You'll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War

Larry Holzwarth - January 13, 2018

When the Second World War erupted in Europe in 1939, American industry still lay mostly idle. The Great Depression had not yet fully released its grip on the American economy. Government spending had decreased in the late 1930s as FDR sought to balance the federal budget, bringing about another recession in 1938. There were many other chain reactions: the military was poorly equipped and budgeted, the US Navy had begun a spending program to modernize and rebuild the fleet, and progress was slow. War in Europe meant opportunity for American business supplying the necessities of war to friendly nations, but neutrality laws impeded them. By law, all goods purchased by belligerents had to be paid for in full, and nations at war often find cash in short supply.

America built the wartime economy and full employment for its work force over the six years of the World War II by providing not only finished goods but the materials needed to manufacture them. Tanks and ships required steel and aluminum to build them. Steel required coal and iron ore. The story of how the United States manufactured the weapons of war is well documented, less is known about American production of the raw materials to manufacture those weapons, products to support the troops, food for all, the means of moving it to where it was needed.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
Posters like this one encouraged American workers to keep up their contributions to the war effort. Office of War Information

American manufacturers such as Ford shifted from making consumer products to military equipment, but many industries continued as they always had, providing the most basic commodities to support industry. Here are ten American products without which the Allies could not have prevailed in World War II.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
Coal miners were considered essential to the war effort by some local draft boards, later extended to all of them by the federal government. National Archives

Coal

In 1939 the United States was the leading producer of coal in the world, supported by the fact that it lead the world in the use of underground mobile loaders for transportation of coal to the surface. Despite these two facts it was Great Britain which led in the area of full mechanization of mining, with the United States lagging behind by a significant margin. The US coal industry was hampered by government regulations and work stoppages led by the United Mine Workers. Alternative sources of fuel, such as natural gas or oil, were increasingly competitive. The US Navy had by the end of the 1930s converted all of its capital ships to burning oil rather than coal, and much of the shipping industry was following suit.

During the Great Depression, electrification of large areas of the country through the use of hydroelectric dams had reduced the need for coal. Many US cities had enacted regulations to ensure better quality air, reducing the use of coal as a heating fuel. The use of oil as a heating fuel was more efficient and more environmentally friendly, although that term had yet to enjoy frequent use. The coal industry also faced pricing established by government fiat, and profits were insufficient to adopt full mechanization necessary to compete.

When the United States entered the war one of the earliest measures taken was the rationing of oil and gas, with much oil being diverted to the war effort itself. The gap created by the removal of oil from the industrial and home heating market was filled by coal. Recognizing the need for steady and more efficient coal production the federal government worked with the industry to ensure coal producers received high priorities in the acquisition of new equipment and machinery. A stable work force was also required, and dispensations from the government helped achieve that goal. By 1943 coal production reached levels not seen in decades. Despite contentious strikes called during the war years, production continued to grow as the war went on, with 1944 being the largest in history.

It took the federal seizure of several mines to ensure that coal production continued at a record pace during the war. Labor leader John L. Lewis used the war and the need for coal as leverage in several work slowdowns and outright stoppages, causing the government to take over the mines. The government did so by forcing the mine owners to accept most of the union demands, thus punishing the owners for the actions of the workers, but continued production was the overriding concern.

By war’s end the United States produced over 2.1 billion tons of coal, more than its closest ally, Great Britain, but less than the 2.4 billion produced by Nazi Germany. Besides fueling much of the manufacturing industry in the United States and Canada, US coal provided heating for factories, schools, and homes throughout the country, freeing oil for use by the military. Coal was so critical to the US war effort that by 1943 deferments from the draft for coal miners as critical war industry workers were common.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
This photo – by Ansel Adams – depicts braceros at work in the fields in California. Library of Congress

Agriculture

During the early years of World War 2, before the United States entered the war, the American Midwest was solidly against American involvement. American farmers in particular opposed entering the war against Germany and Italy. For the first two years of the war American farm production was not impacted, despite the growing food shortages in Britain, and farmers in the United States had to rely on depression era government buy backs to prevent the prices for their products from falling. Britain and France (while France remained in the war) continued to spend what money they had on war materials rather than food imports, anticipating the restrictions imposed by neutrality laws.

When it appeared that Britain would not be able to long stand against the German onslaught alone, American farmers resisted pleas from the government to increase production. American war planners believed that the American farmer would have to feed both the United States and Great Britain throughout a protracted war; the farmers believed Britain would fall, the war would be short, and they would be stuck with surpluses leading to reduced prices for their produce. Their attitude changed in December 1941. The US military overnight became the leading buyer of meat and flour, and prices flew up by more than 40%.

Roosevelt’s Department of Agriculture worked closely with farmers to increase production through incentives and modernization, and farmers responded by placing more acreage in crops, using enhanced planting and harvesting methods. An inevitable labor shortage caused by larger harvests coinciding with men joining the military presented the need for greater mechanization, but new machinery was largely unavailable due to industrial producers shifting to military production. In the Midwest and other areas, co-operatives were established among farmers to share equipment and machinery between multiple farms, and often temporary labor was shared as well.

Some small farmers, unable to obtain the labor needed to harvest corn crops, allowed hogs to harvest it instead, for sale later as pork. The labor shortage continued throughout the war, encouraging farmers – with the support of the federal government who negotiated a treaty for the purpose – to employ Mexican laborers to husband and harvest crops. These laborers, who were known as braceros, worked across the Great Plains, helping to provide profits to American farmers and food for American and Allied troops. Braceros were particularly useful in growing sugar beets – an important commodity in an economy in which sugar was rationed – because they performed the often backbreaking work uncomplainingly and well.

American farmers produced more food with fewer workers and outdated machinery throughout the war. They produced record crops throughout the war, and despite rationing of several agricultural products, American health and nutrition intake improved over the course of the war. In addition to feeding the people at home, US farm production fed the troops of the United States and its allies, and the populations of devastated countries as they were liberated over the course of the war.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
Hormel produced one of the most derided and yet beloved canned foods of all time. Wikimedia

Hormel Foods Company

In 1937 the Hormel Foods Company looked for new ways of selling pork shoulder, a generally unpopular cut compared to its canned ham. The result of their research and a company sponsored competition to name the new product (for which the winner received $100) was a canned meat product called SPAM. SPAM came into being at an opportune time for Hormel. In a few short years it was being shipped as Lend-Lease product to the United Kingdom, where rationing of meat led to its immediate popularity. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union Lend-Lease was extended to the Russians as well, and SPAM was soon being devoured on the Eastern Front.

On the Eastern Front in Europe, the scorched earth policy of the retreating German Army meant that Soviet infrastructure was utterly destroyed as its forces moved forward. Russian troops needed to be fed by close order logistics trains, providing food and other supplies to the front line from trucks (also Lend-Lease supplied, and often American Studebakers). SPAM was easy to transport, required no refrigeration, and although most believe it to taste better when heated, it required no further cooking. Years later Nikita Krushchev, who served in the Soviet Army throughout the war observed, “Without SPAM we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.”

It wasn’t just the Russian Army where SPAM was ubiquitous. American troops carried it across the Pacific where it eventually became part of the local cuisine in places like Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. The British introduced it to Hong Kong where it remains a popular meat source. American troops occupying the Korean Peninsula introduced it there, where it became part of the local economy as a trade item.

Besides SPAM American food companies produced rations to be carried by the troops and eaten in the field when other food sources were unavailable. Chief among these was the C-Ration. C-Rations were packed in round metal tins affixed with labels which usually fell off, making the meal about to be eaten a mystery to the consumer. These contained a meat and vegetable meal of varying options, and almost universal unpopularity, but they provided nutrition to troops in the field necessary to health and survival, and most combat operations would have been impossible without them.

The American food industry fed American troops, as well as those of Australia, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and other allies. While their products were almost unanimously reviled by the men forced to sustain themselves with them, they nonetheless contributed to the ability of the Allied armies to retain combat readiness in the field throughout the war. After the war, they fed the populations of the former belligerents, helping to stave off starvation in the rubble of war torn territories.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
American brewers produced beer for the troops, although alcohol content was limited to 3.2. War Relics Forum

Beer

During the Second World War rationing of several items, including foodstuffs, was present in the United States. Meat, sugar, butter and other fats were all rationed, as was gasoline, oil, rubber, and many other products. The nation which had only recently overcome the national insult of prohibition imposed fewer restrictions on alcohol, although whiskey became rationed due to distillery’s shifting production to industrial alcohol for military and medical use. Breweries were required to set aside 15% of their total production for the use of the US military.

Beer was shipped to the troops overseas and to Naval Bases and advanced stations (officially alcohol was banned on US Navy ships). Beer was sent to the troops in both bottles and cans, although cans were easier to handle and ship. Initially beer was shipped in the same containers and labeling as for civilian consumption, by 1943 the military was shipping beer in cans covered with camouflage. Although Prohibition had ended, there was still sufficient temperance influence to limit the alcohol content of beer shipped to the troops to 3.2%.

In the 1940s there were fewer national brands and more local brands of beer produced in the United States, and dozens of smaller breweries provided beer to the troops. Beer was delivered to the front lines shortly after the arrival of troops and the area they were in being deemed secured. Officially it was rationed, but unofficially it was traded and purchased among the men. British aircraft were flying beer into Normandy within days of the landings in 1944, secured in fueling tanks slung beneath the wings, which had the advantage of chilling the beverage during flight.

American breweries found that due to wartime rationing in the UK, American beer – even 3.2 beer – had a higher alcohol content and more flavor than that brewed by their British cousins. Efforts by American brewers to supply British units with beer were blocked by the higher echelons of UK military authority, who insisted that the King’s troops be supplied only by UK producers. British troops in the field were frequently able to obtain American beers however, through the longstanding military practice of barter and trade.

Those concerned about health issues arising from the knowledge that young Americans overseas were supplied with rations of beer on an almost constant basis should consider that the breweries were only required to set aside 15% of their production for distribution to the military. Cigarette producers were required to set aside 30%. Along with beer, cigarettes were freely distributed to the troops, and even included in Red Cross packages shipped to prisoners of war, as a means of ensuring morale remained high, and the troops were aware of the support they were receiving from back home.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
The Jeep remains one of the most iconic vehicles in history. US Army

Willys Overland

Officially it was known by the US Army as the Truck, ¼ Ton, 4X4. Unofficially, and to the entire world, it was and is known as the Jeep. When the army decided in the late 1930s that it needed a light four wheel drive general purpose vehicle it fell back on World War 1 experience to identify what it did and did not want in the new model. After evaluating several off-the-shelf models, as it were, produced by American and British manufacturers, the Army created a list of specifications for the new vehicle which it delivered to over 100 American manufacturers in the summer of 1940. The Army demanded a prototype in 49 days, and 70 complete vehicles for evaluation in 75 days.

The procurement requirements were strenuous, but the technical requirements were even more daunting. Most manufacturers, convinced that the United States would stay out of the war then underway in Europe, declined to shift attention from the consumer market to a limited Army contract. Only two, Willys-Overland and American Bantam submitted bids; they were later joined by Ford. Bantam won the initial contract but proved unable to deliver the required evaluation models in time, and both Ford and Willys-Overland won contracts to build similar vehicles. Eventually the best features of all three vehicles were combined into one design, with both Ford and Willys-Overland building the vehicles.

The little car was an immediate hit with the troops to which it was assigned, able to go almost anywhere, across any terrain, reliably and with relative speed. Willys-Overland arranged a press day with a Jeep climbing the steps of the Capitol in Washington, but the military didn’t need any hard sell. The Jeep was universally popular and served on all fronts where the Americans fought during the war and some in which they didn’t. More than 50,000 were used by the Soviet army on the Eastern front, where its reliability in all types of weather and road conditions led the Soviets to reverse engineer their own version.

Throughout the war Jeeps were used as reconnaissance vehicles, transportation for officers and personnel, ambulances, assault vehicles, radio cars, command vehicles, and virtually every other type of wheeled transport. By war’s end they were a recognizable symbol of the United States Army, even without their distinctive olive drab paint and circled white star.

More than 600,000 of the little cars were produced by Ford and Willys-Overland over the course of the war. After the war Willys-Overland continued to produce Jeeps for the military and for civilian sales. The CJ designation for today’s vehicles is short for Civilian Jeep. But Jeep itself is not a slurring of the initials GP, for General Purpose vehicle, as is commonly believed. The Jeep got its name from the GIs who loved it from the first, naming it for Eugene the Jeep, a character in the popular Popeye cartoons who could do just about anything.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
USS Hornet (CV8) under construction in 1941. The carrier was lost in the Solomons late the following year. US Navy

Shipyards

The goods which kept England in the war before the United States entered it, the troops America sent to Europe to fight it, their equipment, food, clothing, ammunition, soap, the reams upon reams of paper all armies generate, and quite literally even the kitchen sinks were sent by ship. In the Pacific a vast Navy was created to defeat the Japanese and troops were conveyed, from island to island driving the Japanese back. They too traveled by ship. The Germans and the Japanese did all they could to sink American ships, often successfully. American shipyards built the ships, repaired those that were damaged, and replace those that were sunk. It was a Herculean task.

The US Maritime Commission ran the Emergency Shipbuilding Program beginning in late 1940, originally intended to replace ships lost to German U-boats. Over the course of the war the Emergency Program built over 6,000 ships to transport cargo, liquids, and personnel. Before the ships could be built the yards to build them had to be constructed, and shipyards of all types were created along the coasts, in the Great Lakes, and on American rivers.

At the same time the military demanded landing craft of multiple types to land troops and equipment on fortified beaches in the Pacific, North Africa, Sicily, Italy and eventually France. Factories were built at inland locations in the United States and various locales of the British Empire for the construction of hordes of landing craft, while simultaneously the US Navy developed a crash program to train the officers and crews to man them. Special purpose full size ships were envisioned, designed, built, and placed in operation in a matter of months, and improvements to the designs based on lessons learned in combat were continuous.

The US Navy expanded dramatically as the war went on, with American shipyards working around the clock producing what became the largest fleet in the history of the world. The United States Navy increased by over 1,200 ships over the course of the war. Twenty one fleet aircraft carriers and seventy smaller escort aircraft carriers were delivered to the Navy by American shipyards during the months between December 1941 and May 1945. In addition to these, more than 200 destroyers and 30 cruisers were added to the fleet, and American shipyards produced ships for the British, Canadian, and Australian fleets at the same time.

The US shipbuilding industry evolved over the course of the war to adopt assembly line principles and practices to the construction of ships. Prefabricated parts arrived at the yards via rail or barge, and ships were assembled on the ways. Simplified design and shared resources allowed the industry to produce ships at the rate of more than three per day. By the end of the war the American Merchant Marine, like the United States Navy, was the largest in the world, and at least 18 new American shipyards had been built to produce and maintain America’s fleets.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
Lumber was a critical component of the US war effort. National Archives

Lumber

The use of wood during the Second World War is often overlooked when considering industrial production during the war, with its images of welding sparks and huge cranes loading tanks onto cargo ships. But wood was a critical product of the war, and the US lumber industry faced an immense task in providing enough to meet demand. The Army needed wood to produce airframes for its gliders, barracks for its soldiers, rifle stocks for its weapons, and hundreds of other uses. The Navy used wood for Motor Torpedo Boats, for landing craft, small boats, wharves and piers. Wood also served as a replacement for consumer products formerly made of steel, iron, or plastics. Shippers required vast amounts of wooden crates and barrels for their products.

At the outset of World War 2 the tool most associated today with wood cutting – the chainsaw – was relatively rare, bulky, unreliable, and usually required two men to use. It was not used to cut down trees because tilting the saw cut off the flow of fuel, instead it was used to cut an already downed tree to suitable lengths for the mill. Trees were cut with two man saws or by axe men. After being trimmed and cut to length they were typically floated downstream to be further processed. By the end of 1942 logging industry was falling behind the demand for wood.

Besides the need for wood to be used to build things, wood pulp was required for the making of paper, with the rapidly expanding American government and military generating huge demands for paper. The lumber industry had been hard hit by the Great Depression and little modernization had taken place, impeded by the relative low prices for wood before the demand generated by the war.

By 1944 wood harvests across the United States and Canada had achieved record levels. Gradual improvements in the moving of cut wood to mills where it could be shaped into lumber began to take hold. Many lumber harvests had historically been limited to the period of the spring thaws, when streams fed by snow melt had sufficient water levels to float the cut logs to gathering points from whence they could be shipped by barge or rail. Improvements in the moving of cut logs by truck helped to eliminate this bottleneck.

The lumber industry was more fortunate following the war than many others. Many manufacturers faced economic downturns following the war due to the need to retool for consumer products, or simply because their customer base no longer demanded their product. The building boom which followed the Second World War, fueled in part by the GI Bill, ensured that the demand for lumber remained steady, and the improved methods of harvesting it helped maintain the industry at high levels of production for many years after the war ended.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
Nearly all of American goods, products, and troops, were moved by the railroads throughout the war. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

Railroads

World War 2 coincided with recent modernization of American rail roads, including the implementation of streamlining which had taken hold in the 1930s, and the introduction of the diesel-electric locomotive. Railroads moved raw materials and finished goods from factories to ports, achieving record levels of freight traffic, and enjoyed a resurgence of passenger traffic at the same time. The railroads also moved huge numbers of troops to and from training camps and interior bases to the coasts for shipment overseas.

During the war the railroads, with the help of the federal government, expanded the system of Centralized Traffic Control which they had begun installing in the late 1920s. CTC gave a single dispatcher control over a segment of the track mainline, known as a block. Control of the block included the operation of all switches and signals. CTC allowed a single track to operate at up to 75% of the efficiency of double track, improving traffic flow and capacity over a given period of time.

Some railroads had already purchased diesel locomotives prior to American entry into the war, but the war years themselves saw the steam locomotive reach its peak of efficiency of operation. Wartime restrictions on materials suspended the construction of new diesel locomotives, and rationing of oil impeded their operation. The more powerful and efficient steam engines, which burned coal, along with the expansion of CTC and other improvements, allowed the railroads during the Second World War to move significantly more freight and passengers than they had during World War I, despite using less track and fewer engines.

The railroads moved coal from the mines to the customers. Iron ore was freighted to the steel mills, and steel was moved from the mills to shipyards and factories across the nation. Tanks, halftracks, Jeeps, and trucks, moved by rail to the nations ports, to be loaded on ships. Fertilizers moved by rail to farm depots, produce and grain to food processors, meat by refrigerated rail cars to meatpackers, and then to distributors. All of America’s massive war production was dependent on the railroads to get where it was needed, when it was needed.

With gasoline and rubber rationing, long trips by automobile were difficult, and the railroads took up the slack by moving record numbers of passengers, on both long and short hauls, throughout the war years. World War 2 was the peak for American railroads, in terms of freight moved and passengers carried, and the industry began a steady decline in the post war years, as long haul trucking and aviation bit into their freight and passenger businesses. But the war would not have been won without them.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
Oil refineries contributed fuel, lubricants, solvents, and the base components for explosives to the war effort. SMU Library

Oil

The American oil industry’s role in the Second World War was by no means limited to the production of fuel and lubricants, although that role was of primary importance to the war effort. The oil industry was also a producer of toluene, which for years had been attained as a byproduct of the process of coking coal. Toluene is an organic solvent with many uses, among them in glues, various lubricants, thinners, and paints. It is also a component in many explosives, TNT among them. In 1933 the Standard Oil Company had developed a process for producing toluene from crude oil, and by the onset of World War II the process was efficient enough to allow mass production profitably.

The Standard Oil subsidiary, Humble Oil and Refining, operated the Baytown Ordnance Works for the US Government, producing toluene throughout the war. Humble produced over 239 million gallons of toluene for the US war effort, just under half of the total produced during the war. Explosives and other materials produced using toluene were critical to the war effort, and nearly all of the toluene used by them were produced by US oil companies, with a small amount coming from the coking industry.

When Japan overran much of the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia it took over approximately 90% of the world’s supply of natural rubber, a major strategic victory, and the primary reason for the rationing of rubber during the war. US oil companies developed the means of producing synthetic rubber though the production of butadiene, which was manufactured by Humble Oil in Baytown, Standard Oil at Baton Rouge, and other companies at sites around the country. The manufacture of synthetic rubber and the success of rubber drives helped ensure that US military operations were never hampered by a rubber shortage.

The oil companies also produced the fuels needed for the military operations across the globe, including the higher octane gasoline required by aircraft engines operating at ever higher altitudes. Standard Oil of New Jersey and its subsidiary Humble Oil alone produced over 200 million gallons of high octane aviation gasoline by the summer of 1945. While gasoline rationing at home was becoming tedious by the end of the war, fuel shortages only occurred at the front due to local logistics issues, not because of lack of production.

US oil companies produced over 833 million tons of crude oil, refining it into the fuels, solvents, lubricants, and other products to drive not only the military operations, but large segments of American industry and residential heating requirements. By comparison Germany produced about 33 million tons over the same time frame, and Japan a meager 5 million.

You’ll Be Surprised to Hear How These 10 American Industries Won the Second World War
Consolidated B-24 Liberators undergoing conversion to antisubmarine warfare configuration in Fort Worth, Texas. US Air Force

Aviation and Aerospace

In 1939 the aviation industry in the United States was the 41st largest industry in the country. In 1945 it was the largest industry in the world. From the beginning of 1940 through the end of August 1945, the United States produced over 300,000 aircraft of numerous types and designs. The dollar value of the industry reached $16 billion before the end of the war. To say that its growth was meteoric is a gross understatement. The industry grew to become both national, with plants and development centers across the country, and international, with American factories operating in Canada producing aircraft for the United Kingdom.

In the early stages of the war in Europe most of American aircraft production was for the benefit of customers in France and the United Kingdom, who were allowed to purchase aircraft from American manufacturers on a cash and carry basis according to US Neutrality Laws. After the implementation of Lend-Lease these orders increased, and were driven yet higher when President Franklin Roosevelt established the goal of producing 50,000 airplanes per year in May of 1940.

During the war the American industry didn’t merely produce aircraft according to existing designs. The exigencies of the war dictated the need for specialized operations beyond the capabilities of existing designs, and new models were envisioned, developed, tested, and deployed during the course of the war. The B-29 Superfortress was designed and built during the war, as was the P-51 Mustang, which was originally proposed in 1940 based on a new design derived from British specifications and requirements.

In both the Pacific and over Europe, control of the air was the strategy which emerged from World War II. The German blitzkrieg which overran much of Europe achieved its early successes by destroying opposing air forces. Japanese battle doctrine was based on the long range use of aviation based on aircraft carriers. US battle doctrine in 1940 did not espouse either of these, and as the military leaders adapted to the new reality, aircraft to support the changing mission were developed and deployed.

American aircraft production was so efficient and the number of airplanes so great that by the end of the war airplanes were being flown directly from the factories where they had been produced to the boneyards, to be taken apart for their scrap value. Some of the more than 2 million workers employed manufacturing aircraft found temporary employment disposing of them. America’s aviation industry was dominant in the Second World War, producing the airplanes which won air superiority in war theaters around the world.

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