The Home Front, 1941-1945: A Special Report
Life changed dramatically for North Dakotans who remained at home during the war. They were asked, sometimes ordered, to endure hardships so that food and materiel would be available for the armed forces who were fighting in the Pacific, Europe, and North Africa. In all, 58,509 men and 1,570 women from North Dakota served their country during the worldwide conflict.
“Food Fights for Freedom,” a main wartime slogan, meant that the state’s farmers would have to plant as they never had before. It also meant that folks on the home front would have to forego their usual mealtime favorites and do without much fruit, coffee, and sugar. In early 1942 the government imposed mandatory rationing. Every citizen received a ration book that contained coupons for the purchase of sugar, meat, butter, most canned foods, tires, gasoline, shoes, and many other items. Rationing limited the amount of food and other essential commodities that one could buy. Having coupons was no guarantee that the service station and food market would have an item in stock.
In order to supplement the food supply everyone was encouraged to plant a Victory Garden. People spaded up their backyards and in some cases turned their garages into henhouses for eggs and the occasional Sunday chicken dinner. By 1943 about half the vegetables eaten in America were grown in Victory Gardens—one million tons a year. The North Dakota Agricultural College conducted meetings across the state, teaching housewives how to cook without sugar and scarce spices. North Dakotans took the matter very seriously.
In Williston the Chamber of Commerce provided free seed for Victory Gardens. The Valley City Elks Club gave an annual award for the city’s most productive garden. One publication jested, “Although it isn’t our usual habit, this year we’re eating the Easter Rabbit.”
The effort to conserve led to some severe government measures. Women’s skirts were limited in width and length. Vests, patch pockets, cuffs, and wide lapels were prohibited in men’s suits. This saved 50 million pounds of wool that was needed in the manufacture of military uniforms.
North Dakotans were called up to do more than conserve food, gas, tires, and shoes. The war dictated that the people become deeply involved in matters of civil defense, the collection of war-essential materiel, and the financing of the war through the purchase of war stamps and bonds.
North Dakota’s civilian defense volunteers numbered in the thousands. Each town block had an air-raid warden and each town had its airplane spotters. Practice air raids were conducted periodically. The warden’s job was to see to it that every house on the block was totally darkened. Those who left a light on were severely reprimanded. Airplane spotters perched on a town’s tallest building or water tower. Armed with an enemy plane identification chart and telescopes, the spotters scoured the skies for a Japanese Zero or a German Stokka. Far from the oceans no North Dakota spotter ever saw an enemy plane, but the volunteers remained at their posts until the end of the war.
To supplement the materials that were needed in the manufacture of ammunition and the machinery of war, both old and young searched attics and basements for scrap metals, rubber, and paper. Scrap drives in 1942 and 1943 provided much of the metal and half the paper needed to win the war. In North Dakota the Future Farmers of America brought in a half-million pounds of old rubber, mostly tires. The 4-H clubs pledged each member to collect 24 pounds of salvage metal a month as long as the war lasted. The September 1942 statewide drive produced almost 12 tons of metal. Towns gave up their Civil War cannons. Folks ripped out their iron fences. By New Year’s Day of 1943, Fargo alone had collected more than 6,000 tons of scrap metal. Boy and Girl Scouts were especially zealous in the collection of paper. One drive in Grand Forks yielded three railroad boxcars full of paper.
To promote the war effort the Red Cross brought together church groups, the Order of the Eastern Star, music clubs, and any women’s organizations that had time to contribute. Women volunteers rolled bandages, made clothing, collected books, provided countless units of blood, and raised relief money. North Dakota’s Eastern Star chapters pledged $25 per person; Fargo clubs knitted hundreds of sweaters, every women’s group in the state rolled thousands of bandages. The women of Burleigh County raised $9,000 in one month in 1942 for Red Cross relief. Volunteerism was at high tide in North Dakota.
Nowhere was North Dakota’s patriotic zeal more apparent than in the citizens’ response to the war-bond drives. North Dakotans oversubscribed its quota in every bond drive, buying 181 percent of its government prescribed objective in 1944. That extraordinary sum was 11 percent of all income—the highest in the nation! In all, the people bought $397 million in war bonds—this in a state where only a few years earlier two-thirds of its people needed government help to survive the depression and drought.
The people were able to put that much money into war bonds because prosperity had returned to North Dakota. The drought and the depression were over! Wartime harvests were the highest in the state’s history. Wheat prices more than doubled and other farm prices were not far behind. Bumper crops, plenty of rain, and terrific prices spelled good times. North Dakota’s per capita income jumped from $350 in 1940 to $1,009 in 1945. With little to buy during the war, bank deposits quadrupled. In 1946 Grand Forks County ranked 37th nationally in family buying income, $5,039.
Farmers, however, had their share of wartime problems. Lack of gasoline, tires, machinery parts, and harvest workers seriously threatened farm work. The Extension Service offered classes on how to make machinery repairs with baling wire and other makeshift material. Cavalier County farmers needed 53 new tires; they received three. Some farmers shared good tires; a few went back to horses. With so many in the armed forces and with about 100,000 North Dakotans on the West Coast in defense jobs, labor to bring in the crops was in extremely short supply. Public schools and colleges set late starting dates to allow students to work the harvest. In various years the army, the Women’s Land Army, recruits from the South and Mexico, German prisoners of war, and Canadian volunteers helped at harvest time. The bumper crops did come in!
North Dakota earned a deserved reputation as one of the nation’s most enthusiastically patriotic states in the nation. Governor John Moses said it best: “No state in the Union has given more of its heart and hand in the war effort than North Dakota.”
The federal government, however, wanted more from the state. The War Production Board asked Governor Moses for a list of ways in which North Dakota could contribute to the war effort through the state’s resources. With the assistance of a committee that represented business, agricultural and college leaders, Moses suggested that his state could develop agricultural processing plants for dried milk, powdered eggs, dehydrated potatoes, and dried meat; develop lignite coal for gas production; and, because of its remote location, serve as a place for shell-loading plants, ammunition and warfare gas storage, cold-weather army training, and bomber bases.
The War Production Board, however, wanted a more specific agenda of what could be done immediately. The answer was, very little except food production. North Dakota, after all, was a farm, not an industrial, state.
The war forced North Dakota leaders to think about economic diversification. Toward that end, the 1943 legislature established the North Dakota Research Foundation to promote the investigation of and research concerning the state’s mineral and agricultural resources. As engineer Alexander Burr, who organized the new state agency put it, “Any commonwealth which depends wholly on agriculture is not a sound economic unit.”
In order to help diversify the wartime economy, the Greater North Dakota Association worked to gain federal contracts for the state—with little success. Of the government’s $225 billion in defense contracts, only $9.6 million went to North Dakota—.0004 percent, the nation’s lowest.
The war underscored North Dakota’s lack of economic diversity. It forced state leaders to grapple with and think about the state’s future.
The greatest fear on the home front was a telegram that carried news of a loved one’s death. North Dakotans were involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. The 164th Infantry of the state’s National Guard suffered very heavy losses in the battle that drove the Japanese off the jungle island of Guadalcanal in 1942. In all, 1,939 North Dakotans paid the supreme sacrifice with their lives to protect the home front.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.