Tucson Steps Up in a Crisis: World War II and the Homefront
By Jennifer Levstik
By Jennifer Levstik
Recently each of us has been confronted by the scene of empty shelves at stores and limited or no ready access to basic necessities. For many, this is the first time in our lives that we have had to contend with food insecurity, hoarding, and limitations on our day-to-day lives. For others who have lived through wars, civil unrest, and environmental catastrophes, the scene is all too familiar. History shows us that what we are experiencing is not entirely new; we have had to contend with similar hardships in the past, and have often come out the other side, wiser, if a little bruised.
While the scenes of hoarding items like food, toiletries, medicines, and personnel protective equipment play out in the stores and on television, we only need look back to World War II (WWII) to see similar signs of public panic. As WWII was already a few years old by the time the United States (U.S.) entered into the conflict, most cities, Tucson included, were witnessing an economy rebounding from the Depression under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Parallels can be drawn to the current era as we rebound from the 2008-2009 recession. Just a few months ago, for example, the stock market was showing signs of improvement and the unemployment rate was dropping. The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically altered that rosy economic picture.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Tucsonans took the war effort seriously by volunteering in unprecedented numbers with the American Red Cross. Within the first week of the war they purchased all the locally allocated U.S. Defense Bonds. At the same time, with metal prices surging to meet the demands of the war effort, Arizona’s mining industry began to climb, including hiring and attracting thousands of workers to the state. Concurrently, Tucson’s airfields—Ryan Airfield, Marana Airfield, and Davis Monthan Airfield—were used as pilot training facilities, resulting in another wartime population boost. Despite the additional jobs and the relatively stable economy, commodity shortages became common across the U.S. and in Tucson. As a result, people had more money in their pockets, but little to spend it on.
The Office of Price Administration (OPA) supplied coupons for specific foods and set prices for these items to combat price gouging from merchants trying to profit from desperate consumers. The OPA also asked that anyone who witnessed price gouging or hoarding report it to the OPA. Hoarding was so common during this time that some stores reverted to punching holes in coffee cans, reducing their shelf life and forcing people to buy only what they could use immediately. Meats, such as pork and lamb, as well as coffee, butter, tobacco, tires, and gasoline were rationed during the war. Housewives, too, were asked to save cooking fat for ammunition and to choose cheaper cuts of meat during the months that followed the closure of two of Tucson’s slaughterhouses.
Every month, two color-coded ration books were distributed to every qualifying man, woman, child, and baby in the U.S. One book contained blue coupons for processed goods while the other contained red coupons for meat, fish and dairy products. A family of four had a total of 192 points for processed food and 256 points for meats, fish, and dairy products. The point value could fluctuate depending on scarcity, and grocers were required to keep current lists posted in their stores.
Wartime commodity shortages in Tucson developed rapidly as the local population swelled from 64,000 in 1941 to 80,000 in 1943. Increasing demand for limited goods was further exacerbated as the federal government stockpiled rations for soldiers. Canned goods were the most popular products because they were easy to prepare, especially as women entered the workforce and had less time to prepare meals. It was not long before steel cans were replaced by glass containers, and recycling and scrap drives were held throughout the City to collect metal and rubber needed for the war effort. At the local level, incentives were provided to encourage recycling. For instance, in exchange for one pound of rubber, Tucson children were admitted free to one of the area’s movie theatres.
One of the beneficial, but initially unintended, consequences of WWII was that women were entering the workforce in record numbers. Prior to the war, women accounted for only a small percentage of the overall workforce, but with increased demands for labor and shortages of available men, women were called to play a critical role in the success of the national economy. In 1942, the War Manpower Commission [WMC] (no pun intended) encouraged advertising aimed at bringing women into the workforce by playing on their patriotic duty and the promise of good wages. Women soon began to fill the roles that were traditionally held by men, such as factory workers, newspaper reporters, bank clerks, jobs with the weather bureau, and, in Tucson, work with the Southern Pacific Railroad .
Women were likewise active in military service, including the Women’s Auxiliary Corps at Fort Huachuca (although segregated by race) and as Women’s Air Force Service pilots at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In 1944, at least half of all U.S. women were employed at some point during the year. This demographic shift also resulted in a reliance upon and preference for convenience foods and the changing role of women as consumers. For the first time, women held the purchasing power in their households. Convenience foods were cheaper to buy, had a longer shelf life, required less preparation and cooking, and resulted in less waste. Although many women were forced to vacate their jobs upon conclusion of the war to make way for returning soldiers, a sizeable minority of women remained in the workforce.
The war also changed Tucson’s landscape. During the war, temporary housing was established for civilian workers, and businesses and infrastructure grew to meet this demand. This was compounded during the immediate post-war period when returning veterans were in need of housing and jobs. The 1944 Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (known as the GI Bill) provided for the integration of returning war veterans into society as better educated, trained, and adjusted citizens. Not only did this bill encourage a jump in attendance at the University of Arizona, but it demanded new housing to accommodate the returning veterans. The GI Bill, in hand with Federal Housing Administration assistance programs for home buyers, helped stimulate local and national urban development in unprecedented ways. Ultimately, 7.8 million WWII veterans utilized the GI Bill, ensuring the growth of the University of Arizona, but also stimulating housing booms across the city and the nation. By the late 1940s, the post‑war boom revived Tucson’s economy and the city began its transformation from “small town” to “bustling metropolis.”
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