In the December 1942 National Geographic Magazine, Albert W. Atwood authored an article titled "The Miracle of War Production." Atwood penned the following words:
This country which we love is producing all-out for war. At first there was only a trickle, then it became a mighty stream, and now it is a deluge [an overwhelming amount] of ships, planes, tanks, and guns roaring down the assembly lines of America.
True, the war finally must be won on the battlefields, but it cannot be won without production, and it can be lost in the shops and factories….
This war has an incredibly voracious, an unbelievably stupendous appetite for materials, supplies, equipment, machines, munitions, and armaments….
By a sheer miracle of production America is now satisfying the yawning maw [mouth or jaws] of the war god….
Hence this country has become the most gigantic factory the world has ever seen, turning its plowshares into swords, transforming itself into an all-embracing, universal arsenal—all to meet the Axis challenge.
In his article Atwood relates the seemingly impossible requests for production that President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) made: 45,000 tanks in 1942 and 75,000 in 1943; 800 merchant (cargo) ships in 1942 and 1,500 in
Office of Scientific Research and Development
When World War II began in 1939, the United States was years behind Germany in technical military research. Foreign weaponry was clearly superior. The United States had to catch up and catch up fast. On June 12, 1940, Dr. Vannevar Bush (1890–1974), an electrical engineer and president of the Carnegie Institution, a prestigious research center, met with President Franklin Roosevelt. Bush, a brilliant, innovative scientist, urged Roosevelt to establish a group of American scientific, military, and business leaders who could coordinate technological research that would lead to the production of advanced military equipment. Roosevelt agreed and authorized formation of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC); he put Bush in charge. Operating with presidential emergency funds alone, NDRC soon ran short of money. However, in mid-1941 the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was established and funded by Congress. Bush became the OSRD director, and NDRC became the chief operating unit under OSRD. The visionary Dr. Bush brought together scientists from research universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California Institute of Technology, Harvard, and Columbia; he also brought in scientists from technological and industrial businesses such as Bell Laboratories, General Motors, Westinghouse, Philco, Sylvania, Standard Oil, and Dupont Chemical. These businesses sent their engineers to the university research labs to move new scientific breakthroughs into production.
Working with army and navy researchers and more than a billion dollars of government money, the cooperating scientists quickly created many technologically advanced innovations for the war effort. OSRD's many accomplishments included improved radar equipment; development of sonar (using sound waves to find objects underwater) by the Harvard Underwater Sound Lab for use on submarines; amphibious landing vehicles known as DUKWs, designed by General Motors; land warfare devices such as mine detectors, flamethrowers (a weapon that spews out fiery liquid), and bazookas (a hand-held rocket launcher); various rocket designs; medical advances such as the use of plasma in transfusions, and large-scale production and use of penicillin; invention of the pressurized cabin for aircraft and antigravity suits that kept pilots from blacking out in steep dives; and the tiny proximity fuse vacuum tubes. Made by Sylvania, the proximity fuse could be inserted in various projectile weapons; it used radar to detect a target. It was called the most significant scientific wartime achievement, next to the atomic bomb. Bush and OSRD were also involved in developing the atomic bomb.
1943 (only 4 had been built in America from 1922 to 1938); and in 1942 alone, 60,000 aircraft, more than triple the number built since the Wright brothers' first successful flights in the early twentieth century.
After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the U.S. government was able to initiate this miracle of production with three key strategies:
(1) Heavy financial support of industry. The federal government allocated roughly $240 billion over five years to finance war industry production.
(2) Production limits on non-essential goods, beginning in early 1942. Passenger cars, household electrical appliances, flashlights and batteries, metal signs, toys, and games were all considered nonessential goods.
(3) Allocation of (portioning out, or directing) key raw materials, specifically steel, copper, and aluminum, under the Controlled Materials Plan (CMP) of the War Production Board (WPB). The plan was put into effect by mid-1943 to match the raw material supplies with manufacturers' demand.
Keys to the miracles
To produce the massive quantities of war materials that President Roosevelt requested, manufacturers of locomotives, automobiles, farm implements, and heavy road-building equipment converted to the production of aircraft parts, tanks, jeeps, military trucks, machine guns, and shells. Small manufacturers also converted. For example, a maker of orange juice squeezers converted to bullet molds; a stove factory in Indiana converted to making lifeboats; and a merry-go-round manufacturer began making gun mounts, plane gears, and scaffolds for aircraft repair crews to stand on. Hundreds of thousands of these small businesses became subcontractors, supplying parts to the large corporations.
Assembly line mass production was one of the keys to success in industry's rapid conversion after Pearl Harbor. Most workers had never seen modern guns, not to mention complicated antiaircraft guns or tanks. Yet each person could be quickly trained to perform a task in a few simple steps and thereby carry out one small part in the overall production plan. For example, over one thousand mass-produced Garand rifles were completed each day at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. As the rifles moved along a conveyor belt, machine operators each made a small contribution to create the final product.
Another key to production success was the sharing of designs and methods among longtime competitors. The massive Willow Run operation, built by automotive giant Henry Ford (1863–1947) in 1941 outside of Detroit, Michigan, produced B-24 bombers. Ford's engineering staff learned the manufacturing process for B-24s by visiting and consulting with Consolidated
As men enlisted or were drafted into the military, women kept production on track. By the tens of thousands they stepped up to do what had traditionally been considered men's work. They came from all levels of society and worked throughout production plants, from assembly lines to all phases of manufacturing, such as crane operators in shipyards and inspectors. Likewise, black American men and women took the opportunity to fill production positions vacated by men joining the military. These war workers showed great dedication and pride in their work. War industry wages were high, which certainly helped the workers' morale, but the pride came from the workers' patriotic desire to do their part for the war effort. Factory owners rarely had to fire anyone for slacking off.
A national effort
The miracle of production spanned the entire United States. There were companies that built small arms in New England. Transport ships on Lake Erie awaited endless streams of open railroad cars carrying coal from West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The ships then traveled through the Great Lakes to deliver the coal at inland destinations, where it was used for steel production. Flashes of fire and the strongest of men and women, needed to pour large containers of molten iron while withstanding the heat from the blast furnaces, could be seen in the steel mills on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania. Lumbering blimps built in Akron, Ohio, searched for German submarines along U.S. coastlines. In the Southwest, huge oil refineries produced gasoline. In the Midwest and interior Northwest, giant concrete grain storage facilities lined the horizons, holding vital food supplies for the Allied forces. Iron ore from Minnesota and Michigan was the basis for the war's two most important metals, iron and steel. Western mountains yielded ores—arsenic, bismuth, cadmium, copper, lead, manganese, and zinc—used in manufacturing tanks, planes, ships, and munitions. The towering chimneys of the ore-processing factories stood like exclamation points on the Western landscape.
Water was another valuable war resource. It was harnessed by the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington to provide energy to run the war plants of the Northwest. These plants produced aluminum, plutonium (for atomic bomb development), and, most famously, the ships and aircraft used by Allied forces.
U.S. aircraft industry
The history of the U.S. aircraft industry from 1939 to 1945 is a story of rapid expansion. In 1939 only about six thousand planes were built in the entire United States. Among all U.S. industries, the aircraft industry ranked forty-first. By early 1944 the U.S. aircraft industry had become the single largest industry, not only in the United States but in the world. Production doubled between 1939 and 1940 and doubled again in both 1941 and 1942. Between January 1, 1940, and the end of the war on August 14, 1945, 300,000 military aircraft rolled off production lines to supply both the U.S. military and its allies. Approximately 275,000 of those aircraft were built after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. The peak production month was March 1944, when 9,000 aircraft were completed. The dollar value of the aircraft produced by the aircraft industry increased over seventy times, from $225 million in 1939 to roughly $16 billion in 1944.
At the start of 1944 there were approximately eighty large production plants across the United States engaged in the manufacture of airplane bodies, engines, and propellers. More than two million workers were employed in these plants. Countless small companies employed millions more in the production of specific aircraft parts. The largest players in the industry included many companies that had evolved from the pioneer days of air flight in America: Boeing in Seattle, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas; Consolidated Vultee Aircraft, commonly known as Convair, in San Diego, California; Curtis-Wright Airplane, an aircraft engine and propeller manufacturer with several facilities in the Northeast and major plants in St. Louis, Missouri, and Buffalo, New York; Douglas Aircraft in southern California (three locations) and in leased space in St. Louis, Missouri; Glenn L. Martin Company in Maryland; Grumman Corporation at Bethpage, New York; Lockheed Aircraft in California; North American Aviation in Inglewood, California, Kansas City, Kansas, and Dallas, Texas; Pratt and Whitney, an engine expert in Hartford, Connecticut; and Vought Aircraft in Long Island, New York.
Boeing, which had introduced its luxurious Stratoliner for passenger aviation in 1939, turned to bomber production in the 1940s, producing B-17s and B-29s. In 1942 the Boeing plants produced 60 planes a month, but by March 1944, 362 planes were completed each month. Participating in industrywide coordinated war production, Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft also built Boeing B-17s, while the Glenn L. Martin Company helped produce Boeing B-29s. One assembly room at the Martin plant on the Atlantic seaboard could house four football fields. Further illustrating phenomenal growth patterns, Grumman Corporation started in a garage with 6 men in 1930. By fall of 1941 Grumman had 6,500 workers and grew at a rate of about 1,000 additional workers per month to reach 25,500 employees by September 1943. Lockheed had fewer than 2,000 employees in the late 1930s and had only produced a few hundred planes since 1913. By March 31, 1940, it employed 7,000; by 1941, 17,000; and by 1943, 90,000 workers. By 1945 Lockheed was completing 23 planes a day. Convair maintained an outstanding production record, too, with 28,000 aircraft completed and delivered between late 1941 and the end of the war. Doing its part, Vought produced over 5,000 Corsairs in 1944. The Corsair, with its Pratt and Whitney engine, was an exceptional fighting aircraft.
The construction of Douglas Aircraft's Long Beach, California, plant illustrates how government and private business worked together to meet production goals. The military was placing huge orders that included many new and different types of aircraft, and existing prewar plants were generally inadequate for such production. To encourage construction of new facilities, the government began the Emergency Plant Facilities program (followed quickly by the Defense Plant Corporation). The government asked manufacturers to pay for the construction of new facilities but promised to reimburse them over the next five years and then assume ownership of the plant. The Long Beach plant was constructed under this plan and began operation in November 1941. This arrangement allowed the U.S. government to avoid huge up-front expenditures and assured manufacturers that they would not be left with useless facilities at the end of the war. In many cases the companies were able to buy the plants from the government at very reasonable prices when the war ended.
By spring 1942 aircraft factories operated twenty-four hours a day, six or seven days a week. As effective assembly line strategies were created, increases in efficiency were dramatic. In 1941 it took fifty-five thousand man-hours to complete a B-17. (Manhours is the measure of time spent producing goods, such as taking 55 workers a combined total of 1,000 hours to fully produce a plane, with the average worker spending fewer than 20 hours.) By 1944 it took an average of only nineteen thousand man-hours. With thousands of workers working on each aircraft, total production time could be measured in days. The outstanding achievements of the U.S. aircraft industry during the war helped ensure victory for the Allies.
A colossal task: Shipbuilding for the war
Ships for the U.S. Navy were built in government shipyards and in privately owned shipyards under contract to the navy. Oceangoing warships known as "large surface combatants" included battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts. All were produced in yards full of lowering cranes, which lifted large parts of the ship into place for final assembly, and massive ways (ways are support structures on which ships are built and then launched). The navy also needed submarines, submarine chasers, minesweepers, patrol boats (PT boats), landing craft, naval auxiliaries, and large amphibious warfare ships. Naval auxiliaries included a wide range of craft, such as tugboats, net layers (which place large underwater netting to protect against enemy submarine intrusions into harbors), and small cargo ships, tankers, and transport ships. Large amphibious warfare ships transported troops, weapons, heavy equipment (such as tanks, trucks, jeeps, earthmovers, propellers), and various cargo to landing sites. They deposited troops and equipment directly onto beaches or transferred them to helicopters or smaller landing craft. Some amphibious ships had guns and short-range missiles for protection. Some served as command centers for complex operations, directing the ferrying of men and equipment to shore. The most famous amphibious ships in the war were LSTs, short for landing ship tanks, not a tank in the more popular notion of tank, rather a tankship or
tanker (large container/capacity for hauling). LSTs could carry twenty tanks or several tons of cargo.
Equally vital to the U.S. war effort were the merchant or cargo ships known as Liberty ships and Victory ships, which were built for the U.S. Maritime Commission, the wartime government agency created to award contracts for ship construction Approximately fifty-six hundred were built during the war—more than enough to survive German U-boat (submarine) attacks in sufficient numbers. That is, the U.S. manufactured them at a faster rate than German submarines could sink them. These cargo ships were vital to the Allied war effort in transporting troops and supplies long distances across vast oceans and between continents to the war fronts.
Approximately twenty-nine states had large shipyards in operation between 1941 and 1945. Government shipyards included Boston NSY (naval shipyard), Charleston NSY (South Carolina), Mare Island NSY (Vallejo, California), New York NSY (Brooklyn, New York), Norfolk NSY (Portsmouth, Virginia), Philadelphia NSY, Portsmouth NSY (Kittery, Maine), and Puget Sound NSY (Bremerton, Washington), among others.
Wartime Shipbuilding in America
Frederick Simpich wrote about America's shipbuilding effort in the May 1942 issue of National Geographic Magazine :
Build ships faster than our enemies can sink them, that's America's job.
We must get guns, planes, tanks, and food to our Allies and fighting men overseas to win this war. Everybody knows that … no nation in history ever faced so colossal a shipbuilding task in so short a time…. From Bath, Maine, clear around to Tacoma, Washington, old and new shipyards are busy building new ships and fixing old ones…. Day and night from these swarming yards rise the roar and racket of rivet guns, the creak and groan of giant cranes, the clang of forging shops, the thud of trip hammers, and the hiss of welding torches…. Whole armies of men [and women] are now at work building ships in the United States; this host [a large quantity of] will rise to 850,000 or more as production speeds up to two and three ships a day. Think what weekly payrolls—millions and millions!
Some long-established, privately owned shipyards included Bath Iron Works Corporation in Bath, Maine; Bethlehem Steel Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California; Dravo Corporation in Wilmington, Delaware; New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden, New Jersey; Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Newport News, Virginia; Todd Pacific Shipyards in Tacoma, Washington; Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania; and Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company in Mobile, Alabama. Three submarine makers also had long histories building submarines and other vessels: Cramp Shipbuilding Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, began operation in 1830; Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut, in 1899; and Manitowoc Shipbuilding Corporation in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 1902. The navy poured millions of dollars into these aging facilities for immediate submarine production.
The navy also invested millions in smaller yards to expand them for full shipbuilding. For example, the navy funded Lake Washington Shipyards in Houghton, Washington, for production of merchant marine and navy vessels, and repair of damaged ones. Willamette Iron and Steel Corporation in Portland, Oregon, received funding to build minesweepers, patrol craft, and submarine chasers. Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company in Evansville, Indiana, expanded for LST production.
Complementing the older, established yards were "emergency yards" that were built from scratch in 1940, 1941, and 1942 with government money from both the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. Most of these yards did not stay in business after the war. Examples include Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards in Baltimore, Maryland; Bethlehem Steel Company in Hingham, Massachusetts; and Kaiser Company in Vancouver, Washington.
The Richmond (California) Shipyards were perhaps the most famous of the emergency yards. Part of a wartime shipbuilding complex operated by industrialist Henry Kaiser (1882–1967), the Richmond Shipyards provide an excellent example of how
shipyard activity affected the surrounding community. Shipyards often mushroomed into sprawling communities as new workers poured into an area for the well-paying jobs. Before the war Richmond was a quiet community with a population of twenty thousand. Its shoreline along the deep San Francisco Bay had not been developed. In early 1941 construction on the shipyards began, and soon these yards would become the largest and most productive of any in the world. Within the next two years Richmond grew to one hundred thousand residents. The Atchison Village, a 450-unit development, was hastily constructed to house workers, but housing remained in critically short supply. As men joined the military, tens of thousands of women replaced them in the yards. Schools were built, and the Maritime and Ruth C. Powers Child Development Centers opened to care for the children of the women workers. Henry Kaiser built Kaiser Permanente Hospital to provide health care for his workers.
U.S. Maritime Service
In 1938 President Roosevelt established the U.S. Maritime Service (USMS) for the purpose of training merchant marines (officers and crews of U.S. vessels that engaged in commerce). Before World War II began, the United States had roughly fifty-five thousand experienced mariners, but just 1,375 ships by October 1940. After the United States officially entered the war in December 1941, U.S. production of cargo ships accelerated. By the end of the war, the U.S. and its Allies had 6,236 merchant ships. The USMS went all out to recruit men who could be trained to operate these ships, which carried essential supplies and U.S. troops to the battle zones overseas. USMS ads appeared in newspapers and were broadcast on the radio. Recruits as young as sixteen years of age poured in. Those who had been turned down by the army, navy, and Coast Guard (usually for medical reasons or because they were too old or too young) were welcomed into the USMS. Thirty-seven USMS recruiting stations were located across the country, often near the navy and Coast Guard recruiting offices. Navy and Coast Guard recruiters frequently sent men to the USMS office, telling them that was where they were most needed. Training schools for USMS officers, seamen, and radio operators were located in the Northeast, Florida, and California. Over two hundred thousand raw recruits were transformed into merchant marines.
Loaded with supplies, U.S. cargo ships were likely to come under attack as soon as they left their home ports. German submarines (U-boats) lurked off the eastern U.S. coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, and Japanese submarines patrolled the western coastline. Cargo ships were also vulnerable to mines planted in harbors. On the open seas they were subject to battleships, bombers, and kamikaze attacks (suicide airplane attacks). Between 1940 and 1942 German submarines sunk U.S. cargo ships faster than they could be built. By 1943, however, the United States built more than could be sunk, and naval protection also improved.
To protect merchant marine cargo ships the U.S. Navy established the Armed Guard, which provided gun crews to defend the ships on the open seas. By the end of the war 144,900 navy personnel, trained at bases throughout the nation, had served on these gun crews. Approximately two thousand of them lost their lives defending the cargo ships. About one out of every twenty-six mariners was killed while serving in the USMS.
Unlike the U.S. Army, Navy, or Coast Guard, the USMS was racially integrated: Black and white crew members served on the same ships. The first black merchant officer in command of a ship was Captain Hugh Mulyac (1886–1992). At least seventeen ships were named in honor of well-known black Americans, including the Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington (Mulyac's ship), and George Washington Carver.
Soldiers and supplies destined for the Pacific war zone embarked from San Francisco, California, and Seattle, Washington. New York ports sent cargo ships to Europe. Men and supplies headed for the Caribbean shipped out from New Orleans, Louisiana. The ports were scenes of frenzied activity throughout the war. Civilians had to be trained in transportation tasks such as loading and unloading ships, boat maintenance, and general shipyard repair. Military personnel continuously trained and kept account of soldiers who were preparing to ship out. By December 1944, U.S. embarkation ports had 62,646 military personnel and almost 78,000 civilian staff. New York and San Francisco were the largest operations. By the end of the war in August 1945, approximately 7.3 million people and 127 million tons of equipment had passed through U.S. embarkation ports.
Kaiser crisscrossed the country in search of more workers and found thousands of black Americans in the South eager to make the journey west. They came to Richmond and were trained as welders, crane operators, shipfitters, and drillers; about half were women. A black community developed in Richmond, complete with a blues music scene and political organizations, such as a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that promoted black American issues.
The Richmond Shipyards produced more ships faster than ever before. Kaiser applied a mass production system in which huge sections of ships were put in place by giant cranes and then welded together. Welding fused or melted the edges of two metal plates, a process much faster than the riveting that had previously been used. One Liberty ship was built in four days, fifteen hours, and twenty-six minutes. Kaiser's Richmond Shipyards produced 747 Liberty and Victory ships between 1941 and 1945.
When the war ended, the jobs ended—in Richmond and in other boom communities. Women and minorities immediately lost their jobs as men returned from the war. For those who stayed on to live and work in Richmond, the economic adjustment was very difficult as the city fell into an economic downturn that lasted decades.
Job market boom
Industrial mobilization improved job market prospects on the U.S. home front. The most important effect was the broad availability of jobs, which provided great economic hope after the high unemployment of the Great Depression (1929–41). Work could be had by nearly anyone who sought it. In 1939, just before home front mobilization began, approximately nine million workers were unemployed. Job opportunities began increasing through 1940 and greatly expanded after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941. Over fifteen million Americans entered the workforce or the military between 1940 and 1943. By early 1942 labor shortages began appearing; industry was continuing to expand, but many in the existing labor pool had joined the military. During the worst of the Great Depression, unemployment climbed to 25 percent; by late 1943 the unemployment rate had fallen to the incredibly low level of 1.3 percent.
With millions of men joining the military services, job opportunities rose for people who had never worked in industrial positions before. Black Americans traveled from the South for these jobs, and some 3.9 million women—both blacks and whites—joined the labor force for the first time. The new labor force also included youths, aged people, poor white Americans from the rural South, and small businessmen who had lost their businesses. Even teachers and white-collar workers were attracted by the fat war industry paychecks. Thanks to assembly line operations, which broke complicated processes into simple tasks, semiskilled workers could be quickly trained to do specific tasks.
Mobilization also created jobs in the federal government. Many new government agencies sprang up to aid the mobilization effort. Even though these were temporary agencies, combined with already established agencies such as the military services and U.S. Department of War, they led to a dramatic escalation in government employment. Federal employment had greatly expanded during the Great Depression as new government relief and recovery programs were established. During the war, federal employment expanded even more. The number of federal government jobs quadrupled from 950,000 in 1939 to 3.8 million in 1945.
Salaries on the rise
Overall, mobilization created seventeen million new jobs on the home front. Paychecks grew, partly because of a longer average workweek and large amounts of overtime (extra hours worked beyond the regularly scheduled number of hours, for which workers were paid). In February 1943 President Roosevelt signed an executive order expanding the normal workweek from 40 to 48 hours in munitions industries and in regions where labor shortages persisted. Overall, in war-related industries nationwide, the average workweek went to 45 hours. In the most critical industries, such as rubber production, shipbuilding, and aircraft manufacturers, the average workweek was 50 to 60 hours. Almost all laborers in the war industry worked at least a full six-day week, and many earned overtime pay for working on Sundays and holidays.
Salaries rose between 1939 and 1945—from $23.86 a week to $44.39 a week. Ironically, the conversion of industries to war material production left shortages in civilian consumer goods. So just when workers had money to spend, there were fewer goods available to buy. Many workers used their wages to pay off debts from the Depression. Some added to their personal savings, and some bought war bonds. (See Chapter 3: Managing the Nation's Finances.)
The dedication and output of America's workers was astounding. In 1944 the U.S. gross national product (GNP), the total value of goods produced and services provided that year, was $197.6 billion. War-related goods and services purchased by the government made up $90 billion of that total. The 1939 GNP had been $88.6 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that amount equals $138.32 billion in 1944 dollars. Hence the GNP had risen 43 percent between 1939 and 1944.
Business leaders sought to limit the influence of labor unions, which had grown in prominence during the Great Depression. Labor unions are groups of workers who organize together to seek better pay and work conditions. Earlier in the twentieth century, labor unions were considered by many to be un-American as many union activists embraced radical politics in their confrontations with industry management. Violent conflicts arose and union workers were considered outside the mainstream of U.S. society. Rather than attempting to eliminate unions, which would not have been practical, business leaders decided to work with them. By war's end in 1945 labor unions were no longer seen as independent radical organizations; they were an accepted part of business. With plentiful jobs and rising wages, union leadership became less militant, and this broadened the appeal of union membership for many mainstream workers. From 1940 to 1945 labor union membership increased from approximately nine million to fifteen million, or about one-third of the U.S. labor force.
This change in labor-management relations was gradual and bumpy. At the beginning of the mobilization effort, radical behavior carried over from confrontations in the late 1930s. Forty-two hundred work stoppages (strikes) occurred in 1941 as industrial production began gearing up; the strikes involved 2.4 million union workers seeking improved wages and better working conditions. In response, the National Defense Mediation Board was formed in March to resolve the labor disputes. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, union leaders pledged that they would not conduct strikes during the war. They knew strikes would be very unpopular with the public during wartime, when all citizens were expected to sacrifice for the war effort. As a result, a cooperative working spirit between labor leaders and plant managers began to develop.
However, despite increased cooperation between labor and business management, some union workers still took action to seek improved working conditions. Even though the union leadership had pledged no strikes, numerous localized and brief wildcat strikes (worker strikes that are not supported by organized labor unions) did occur, generally in the coal, steel, and railroad industries. Public scorn for these strikers was severe, and Americans serving in the military felt great bitterness toward any grumbling home front worker.
In early 1942 the national War Labor Board (WLB) took over for the National Defense Mediation Board to resolve these worker conflicts. The WLB controlled wage increases during the war. Therefore, the key labor issues usually involved working conditions, such as safety in the workplace. As a result, the number of work stoppages dropped to two thousand in 1942.
The War Production Board (WPB) encouraged the formation of labor-management production committees. Approximately twenty-three hundred committees were operating by spring of 1943. The workers and management representatives serving on the committees made hundreds of thousands of suggestions to increase production, and the local WPB offices frequently called attention to and honored the best suggestions. The committees also resolved minor disputes and worked toward improving working conditions.
The WLB controlled wages by applying the so-called Little Steel Formula, which called for keeping wages within 15 percent of what wages were in January 1941. Many workers were dissatisfied with this control because wage increases did not keep up with the rising cost of goods. Primarily because of wage disputes, the number of wildcat strikes began to increase again, with 3,800 occurring in 1943 and almost 5,000 in 1944. By the end of the war in 1945 the WLB had been called on to settle approximately 20,000 worker disputes.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (1880–1965) was quick to point out that most of the strikes that occurred during this intensive war production period were short, often lasting only one shift, and many involved only a few workers. She also pointed out that the damage caused by these strikes was blown out of proportion. The number of strike hours was generally less than one-half of 1 percent of total man-hours in any given month between 1942 and 1944.
Nearly double that number of manhours had been lost to strikes between 1935 and 1941.
Though union-sponsored strikes were generally on a downward trend in the war industries, the hazardous coal industry was an exception. By May 1943, wartime coal production hit record high levels, but thousands of coal miners had been injured or killed in job-related incidents. In addition, miners' wages, unlike wages in other war industries, were subject to sizable deductions by the employer. In the company towns, in which the coal company also owned the houses in which the workers lived, mine operators charged miners for rent, water, coal, and even for use of the miners' headlamps. A miner's paycheck could be $40 to $45 a week, but after the mine operator's deductions, the miner might take home only $20 to $25 a week. Flamboyant union leader John L. Lewis (1880–1969) led a controversial coal strike that lasted from 1943 to 1944. The strike brought considerable public scorn upon coal workers. However, the coal strike only slightly lowered total steel production (coal supplied energy to run the steel mills) in 1943, and steel production that year still broke all previous records.
In reaction to the wartime coal strike, Congress passed the Smith-Connolly War Labor Disputes Act, giving the federal government power to seize and operate industries if workers went on strike during wartime. Such federal action occurred on a number of occasions during World War II within various industries. However, overall, unions gained respect from industry leaders by handling wartime wage disputes with a minimum of disruption to production. As a result, labor union leaders became even more accepted in their negotiations with management in the postwar years.
Kinks in war production
Planes, ships, and tanks were being produced at record pace during the war years, but there were some kinks in the system. Strikes were generally small and of short duration, but absenteeism and labor turnover caused ongoing concern. In the month of December 1942, 16.7 million manhours were lost to unexcused absences (other than illness) in U.S. shipyards. In all of 1942 only 430,000 man-hours were lost to shipyard labor strikes. Journalist Selden Menefee, who crisscrossed the country in early 1943 on assignment from Princeton University's Office of Public Opinion Research, reported that a Portland, Oregon, shipyard with 102,000 workers had an absentee rate between 3 and 17 percent in one month. In Assignment: U.S.A., Menefee relates the findings of a Portland committee that studied the causes of absenteeism:
Far too little attention had been paid to such important causes as unreported sickness, often due to inadequate housing and lack of community facilities; bad transportation, causing workers to be late on the job so that they are denied admittance; taking time off to shop, go to the bank, or conduct other personal business which could only be attended to during working hours; and finally, dissatisfaction with the job, the management and working conditions generally.
'It isn't all our fault,' said one of Henry Kaiser's Portland employees, who gets every eighth day off. 'Did you ever try cramming eight days of chores into one? We have to file our income tax, see the ration board [group of local officials who administered the distribution of limited foods and materials to private citizens and businesses], fix the car, clean the house, plant our victory gardens [private gardens planted by individual families to add to the nation's wartime food supply], all on one day. Shipyards are crowded and hard to get home from. We don't have long evenings like on our old jobs. We try hard to stay on the job, and most of us do, but it isn't easy.'
Then there is the increasing age of workers. One construction foreman said: 'I had six men in their 60's in key jobs who worked themselves into sick-beds trying not to be absent during the winter. Flu caught up with them.'
The Portland study clearly indicated that the war production "miracle" took a serious toll on workers. The long work hours, crowded housing conditions, and exposure to toxic substances during manufacturing led to health and morale problems at times.
Labor turnover was another kink in production. When well-trained workers left their jobs, managers had to hire new, usually less experienced workers, who could not immediately match the production of the workers who had left. Reasons for quitting varied from location to location, but the most common included worker dissatisfaction with inexperienced managers who created inefficient production plans that left laborers idle for hours; insufficient housing, transportation, and recreational facilities; poor allocation of needed materials, which caused down-time; and wages that did not keep pace with the prices of everyday consumer essentials. Insufficient food for workers also led to discontent. The Department of Labor found that many factories offered no eating facilities and that laborers frequently had inadequate food intakes. It was not until mid-1943 that food rations increased for those doing heavy labor.
For More Information
Bilstein, Roger E. The American Aerospace Industry: From Workshop to Global Enterprise. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Cott, Nancy F., ed. No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lingeman, Richard R. Don't You Know There's a War On? The American Home Front, 1941–1945. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1970.
Menefee, Selden. Assignment: U.S.A. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943.
Atwood, Albert W. "The Miracle of War Production." National Geographic Magazine (December 1942): 693–715.
Simpich, Frederick. "As Two Thousand Ships Are Born." National Geographic Magazine (May 1942): 551–588.
"The American Aerospace Industry During World War II." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. http://centennialofflight.gov/essay/Aerospace/WWII_Industry/Aero7.htm (accessed on June 21, 2004).
Boeing Aircraft. http://www.boeing.com (accessed on June 21, 2004).
World War II Shipbuilding. http://www.coltoncompany.com/shipbldg/ussbldrs/wwii/merchantsbldg.htm (accessed on June 21, 2004).