The American Home Front, 1941 - 1942 (2019)
By the Fall of 1942, a fair metaphor for the level of attention and involvement of the US public towards the war was that the US was “ankle deep” so far. More and more citizens came to the conclusion that as close to full mobilization as possible for war was needed for the nation. The U-Boat attacks alone in the North Atlantic meant that the US would not reach the number of merchant ships in the fleet before Pearl until mid-1943 at the earliest. In effect, most Americans believed that the level of war production was at a very high level, but the truth was that, while improved from Spring 1942, production was just crawling along by August 1942.
Ford’s defense production actually declined during the Summer of 1942. The WPB knew that factories struggled to produce more since raw materials were still scarce (e.g. hoarding); overall production fell 14% in August 1942. The main problem was the lack of discipline on the part of military authorities and industry leaders to turn the necessary corner. It wasn’t until the Fall of 1942 that the Navy and the War Department decided on which type of weapons, and how many, US forces most urgently needed. Before that point, procurement officers ordered a smorgasbord of everything, and defense industries continued to hoard raw materials and skilled workers.
Severe shortages in skilled manpower in defense plants plagued war production; Congress refused to fund what it considered to be yet another unnecessary additional bureaucracy from FDR to try and solve the labor shortage. Deteriorating housing conditions and/or shortages tightened the labor supply further. Detroit needed 170k additional workers by mid-1942, but there was no place to house them.
The largest drain on the pool of skilled workers remained the draft, since the Draft Board, which had exhausted Classification 1-A, moved on to lower classifications, taking men with physical problems, such as being blind in an eye or missing a finger(s). The War Department announced that by the end of 1943, the military would need 7.5 million men, which meant that potentially a few million war workers would be drafted, which would mean that men with irreplaceable skills would be drafted. FDR was advised by some of his top men, such as Baruch and the Truman Committee, that the President needed to protect war industries by at least immediately abolishing volunteer enlistments. Overtime was rising as well as absenteeism, which reached 9% by November 1942, and as high as 18% in some shipyards. Overwork was part of the reason for the absenteeism, but so was looking for other jobs, nursing hangovers, or hunting for gas; Mondays and the day after payday were the most “absent” days.
The aircraft defense industry led the way in hiring women, since many of the jobs didn’t require a great deal of physical labor, and that many male workers had been drafted. Aircraft production supervisors noted that women workers required much less supervision, had fewer accidents, damaged fewer tools, and increased overall productivity . . . and they were less likely to be absent or quit compared to male workers. By the Summer of 1942, an airplane plant in Baltimore employed 5000 women workers and planned to hire thousands more.
On the other end of the spectrum, former automobile plants resisted hiring women as long as possible until no other real options existed. By February 1942, only 5000 women were employed in defense plants in the Detroit area, with Ford hiring less than 100. Shipyards were even less welcoming towards hiring women, with less than 1% of their workforce women by the Summer of 1942. The real concern for labor unions in shipyards was that women were a cheap replacement for unskilled jobs.
The government predicted that five million women would need to be hired in the next 12 months. The vast majority of women hired were for tedious unskilled jobs, and by November 1942 turnover for women workers became a concern. Government recruiting campaigns and higher wages helped, but women started skipping work like men, with married women doing so at a higher rate since in essence that had to do 2+ jobs.
Many rural towns delayed the start of school, thinking it patriotic, and as a result the rate of juvenile delinquency skyrocketed. The FBI stated that arrests of kids under the age of 21 increased by 17% during 1942, even though the overall population of that age group had dropped due to the draft. Enrollment in colleges and universities had dropped by 14% by the Fall of 1942, and America waited for the inevitable, when the government would start to draft 18 and 19 year olds, which was something the military had wanted to do since Pearl. Gallup conducted a poll in June 1942, and 52% were against drafting teens, with 42% in support. During that summer, Congress simply refused to deal with the military requests to lower the draft age, as did FDR, undoubtedly since the Congressional Elections of 1942 were on the horizon.
By Columbus Day 1942, FDR publicly admitted that it would be necessary to lower the draft age. Soon afterwards the House voted 345 - 16 to do so, but the bill became stalled in the Senate, which simply didn’t want to act before the midterms. The Senate delayed long enough where when it passed its version, the Conference Committee bill would be delayed until after the Congressional Elections of 1942.
On the heels of coffee rationing came meat rationing. The per capita consumption of red meat in America rose 10% in 1941 to 3 pounds per week. The rise in red meat consumption was largely due to the increased number of war workers. Millions of Americans were able to afford red meat since the grip of the Great Depression had been tremendously lessened. Although farmer/ranchers produced unprecedented amounts of red meat, increasing domestic demand combined with the demand from the military led to a sharp shortage.
Americans were stunned that there could be anything resembling a food shortage in the nation, and once again, the government had to go down the road of coercion in order to change behavior. Before long, consumers had to find substitutes for red meat (e.g. liver), and many restaurants in effect started to serve child portions for adults. On 2 December 1942, the government announced that meat rationing would go into effect in early-January 1943. The government reminded Americans that nationwide gas rationing would begin on 1 December 1942; those west of the Appalachian Mountains continued to ignore government pleas to drive less to conserve rubber and gas, with highly-paid war workers simply not caring about minimizing their driving.
The government gave the power to local authorities to take gas ration books from speeders. All car drivers had to have their tires inspected every four month to check for wear-and-tear; a motorist could only legally drive if he had an approved tire-check certificate. Car owners were limited to only one spare tire per vehicle. Nationwide opposition to gas rationing and tire restrictions grew as the 1 December 1942 deadline drew near, with some critics comparing FDR to Hitler in terms of crushing liberties. Leading figures in the FDR administration labeled the scofflaw behavior as “ignorant” or “intentionally traitorous”. Many war workers threatened to walk away from their jobs if nationwide gas rationing was enacted and enforced.
On 15 September 1942, the government announced that the rationing of heating oil would begin on 1 October 1942 in 30 states, including most of the East Coast and much of the Midwest, as far west as Nebraska and the Dakotas. Government officials hoped to be able to supply 75% of normal amounts of heating oil so Americans could keep their thermostats at 65 degrees; transportation problems with heating oil led the government to lower the target to 67%. And (of course) the government formula for allocating heating oil left Americans frustrated and confused, in that filling out government forms for heating oil was like completing a complicated tax return.
By late-September 1942, wood burning stoves had disappeared from US stores, and firewood suppliers were almost out, and there wasn’t enough manpower to cut down enough trees or to transport firewood. Coupon books for heating oil were not even scheduled to be issued by the government until late-November 1942, and further transportation problems with heating oil led the government to again lower the percentage allotted. Government officials told Americans that the nation had yet barely begun to feel the effects of the war at home. H.L. Mencken stated that at last the nation was in the process of figuring out that the war might actually affect them, and for quite some time.
Addendum: The Rest of 1942 . . .