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December 7, 1941




it began
Snow .

and World War II

Perry R. Duis
Historical Research and Narrative

By the end of the day, a time for heroes would begin. Chicagoans had just finished Sunday dinner on a chilly, gray afternoon that threatened snow. Many dozed over the comics, while others settled down to such radio broadcasts as the University of Chicago Forum and the New York Philharmonic. Suddenly, excited announcers interrupted with the news: the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. It was December 7, 1941. Chicagoans immediately began calling neighbors and loved ones. About two hours later, special editions of the newspapers hit the streets, vendors shouting as loudly as they could. At Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals were playing, hundreds of fans wandered out to buy papers before half-time; soon the game was of very minor interest. Downtown, Chicago police cars began patrolling the city's bridges, shooing away Sunday strollers and matinee-goers, many of the latter learning the news only after exiting the theaters. As night fell, it began to snow.

The reaction to the news was a mixture of shock and the expected fulfillment of predictions. Chicagoans had been bitterly debating America's entry into the European war that had been raging since September 1939. Isolationists, led by Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert R. McCormick, had been engaged in the "war of the colonels" against Col. Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News.

The latter and his fellow interventionists believed that American aid was needed to save Western Europe and its culture from obliteration by the Axis powers. Both sides realized that the flow of American-made war goods to the Allied powers had already helped pull the economy out of the Great Depression, but the commitment of troops was another issue. As the possibility of American involvement loomed, Chicagoans had already seen the first selective service draft in 1940, about the same time that scrap drives had begun collecting cast-off aluminum and other metals to be recycled into airplanes.

But the bombing of Pearl Harbor, followed quickly by declarations of war against Japan and Germany, nonetheless came as a shock. Americans thought that Japan and the United States were on their way to resolving their differences. Conversations on the streets of Chicago expressed concern for the Japanese people, whom Americans thought had been drawn into the conflict by their evil leaders and by Hitler. The most widespread belief was that Japan's inferior military would collapse with the first American assault in the Pacific. Germany was the real enemy.

Most Chicagoans were anxious to help the war cause. Thousands of young men volunteered for induction the following morning, but those who were indifferent quickly learned that there was no way to remain isolated from involvement on the home front. On the most personal family level, virtually everyone worried about friends, neighbors, and loved ones in the service. By mid-1944 each Chicago block had an average of seven men or women in the military. Not even boys and girls were immune from the war fervor. Commercially produced toys quickly adopted military themes—children could reenact the attack with a scaled-down Pearl Harbor—while school classes carved airplane models that were used in adult aeronautical training. Youngsters were also encouraged to use their special knowledge


of the neighborhood to ferret out metals and paper for recycling into military goods. Many of their mothers departed for the workplace, some driven by the necessity of their sudden status as single parents, others by the lure of high wages. With parents either at work or at war, thousands of "latch-key kids"—so named for what they carried on a string around their necks—came home from school to empty houses and responsibility for their own meals. Many others spent hours in daycare or other baby-sitting arrangements.

Every aspect of family life felt the impact of war. The regimen of skimp, save, and substitute reigned "for the duration." Food rationing, made necessary by the provisioning of troops and aid to the Allies, reshaped family diets through a complicated point system of coupons, tokens, and stamps. Sugar and meat were most tightly rationed, forcing consumers to experiment with new recipes and with such new products as Spam to save precious points. Victory gardens sprouted up in backyards, vacant fields, and in the parks; the additional produce not only added variety to the family meals but freed up ration points for other purchases. Meanwhile, household castoffs of all kinds suddenly gained new and valued uses. Tin cans and the evening newspaper ended up in collection bins. Even fats left over after cooking were collected at the meat market to be recycled into nitroglycerine bombs.


The most frustrated consumers were the workers who had survived the Great Depression by learning how to live on pennies and now found themselves earning wages that exceeded those of the prosperous 1920s:
There was was little to buy. The outbreak of war and the need to conserve raw materials had halted the production of over six hundred types of domestic goods ranging from rubber pants for infants to hairpins and radios. Out in the garage, strict rationing not only preserved petroleum supplies but also reduced the wear on precious natural rubber tires; the Pacific war cut off supplies, and an artificial substitute would not be available until the end of the war. Soaring gas and tire thefts made auto owners uneasy about parking on the streets.

An illegal black market satisfied some demands for tires and meat, while strict wage and price controls struggled to keep inflation in check. Workers were mainly encouraged to save rather than spend. Eight high-pressure campaigns promoted the purchase of defense bonds as an alternative to "mattress-stuffing." War equipment displays on State Street, ubiquitous posters, and catchy slogans for each bond drive enlisted the aid of citizens in meeting specific dollar goals. Hollywood stars led gigantic rallies at Soldier Field, while average citizens were soliticited at the workplace and at twenty-thousand sales locations to invest in a piece of the war.

Bond campaigns drew people nearer to those who lived next door or across the street. The neighborhood not only became a support system for families in need, but the city's massive civilian defense effort was organized around a hierarchy of districts, blocks, and volunteers. It was the responsibility of block captains to know everyone and when they might be home, educate citizens on what to do in the event of an enemy attack, and conduct drills. Fear drove some of the participation. Although Chicago was hundreds of miles from the coasts, the range of enemy aircraft remained unknown for much of the war. At the same time, attacks on American shipping off the coasts and the earlier bombing of the British population fueled popular enthusiasm for civilian defense. Tens of thousands of Chicagoans participated in disaster and first-aid training. The city also underwent mock bombings and air-raid siren tests. On August 12 and October 7, 1942, citywide blackouts were designed to demonstrate that even a city as large as Chicago could be made a difficult target to find in the dark.



Meanwhile, the war effort transformed the Chicago economy. More than fourteen hundred local factories produced billions of dollars of war goods ranging from parachutes to tanks to a substantial portion of the food that was sent to the battlefields. More than 100,000 workers labored in a hastily-constructed aircraft industry. On the Southwest Side the Chrysler and Studebaker automobile companies built huge complexes that turned out thousands of aircraft engines; Buick did the same in Melrose Park. Hundreds of companies made small plane components, while Douglas Aircraft Company erected a large plant on the site of today's O'Hare Airport to assemble the C-54 transport. Chicago area factories also built over half of all military electronics used in the war, including the Walkie-Talkie and major components used in radar. The area was also a major source of pharmaceuticals, including the mass production of penicillin and drugs needed to combat tropical diseases.

This massive industrial buildup created perpetual labor shortages that drove Chicago's unemployment down to one percent. Besides housewives who were lured to the factory, the city's physically challenged found their talents in demand. Many teenagers left high school to join the workforce, often replacing service workers who moved on to higher-paying factory jobs. Other workers migrated to Chicago opportunities, including some 30,000 African Americans up from the South and 20,000 Japanese-American evacuees who were allowed to leave the internment camps out west. Hundreds of German prisoners-of-war also labored on public works projects in the area. Many among this enlarged workforce gained valuable technical training needed to design and operate machinery through special round-the-clock programs offered in the schools and universities. Faced with the potential for disorder growing out of this new cultural diversity—race riots took place in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York—Mayor Edward Kelly established the Chicago Commission on Home Front Unity, the nation's first municipal human relations agency, to promote understanding and quell rumors that could lead to violence.

Chicago was transformed in yet another way because of new demands placed on its traditional role as a transportation crossroads. Its location near the population center of the country made it a most efficient site for military induction. Fort Sheridan was enlarged to include basic training facilities, while one out of every three American sailors in the war went through boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Northwestern University hosted the nation's largest Naval Midshipmen's school. Other area universities trained spies, language specialists, electronics engineers, and weather forecasters. The newly established Glenview Naval Air Station turned out thousands of pilots who trained on a pair of aircraft carriers that had been rebuilt from the hulls of old side-paddle-wheel lake steamers. Military personnel, including women in the Wacs and Waves, who were on leave or passing through town on their way to assignments found relaxation, lodging, and food at one of the four Chicago Servicemen's Centers. Everything was free. By the war's end, the center housed in the historic Auditorium Building had served over 24 million meals, nearly all provided by neighborhood volunteers. There were also a dozen USO sites in the city. Chicago could claim to be "the best G. I. Town in America."

The war reached down into the lives of every Chicagoan, but it was difficult to sustain a high level of home front enthusiasm through a conflict of indefinite duration. (Remember we know how long it took to win, but those living through it did not.) The initial surge had been fueled by anger over Pearl Harbor and America's initial military setbacks, as well as genuine fear of domestic attack. But by early 1943, when World War II surpassed the length of American involvement in World War I and American military victory seemed more probable, the fervor began to cool. Attendance at civilian defense activities flagged as Chicagoans began to assume that they were safe from enemy attack. The black market began to appear, along with sharp complaints about rationing and meat shortages. As the war continued, the prim white signs with "Honor Roll" lists of names of neighbors in the service continued to lengthen, and 1943 also saw the first of the solemn little street corner shrines—a simple plastic sign with a star and


a name—that memorialized a neighbor who would not be coming home. To counter the discontent and increase the levels of patriotism, government censors began an attempt to induce anger by allowing the public to see for the first time images of dead soldiers. At the same time, manufacturers were allowed to reveal their plans for postwar consumer goods, a move designed to create a psychological goal for civilian America. Despite these efforts, public enthusiasm fell during what would be the last year of the conflict, probably reaching its low point when meat shortages spoiled many 1944 Thanksgiving celebrations. On several occasions, misinterpreted news led to premature victory celebrations, followed by inevitable disappointment.

Finally, on August 6 and 9,1945, American learned that atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. (Only later did Chicagoans learn that a key factor in the creation of that weapon had grown out of secret experiments on the campus of the University of Chicago. Back on December 2, 1942, the first sustained nuclear reaction had taken place under the grandstands of Stagg Field.) Finally, V-E day, May 8, 1945, was followed by V-J Day on August 14, and the war came to an end. Thousands poured into Loop streets to celebrate the end of a unique era in the city's history.

Ultimately, World War II left mixed legacies. Besides the question of the atomic bomb, the most important negative was the creation of the national debt. The sale of bonds had provided the federal government with a way to finance the war without burdening the economy with taxes, but as a result, the negligible deficit loomed large. Later generations would continue to pay for the Allied victory. But the bond sales did provide an economic cushion for tens of thousands of families. The sudden shutdown of defense plants did not lead to a widely expected return to prewar depression conditions. Instead, savings and bonds provided not only enough money to avoid welfare while factories retooled for peacetime production, but also funds to fuel a postwar consumer-goods boom that kept those plants busy. Families could hardly wait to buy new cars, washing machines, houses, and furniture.

World War II also provided a unique civic experience for many people who lived through it. African Americans began to assess whether the discrimination they encountered in society was especially unfair given their home-front efforts; soldiers returning home from service abroad would help fuel the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Women who had built airplanes and been railroad conductors provided inspiration for their daughters' demand for equal rights. But perhaps most important of all, "the good war" was also an experiment in which people drawn from all walks of like were called upon to contribute to the social unity that grew out of a common goal. Coming after a decade of devastating and dehumanizing economic depression during which people questioned their self-worth, World War II was a time when average Chicagoans could feel that they had done something important. Every one of them was a hero.

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