1942 Fifty Years Ago

PrintPrintEmailEmail Home Front

By May the American war effort was thriving at home, if not yet overseas. Farmers in Brooks County, Georgia, worked their fields by electric light once the sun had gone down, while the city of Atlanta tore up six thousand tons of neglected trolley track for its steel. Across the country people were volunteering as air-raid wardens for their blocks; twenty-three thousand block captains were sworn in at one time in the Chicago Coliseum.

Before many of the wartime restrictions could be put in place, Americans were already donating their time, their blood, their scrap iron and old tires. Enthusiastic shopowners removed their handsome copper signs to melt down for bullet casings. A bond-selling campaign in Davenport, Iowa, produced two innovations: firemen sold war bonds by ladder, proceeding from one office window to another accepting pledges, and a Davenport businessman devised a scheme for selling war bonds by pushing a pretty girl in a wheelbarrow through the city’s streets until his first sale, at which point the buyer would cut in and push her along to the next patriotic citizen. Davenport raised five million dollars. Lord & Taylor, maker of the uniforms for the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, announced a line of wartime sleepwear in May, anticipating future restrictions on materials: A “Night-n-day” pajama suit for women doubled as a blouse with slacks. Several other makers offered higher hems on nightgowns and some without sleeves as well as men’s pajamas that ended at the calf.

In May port cities like Miami began experimenting with dim-outs. These “Byrne-outs” (in honor of the director of economic stabilization James Byrnes) were partly a conservation measure but also were designed to make dimmer backdrops for the shipping stalked by German subs.

And on May 27 recruitment began for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, later known as the Women’s Army Corps or WAC. In Washington 750 eager-to-work women overwhelmed the headquarters; 1,400 signed up in New York City; 13,000 potential WACs volunteered that day nationwide. The Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines also had female units in order to free up men from industrial and clerical jobs for service at the front. Despite initial snickering from the boys in the press corps and the warnings of many in the country against removing American women from the home even in an emergency, one year after the establishment of the WACs, 100,000 women were hard at work in the armed services.

Reversal in the Pacific

After five months of defeat and frustration from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines and then at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Allies at last came into their own at the Battle of Midway. Between June 3 and June 6, U.S. Navy pilots destroyed some 332 Japanese planes and sank 4 of the 6 star Japanese aircraft carriers, the Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu , and Akagi . In a grim reversal of Pearl Harbor’s slaughter, 3,500 Japanese died in the fighting at Midway, to the Americans’ loss of 307. In fact, 3 of the sunken carriers had launched the planes that made the December attack.