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A Matter of Priorities: American Production in World War II, Part 2

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

“If we do not watch our step we shall find the White House en route to England with the Washington Monument for a steering oar.”

Adm. Emory S. Land, Commander, U.S. Maritime Commission

August 1941 was not a good month for Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. It began with the request – which is to say, demand – from the Soviet military delegation for supplies, primarily aircraft. They claimed authorization came from President Franklin Roosevelt. When Col. Philip Faymonville of Marshall’s staff met with Roosevelt to confirm the report, Roosevelt told him that “something positive must immediately be done” to help the Soviet Union. Regarding aircraft, Roosevelt directed that “two hundred planes must be sent.” This shipment would include 40 P-40 fighters already allotted for England “and if other American sources are not immediately available, 160 must be taken from planes in the hands of active Army Air Corps units.”

As Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., then the head of the Lend-Lease program wrote, “It was  . . . Gen. Marshall’s unhappy task to convince the Soviet envoys that the United States just did not have fleets of planes and tanks, stacks of guns and bombs, and great reserve stocks of machinery and raw materials to send to Russia. This the Soviet generals at first found difficult to believe.”

But, believe it they had to because it was true. American industry was still in the early stages of military production. There were only 149 operational P-40s in the entire continental United States; an even greater problem was the lack of spare parts, tools,

Infantryman in 1942 with M1 Garand, Fort Knox, Ky.

A World War II U.S. Army infantryman, kneeling in front of an M3 half-track, holds and sights an M1 Garand rifle. Fort Knox, Kentucky, June 1942. While he is wearing the ineadequate World War I-era “Brodie” helmet, he at least has the war-winning M1 Garand semiautomatic rifle. Library of Congress photo by Alfred T. Palmer

lubricants, trained personnel, you name it. And it wasn’t just aircraft – everything was in short supply.

What made the situation particularly galling is that it could have been avoided. In June 1940, Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold “Betty” Stark had twice requested Roosevelt to authorize complete national industrial mobilization. Roosevelt overruled them, preferring “progressive” rather than “complete” mobilization. With the country finally emerging from the Great Depression, the military found itself competing with growing civilian market demands and an industry reluctant to further increase military production.

It was not until July 1941 – two weeks after Germany invaded the Soviet Union – that Roosevelt gave the Army and Navy the go ahead to develop a systematic industrial plan “to defeat our potential enemies.” This resulted in the Wedemeyer report delivered a couple of months later. But by then a year’s production had been irrevocably lost and Marshall now had to divide his growing but still scarce resources with a new customer, the Soviet Union, and Stark had to find shipping to get it there.

Author Dwight Jon Zimmerman's father with his company and World War I equipment

A detail of the company photo showing the author’s father, Tech Corporal Morris J. Zimmerman. He is in the middle row, far right, turned toward the camera so that his tech corporal stripes are clearly visible. Photo courtesy of the author

Many examples exist of the materiel inadequacies of America’s military during this period. Perhaps no better indicator of that paucity was the lack of modern helmets. A group photograph of Company N, 301st Ordnance Battalion dated Sept. 25, 1942, shows the men all wearing World War I-era helmets – this just a month and a half before the Torch landings in North Africa!

It was in August that the first of the war conferences was held, this one in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. It resulted in the Atlantic Charter that broadly stated peace goals, which included the disarmament of aggressor nations. It was during the conference that the British military chiefs submitted to their American counterparts an updated shopping list. Attendee Secretary of War Henry Stimson later wrote in his diary the shock the British had over the Americans’ response. “[T]hey had no idea at all of how the cupboard was bare so far as the United States was concerned.”

But Marshall decided that if he must rob Peter to pay Paul because Britain and the Soviet Union were actually in the fight and neutral America was not, then so be it. Arms would go to them at the expense of American troops – in some cases after they had just been delivered to units.

In November 1941, Dill appealed to Marshall “for tanks to bolster British defences in face of a possible German attack through the Caucasus and Anatolia.” Within 24 hours, Marshall authorized the transfer of 350 medium tanks from the next three months’ production. It was, in the words of the U.S. Army’s official historians, “virtually the entire . . . medium tank production earmarked for the for the U.S. Armored Force.”


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

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9555">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    A personal note, the WWII unit photo is of my father’s unit. He’s not in this cropped section, though. He’s located off camera to the right. At the time of the photo he was a Tech Corporal; later promoted to Tech Sgt. (served as a company clerk). He was stationed in North Africa (not a part of Operation Torch) and served in the Seventh Army.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9613">


    Does your father show up when you click on the image to see the larger size?

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9623">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman


    No, I’d have to send you another scan. Will do so if you want.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman bypostauthor odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9862">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    An update, per Chuck Oldham’s request, I’ve sent a scan of the section that has my father in it. It will be posted soon.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9904">

    The new photo is now posted in the story at lower left. Thanks Dwight.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman bypostauthor odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9906">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    Thank you, Chuck!

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-53177">

    This,too, was my father’s ordinace. I have the full panoramic picture. It’s just beautiful. If I can figure ot how to load it onto this site or another site I will let you know.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-53212">

    Yes, I cropped it to fit better in the story, but Mr. Zimmerman’s original is more of a panoramic shot.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-53248">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    The veteran Jack Clay of Monroe, North Carolina, contacted me not long after this article was posted. He is an amateur historian and is dedicated to gathering and preserving the history of Camp Sutton. I sent to him the photograph of my father’s unit and it is now a part of the county’s historical record in the Union County Public Library.