Feature   Know Your Military

During WWII, Industries Transitioned From Peacetime to Wartime Production

March 27, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Prior to World War II, factories in the United States were turning out automobiles, large and small appliances, and childrens' toys.

In January 1942 — a mere month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the establishment of the War Production Board.

An identification plate identifies a machine.
War Production Board
A stamp on a South Bend 9A lathe, manufactured in 1942, states: “This machine conforms to orders of the War Production Board.” The lathe was built because it could be used to shape materials needed for warfare. It could also be used to train apprentices for war-related factory work.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 200325-D-UB488-001C

Its purpose was to convert the factories of peacetime industries into  manufacturing plants for weapons and military equipment for the fight. The second goal was to conserve materials like metal, which soldiers, sailors and Marines would need for the fight in such things as guns, ordnance, tanks, ships, aircraft, tactical vehicles and so on.

Other items considered essential for war included petroleum products, rubber, paper and plastic. That meant strict rationing for civilians, such as limiting vehicle usage and the purchase of luxury items.

The War Production Board lasted until just after the end of World War II in October 1945.

A World War II-era poster encourages Americans to bring used toothpaste tubes and other items made of tin to use in the war effort.
Tin Salvage
A War Production Board poster encourages Americans to contribute items made with tin to be recycled for use in the war effort.
Photo By: War Department
VIRIN: 420325-O-ZZ999-001

Besides turning industries around to wartime production, U.S. industries also supplied much of the military equipment needed by the Allies, including the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

To illustrate the magnitude of the transition to wartime production, there were about 3 million automobiles manufactured in the U.S. in 1941. During the entire war, only 139 additional cars rolled off the assembly lines.

Instead, automakers built guns, trucks, tanks and aircraft engines.

A lathe is seen in a photograph.
Lathe Machine
A South Bend 9A lathe, manufactured in 1942, is still in use. The lathe was built because it could be used to turn materials needed for warfare. It could also be used to train apprentices for war-related factory work.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 200325-D-UB488-002C

Shipyards turned out entire fleets of aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers, submarines and other vessels.

Some other examples are: 

  • The Lionel toy train company started producing items for warships, including compasses.
  • Ford Motor Company produced B-24 Liberator bombers. 
  • Alcoa, the aluminum company, produced airplanes.
  • The Mattatuck Manufacturing Company, which had made upholstery nails, switched to making cartridge clips for Springfield rifles.

By the end of World War II, half of the world's wartime industrial production was in the United States. Of course, it helped that U.S. factories were not bombed like those in the U.K. and the Soviet Union.

To free men to fight, women on the homefront took jobs that were previously dominated by men, such as welders, mechanics and aircraft assembly workers.

A World War II-era poster features a servicemember and urges Americans to aid the war effort.
Production Poster
A War Production Board poster encourages Americans to produce more planes and other items for the war effort.
Photo By: War Department
VIRIN: 430325-O-ZZ999-001

All of this labor stimulated the economy, which had been in a depression, with up to 25% unemployment at one point.

In 1950, the Defense Production Act was created in response to the outbreak of the Korean War. The act is similar to the War Production Board in that it allows the president to allocate materials for national security.