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Alabama and World War II

World War II had a profound impact on America, perhaps shaping society even more than the Civil War. With the hindsight of half a century, we see that the war served as an incubator for the modern civil rights and women's movements. These liberating developments also produced racial and social tensions of their own that played out in the political life of the state in later decades. On the other hand, the wave of patriotism that swept across the country repaired much of the sectional division that had ripped the country apart in the Civil War. World War II, aided by the automobile and the railroad, produced a more mobile society with millions of Americans moving to get new, better paying jobs. Although the largest and best-known populations shifts were to the industrial heartland of the north and to the new aviation and shipbuilding industries in the west, several Alabama towns and cities—including Mobile, Huntsville, and Childersburg—were overwhelmed with job seekers looking for jobs in defense industries.. Additionally, tens of thousands of young men and some women from all parts of the country and from all walks of life poured into the state to receive military training in new or expanded bases—including Camp Rucker at Ozark, Craig Field in Selma, Gunter Field in Montgomery and the Tuskegee Army Air Field. When the war ended, many people from different states settled in Alabama. Wartime romances blossomed into marriages, producing record numbers of households and children. These factors contributed to the creation of a more diverse population in Alabama.

Even before Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Alabama felt the effects of wartime preparations. In Asia, Japan had invaded China in 1937. Two years later, World War II erupted in Europe when the German army overran Poland. By mid-1940 Great Britain was the only great power still fighting against the Axis powers, but there was considerable doubt how long the brave British could hold out without American help. President Franklin Roosevelt and a handful of military and political leaders were prodding Congress to build up America's military and economic preparedness for possible war against the Axis nations (Germany, Italy, and Japan). A vastly expanded Army and Navy needed planes, tanks, ships, bombs, ammunition and military bases.

New or expanded defense plants and military bases came to Alabama because land was relatively cheap and the climate was temperate. Moreover, Alabama's wartime congressional delegation—probably the best in the state's history—was nationally powerful and extremely energetic in securing defense contracts. Existing military bases including Maxwell Field in Montgomery and Fort McClellan in Anniston were enlarged. Also in Anniston during the war, an ordnance depot opened. The Army built Camp Rucker in the Ozark/Enterprise area to train infantrymen and Camp Sibert near Gadsden to prepare troops to conduct and defend against chemical warfare. New Army airfields were built at Selma (Craig Field), Tuskegee (Tuskegee Army Air Field), Dothan (Napier Field) and Montgomery (Gunter Field) to train American and Allied pilots and navigators. Brookley Field near Mobile became the major Army Air Force supply base for the southeast and the Caribbean. Brookley Field which was also a modification and repair center for military aircraft, employed 17,000 civilians, about half of whom were women and many of whom performed skilled work with delicate instruments and machinery. The Bechtel-McCone plant at the Birmingham airport was another major aircraft modification facility.

Steel mills in the Birmingham area received millions of dollars in contracts for defense related products such as bombs, helmets, and steel for shipbuilding. Alabama also played a critically important role in the production of aluminum which, because it is both strong and light, was the ideal material for military aircraft. Alcoa Aluminum had a plant at Mobile and Reynolds Metals had a facility in the Tennessee Valley. Alabama's textile mills spun and wove furiously to produce fabric for uniforms, and its timber industry boomed as a result of wartime demand for construction and paper products.

Alabama emerged as a major producer of munitions during World War II. More than 20,000 workers flooded into the Coosa River valley to build and operate two munitions plants. The Alabama Ordnance Plant at Childersburg made smokeless gunpowder and TNT, and in nearby Talladega another powder plant produced explosives for warships. Two munitions plants were built in Huntsville on the eve of America's entry into World War II. The Huntsville Arsenal and the Redstone Arsenal (which later played a major role in the nation's space program) not only produced conventional bombs, but also incendiary bombs (including napalm) and chemical weapons including mustard gas. Fortunately, chemical weapons were never used by or against American troops in World War II.

Alabama played a crucial role in the war at sea. Mobile was home port for two important ship lines. Freighters operated by Waterman Steamship Company transported valuable wartime cargoes throughout the world. Alcoa Aluminum Company operated its own fleet of ships to transport bauxite (the ore from which aluminum is made) from South America to the company's refinery on the State Docks. Waterman lost 27 ships and 313 seamen's lives during World War II; Alcoa lost 8 of its own ships and 67 sailors as well as 13 chartered bauxite carriers.

Mobile's two shipyards won contracts to build desperately needed merchant vessels and warships. Alabama Drydocks and Shipbuilding (ADDSCO) built freighters and tankers. Gulf Shipbuilding, a subsidiary of Waterman Shipping, constructed destroyers and minesweepers.

More than any other Alabama city, Mobile boomed as a result of wartime production. At the height of the war, the two shipyards and Brookley Field employed nearly 60,000 people. Only cities such as San Diego, California, and Norfolk, Virginia, experienced comparable population explosions and accompanying strains on housing, education, and public utilities.

The war brought unique employment opportunities and dramatically improved economic conditions to women and African Americans who were hired into jobs formerly available only to white men. Women held between one-fourth and one-half of all defense-related jobs. Women who had once worked as teachers with starting salaries beginning at $800 annually found jobs as assembly line workers in the Huntsville Arsenal at $1,400 a year or as welders in the Mobile shipyards at $3,600 a year. Many Alabama women also joined one of the auxiliary military forces (WACs, WAVES, and WASPs) or served as military nurses. Responsible wartime jobs—paying good wages and providing previously unknown personal independence—convinced many women that they would try to find jobs in the peacetime economy rather than return to a lifetime of domestic work. This development encouraged the emergence of a women's movement for gender equality in future years.

The war also prompted the growth of a civil rights movement. Many African Americans regarded World War II as a struggle against racism abroad and at home. Having proved their patriotism in the fight against aggression and totalitarianism, African Americans—especially the veterans—were never again going to submit willingly to racism and a segregated society at home.

The stimulus which the war gave to the Civil Rights Movement, however, produced a backlash among some whites who resented the contributions and achievements of African Americans and who were determined to prevent blacks from obtaining equality of opportunity. In many ways, the racial politics that dominated Alabama politics in the 1960s and 1970s—culminating in defiant stances against federal court orders to integrate schools and public facilities—were born in World War II.

Alabamians contributed to the war effort in many ways. The country's first civilian-run servicemen's club (USO club) opened its doors in Montgomery. Many people volunteered for Red Cross projects to make bandages, to conduct blood drives, and to operate travelers' aid booths at railroad stations and bus stations to help servicemen and war workers. Few states could match the record of Alabama in purchasing war bonds to finance the war. Women's clubs, schools, and Boy Scout troops sponsored scrap drives to collect aluminum pots and pans, tin (even tinfoil from chewing gum wrappers), and old rubber tires, all of which were recycled for the war effort.

Alabamians put up with wartime rationing as cheerfully as possible. Rationed items included sugar, coffee, meats, shoes, automobile tires and gasoline. Only doctors and people who worked in vital defense jobs got more than about 3 gallons of gas a week for their cars. Women had to adjust to shortages of silk stockings (the silk was used to make parachutes) and girdles (the rubber was needed for jeep tires)! Many families had "victory gardens." Even fashion styles changed. To save cloth, skirts became shorter, pants were made without cuffs, jacket lapels became narrower, and bathing suits became skimpier.

For most Alabamians, the war was something going on "over there"—in Africa, Europe or the Pacific. But in the summer of 1943, the war came to Alabama, when thousands of mostly German prisoners of war (POWs) arrived in the state. There were four main POW camps (Aliceville, Opelika, Camp Rucker and Fort McClellan), and dozens of "side-camps" in small towns. Unless an officer, the POWs had to work. Many Alabamians saw the enemy face-to-face for the first time—chopping cotton, harvesting peanuts, or felling trees. Sometimes friendships between POWs and farmers or townspeople developed, and some of these POWs returned to the United States to live after the war.

Although few Alabamians knew it at the time, combat was being waged just offshore. Beginning in the spring of 1942, about two dozen German U-boats (submarines) came into the Gulf of Mexico. In May and June, the sea lanes from Florida to Texas were the most dangerous place in the world for shipping. German U-boats sank about fifty freighters and tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. Coastal residents sometimes heard great explosions and saw the glow of ships burning over the horizon.

On the war fronts, many Alabamians distinguished themselves. Thirteen recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor had connections with the state, with two of them achieving firsts in regard to the medal: Charles "Gordo" Davis of Gordo, a hero at Guadalcanal in the Pacific, became the first soldier ever to receive it on the battlefield, and Howard Gilmore of Selma became the war's first submarine commander to be awarded the distinguished medal. David McCampbell of Bessemer, a Navy pilot, downed more Japanese planes in the Pacific than any other flyer.

Numerous other individuals made significant contributions to the war. General John Persons, a Birmingham banker, was one of only two National Guard generals to lead troops into combat in the war. Marine General Holland "Howlin' Mad" Smith developed the tactics of amphibious warfare (landing on beaches) which was essential to winning the war in North Africa, Italy, Europe, and the Pacific. Eugene Sledge, a Marine private from Mobile, later wrote an account of two of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific, a memoir which is now regarded as probably the finest personal account of combat in World War II. Nancy Batson was one of the leading Women's Air Service Pilots (WASPs) who ferried military aircraft around the country. Benjamin O. Davis, Charles Dryden, and Gene Carter—each of whom trained at Tuskegee—proved that African Americans could fly military aircraft as well as anyone.

One in ten Alabamians—more than 300,000—saw military service in World War II. Most were never recognized as heroes—except perhaps by their comrades or families. These men and women simply did their duty as best they could. More than 4,000 of them sacrificed their lives defending democracy.

World War II set in motion several movements which continue to shape American society, especially the struggles for gender and racial equality. The war produced unparalleled prosperity for Alabama and, in the postwar period, veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights to gain college educations, to buy their own homes, and to shop from a dazzling array of new consumer products such as televisions and dishwashers. Never before had American society been so confident of the future.