World War 2, 1939 - 1945
Taken from The encyclopedia of New York State, editor in chief, Peter Eisenstadt ; managing editor, Laura-Eve Moss, Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse University Press, 2005.
World War II, by Tod M. Ottman
New York State had a significant role in the country’s war effort; by September 1945 it led all states both in the production of war material and in the number of men and women enlisted in the US armed forces.
Eighteen months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, New York State’s government, under Gov. Herbert H. Lehman, was gearing up for war. Following the German army’s sweeping attack on Western Europe in the spring of 1940， Pres Franklin D. Roosevelt on 16 May called for the annual production of 50,000 planes and for movement of the United States to a war footing. Responding to Roosevelts call, Lehman created the New York State Defense Council through an executive order on 1 Aug 1940. Dedicated to preparing the state for war, the council was a temporary state agency administered by commissioners from a series of state governmental departments. Lt Gov. Charles Poletti served as its chair. Some branches of the Defense Council focused on civil defense, some focused on assisting state industry in war production, and some maintained services to a war-stressed civilian population. Following Americas entry into the war in December 1941，the New York State Defense Council was renamed the New York State War Council. This agency functioned through 1945，and with an annual budget of $2 million it aided New Yorkers in almost every aspect of the war effort.
War Industry Production
One of the most significant contributions of New York State to the national war effort was in defense production. With a highly industrialized economy, New York State played a pivotal role in federal rearmament. Between June and November 1940 alone, New York State manufacturers received $1 billion in federal war contracts, and by war’s end New York led the nation in the total amount of contracts awarded per state, with $21.5 billion.
The most critical war industry in the state was aviation. Together the Long Island and Buffalo/ Niagara regions had served as the center of the US aeronautical industry since the 1910s. Following Pres Roosevelt’s May 1940 order to rearm, federal aircraft contracts poured into these areas. The four largest aviation firms in the state were Grumman Aircraft of Bethpage (Nassau Co), Republic Aviation of East Farmingdale (Suffolk Co), Bell Aircraft, and the Curtiss- Wright Corp, the latter two of Buffalo. Grumman employed 22,000 workers during the war, while the massive Curtiss-Wright Corp was New York State’s most prolific aircraft producer. Curtiss- Wright’s production facility at the Buffalo Municipal Airport was the largest combat plane plant in the nation. Combined with its other Erie Co plants, Curtiss-Wright had a staggering 85,000 employees by the summer of 1945. By V-J Day more than 15,000 P-40 fighters had rolled off the Curtiss assembly lines.
Other important New York State war industries included General Electric (GE) of Schenectady. With its 40,000 employees GE had a monopoly on the production of radio equipment, radar systems, and steam turbines for ships. Nearly 20% of all war contracts for New York State firms were awarded to GE. Eastman Kodak Co of Rochester was another crucial state defense firm producing photographic apparatuses as well as optical equipment. The Brooklyn Navy Yard also contributed significantly to the war effort. A massive ship repair and construction facility, the yard employed 75,000 workers and was most noted for construction of the US Navy’s battleship USS Missouri, launched 29 Jan 1944. Yet aviation remained as New York’s most significant defense industry: from 1940 through June 1945，New York State ranked second nationally, after California, in the number of federal aviation contracts received. These contracts totaled $7.5 billion, or 35% of all federal contracts awarded to New York State firms during the war.
Similar to its efforts as America’s leader in war production, New York State was again the leader in providing personnel for the US armed forces. On 16 Sept 1940 Pres Roosevelt signed the Burke-Wadsworth bill into law, creating the selective service. Under this law each state was required to create local draft, advisory, and appeal boards, as well as to provide examining physicians to evaluate draftees. In addition to the selective service’s establishment, Roosevelt, by presidential proclamation, on 16 Oct 1940 called for all males 35 years and younger to register for the draft. According to the 1940 federal census, 10.2% of the total US population lived in New York State, and of the nation’s total male population, 6,690,326, or 10%, were New York State residents. Accordingly the state provided more personnel for military service than any other state in the union. By 1 Sept 1945，14,673,089 males either enlisted or were drafted into the US armed forces. Of this total, 1,553,094, or 10.5%, were from New York State. New York City provided 885,928 men, or 57%, of New York State’s total contribution. By 1 Sept 1945 New York City, when compared with US states ranked fourth in the total number of men contributed to the war effort. By war’s end the conflict had claimed the lives of 27,659 New Yorkers, both women and men, who had served in the US armed forces.
Home Front Life
For those New York State residents who did not serve in the armed forces, life on the home front was characterized by scrap drives, rationing programs, and in the agricultural regions the ominous presence of large numbers of Italian and German prisoners of war. Beginning in the summer of 1941 various salvage drives were undertaken in the state to prepare for war. With the boom in defense production, raw material shortages began to appear. Thus the State Advisory Committee on Conservation of Waste Materials, a Defense Council bureau, responded with scrap collections on the town level. These proceeded at a constant pace through the spring of 1945. More than 300,000 people participated, mostly New York State schoolchildren, in collecting used rags, rubber, and wastepaper for the war effort.
In summer 1941 the state government also began a voluntary gasoline conservation program, which became compulsory in 1942. These rationing programs were administered by the Bureau of Rationing, a Defense Council agency. By the time the US government took over rationing in May 1942, New York State had rationing programs for gas, rubber, automobiles, and sugar. In 1940 New York was the seventh largest food-producing state in the United States, and people in rural agricultural regions felt the impact of the war most severely. In June 1940 Gov. Lehman created the Agricultural Defense Committee to coordinate state agricultural efforts with defense needs. With the committee’s aid, for the 1941 and 1942 harvests, the state experienced tremendous production totals. Following 1942，however, as most farmworkers were drafted into the military, a state agricultural crisis loomed. To solve this harvest labor crisis for 1943，the federal War Food Administration brought 3,000 Jamaican laborers to the regions of Buffalo/Niagara and Western New York. The workers were housed in more than a dozen old federal Civilian Conservation Corps camps. After large numbers of Axis soldiers were captured following the Allied landings in North Africa, 800 Italian prisoners of war were also added in 1943，provided by the federal War Department. The Italian prisoners were housed at separate camps in these same regions. In 1944, however, the Jamaican labor program was abolished, and the Italians were relocated to similar agricultural labor camps in Staten Island and Suffolk Co. In their place the War Department provided more than 4,500 German prisoners to the labor-starved areas of Buffalo/Niagara and Western New York. These German workers remained through the end of 1946，providing vitally needed field labor as well as labor in food processing centers, including the H . J. Heinz Co in Medina (Orleans Co).
Shifts in Public Policy
Most aspects of life in the state were only temporarily affected by the war, but for state government the conflict brought significant and lasting change, notably in its policies on labor and higher education. Reflecting national trends it had long been accepted practice in industrial firms to discriminate against ethnic Whites, African Americans, and Asian Americans. Efforts by state and local governments and private organizations to rectify these practices prior to the war continually failed. Yet as war contracts poured into plants in 1940，labor shortages, exacerbated by discriminatory practices, quickly emerged. In March 1941 Gov. Lehman was forced to create the Committee on Discrimination in Employment, a temporary Defense Council agency dedicated to eradicating employment discrimination. On 12 Mar 1945 Gov. Thomas E. Dewey signed the Ives-Quinn bill into law, banning employment discrimination.
New York State’s higher education policy had long consisted of generous public subsidies to private colleges because the state lacked a public university. By the Great Depression this system failed to address higher educational needs. World War II ushered in permanent changes. In 1944 Pres Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (commonly known as the GI Bill), enabling state veterans to attend college in numbers far exceeding the capacity of the state’s private colleges. The war also brought about cultural changes that rendered current college admission practices unacceptable. Before the war the private colleges used a quota system to accept limited numbers of ethnic Whites and Blacks. Starting in 1945 critics compared these practices to the policies of Nazi Germany, and public outrage over the quotas led Gov. Dewey to appoint a commission in July 1946 to explore new policy options. On 4 Apr 1948 Dewey signed legislation both creating the State University of New York (SUNY),a system dedicated to nondiscriminatory admissions practices, and banning discrimination in private college admissions.
Women and Ethnic and Racial Minorities
World War II significantly altered the lives of women and ethnic minorities in New York State. For both groups the war provided new opportunities, though the changes for ethnic minorities proved to have much greater resilience than did those for women. The war brought about profound new employment opportunities for women in the state. Starting in 1943 New York’s defense industries turned to women, traditionally shut out of industrial jobs in large numbers, as more men were drafted. By August 1945， 100,000, or 40%, of the employees in New York State’s aeronautical industries were women. The introduction of large numbers of women into the workplace was aided by state government. Beginning in September 1941 the State Education Department administered a large statewide program for the Committee on Child Care, which provided childcare services for all mothers employed in defense industries. The program was tremendously successful, and by June 1945 over 251 centers in 42 communities were taking care of more than 7,000 children daily. Yet these changes for women lasted only for the war’s duration. In the fall of 1945 almost all state industrial plants shut down for reconversion. When the plants reopened, through seniority rules, returning male veterans received preference over women for rehiring. As a result, demand for the state’s childcare program plummeted, leading to its termination on 1 Oct 1947.
If attitudinal changes toward female industrial employment lasted only to 1945，war-driven changes toward ethnic Whites and African Americans were more permanent. For ethnic Whites, particularly Italian and Jewish Americans, war-induced labor shortages and new state antidiscrimination policies led to the near elimination of workplace bias by 1943，and workplace barriers to Blacks lessened somewhat. Racial tensions between Blacks and Whites, however, remained strained throughout the war. On the night of 1 Aug 1943 the shooting of an African American soldier by a white New York City police officer in Harlem sparked two days of violence in that neighborhood. The rioting left 5 dead, 400 injured, and 180 arrested, and led to the looting of many of Harlem’s white-owned stores. Nevertheless World War II did result in far-reaching policy changes in state government that aided black advancement in the postwar period.
Emigres and Refugees
Even before the outbreak of World War II New York State served as a haven for a significant number of German academics. In September 1933 Director Alvin S. Johnson organized the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. The new program offered teaching positions to German academics who had been fired by their own universities for their opposition to the Nazi regime. The German emigres who came to the New School included economists Karl Brandt and Emil Ledrer, sociologist Hans Speier, and Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer. By summer 1941，170 scholars, refugees from European fascism, had taken up residence at the New School;50 of the program’s emigres became permanent faculty there after the University in Exile was closed in 1945. Additionally, the Institute of Social Research relocated to Columbia University, and a number of leading European art historians joined New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
In 1944 New York State became home to America’s only refugee camp during the war. Established at Fort Ontario in Oswego, the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter housed 982 European refugees, of whom 874 were Jews. Pres Roosevelt had long resisted efforts to establish facilities in the United States for war refugees, but following the British and US invasion of Italy, when large numbers of displaced persons fell into Allied hands and pressure by international aid agencies increased, the president relented. A US Army base, Fort Ontario began receiving war refugees in August 1944. The shelter remained open until February 1946， when the federal government granted 853 of the refugees permanent visas to stay.
Demobilization and Lasting Change
The conclusion of World War II on 2 Sept 1945 was quickly felt in New York State, particularly in defense industries. Even by the fall of 1944 the US military slowed the pace of its purchase orders, leading to slowdowns and layoffs at some state war plants. With V-J Day hundreds of thousands of New York State defense workers were laid off. Layoffs affected women the most because there was little likelihood that they were going to be rehired. Gains made by women during the war in industrial employment were driven only by wartime necessity. In New York State women made up 35% of the workforce in the summer of 1945; they would not reach that percentage again until the early 1970s. Defense spending helped catalyze the last great industrial age for New York State and in places like Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Cos paved the way for rapid postwar suburbanization. World War II did bring a number of other significant and lasting changes, however, particularly in the areas of ethnicity and race by reversing some of the prewar discrimination in employment and education. Advocates who broke down these barriers used the rhetoric of the war and of the struggle between American democracy and Nazi racism to bring lasting change. On 4 Nov 1947, as a token of gratitude to the sacrifices made by veterans, the electorate approved a state constitutional amendment authorizing the state government to issue a $400 million bond to pay a $250 “veteran bonus” to each New Yorker who had been a member of the US armed forces during World War II. In 2002 a memorial to honor the war’s New York State veterans opened beside the Empire State Plaza in Albany.
Capeci, Dominic J., Jr. “Wartime Fair Employment Practices Committees: The Governor’s Committee and the First FEPC in New York City, 1941-1943” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9 (1985): 45-63.
Dewey, Thomas E. Papers. Univ of Rochester Library.
Hartzell, Karl Drew. The Empire State at War (Albany: State of New York, 1949).
Kessner, Thomas. Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989).
Knapp, Gretchen Elizabeth. “Home Front Maneuvers: Civilian Mobilization and Social Problem-Solving in Western New York during World War II ” (PhD diss, SUNY Buffalo, 1995).
Mazuzan, George T. and Nancy Walker. “Restricted Areas: Prisoner-of-War Camps in Western New York, 1944-1946," New York History 59 (Jan 1978): 55-72.
Nevins, Allan. Herbert H. Lehman and His Era (New York: Scribners, 1963).
New York State War Council. Papers. NYS Archives, Albany.
Smith, Richard Norton. Thomas E. Dewey and His Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
Ottman, Tod M. “’Government That Has Both a Heart and a Head’: The Growth of New York State Government during the World War II Era, 1930-1950” (PhD diss, SUNY Albany, 2001
NYSMM Online Resources
- New York Navy and Marine casualties in World War Two
- New York's Army dead and missing in World War Two
- New York National Guard enlisted personnel who were federalized in 1940
- Chart: New York National Guard units in World War Two
- Article: New York's Citizen Soldiers by William F. Howard
- Article: New York Guard in World War Two, by COL Michael J. Stenzel, SGS and Command Historian NYG.
- Research project: Black Americans In The US Military From The American Revolution To The Korean War: World War Two, by David Omahen
- Research paper: An Analysis Of Yank: The Army Weekly by Meredith Dedopoulos
- Research paper: World War II Coverage in the Walton, NY Community Newspaper by Mannon James
- Research paper: Religion and War: A Study of Three Army Chaplains by Jake Luttinger
- Research paper: Walter Babbitt: A Case Study of Correspondence Content and Censorship in the 1940s by Andrew Orayfig and David Rothman
- Research paper: Private First Class Migdel’s Account of World War II by Daina Migdel
- Research paper: Captain Mark Frieda Hill’s Life during World War II by Daina Migdel
- Research paper: Captain W. B. Smith: A Citizen-Soldier of World War II by Trevor Wilson
- Research paper: Selected Media Depictions of the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb by Lauren Grady
- Research paper: The True Story of a POW: Richard M. Gordon by Ameer Poonawala