Invasion Bonds and Bullets

Home Front Production and Women in World War II

By Erin Klitzke

            “The last war was a soldier’s war.  This one is everybody’s.”[1]  This quote refers to first World War I, a.k.a. ‘The Great War,’ and World War II, which officially started in Europe and Asia during 1939 and lasted into 1945, when Berlin fell and the United States dropped two atomic bombs, ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.  The United States entered World War II in December of 1941, after the bombing of the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, “The day that will live in infamy” to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The war was hard on the millions of soldiers who fought and the equal if not greater number of civilians that endured it.  US soldiers alone accounted for 182,701 deaths and 638,176 injured both in combat and en route to combat zones.[2]  Although there was never fighting in North America proper, the war did touch the people of the nation and its industry in many different ways.

            When war broke out in Europe, American industry and production went into full swing in order to provide for the people overseas and later their own soldiers.  In order to coordinate the work of multiple industries who saw fit to join in the war effort, to make sure that the people overseas and at home got enough of what they needed, and to ensure national security and the safety of the citizens of the US;  The federal government created several new agencies.  Among such new government offices were the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply Management (OPA), National Labor Board, Office of Production Management, War Production Board, War Shipping Administration, and Smaller War Plants Corporation; among many other bureaus.[3]  Also, when the war hit, many people, who had been struck with hard times because of the Great Depression, were able to find work.  While many rallied to the federal government’s call for able-bodied soldiers; others went to work in factories, shipyards, lumber mills, print shops, industrial laboratories, steel mills, and foundries.[4]  The actions of the public, however, were induced by the government through propaganda efforts on their part.  People were reluctant to support the war effort in Europe when America was not yet fighting in the period between 1939 and 1941.  Then, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese and the United States was suddenly thrust into war, and the transition to war production began in earnest.  In February 1942, the automobile industry began to make bombers and other aircraft.  In fact, Ford built a brand new factory, Willow Run near Ann Arbor in Michigan, to produce B24 Liberator bombers on an assembly line;  The factory covered a total of 975 acres and employed 42,000 people. Although it seems that much of the work that many industries did during the war was simply charity, it certainly was not, because of the cost-plus system the government created and the dollar-a-year men they employed.  The war also brought about new markets, and these markets made many companies very wealthy, as is the case with Coca-Cola, who promised that they would “…see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents wherever he is and whatever it costs the company.”  By the war’s end, the company had made over $10,000,000,000 just in sales to American GIs. The US workforce included people from all sexes, races, and backgrounds:  men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, immigrants, businessmen, farmers, factory workers, soldiers, journalists, and the like.  The sudden surge of job openings that came with the draft and the war also boosted union membership, up 4.3 million in four years (1941-1945).  Strikes were minimal until 1942 when the memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor that had kept them all together faded and conditions became unsatisfactory in the eyes of the workers.[5]  Even so, production was at an all-time high.  For D-Day, which was the Normandy invasion of 1941 (a.k.a. Operation OVERLORD), companies around the nation put out 88,410 medium and light tanks, 6,552,290 rifles, 15,603,0000 shaving brushes, 4,490,000 bayonets, 519,122,000 pairs of socks (that’s 1,038,244,000 socks!), 634, 569 jeeps, 237,371,000 cans of bug spray, and farms and ranches put out tons and tons of food for the soldiers.  Fifteen million cans of Spam a week fed people in Britain and Russia.  Says Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev of Spam:  “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.”  Margaret Thatcher of Britain “feasted” Spam as a child during the Blitz.[6]  US industry rose to the occasion of the war and supplied their soldiers and the downtrodden European and Asian victims of the Axis regime with food and much needed commodities.

            As with industry, American women rose to the challenge of meeting the quotas sent by the federal government; taking jobs in fields of all kinds.  Women took jobs in order to replace the men who were fighting abroad, to support their families, and to help the nation survive this new war that was being fought on a half-dozen fronts.  Women replaced men in factories, shipyards, lumber mills, foundries, print shops, news rooms, laboratories, government positions, civil works programs, clerical workplaces, telephone companies, even the baseball field.[7]  The All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBA) was created when most of the major and minor league male baseball players were drafted or volunteered for combat.  It existed for several years, and later a special exhibit was created for it at the Baseball Hall of Fame.[8]  Women were reporters, riveters, seamstresses and everything in between.  More than 6 million women went to work in World War II, two million of who were clerical workers, many more as physicists, chemists, engineers, streetcar and bus operators, electricians, welders, mechanics, and boilermakers, in addition to filling other positions.[9]  Although confronted with the contempt and prejudice of a male-centered society, women entered the workforce and carried American industry through the war years.

            Women also entered the armed forces during World War II.  The American Ambassador to London in those years, John G. Winant, remarked “This war, more than any other in history, is a woman’s war.”[10]  This pronunciation was true.  Female nurses, entertainers, radio operators, aviators, control tower operators, and others served and died for their country during World War II.  Although many never saw true combat, some did die in action.  Entertainers like Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland used Hollywood to do their part, amusing the troops in public and on the screen.[11]  One hundred twenty-seven female war correspondents went with the troops to report on what was going on overseas.  Many were wounded in the fighting which they were never supposed to see, some killed.  Women joined the service to serve their nation and did it through their blood, their sweat, their strength, and their courage, proving that women are useful on the lines, and not just for cheap entertainment.

            In North America, where the fighting never happened but still hit hard, the nation, its people and industry worked to bring victory to the Allies.  Industry, with government prodding, set to the enormous task of serving our soldiers and saving the people of Europe from terrible death from exposure or starvation.  Women rose to the challenge of redefining their niches in society and took jobs to save the world.  Women also went to arms, serving alongside their male counterparts in non-combat positions.  It is very unfortunate that women were forced back to the kitchens after the war, but things over the next few decades changed and now women are back in the workplace, where they truly belong.  World War II redefined war and society, and some of the refinements were definitely for the better.


Cayton, Andrew, et. Al., America Pathways to the Present  Needham, Massachusetts:

Prentice Hall 1998

Coleman, Penny  Rosie the Riveter Women Working on the Home Front in World War II

New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1995

Dear, I.C.B. and M.R.D. Foot, eds.  The Oxford Companion to World War II  Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995

A League of Their Own  dir. Penny Marshall.  With Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz, David Strathairn, Gary Marshall, and Bill Pullman.  Columbia Pictures, 1992

Ross, Lillian  “The Home Front”  The New Yorker 26 February 1996: 174

 Sidney, Hugh  “The Home Front (D-Day)”  Time 13 June 1994: 48-49

[1] Dear & Foot, p. 1275

[2] Dear & Foot, 1194

[3] Dear & Foot, 1187

[4] Colman, multiple pages

[5] America Pathways to the Present, multiple pages

[6] Time magazine, 6/13/94

[7] Colman, multiple pages & A League of Their Own (film) 1992

[8] A League of Their Own (film) 1992

[9] Colman, multiple pages

[10] Dear & Foot p. 1275

[11] Dear & Foot multiple pages