensions. Library of Congress photo

Such dramatic shifts in population created a host of problems in areas receiving the invasion of workers. Housing shortages became acute, a problem never really solved. Hardest hit were working mothers with preschool and school aged children who were among the thousands of women who joined the workforce. Though some enlightened employers, like Henry J. Kaiser, created daycare and other facilities, many children were left to their own devices. Movie theaters became popular “babysitters” for working mothers. A Muncie, Ind. theater manager told a reporter, “I have had as many as 50 to 60 children left here and sometimes when I leave the closed theater they are still waiting, out on the streets, for their family.”

“The domestic scene, as you listen to the radio and read the papers today, is anything but encouraging. . . .”

—Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day” syndicated column lead, June 17, 1943

The population shift also saw large numbers of African-Americans, as well as whites, migrate from poor, rural regions in the South to the North, especially Detroit, with its many auto factories converted to military production. In an era of Jim Crow segregation in the South, racial trouble was inevitable. On June 20, 1943, it exploded. Three days later, when America’s worst race riot in 25 years was over, 25 African-Americans and nine whites were dead, an estimated 800 were injured, and property damage totaled more than $2 million.

United Mine Workers (UMW)

Leaders of the United Mine Workers (UMW) confer during a War Labor Board hearing about the anthracite coal miners’ strike, Jan. 15, 1943. From left to right: Thomas Kennedy, secretary-treasurer of the UMW; John L. Lewis, president of the UMW; and Perry Tetlow, president of UMW District 17. Despite a wartime pledge not to strike, occasional wildcat strikes did occur. Library of Congress photo

Though strikes in the coal, steel, and railroad industries provoked widespread outrage at home, and especially among troops overseas, such stoppages were exceptions. At the start of the war labor leaders informally pledged a “no strike” policy for the duration and by and large they delivered. Strikes that did occur were wildcat and rarely lasted longer than a day. Still, Congressional anger over a coal miner’s strike caused Congress to pass on June 25, 1943, over a presidential veto, the Smith-Connally Act that installed a mandatory cooling off period and reaffirmed existing government authority to seize and operate striking factories and sites.

In addition to traditional grievances, another reason for workers striking was food, specifically the rising cost and insufficient rations of meat for workers involved in heavy labor. Miners in pre-war years typically had three cold pork chops in their lunch buckets. Now they contained starchy substitutes. One miner complained to John Dos Passos, the novelist turned journalist, “A man couldn’t do the work if he only had lettuce sandwiches in his lunch pail.”

Yet, despite the headline-grabbing handwringing and hardships, people on the home front remained resilient. Everyone knew that no matter how hard it was in America, for the servicemen on the battlefields, it was a lot worse.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...