By the late 1930s, a second world war loomed in Europe. The United States Congress legislated a policy of non-involvement should such a conflict break out, with the passage of more than one Neutrality Act. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, however, thrust America into World War II. Militarily the United States had failed to maintain a viable military force during the 1930s. Its forces were not great in number and armament production had not been a priority. Almost overnight, industry switched from production of luxury items such as cars and radios for civilian use to construction of necessary military supplies, not only for U.S. troops, but also for the entire Allied forces. Economically, this effort monopolized the nation’s available resources, labor, and food for the duration of the war. The United States war industry ran largely on labor, which for the first time required significant numbers of women. Additionally, those not fighting on the battlefields sacrificed, at the request of the government, everything from items such as sugar and meat to rubber tires, batteries, and silk stockings. The commitments and sacrifices made at home by everyday Americans helped the Allied forces to ensure victory over the Axis powers, ultimately restoring freedom to vast parts of Europe and Asia. Additionally, the victory positioned the United States as the political and military power in the world. Although combat soldiers were certainly a major part of America’s triumph in WWII, average Americans on the Home Front were also crucial to winning the war through their contributions in producing necessary armaments, such as the B-24 Liberator and the Liberty Ship, as well as providing support by rationing and growing Victory Gardens.
The B-24 Liberator – Critical to Allied Victory
During his Fireside Chat on December 29, 1940, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained why the United States had to gear up armaments in order to support those defending themselves against the Axis powers. He told the American people, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.” With those words, production slowly moved forward. It was not until the United States was officially in the war, however, that American industry and the American people switched over to an undertaking that many would call a miracle. That miracle was eventually, among other things, a key factor in the Allied success over the Axis powers.
Arguably, the most important aircraft in the Allied victory in WWII was the B-24 Liberator bomber, built for the Army air force. Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, founded by Reuben H. Fleet, designed and built the first Liberator in San Diego in 1939. The B-24 was a heavy-duty plane, outfitted with four engines and a wingspan of 110 feet. This gave the Liberator a top speed of 303 mph. The B-24 Liberator, because of its long wings and short fuselage, was able to fly for upwards of 3,000 miles before refueling. The Liberator’s distinguishing feature was its tail. Instead of the common vertical tail, the B-24 possessed a horizontal tail that had two oval discs, attached to each end, to stabilize the plane. Meant to carry only six men, the B-24 flew, more often than not, with ten crewmembers. The Liberator provided the pilots with excellent visibility because it was equipped throughout with greenhouse style windows. Most importantly, the bomber was able to carry as many as eight thousand pounds of bombs over a distance of 1,080 miles. All of the features and capabilities of the Liberator enabled it to operate on every front of the war not only as a bomber, but as an efficient fighter as well. The B-24 Liberator, credited with bringing down an estimated 2,600 enemy aircraft as a fighter plane, was capable of protecting itself against attacks by enemy fighter aircraft.
Adding to its importance for the Allied victory was the fact that the B-24 Liberator bomber ranked as the “leading oceanic patrol and anti-submarine aircraft, and the leading Allied long-range cargo transport” plane until the introduction of the B-29 Bomber, which did not make an appearance until the last months of the war. The B-24 made protecting the waters in the North Atlantic less challenging and more productive by the bombers ability to patrol large areas. The dogfights in the air with 2,600 downed enemy aircraft and the bombing of hundreds of German U-boats in the North Atlantic enabled the delivery of necessary supplies to the Allied forces.
Directly related to the tremendous success achieved by the B-24 were the production plants and the Americans who built them. Fifteen plants worked either to build the Liberator bomber as a completed unit or to assemble specific parts. The two most successful B-24 Liberator plants were California’s Consolidated Aircraft and Michigan’s Willow Run, a Ford Motor Corporation plant. Consolidated had a small plant that employed 797 workers who built somewhere between thirty-six and forty-eight planes between 1939 and 1941. Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Corp., estimated his company could produce two hundred planes per month by building a major plant that would use the same assembly line technology that had made him successful in automobile manufacturing. Ford’s optimism quickly confronted the reality of production after Willow Run received the first order for the bomber in March of 1941. The order called for 1,200 B-24-airframe assemblies and three hundred completed planes, plus the building of the manufacturing plant. Consolidated did not believe it was possible to produce so many planes in such a short period and continued with its production system. The Willow Run plant, which would eventually become the most successful plant for war armament manufacturing, began producing the B-24 Liberator in 1942.
Once the Liberator began flying combat missions, pilots identified problems with the aircraft’s design. Ford had made two major mistakes. First, the Willow Run plant initially made steel die casts for each of the 11,000 parts needed to assemble a single B-24. Changes in the casts were required, however, and Willow Run could not keep up production because the new die casts were time consuming to manufacture. The plant was also responsible for producing parts needed for the Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Fort Worth, Texas, plants. When production stopped at Willow Run, it also stopped at the other plants. Second, there were staffing problems to produce at the rate of production promised. Part of the problem was the fact that Willow Run was located thirty-five miles outside of Detroit, literally in the middle of nowhere. There was no way for people to get to work, nowhere to live, and nowhere to eat. In order to produce at the rate promised by Ford, Willow Run needed a full-time crew of 60,000 workers for the assembly lines alone. Turnover was high because of the inconvenience of the plant’s location. With all of the big talk Ford had been doing, Willow Run was only able to produce twelve planes in 1942.
Unlike the Michigan plant, production at San Diego’s Consolidated was much more successful. Americans desiring jobs in the war effort came from all over the country to work for Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, among others. The population of San Diego grew by forty-one percent between 1941 and 1944. Although it began slowly, Consolidated’s process was to assemble most of the Liberator inside and to complete the final production outside. As it became more efficient, Consolidated increased the size of its plant and went from employing 797 workers in 1939 to 16, 500 in 1942. By the end of 1943, the number of workers at Consolidated almost tripled to 45,000 employees. There was work for anyone who wanted it. Schoolteachers, for example, even found a way to pitch in during the summer months by taking advantage of the temporary work made available by Consolidated and other companies. Constance Bowman Reid, an English teacher, and Clara Marie Allen, an art teacher, were two such women. They were not unlike hundreds of thousands of women just looking for a way to do their part. Constance and Clara had no idea what a “Liberator” was or that it was another name for the B-24 Bomber. All they knew was that the aircraft industry needed them, and they were going to help. While Ford was working to get up and running, Consolidated Aircraft produced 6,724 B-24 Liberator bombers, almost half of those manufactured between 1941 and 1943.
What made production of that the B-24 Liberator difficult was that it was made up of 1,250,000 pieces. Broken down, it took 550,000 parts and 700,000 rivets to complete production of just one Liberator. The job of riveting the planes together fell mostly to women and a handful of smaller adults, little people, used to rivet in the small areas such as the wings. The women who participated in the war effort by working for the aircraft manufacturing plants were abundant and necessary to the success of the Allied forces. With men away at war, and the need for millions of workers to build all of the armaments necessary to support the Allied nations, women became as important to the war effort as the planes themselves. “Rosie the Riveter,” modeled, or so it is believed, after Rose Monroe from the Willow Run plant, became the symbol for women who were fighting for democracy by working in the war effort, doing anything needed. Rosie the Riveter’s from all fifteen plants riveted more than 12,600,000,000 rivets in the production of over 18,000 B-24 Liberator Bombers. The story of Willow Run, with production line problems corrected, and Consolidated’s achievements, illustrate the successful adaptation of America’s industrial capabilities from consumer production to war production. Additionally, the story of both plants show the vital role women played in the labor force.
The Liberty Ship – The Workhorse of the War
Another major success story of the American people making amazing contributions to the war effort was in the manufacturing of the Liberty ship, which began in 1940. The Liberty ship was responsible for getting the needed armaments to the men fighting on all fronts. The Merchant vessels measured 440 feet long and were capable of carrying many necessary armaments–such as 2,840 jeeps, 440 tanks, 300 freight cars, 3.4 million servings of C-rations, or 230 million rounds of rifle ammunition–all critical to the Allied victory. This ship, because of its steam engines, was able to sail at 11 knots (12.6 mph) for upwards of 17,000 miles fully loaded. The cargo each ship carried was of the highest importance to the soldiers fighting on the front lines. David M. Kennedy, Professor of History at Stanford University, pointing out the importance of these ships to the Allied forces noted that “[t]hey carried guns to the Marines in the Pacific, planes and medical supplies to the army in Europe, trucks to the Russians, food and tanks to the British. Some were pressed into service as hospital ships and freshwater distilling plants.” Without the Liberty ships and the necessary armaments they carried, the Allied forces would not have been victorious.
Just as there had been a need to manufacture thousands of B-24 Liberator bombers for the Army air force, Roosevelt believed there was an even greater need to build “twice as many ships as the German’s could sink” for the Navy. Nicknamed the “ugly duckling” by Roosevelt, the first Liberty ship took 355 days to produce. Within six months, production time reduced from 355 to 105 days, followed by a new record of one ship produced every forty-one days in 1943. This decrease in production time was due to innovative assembly line procedures from the Richmond, California shipyard, which became one of the three main production plants in the United States.
Henry Kaiser revolutionized the shipbuilding industry by following Henry Ford’s assembly line strategy for aircraft production at Willow Run. Kaiser also incorporated new prefabrication ideas he had learned in other projects such as the building of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. In addition to the Richmond location, he was in charge of three other shipyards in Portland, Vancouver, and San Pedro. Kaiser became something of a legend when his workers staged a publicity stunt to demonstrate the capabilities of the American men and women working in his plant. They built one Liberty ship, the Robert E. Peary, from hull to stern, completely ready to be loaded with necessary supplies and armaments in just four days, fifteen hours, and twenty-six minutes. This stunt encouraged other shipyards to speed up production, and the national average, led by Kaiser’s shipyard, decreased to an unprecedented production time of seventeen days per vessel. In total, American men and women built 2,708 Liberty ships between 1940 and 1945 for the war effort with 2,380 returning home after the war. These ships delivered to those fighting on the front lines an estimated 85% of all troops, supplies, and armaments that supplied the Allied forces in both the European and Pacific theaters.
When production of the Liberty ships first began, there were not as many positions for women at the shipyards as there were for men, but that would change with a newly developed technique. Wanting to reduce the weight of the final ship, Kaiser switched from the use of rivets to a process of welding the ships together. Welding had one other advantage for the Richmond shipyard; it became possible to build the ships in less time. The Richmond plant also pre-made certain parts of the ships, such as the bulkheads, hulls, and decks, using the technology Kaiser had learned when building the Hoover Dam. Workers later put the Liberty ships together like a puzzle. Although this technique was not without criticism from the naval architects, it continued at full steam ahead.
Kaiser shipyards hired workers believing that they did not have to meet any specific job qualifications, trusting that they could teach them what they needed to know. The need for labor opened up the industry to workers no matter where they came from or whether they were men, women, white, black, old or young. Kaiser just wanted the workers. With the new welding technology, “Rosies” began working at the shipyards welding Liberty ships and made up forty percent of Kaiser’s shipyard welders. Together the men and women working for Kaiser shipyards “built a third of the entire World War II U.S. merchant fleet” including more than 1300 Liberty ships, 107 warships, and 50 Kaiser-inspired aircraft carriers.
The Liberty ship, however, was not without its issues. The welding, for example, was not as strong as the rivets, and some of the ships actually broke in half when sailing in rough seas. This was the biggest complaint of the naval architects of the Liberty ships. Hank Rosen, a Merchant Marine on the Liberty ship John Drayton in 1942, has said that the Liberty ships “were not well built and some of them cracked open like an egg in the middle of the ocean,” with tragic results. In spite of this drawback, however, Liberty ships, like the B-24s, helped to ensure an Allied victory.
The Victory Gardens – A Nation Feeding Themselves and the Allied Forces
The war effort opened up employment for some 10.5 million people seeking work outside the home, but there was an aspect of the war effort that utilized the people on the home front–the Victory Garden. There were two reasons the Victory Garden proved crucial to the success of the Allied forces, and ultimately their ability to win the war. First, the government imposed on many items, reducing the amount of food citizens could purchase for their families. Second, food grown by the nation’s largest farms was necessary not only to feed the American people, but all of the American soldiers and the Allied nations’ fighting forces as well. As the Allied forces liberated countries from the Axis powers, America delivered food to help feed those in war torn areas. Of all the war effort opportunities for those at home, the Victory Garden was the most accepted and acted on. Americans were so behind the program that at its most victorious point there were almost twenty million known Victory Gardens producing food for canning and feeding the nation’s citizens.
While there had been voluntary rationing in WWI, it was mandatory in WWII. Rationing guarded against shortages, inflation, and the undemocratic allocation of goods. People wanting things they could not have could sour their outlook, especially if it was something important like food. Rationing ensured that all classes of people were able to have a little of everything. The first food items rationed were sugar, butter and other fats, coffee, canned goods, and red meat. According to Chuck Hanlen, an Emeritus Professor of History who was a boy during the war, local schools passed out rationing books and each member of the family received one.
Americans could also add to their rations by collecting stamps. People could receive stamps by turning in needed items used in the production of armaments, such as cooking fats. If you turned the fat in to the butcher, he would give you stamps. The stamps would go into the books, and the books meant food. Only a filled book had value; filled books enabled families to purchase additional food items when redeemed. Chickens were not rationed, only red meat. There were Meatless Tuesdays and Fridays to help decrease the amount of meat consumed. Americans also learned to eat the beef innards because they were not rationed either. To keep morale up, the Civilian Defense offered bingo games and the prizes were usually food. Most people stayed within the guidelines of rationing because they either had a loved one or knew someone who was fighting on the battlefield, and they wanted to do their part to ensure the soldiers had the food they needed to survive and win the war.
Although the American people tried to remain positive about rationing, at times, a need to overcome challenges arose, but those on the Home Front met every challenge for the war effort. One aspect of rationing was that there were fixed coupons, which were different from rationing coupons, stamps, and books that allowed people to buy set quantities of certain goods. Sugar, for example, in a time when most women did their own baking at home, was restricted to one pound per person per week. Monthly, every person received forty-eight ration points paid in blue stamps (canned and processed foods) and sixty-four ration points paid in red stamps (meats, fats, and cheese). The stamps did not add that much to a person’s food allotment. Forty-eight blue ration points might buy a person two cans of fruit and a can of soup–for the month! Victory gardens became so popular in the war effort because the amount of food available through rationing was not always enough.
As with anything, some rationing issues temporarily dimmed an otherwise bright spot in the war effort from home. Hoarding was the biggest of these issues. Americans had gone through the Great Depression not long before the war began, and a fear of going back to that hunger was powerful. There were others, however, who just did not feel as though they should be denied, but those Americans were very small in numbers considering the vast majority of Americans who diligently adhered to the program. If anyone discovered a hoarder, that person would have to pay with their ration stamps for the amount they had in excess. The practice of hoarding was viewed as an evil practice. Because the government had not provided an official definition of hoarding, no one knew if he/she were guilty or not. There would be messages sent concerning hoarding in publications, such as Consumer Problems in Wartime, where women were informed that having a stocked pantry at one time was the sign of a well-managed home, but that in times of war, it was “ugly.” There was also the issue of black markets. Anything imaginable was available on the black market if a person was willing to pay enough for it. Even though hoarding and black markets were issues during the war, most people did not engage in those activities, but instead acted within the rationing guidelines for the war effort.
The sacrifices at home made an impact on the American soldiers, the other Allied forces, and the countries that had been devastated by the war. Food was available for those who were starving in places ravaged by Hitler’s attacks. Every meal consumed by a soldier, or any Allied soldier, fighting in the war contained a generous portion of meat. Each soldier was given an allotment of roughly a pound of meat per day, which equaled 365 pounds per year, as opposed to those at home who were allotted 146 pounds per year. A meal given to a soldier totaled about 4,300 calories. Soldiers on the battlefield looked forward most to the small piece of Hershey’s chocolate that was included in their rations. When food was able to get to the soldiers on the front lines, there was more than enough to eat. The war effort as it related to food was successful and demonstrated the true commitment of the Home Front to ensure that the soldiers “were taken care of and fed well in the war effort.”
The Victory Gardens also illustrate the commitment of Americans at home. Nearly every vacant lot, backyard, and even window box had Victory Gardens filled with vegetable plants. To say the Victory Gardens were a success would be an understatement. The twenty million people who had a garden produced enough vegetables to provide in excess of 40% of the total quantity of vegetables Americans consumed. Fresh vegetables were canned either at home by the homemaker or in the canning centers within their communities. There was an estimated 4.1 billion jars of food preserved by the American Home Front. The success of the Victory gardens is easily measured by the fact that more than three-fifths of the people at home worked together to produced 1.6 billion pounds of food for the war effort.
The impact on World War II by the American Home Front can be measured when one looks at the total output of armaments produced by those who fought the war from home. After a slow start and by the end of the war, Americans had worked to produce 299,293 aircraft, compared to 111,767 produced by the German and 69,910 Japanese aircraft. Between 1934 and 1945, Britain contributed only 123,819 aircraft to the Allied effort. Americans also ensured victory by producing 40 billion bullets, 11,000 chain saws, 634,569 jeeps, 5,777 merchant ships, 1,556 naval vessels, 6.5 million rifles, 88,470 tanks, and 2,383,311 trucks.
The B-24 Liberator bombers, the Liberty ships, and the Victory Gardens are only three examples of the ways in which the American people worked together as a united Home Front during World War II. For without the B-24 Liberator Bombers patrolling the skies over the oceans, which enabled the Liberty ships to deliver the needed supplies to the battlefront, the outcome of the war would have been different. Fred Losch, a World War II Black Sheep Squadron pilot, recently asked if he agreed that the Home Front had contributed to the victory of WWII, replied, “Yes, they won the war.” When the interviewer asked if he meant that the Home Front helped to win the war, he replied, “No, they won the war!”
1. Franklin Roosevelt, December 29, 1940, FDR’s Fireside Chats, ed. Russell D. Buhite
and David W. Levy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 173.
2. Consolidated Aircraft History,
3. Second Generation Research, The B-24 Liberator, http://www.b24.net/aircraft.html.
4. Ibid., 459.
5. Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of
Progress 1903-2003 (New York: Viking, 2003), 458.
6. Second Generation Research, The B-24 Liberator.
7. Lucinda Eddy, “War Comes to San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, Winter-Spring
1993, Vol. 39, Numbers 1-2, http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/93spring/warcomes.htm.
8. Second Generation Research, The B-24 Liberator.
10. Brinkley, Wheels for the World, 470.
11. Eddy, “War Comes to San Diego.” Journal of San Diego History.
12. Brinkley, Wheels for the World, 458.
13. Ibid., 464.
14. Ibid., 466.
15. Ibid., 466-468. Summary.
16. David M. Kennedy, The American People in World War II: Freedom From Fear: Part
II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), Pg.228.
17. Brinkley, Wheels for the World, 460.
18. Ibid., 459 and 464.
19. Eddy, “War Comes to San Diego.”
20. Constance Bowman Reid, Slacks and Calluses: Our Summer in a Bomber Factory
(Washington: Smithsonian Books, 1999), Pg.1.
21. Second Generation Research, The B-24 Liberator. and Eddy, “War Comes to San
22. Brinkley, Wheels for the World, 465.
23. Ibid., 482-483. Summary.
24. Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 225.
25. World War II (Chicago: Time Life Books, 1980), 192.
26. Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 228.
27. Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time- Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home
Front in World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1994), Pg.318 and 319. This and all subsequent information in paragraph.
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1950,” The Business History Review, Vol. 59, No. 1. (Spring, 1985), pp. 1-23, http://www.jstor.org.
30. U.S. Maritime Commission, Annual Report, 1949 (Washington, D.C.: Government
Printing Office, 1950), 75-76. As cited by John G.B. Hutchins, “United States Merchant Marine Policy and Surplus Ships,” The Journal of Political Economy 59, no. 2 (April 1951): 117-118, http://www.jstore.org.
31. American Victory: American Victory Mariners Memorial & Museum Ship, The History
of the SS American Victory, http://www.americanvictory.org/History/history.htm.
32. Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, 318.
33. Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 226.
35. Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, 318.
36. Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 226-227.
37. Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, Pg.318.
38. Robert C. Post “Henry Kaiser, Troy Ruttman, and Madman Muntz: Three Originals,”
Technology and Culture, Vol. 46, No. 4. (Oct., 2005), 773. http://www.jstore.org.
39. Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 228.
40. Hank Rosen, Speaker: WWII Generation: European Theater Panel, Palomar College,
(October 18, 2006).
41. Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 219.
42. Amy Bentley, Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity
(Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 72.
43. Ibid., 251.
45. Ibid., 15.
46. Richard Lingeman, Don’t They Know There’s A War On?: The American Home Front
1941-1945, 2nd ed. (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books), 2003. 246 and 254.
47. Chuck Hanlen, Speaker: WWII Generation: The Home Front Panel, Palomar College
(November 8, 2006). Summary of his memories concerning rationing during the war. Dr. Mei-ling Yang, “Creating the Kitchen Patriot: Media Promotion of Food Rationing and Nutrition Campaigns on the American Home Front During World War II,” American Journalism, Vol. 22, No. 3, (Summer, 2005), 59. http://www.jstor.org.
48. Office of War Information, The Information Guide (Washington D.C.: Government
Printing Office, 1943), 43, as cited by Yang, “Creating the Kitchen Patriot,” 58.
50. Lingeman, Don’t They Know There’s A War On? 245.
51. Ibid., 247.
52. Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, 356.
53. Lingeman, Don’t They Know There’s A War On? 247.
54. Veteran’s of WWII, WWII Generation: The Pacific Theater Panel, Palomar College
(September 20, 2006). This was a unanimous consensus of those on the panel. They even said that if they were sick and could not eat in the field, they saved the chocolate for the next day when they felt better.
55. Bentley, Eating for Victory, 114.
57. Frederick C. Lane, Ships for Victory: A History of Ship[building under the U.S.
Maritime Commission in World War II (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1951), 4; F.G. Fassett Jr., The Shipbuilding Business in the United States of America (New York: Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1948), 120; as cited by Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 230-231. Numbers/statistics were taken from this text.
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