On the home front

Marines at Great Lakes. 
As the afternoon of December 7, 1941, wore on, the news coming over radios across America caused a divided nation to come together like never before. When the sun came up that morning Illinois, like the rest of the country, was split over the question of whether to become involved in the war that was consuming much of the globe, from small islands in the South Pacific to the streets of London. By sundown, the reports from Pearl Harbor had made it clear what the answer would be.

Public opinion in Illinois had been just as divided as the rest of the country. The state’s leading newspaper had been strongly isolationist, so much so that a competing newspaper had started publishing just days earlier to offer an interventionist view.

But those days were over now.

On Monday morning, December 8, the Chicago Tribune had published a front-page editorial entitled, “We All Have Only One Task” which enthusiastically reversed the paper’s previous stand and called for all out support of the war effort.

“All that matters today is that we are in the war and the nation must face that simple fact. All of us, from this day forth, have only one task. That is to strike with all our might to protect and preserve the American freedom that we all hold dear.”

That editorial might have been read while waiting in line at Army-Navy enlistment offices throughout the state that morning, as thousands of Illinoisans joined the millions of Americans who would enlist in the armed forces in response to the Pearl Harbor attack. By the time the war was over just shy of one million Illinoisans would serve in uniform.

Illinoisans on the home front would bear the same sacrifices as many Americans: rationing, travel restrictions and the agonizing wait for a letter from a loved one overseas. For many, a messenger would bring a telegram with tragic news: 22,000 Illinoisans gave their lives in the largest war in history.

The Illinois National Guard was already deployed out of state when Pearl Harbor was attacked. As war clouds gathered earlier that year, the Guard’s 33rd Infantry Division had been called into federal service and sent to a training post in Tennessee to prepare for war. They would fight their way across the Pacific to the Philippines before war’s end.

To replace the National Guard personnel in their in-state mission, outgoing Governor John Stelle and the newly inaugurated Governor Dwight Green had organized a reserve militia and an Illinois War Council along the lines of the state council of defense which Governor Frank Lowden had commissioned in the previous war in 1917. The militia would guard sites like bridges and war production facilities and otherwise assume the typical peacetime duties of the National Guard, while the War Council was charged with preparing the state’s resources for wartime conditions.

With the enactment of the military draft in 1940, Illinois communities began establishing local draft boards to determine who could be called into the service and who would stay home, due to factors such as physical conditions, dependents, or employment in a vital war industry. By the time of Pearl Harbor there were 361 of these draft boards in cities and towns across the state.

Illinois enlistees likely first went to a facility near Chicago: many of those going into the Navy would be inducted at Great Lakes training station in Lake County, while Army recruits headed for Fort Sheridan just north of Chicago. Rockford’s Camp Grant, built to train soldiers for World War I, was soon reactivated and began receiving the first of the 300,000 recruits who would pass through its gates.

Facilities throughout the state were turned over to military authorities for use in training. The Illinois State Fair was cancelled in each of the four summers of America’s involvement in World War II as the state fairgrounds became a training post for American and more than 1000 allied Chinese troops.

Chanute Field near Champaign was expanded and turned into a training site for pilots and air crews, including the mechanics and support personnel who would keep the Tuskegee Airmen flying. Scott Field, now Scott Air Force Base, outside Belleville was the Army Air Corps’ communications school, while George Field near Lawrenceville hosted an advanced flying school. Naval aviators practiced at Glenview on the lakeshore north of Chicago, while other sailors trained at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Luxury hotels in Chicago, including the 3000-room Stevens Hotel near Grant Park, became improvised barracks due to the shortage of building materials. Grant Park itself would be the site of Army drills.

Illinoisans were named to top posts in the nation’s war effort. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a Sears Roebuck executive from Chicago, Donald M. Nelson, to chair his War Production Board, and another Chicagoan, Harold Ickes, to be administrator of the nation’s petroleum resources. His Secretary of the Navy was Frank Knox, the former publisher of the Chicago Daily News.

Not since the War of 1812 had there been a serious threat of a foreign enemy striking cities and towns in the continental United States. But with the expanding range of aerial bombers, and with the German and Japanese forces seeming to creep ever closer to American shores, the possibility of an air raid on an American city or a war production plant did not seem unreasonable. Precautions had to be taken.

The Civil Protection Division of the War Council “endeavored to have every community in the state adequately prepared and fully trained to function efficiently under emergency conditions,” wrote Stanley Erikson, the council’s historian, in 1943.

Instructor points out antenna details,
Scott Field. 
As part of this effort, the council had trained more than 127,000 volunteers to be members of the Citizen Defense Corps in Illinois. Along with the American Legion, the council conducted a training program for air raid wardens in Jacksonville in June 1942. A statewide air-raid warning system was put in place, and plans were made for quickly blacking out cities at night to avoid helping enemy bombers use city lights as navigational aids. The first statewide blackout exercise was held on July 30, 1943.

Plans were made and personnel were trained in evacuation techniques, should it ever become necessary to evacuate a city while under attack. Reception centers were designated in outlying communities and registration and care services were contemplated. The council also organized its personnel into facilities security and plant protection forces “to safeguard plants and utilities against acts of sabotage and omission which would disrupt their operation.”

Sabotage was no idle threat. Twice in the early months of the war German agents were landed by submarine on U.S. shores, once in New York and once in Florida. Illinois would have been a lucrative target for enemy saboteurs. Engines for B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers were manufactured at a former Dodge plant on the southwest side of Chicago. A former Buick plant in Melrose Park also made airplane engines. Cargo planes were built at the brand new Douglas facility at Orchard Fieldnorthwest of Chicago. The airstrip built by the company would find productive use after the war. Production surged at Caterpillar’s Peoria facility as bulldozers were in great demand for construction of airfields and military bases all over the globe.

Amphibious landing craft for the Navy were built on the Illinois River at Seneca and radar was developed at a former Western Electric plant in Cicero. Just as in plants all over the country, thousands of real-life Rosie the Riveters made their way to plants in Illinois as large numbers of women entered the workforce or joined the Women’s Army Corps. Employment for women in Illinois went up by 50% during the war.

Just west of Marion, in the present-day Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, ammunition was manufactured for the armed forces. In all, 165 bunkers were built in the rural area between Marion and Carbondale to store different kinds of munitions. Similar facilities were built near Dixon in northwestern Illinois and Illiopolis near Springfield, as well as other locations. Around two-thirds of the employees at Illiopolis were classified as “Women Ordnance Workers,” or WOW for short. A 40,000 acre ordinance plant was built near Wilmington. By 1945 Illinois was the nation’s leader in the production of ammunition for the war effort.

Illinois also played a crucial role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Though no enemy airplanes appeared in the skies over Illinois, the civil defense organization still proved valuable when flooding hit large areas of downstate Illinois in the spring of 1943. With the National Guard deployed overseas the Citizens Defense Corps deployed in 42 counties and “rendered most useful service in protecting life and property,” along the Illinois River which was at record height.

Chicago schoolchildren buy $263,148.83 in war bonds. 
Wartime shortages hit Illinoisans hard. Shortages of consumer goods led to the closure of thousands of stores, gas rationing put service stations out of business and sidelined many Illinois cars throughout the war. Rationing affected everything from food and gasoline to typewriters and shoes. Tire theft became a significant crime during the years of rubber shortages.

Illinoisans responded by becoming as self-sufficient as possible. Homeowners plowed up their yards to grow their own vegetables in “victory gardens.” By 1943 there were 1,151,000 such gardens in the state. Illinoisans bought war bonds and applied their vocational skills to teaching others how to work jobs in war production plants, while children participated in scrap metal drives. One small central Illinois town, Kenney, was recognized by the War Department as being the first town in the nation in which every single resident was involved in the civilian war effort. Dozens more were recognized by the end of the year.

Scrap drives became a big project in Illinois during the war. In 1942 downstate Illinois collected over a million tons of scrap to be recycled for the war effort. In 1942-43, Illinoisans donated more than 100,000 pounds of silk and nylon for use in making parachutes. State employees donated 10% of their salaries to the Third War Loan Drive in 1943.

The state also did its part to support servicemembers and veterans. Governor Green was known to host receptions at the Executive Mansion in Springfield for military personnel passing through the capital city. Army hospitals were built in Galesburg and around Chicago, as well as VA facilities in Marion, Danville and other sites around Illinois. In Salem, former Governor Stelle got together with some friends at the local American Legion post and drafted the proposal that would become the GI Bill for returning veterans. The state even paid returning veterans a bonus for their service.

Illinois farms stepped up to do their part for the war effort as well. By 1945 Illinois led the nation in soybeans and was second in production of corn and hogs. At one point in the war McLean County was the top corn-producing county in the entire country, while Henry County was number one in the nation in producing hogs. The war had helped to lead the state’s farms out of the Great Depression.

Schools got into the act in a big way, participating in the Junior Citizens Service Corps and a program to have high school-aged students help out in farm fields to ease the labor shortage caused by the war. Younger students were part of the Schools at War Program in which they learned, “what democracy means, what we are fighting to protect and what peace after victory should be and mean.”

In the middle of 1945 that long-awaited peace and victory finally arrived as the armies of democracy prevailed over the Axis powers and World War II came to a successful conclusion, helped along by hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans on the home front.