The World War II Military and Home Fronts | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The World War II Military and Home Fronts

The outbreak of the Second World War ushered in a period of great prosperity and unity in Wisconsin. The depression years receded into the background as defense spending and military preparedness resulted in defense contracts for Wisconsin businesses. Rather than the dismal unemployment that had plagued the 1930s, labor was in high demand and wages and prices rose accordingly.

Both industry and agriculture shared in this prosperity. Wisconsin citizens quickly shifted to wartime production, becoming more dependent on orders from the military than ever before. Manitowoc, Sturgeon Bay, and Superior turned out submarines and other ships, once again becoming centers of shipbuilding. The Badger Ordinance Company quickly grew into one of the largest manufacturers of ammunition in the world. Farmers, who had intentionally slowed their production only a few years earlier, now supplied large quantities of dairy products, vegetables, eggs, and meat to the military and civilian populations. State businesses received orders worth $4.6 billion during the war. Industrial employment provided one of the most valuable ways for civilians to aid the war effort, yet the men who normally would have worked in these factories were needed on the battlefield.

To produce all of these goods, Wisconsin women replaced the men who had joined the armed forces. Before the war, Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company had employed only 144 women (about 3% of the total workforce) but by December 1941, the number had increased to 750. At the end of the war, nearly 25% of the entire workforce at the factory was comprised of women. Women who worked in factories encountered many problems never faced by the men they replaced. Many women had children who needed childcare. Women were also paid far less than male workers with the same or less experience.

Unlike World War I, anti-war sentiment virtually ended with the entry of the United States into the war. There was no crusading antiwar enthusiasm or strong opposition minority. Although Senator Robert La Follette, Jr., and Governor Phil La Follette opposed American involvement in the war, upholding the legacy of their father, both conceded in the end, the threat of fascism in the face of Nazi triumphs justified U.S. participation and muted their criticisms of the war effort.

In October of 1940, Governor Julius Heil established a state council of defense to coordinate with the federal and local defense programs. The University of Wisconsin and other colleges introduced military training classes for students and shared facilities with branches of the armed services. Many Wisconsin men received basic training at Camp McCoy, while Madison's airport (now named Truax Field) was an important center for radio communication training. Additionally, the United States Armed Forces Institute, in cooperation with the University's extension service, offered college correspondence courses to servicemen throughout the world.

Roughly 320,000 Wisconsin soldiers served in the armed forces during the war. Wisconsin's National Guard formed a substantial part of the new Red Arrow Division, helping to maintain the respected reputation of its predecessor from World War I by remaining undefeated in the Pacific theater. The majority of Wisconsin soldiers were draftees who served in units comprised of men from around the country. More than 8,000 soldiers died and another 13,000 were wounded in combat.

Approximately 9,000 Wisconsin women also served in the military. While most were involved in healthcare, many women also served as parachute riggers, cryptographers, weather observers, and ferry pilots. Each branch of the military had specific units for women. Women served as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the Navy, as SPARS (Semper Paratus -- Always Ready) in the Coast Guard, as WACS (Women's Army Corps) in the Army, and in a special reserve force in the Marine Corps. Female pilots, or WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), brought new aircraft from the factory to airfields. Ellen Ainsworth was the only woman from Wisconsin killed in action during the war.

Wisconsin citizens actively participated in the war effort both at home and abroad. Until the war ended in August of 1945, the daily challenges of wartime shortages of food, gasoline, and other essential goods were a part of everyone's life. At the same time, World War II expanded Wisconsin's industrial and agricultural resources, increasing production and employment levels while raising the standard of living and the state's economic security.

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[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 5 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); D.C. Everest Area Schools. World War II: More Stories from Our Veterans (Weston, Wis.: D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2004); "Through the World Wars" online exhibit from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum]

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