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.

[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 (online at http://dva.state.wi.us/Museum/Gal_show.asp?GalleryID=3)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Women workers at Allis-Chalmers during World War TwoWomen workers at Allis-Chalmers during World War Two
Link to article: War changes education for women, 1943War changes education for women, 1943
Link to article: Suggestions for neighborhood block leaders, 1943Suggestions for neighborhood block leaders, 1943
Link to article: A Milwaukee officer describes the attack on Pearl HarborA Milwaukee officer describes the attack on Pearl Harbor
Link to article: Wisconsin develops solutions to wartime shortagesWisconsin develops solutions to wartime shortages
Link to article: Citizens learn how to support the war through rationing, 1942Citizens learn how to support the war through rationing, 1942
Link to artifacts: Auschwitz Concentration Camp SweaterAuschwitz Concentration Camp Sweater
Link to book: Citizens are reminded to write letters to soldiers, 1944Citizens are reminded to write letters to soldiers, 1944
Link to book: A manual for air raid wardens, 1942A manual for air raid wardens, 1942
Link to book: Allis-Chalmers advises women workers on health and safety, 1942Allis-Chalmers advises women workers on health and safety, 1942
Link to book: Supporting the war by conserving office supplies, 1942Supporting the war by conserving office supplies, 1942
Link to book: The dead and missing from Wisconsin in June of 1946The dead and missing from Wisconsin in June of 1946
Link to book: A 1944 cookbook featuring dairy productsA 1944 cookbook featuring dairy products
Link to book: World War II veterans recall their experiences at home and abroadWorld War II veterans recall their experiences at home and abroad
Link to book: Wisconsin Holocaust survivors recall their experiencesWisconsin Holocaust survivors recall their experiences
Link to book: A Navy sailor recalls Pearl HarborA Navy sailor recalls Pearl Harbor
Link to collections: Interviews with Holocaust survivors who came to WisconsinInterviews with Holocaust survivors who came to Wisconsin
Link to images: The Attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941The Attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941
Link to images: Women metal fabricators in Fort AtkinsonWomen metal fabricators in Fort Atkinson
Link to images: Photographs from World War Two by Dickey ChapellePhotographs from World War Two by Dickey Chapelle
Link to manuscript: A Middleton nurse writes home from her hospital in India during World War Two.A Middleton nurse writes home from her hospital in India during World War Two.
Link to manuscript: An Ashland soldier writes home at the end of World War TwoAn Ashland soldier writes home at the end of World War Two
Link to manuscript: An Oshkosh aviator describes being shot down over Italy and life in a German prisoner of war camp.An Oshkosh aviator describes being shot down over Italy and life in a German prisoner of war camp.
Link to manuscript: A military police officer from Polk Co. writes home about the war in the Pacific.A military police officer from Polk Co. writes home about the war in the Pacific.
Link to manuscript: A sailor describes life aboard ship during World War Two.A sailor describes life aboard ship during World War Two.
Link to manuscript: An Oshkosh woman's diary of living in occupied Florence, Italy, in 1943-1944.An Oshkosh woman's diary of living in occupied Florence, Italy, in 1943-1944.
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin paratrooper describes his service in Europe during World War Two.A Wisconsin paratrooper describes his service in Europe during World War Two.
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin infantryman describes his service in Europe during World War Two.A Wisconsin infantryman describes his service in Europe during World War Two.
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin army lieutenant describes being wounded by German shrapnel during World War Two.A Wisconsin army lieutenant describes being wounded by German shrapnel during World War Two.
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin infantry soldier describes life in German prison camps during World War Two.A Wisconsin infantry soldier describes life in German prison camps during World War Two.
Link to manuscript: A Milwaukee colonel writes home from Europe, 1943-45A Milwaukee colonel writes home from Europe, 1943-45
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin soldier sends home a valentine.A Wisconsin soldier sends home a valentine.
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin aviator describes missions in Asia.A Wisconsin aviator describes missions in Asia.
Link to manuscript: How a tablespoon of fat can save soldiers' livesHow a tablespoon of fat can save soldiers' lives
Link to manuscript: A Janesville nurse in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, 1942-1945A Janesville nurse in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, 1942-1945
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin sailor recounts the attack on his ship at Pearl HarborA Wisconsin sailor recounts the attack on his ship at Pearl Harbor
Link to manuscript: A Beloit sailor describes the attack on Pearl HarborA Beloit sailor describes the attack on Pearl Harbor
Link to manuscript: An airman from northern Wisconsin describes his experiences during World War Two.An airman from northern Wisconsin describes his experiences during World War Two.
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