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CHIPS Articles: During WWII Industries Transitioned From Peacetime to Wartime Production

During WWII Industries Transitioned From Peacetime to Wartime Production
In times of crisis Americans respond with valor, honor and self-sacrifice
By David Vergun, Defense.gov - April 3, 2020
Prior to World War II, factories in the United States were turning out automobiles, large and small appliances, and childrens' toys.

In January 1942 — a mere month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the establishment of the War Production Board.

Its purpose was to convert the factories of peacetime industries into manufacturing plants for weapons and military equipment for the fight. The second goal was to conserve materials like metal, which soldiers, sailors and Marines would need for the fight in such things as guns, ordnance, tanks, ships, aircraft, tactical vehicles and so on.

Other items considered essential for war included petroleum products, rubber, paper and plastic. That meant strict rationing for civilians, such as limiting vehicle usage and the purchase of luxury items.

The War Production Board lasted until just after the end of World War II in October 1945.

Besides turning industries around to wartime production, U.S. industries also supplied much of the military equipment needed by the Allies, including the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

To illustrate the magnitude of the transition to wartime production, there were about 3 million automobiles manufactured in the U.S. in 1941. During the entire war, only 139 additional cars rolled off the assembly lines.

Instead, automakers built guns, trucks, tanks and aircraft engines.

Shipyards turned out entire fleets of aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers, submarines and other vessels.

Some other examples are:

  • The Lionel toy train company started producing items for warships, including compasses.
  • Ford Motor Company produced B-24 Liberator bombers.
  • Alcoa, the aluminum company, produced airplanes.
  • The Mattatuck Manufacturing Company, which had made upholstery nails, switched to making cartridge clips for Springfield rifles.

By the end of World War II, half of the world's wartime industrial production was in the United States. Of course, it helped that U.S. factories were not bombed like those in the U.K. and the Soviet Union.

All of this labor stimulated the economy, which had been in a depression, with up to 25% unemployment at one point.

In 1950, the Defense Production Act was created in response to the outbreak of the Korean War. The act is similar to the War Production Board in that it allows the president to allocate materials for national security.

Mobilizing for the Fight!

World War II upended daily life for people across the world for several years. In the U.S., the war toppled social norms about the traditional roles of men and women in society.

To free men to fight, women on the homefront took jobs previously dominated by men, such as welders, mechanics and aircraft assembly workers. In the face of acute wartime labor shortages, women were needed in the defense industries, the civilian service, and even the Armed Forces.

Despite the continuing 20th century trend of women entering the workforce, government campaigns aimed at those women who had never before held jobs. Poster and film images glorified and glamorized the roles of working women and suggested that a woman's femininity need not be sacrificed in taking non-traditional feminine roles. Whether fulfilling their duty in the home, factory, office, or military, women were portrayed as attractive, confident, and resolved to do their part to win the war, and they proved heroic in their efforts.

Hardships included gas and food rationing for items such as meat, sugar, dairy products and coffee. The government reminded people that shortages of these products occurred because they were going to the troops, and that civilians should take part in conservation and salvage campaigns.

To guard against complacency, the government reminded civilian America of the suffering and sacrifices that were being made by its Armed Forces overseas.

There is a lighter side to the war picture, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, particularly among Americans, who are characteristically irrepressibly cheerful and optimistic.

At the same time, Americans knew war means death. It means suffering and sorrow. Still, Americans demonstrated their resiliency and hope for the future in big and small ways — donating blood, buying war bonds, volunteering with the Red Cross, opening their homes to wounded troops and planting “Victory Gardens.”

— CHIPS Magazine

A stamp on a South Bend 9A lathe, manufactured in 1942, states: “This machine conforms to orders of the War Production Board.” The lathe was built because it could be used to shape materials needed for warfare. It could also be used to train apprentices for war-related factory work.
A stamp on a South Bend 9A lathe, manufactured in 1942, states: “This machine conforms to orders of the War Production Board.” The lathe was built because it could be used to shape materials needed for warfare. It could also be used to train apprentices for war-related factory work.

A War Production Board poster encourages Americans to contribute items made with tin to be recycled for use in the war effort. War Department photo
A War Production Board poster encourages Americans to contribute items made with tin to be recycled for use in the war effort. War Department photo

A South Bend 9A lathe, manufactured in 1942, is still in use. The lathe was built because it could be used to turn materials needed for warfare. It could also be used to train apprentices for war-related factory work. DoD photo by David Vergun
A South Bend 9A lathe, manufactured in 1942, is still in use. The lathe was built because it could be used to turn materials needed for warfare. It could also be used to train apprentices for war-related factory work. DoD photo by David Vergun

War Production Board poster encourages Americans to produce more planes and other items for the war effort. War Department photo
War Production Board poster encourages Americans to produce more planes and other items for the war effort. War Department photo
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