World War II

World War II marks a watershed period for both the United States and for the history of Tennessee. As one of the victors and the sole possessor of the atomic bomb, America emerged as the modern world's superpower. But Tennessee played a primary role in the creation of the atomic age. Oak Ridge, which had grown out of the Manhattan Project, produced vital components of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the final stages of the war. In addition to those Tennesseans in military service, the war touched thousands of others who migrated from the countryside and found new job opportunities in the burgeoning war industries. The total war effort reshaped the state's economy drastically from a predominantly rural, agricultural economy to an increasingly urban, industrialized one.

More than 300,000 Tennesseans served in the armed forces; the 5,731 Tennesseans who died in the war made the ultimate sacrifice. Six Tennesseans were recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Cordell Hull served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of state. In addition, Tennessee became the site of numerous military installations, training facilities, and prisoner of war camps during the war, and 280,000 Tennesseans worked in war manufacturing.

When World War II raged across Europe between 1939 and 1941, the United States attempted to remain neutral and at the same time become the world's arsenal of democracy. The country quickly reversed the low productivity and high unemployment of the depression and converted its stagnant industries to defense production. In 1940, in further preparation for the possibility of war, the U.S. Congress enacted its first peacetime draft, the Selective Service and Training Act.

Prior to the U.S. entrance into the war, Tennessee became one of the first states to actively engage in military preparedness. After meeting Hitler during a Rotary tour of Europe in 1937, Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper became convinced that the United States would not be able to avoid war. Governor Cooper encouraged Tennessee to prepare for the approaching war by readying the state for the infusion of war industries, military training exercises, and military bases.

Tennessee established the first state defense organization, the Advisory Committee on Preparedness, in 1940. In January 1941 the state legislature created a Tennessee State Guard, the largest in the South, to provide protection for the state in the absence of the Tennessee National Guard, which had been activated as the 117th Infantry Regiment in the 30th Division. The 117th Regiment served with distinction in Europe until the end of the war.

Tennessee also designated land for potential use as military bases, an act which resulted in the establishment of Camp Campbell near Clarksville and Camp Forrest near Tullahoma. In 1941 the state bought over three thousand acres near Smyrna, which it cleared and leased to the federal government as Sewart Air Base. During June of the same year, Major General George S. Patton conducted armored maneuvers in Middle Tennessee.

Despite Tennessee's preparations for the war, the state and the nation were equally shocked to hear the news of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The day that would “live in infamy” etched permanent imprints on American memories. Years later, Tennesseans would recall the exact moments when they first heard the news of Pearl Harbor.

Tennessee servicemen were inducted at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, in the early stages of the war and later at Camp Forrest. Tennessee women, who joined the Women's Army Corps, trained at Fort Oglethorpe throughout the war. Women also joined the Navy WAVES, the Coast Guard SPARS, the Women Marines, and the WASPS or Women's Airforce Service Pilots.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from Tennessee and across the nation trained at Camps Forrest (an induction and infantry training center), Campbell (an armor training facility), and Tyson (a barrage balloon center near Paris, Tennessee). Pilots trained at several small airports throughout the state. Major bases that trained pilots and crews were located in Smyrna and near Dyersburg. An air ferry command was located in Memphis. Millington Naval base in Shelby County was the country's largest inland naval base.

Over twenty counties in Middle Tennessee were utilized for the Tennessee Maneuvers, which were headquartered at Cumberland University in Lebanon and officially referred to as “somewhere in Tennessee.” Middle Tennessee was chosen for these war games because of its proximity to railroads and federal highways and the similarity between its terrain and that of western Europe. Red and Blue “armies” faced each other in training exercises. More than 800,000 men and women participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers, which produced over $4 million in claims by individuals and municipalities for destruction of property by the opposing armies.

Camps Forrest, Campbell, and Tyson also served as prisoner of war camps for German, Italian, and Austrian POWs through 1946. Prisoners were also held at Tellico Plains, Crossville, Memphis, Lawrenceburg, and Nashville. At Camp Forrest, which was the headquarters for several permanent and temporary POW camps in five southeastern states, approximately 68,000 prisoners were processed. Prisoners in the camps worked in the prison hospitals and area farms, cut pulpwood, and drained malarial swamps. Several POW groups produced their own German newspapers, performed plays, wrote poetry, and often became the object of attention for curious Tennesseans.

Several hundred refugees, primarily Jews, voluntarily settled in Tennessee after their escape from Hitler's anti-Semitic laws, intimidation, and death camps. Strict immigration laws required refugees to obtain American sponsors to insure that they did not become burdens on society. Many of the Jews who settled in Tennessee found work in Jacob May's hosiery mill in Nashville.

True to the nickname of the “Volunteer State,” Tennesseans supported the war not only through the armed services, but also in their home front activities. As it became increasingly evident that the war would not end quickly, Tennesseans adjusted to the impact of total war. Encouraged by President Roosevelt's radio “fireside chats,” they purchased rationed food, collected scrap metals and tires, and saved kitchen fats, which were used in the production of glycerine for bombs. Families and communities planted Victory gardens and lived with shortages of gasoline, meat, shoes, cigarettes, tires, sugar, and stockings. Tennesseans invested in war bonds and practiced blackouts during air raid drills. As volunteer block captains and air raid wardens, they inspected neighborhoods for compliance. Women's clubs knitted sweaters and socks, produced soldiers' kits, and rolled bandages for the Red Cross. Communities fed, housed, and entertained soldiers. Churches, YMCAs, YWCAs, and other groups opened servicemen's lounges and canteens. Universities and colleges throughout the state experienced dramatic decreases in enrollment as college-aged men went to war, and campuses became training grounds for special units. Young and old listened to the swing sound of the big bands.

Perhaps the single most important long range impact of the war on Tennessee was its influence on the state's economy. As a result of the war, the state both accelerated and expanded its industries. Established industrial centers such as Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville shifted almost entirely to war production; in addition, Kingsport mushroomed in growth as did Oak Ridge, which grew from farmlands and timbered hillsides to become Tennessee's fifth largest city by 1945.

By 1943 nearly one hundred Memphis manufacturing firms held war contracts. The two largest Memphis war production concerns were the Fisher and Ford plants, which converted from the manufacture of automobile parts to airplane parts production. Smaller, but important war manufacturers included McDonnell Aircraft, the Chickasaw Ordnance Works, and Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which produced life rafts for the navy. The federal government also employed several thousand civilians at Kennedy General Hospital and numerous armed services installations. Also in West Tennessee, the Milan Ordnance Center, built in 1942, employed approximately 11,000 workers in its production of shell ammunition, boosters, and fuses, as well as ammonium nitrate.

Nashville experienced a less dramatic conversion to war industry. Its only “war baby industry” was Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, which employed 3,000 workers in May 1945. Prior to the American entrance into the war, Vultee built the “Vengeance” dive bomber for Britain's Royal Air Force, and later produced the P-39 “Lightning” fighter and the O-49 observation plane for the United States. Nashville Bridge Company increased its production of mine sweepers, barges, quartering ships, cargo lighters, and submarine chasers, employing approximately 700 workers. In nearby Old Hickory, the DuPont plant produced cellophane and rayon products, including “bubblefill” for life jackets and rafts.

Chattanooga, an important manufacturing city before the war, converted to war production in its steel, ordnance, iron, textile, and chemical plants. Much of Chattanooga's industry remained relatively unchanged during the war, however, with the exception of the production of aircraft parts and ordnance supplies, the latter produced by Hercules Powder Company, which manufactured TNT.

In 1933 Knoxville became the national headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplied the energy for the new military industries. TVA enlarged its operations tremendously during the war; the agency constructed seven dams and a steam generating station between 1940 and 1945, increasing power generating capabilities from one to two million kilowatts. The wartime construction of the dams completed a 650-mile navigation channel connecting the Tennessee River with 6,000 miles of interior waterways. Southern Railway Systems, Fulton Sylphon, which produced temperature and pressure control instruments, and the University of Tennessee employed large numbers of workers throughout the war years. A new war-spawned industry, Rohm and Haas, produced Plexiglas for airplanes. In 1939, in nearby Blount County, the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) expanded its plant and employed over 4,000 workers.

In upper East Tennessee, Kingsport became a major producer of explosives for the war effort. The Tennessee Eastman Company procured a war contract from the National Defense Research Committee to produce RDX or Research Development Explosive, whose explosive capacity was 50 percent greater than TNT. Chemists at Eastman designed a method to produce large quantities of RDX, which had previously been manufactured only in small batches due to its highly explosive qualities. Further, Eastman began producing Composition B, an amalgamation of TNT and RDX for use in bombs and projectiles. Eastman produced the Composition B in the easily transportable shape of chocolate kisses. In June 1942 the federal government granted Eastman officials the authorization to construct the Holston Ordnance Works, which became the largest producer of high explosives in the world by January 1944. By 1949 Eastman had grown into an employer of over 5,000 workers, manufacturing plastics and acetic anhydride, a raw material used for safety film.

Eastman's achievements in the production of explosives led to a contract to operate the Y-12 plant, one of three Oak Ridge facilities involved in the secret Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb. As work progressed, Oak Ridge, the “city behind the fence,” experienced a peak wartime population of 75,000. The project, which employed 90,000 workers at maximum production, separated out the fissionable uranium isotope, U-235, a major component of the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945.

The growth of war industry in Tennessee, concurrent with the armed service demands for all able-bodied men, created an increased labor demand along with a diminished labor supply. Consequently, the war provided a catalyst for the employment of large numbers of women. Between September 1942 and March 1944, the employment of women in several of Tennessee's chief war industries increased by nearly 21,000, or 75 percent of the expansion in these industries. Symbolized by “Rosie the Riveter,” women's employment increased primarily in ordnance, textile, finished lumber, chemicals, iron, steel, aircraft, and aluminum production, as well as in communications and government agencies. Companies such as ALCOA reversed their practice of hiring women only in office positions and placed them on the assembly lines. TVA hired women as guards for its dams and downtown Knoxville buildings; females who guarded the dams were given the title, “WOOPS,” or Women Officers of Public Safety. Existing seniority rights and established lines of advancement generally hampered women's advancement in production areas. Nationwide, women realized a 57 percent increase in earnings between 1939 and 1944; at $.745 per hour, their wages were still significantly lower than men's average wages of $1.159 per hour.

Federal government propaganda enticed women to work for patriotic reasons, yet the government, employers, and the public at large remained unwilling to accept the idea of working mothers, except as a last resort. In 1942 the U.S. Congress authorized limited resources for federally funded wartime child care centers through the Lanham Act. Tennessee became a pacesetter in the South with the construction of Lanham-funded centers in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

Women's wartime employment gains were usually temporary, although the war set the stage for later change. In Tennessee, women's employment increased by nearly 83,000 between 1940 and 1950; male employment during the same time increased by 110,000. Although the majority of women's war jobs in Tennessee were terminated as the “last hired” were the “first fired,” women's employment in manufacturing still was 23,000 jobs greater in 1950 than it had been in 1940.

During the war a number of African Americans gained notoriety for bravery in combat, and at home they experienced moderate economic advancements. Large numbers of blacks moved from rural farm areas to war production centers either in Tennessee or in northern cities. Memphis saw an increase in its nonwhite population from 121,550 to over 150,000 between 1940 and 1950; Nashville's nonwhite population increased by over 7,000 to 59,000. White housewives complained that they had lost their black maids to the war industries, which generally paid three times as much as domestic work. Despite President Roosevelt's Fair Employment Practices mandate, which required nondiscriminatory hiring in the war plants, black men and women encountered discrimination. Oftentimes, blacks were employed in the least desirable positions, such as custodians, cooks, and laundresses. Tennessee's war and postwar employment figures of blacks showed strong similarities to prewar employment data, as prevailing negative and paternalistic attitudes toward nonwhites remained virtually unchanged by the war.

Not only did World War II spawn industrial growth in the state, the war provided a catalyst for urbanization. Shelby County's population increased nearly 35 percent between 1940 and 1950, from approximately 350,000 to over 480,000. During the same period, Nashville's population grew by 25 percent from 257,000 to over 320,000. Between 1940 and 1950, the state experienced one of its lowest out-migration rates since 1870, while the major metropolitan areas realized a net 11 percent in-migration rate. During the 1940s, the farm population of the state decreased by over 250,000, signaling the beginning of a downward trend as the rural population dropped from 1,272,000 in 1940 to 1,016,000 in 1950. By 1960 the rural farm population of Tennessee had fallen below 600,000.

The war years signaled an end to the Great Depression, as bank deposits more than tripled between 1940 and 1950, from approximately $650,000 to over $2 million. Personal incomes increased from less than $1 billion in 1940 to nearly $3.3 billion in 1950. Per capita personal income nearly tripled from an annual income average of $339 in 1940 to nearly $1,000 in 1950.

In 1944 Tennessee became involved in planning for the returning veterans. Governor Cooper appointed a Committee on Postwar Rehabilitation of Veterans to organize a statewide program. The same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “GI Bill of Rights.” This law established procedures for the reemployment of veterans as well as educational and low-interest rate benefits. As a result of the GI Bill, the postwar years witnessed a mushrooming in the size of the state's colleges and universities, as well as that of the burgeoning suburbs.

With the conclusion of the war in September 1945, Tennesseans, along with other Americans, commemorated their war dead and looked to the future. Despite a national fear of a widespread economic downturn, Americans reconverted from war production to peacetime production of much demanded consumer items, thus avoiding an anticipated recession. Tennessee industry, as well as its cities, suburbs, and universities, experienced rapid growth in the immediate postwar years. World War II, as a total war, had touched nearly all Tennesseans' lives, and the economic expansion brought about by the war would continue to have an impact on the state in the years to come.

Suggested Reading

Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (1981); Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson, City Behind a Fence (1981); Patricia Brake Howard, “Tennessee In War and Peace: The Impact of World War II On State Economic Trends,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1992): 51-65; James A. Crutchfield, Tennesseans At War: Volunteers and Patriots in Defense of Liberty (1987); Gene Sloan, With Second Army Somewhere in Tennessee (1956); Ann Toplovich, “The Tennesseans War: Life on the Home Front,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1992): 19-50; Susan L. Gordon, “Home Front Tennessee: The World War II Experience,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1992): 3-18; Tennessee 200, Answering the Call: Tennesseans in the Second World War (1996)

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  • Article Title World War II
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018