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Hoosiers at War: An Overview of Indiana during World War II

By James Madison

World War II changed everything in Indiana, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. The necessities of war--the overwhelming need to defeat the Axis--set the boundaries that shaped lives. The oft-repeated question, "Don't you know there's a war on?," was really a statement. Everyone knew.

The lives most disrupted by war were those of the Hoosier men and women who served in the military forces. Long weeks of hard training in dusty military camps were a prelude to travels and challenges spread across the country and around the world. Far from home, young soldiers could only dimly remember when life included lazy front-porch gossip, amusement rides at the state fair, high school sweethearts.

Hoosiers fought in all combat theaters, from Europe to the Pacific. Some, including Bloomington's Medal of Honor winner, Gerry Kisters, became heroes. Most did their jobs very well, if not heroically. All wanted more than anything else to get the war over with and come home safe. Too many experienced the worst the war offered, expressed most vividly by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s descriptions of the Dresden firebombing and by the newspaper columns of Ernie Pyle.

Far too many Indiana soldiers and sailors died, more than ten thousand. Some were returned to Indiana soil; others were laid to rest in a French field or a calm Pacific sea. Gold star mothers would always remember. And on courthouse squares across Indiana their names were cut in stone or bronze--the long, simple roll calls of Hoosiers who made the "supreme sacrifice."

Military service had special meaning for Hoosiers with traditionally restricted opportunities. Women entered military units and made significant contributions as nurses, truck drivers, clerks, and pilots. For many women World War II was a liberating experience long before any of them heard about women's liberation. Black Hoosiers also stepped into military uniforms, but usually in segregated units and usually in support roles. The discrimination and segregation that wove its tentacles through the American fabric persisted even as the nation fought against the racism of Nazi Germany.

Other than young people leaving home in uniform and the news of letters and War Department telegrams, the most obvious signs of war on the Hoosier home front were the military installations and ordnance plants that sprang up overnight. Camp Atterbury, Crane Naval Ammunition Depot, Jefferson Proving Ground, and Indiana Ordnance Works at Charlestown brought the war to small towns and rural areas in southern Indiana and created thousands of jobs that quickly scared off the Great Depression. Other major war plants included the Wabash River Ordnance Works in Vermillion County and the Kingsbury Ordnance Works near La Porte.

Private industry soon shifted to war production, especially after Pearl Harbor. By 1942 Indiana's factories turned full blast to making America "the great arsenal of democracy," as President Franklin Roosevelt had commanded. The list of Hoosier contributions was nearly endless: Allison's airplane engines, Studebaker's trucks, Lilly's blood plasma, the Calumet Region's steel, RCA's proximity fuses, Guide Lamp's cartridge cases, South Bend Toy's tent poles, Republic Aviation's P-47 Thunderbolts. From the shipyards on the Ohio River to the steel mills on Lake Michigan the Indiana economy bent and turned to the miracle of war production.

Though many companies made the effort, the major industrial contributions came from big business - the modern, mass production enterprises in steel, oil, metalworking, chemicals, and electronics. These companies won most of the war contracts and produced the goods that ranked Indiana eighth among the states in combat equipment supply.

A major obstacle to increasing war production developed as young Hoosier workers went off in uniform and the labor supply dwindled. For the first time some employers began, of necessity, to hire women and blacks, even in some cases for skilled jobs. The Indiana General Assembly passed a fair employment practices act in 1945 and joined in setting up day-care centers for the children of "Rosie the Riveter." Old attitudes died hard, however, and discrimination against black and female workers continued.

As Hoosiers bent to the task of pouring out the materials needed to defeat the Axis enemy, they soon learned that other changes would be necessary.

Victory required civilian sacrifice, not as large generally as the sacrifices made on the home fronts of Great Britain or the Soviet Union, but substantial and significant sacrifices nonetheless.

Most apparent was the shortage and eventual rationing of many items considered basic to the good life. A complicated rationing system demanded coupons and points for purchase of food, shoes, and gasoline. Some items, such as nylon stockings and new tires, virtually disappeared. With limited quantities of meat, sugar, coffee, and other foods, homemakers prepared meals with ingenuity in recipe substitution, patience in the grocery stores, and Victory Gardens in their backyards.

Gasoline was severely rationed. Many Hoosiers could no longer visit grandparents or a state park on Sunday. Both the Indiana State Fair and the Indianapolis 500-mile race closed under war demands. Even with a fat wartime paycheck a new automobile was an unobtainable dream until 1946. Many shade-tree mechanics spent tedious hours installing a used part to keep an old Ford or Chevy running on bald tires.

The war meant sacrifice for children too. Many would vividly remember for the rest of their lives the terror produced by blackouts and air-raid drills. Children eagerly joined in scrap drives that gathered metal, paper, and rubber for war production. They worked for war bond and stamp sales, studied maps of Europe and the Pacific, and played war games.

Young Hoosiers became the focal point of new concerns about family breakdown. Some children knew their fathers only as the fuzzy snapshot of a man in uniform. Many adults worried about what would happen with fathers away and mothers working in a factory job. The war brought parents special anxieties about teenagers mixed up with alcohol, crime, or sex. One response was the formation of teen clubs to encourage more wholesome entertainment at places like South Bend's Hi-Spot and Anderson's Club Tom Tom. With an increasingly distinctive style of music, dress, and language, wartime teenagers created a life of their own, one separate from that of their baffled parents.

Most Hoosiers found time for entertainment and pleasure. Indianapolis pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly and his fishing buddies carefully husbanded their precious gasoline coupons in order to squeeze out a quick trip to Lake Wawasee. Hollywood movies were more popular than ever. Films like Casablanca and Since You Went Away played to large audiences. Nearly every home had a radio that received Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Kate Smith, and Arthur Godfrey along with news from the battlefields. Even the ubiquitous war bond drives provided diversions, sometimes by Hollywood stars. Many Hoosiers participated in the famous visit back home of Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard, a visit that ended tragically in a plane crash. At USO (United Service Organizations) clubs women gathered to help the war effort by serving coffee and doughnuts and by dancing with lonely servicemen.

There was romance during the war. The Great Depression had delayed many marriages, but the war boom made marriage financially possible once again. Often couples rushed to the altar just ahead of the departing troop train. Young war brides and new mothers made some of the home front's greatest sacrifices, and in their V-Mail to distant husbands they scribbled some of the most poignant stories of these years.

Victory in 1945 brought the celebratory sounds of factory whistles, the shouts of street dancing, the bright colors of parades, the shedding of tears. Many Hoosiers looked ahead to a return to prewar conditions, without, they hoped, the angry bear scratches of economic depression. Wartime conditions did seem to pass quickly after 1945. Rationing, shortages, and long lines vanished, replaced, for many, by an affluent society. Scrap drives and recycling soon seemed only distant memories of wartime sacrifice. Military uniforms and souvenirs made their way to attics. Many women and many black Hoosiers surrendered their high-paying industrial jobs to returning veterans, though not always willingly. And yet life did not return to the patterns of 1941.

World War II transformed America, not only temporarily but permanently Seeds of change that sprouted in the civil rights and women's rights movements of the 1960s can be found in the years 1941-1945. There too can be found the emergence of a youth culture, long before Elvis or Woodstock. The war created mass college education, via the GI Bill, and laid the base for the suburban houses that flourished in place of corn and soybeans on the outskirts of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and South Bend. And the emphasis on heavy manufacturing that so dominated Hoosier life in the last half of the twentieth century surely got a major boost from the war economy.

Like all great events, World War II did not end. A half century after Pearl Harbor it remains "the big one." The shadows persist. From the first fiftieth anniversary on 7 December 1991 to the marking of V-J Day in August 1995 Hoosiers will be able to join in learning, remembering, and commemorating. They will doubtless find considerable evidence of the enduring, long-term effects of this war. Some will see it as a "good war," and some will dismiss this label as an oxymoron. Many, in thinking about World War II, will gain new insights into the processes of change and continuity--the bread and butter and the sweet jam that give history its meaning and make it a pleasure and a challenge open to all.

James H. Madison is professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. Among his publications are Indiana through Tradition and Change: A History of the Hoosier State and Its People, 1920-1945 (1982), The Indiana Way: A State History (1986), and Eli Lilly: A Life, 1885-1977 (1989).

This article originally was published in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, a publication of the Indiana Historical Society, Fall 1991, Volume 3, Number 4.