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Holding Down the Home Front

A glimpse at Evansville’s wartime past

It was a time of undeniable change. The allies of the U.S. in Europe were at war with the Axis powers. The country continued to reel from a devastating economic crash in the form of the Great Depression. Many wondered if we too would go to war and what that would look like. The answer came on Dec. 7, 1941, when the base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was attacked by Japanese warplanes. More than 2,400 servicemen and civilians perished in the attack and on Dec. 8, 1941, the U.S. officially declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy — allies to Japan — declared war on the U.S.

Here on the home front, Evansville stepped up to the challenges as many cities across the country did. World War II changed the fabric of our city in business and industry, societal norms, population, and much more. Eighty years after the U.S. went to war, step back in time to delve
into the industry, the culture, and the aftermath of World War II in Evansville.

 


 

▲ Ships Ahoy! Evansville didn’t just build LSTs — the city’s shipyard produced a total of 167, which was the most t any shipyard in the U.S. during wartime. Below, a crowd of some of the thousands of shipyard workers gather as U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. helped launch LST-492 on Sept. 30, 1943.

 

The City of a Billion Bullets

When America entered World War II in 1941, Evansville was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression. Even the biggest industries such as plastics and cars were struggling.

By spring 1942, the script flipped and the River City was among the majority of towns experiencing the economic boom brought by war. After securing bids from the government, many local companies switched from making commercial products to military equipment.

Red Spot Paint & Varnish Co. produced olive paint for the Army, Hoosier Cardinal Corporation made B-29 parts, and the Chrysler Corporation became pioneers in steel bullets.

“Ammunition normally is in brass cartridges, but brass metal becomes a strategic metal in the war effort, so what can you use as a replacement?” says Vanderburgh County Historian Stan Schmitt. “The Chrysler engineers figured out how to draw steel out and use steel instead of brass.”

Renamed the Evansville Ordinance Plant, Chrysler produced 482 million rounds of .30 caliber ammunition and 3.5 billion rounds of .45 caliber ammunition, 96 percent of the country’s total .45 caliber production.

The plant, which still exists as several retail warehouses around Diamond and Kentucky Avenues, also made M74 incendiary bombs and M4 General Sherman Tanks which were tested on tracks laid directly where Kentucky Avenue runs today.

The Ordinance was not the only record-breaking plant in Evansville. Republic Aviation and the Evansville U.S. Navy Auxiliary Shipyard were two facilities brought to the city specifically for war production.

Founded in Long Island, Republic Aviation was constructed from April 11, 1942, to October 1942. Producing a total of 6,670 P-47 Thunderbolts (like the recently returned Tarheel Hal at the Evansville Wartime Museum), Republic was releasing completed planes well before the plant was finished. The first plane, Hoosier Spirit, flew on Sept. 19, 1942.

“The year before they had poured totally new runways and updated the airport,” says Schmitt. “Here’s this all new runway sitting out there and that’s exactly what you need for an airplane factory right next to it.”

The Shipyard, which began construction a month before Republic, produced four APB LST barrack ships, 18 DYF ammunition lighters, 13 YF lighters, three LCVPs vessels, and 167 LSTs — the most made by any shipyard in the U.S.

Located where the current RB (formerly Mead Johnson) parking lot and the Cargill grain elevator sit, the shipyard stretched along Ohio Street to St. Joseph Avenue and was operated by the Missouri Valley Bridge Company.

The combination of increased industry from existing companies and production from new plants significantly raised the number of jobs — and in turn employees. Evansville’s total industrial employment from 34 major corporations jumped from 13,492 in 1941 to 78,775 in 1943. Chrysler increased from 650 to 12,700 employees and Republic and the shipyard from zero to 8,300 and 19,200 respectively.

These numbers, along with Evansville’s industrious reputation, contributed significantly to the U.S. making up two-thirds of all Allies’ equipment production and earned local and military corporations the Army-Navy “E” Award.

The highest honor a company could receive in WWII, an E-Award was presented to Chrysler, the Shipyard, Republic, Hoosier Cardinal, Servel Inc., and more. Their employees received certificates and small silver pins in a formal ceremony completed with a military band, showing not only how important industry was for the war effort as a whole, but how successful Evansville’s industry became and how it shaped the city’s people and future.

▲ A War Machine
While we celebrate the efforts of the Evansville workforce 80 years after the war, workers also were recognized during the war years. While companies like Republic Aviation and the Missouri Valley Bridge Company were big players, they could not have done it without the help of other local companies, namely Servel, International Steel (above), and Hoosier Cardinal (right).

On the Home Front

When we read history books about the war effort in Evansville, the almost 80-year distance makes it seem as if life may have changed overnight for residents of the River City and the country as a whole. The pin-point date that changed everything is most often set as Dec. 7, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

While the strike on American soil is what catapulted our armed forces to the war front, U.S. citizens — including those in Evansville — had already begun to feel the effects of a global war on the home front.

“Life began to change for people even before Pearl Harbor, throughout 1941,” says University of Evansville Professor of History James MacLeod. “Even though we weren’t officially at war, the U.S. was really gearing up for war throughout 1941.”

An historian and author on the subject of Evansville during wartime, MacLeod has found in his research of life in the city that the brewing of war was felt before it really began. Businesses found themselves unable to get many resources that were redirected to supplies for Allies in Europe.

“People were worried about the local economy and people were trying to act proactively in 1941 so they would have seen the war coming,” says MacLeod. “Significant change came in Evansville in the spring and early summer of 1942 when the big companies began to retool, and the shipyard and Republic Aviation began to get going.”

The landscape changed literally and figuratively. Factories and companies working on war products brought jobs and in a country recovering from a catastrophic economic crash, jobs meant an influx of people. With many men leaving to fight in both the Pacific and European theaters of battle, one of the biggest societal changes began to sweep through the nation — a surge of women and African Americans found new doors in industry opened to them.

For women, the jump from housewife to worker was experienced by many. Women became welders, line workers, riveters, electricians, and more. One interesting aspect not often mentioned is how the workday didn’t end for those women at the final whistle.

“The war absolutely could not have been won without the role played by American women,” says MacLeod. “Individual women had multiple roles. They may have been bussed to Camp Breckenridge to dance with the soldiers, or they volunteered for the USO, or maybe at home they had a couple lodgers (who worked in the factories) living in their house.”

Women at the USO club provided various services for soldiers, from things as simple as pressing uniforms for officers and getting paper and stamps for them to write home to offering GIs a comfortable bed for the night. There also was a social impact that came from the USO — many men and women would meet and fall in love, vowing to find each other after the war.

Though many Black people found jobs at defense factories as well, the romanticism of things changing 100 percent for the better was not often the case. Wartime for Evansville — certainly as other parts in the country — was a dichotomy of propaganda and reality. People came together, but racism was still prevalent. When it came to workers of color, many still experienced high levels of discrimination and segregation in factories. Black soldiers coming through Evansville were barred from the main USO club on Eighth and Main Streets in Downtown, they had to travel to Lincoln Avenue to the USO club for Black servicemen.

▲ Separated fronts While many African Americans were given new opportunities during World War II, many racist practices remained. Black soldiers were not allowed at the USO building located on Eighth and Main Streets, so a separate USO was established for them on Lincoln Avenue.

“I think it’s really interesting to look at photos of places like the Evansville Ordinance Plant and the Chrysler factory — there’s lots of pictures of Black workers in there,” says MacLeod. “But they are all completely surrounded by other black workers. They could go out there and fight for our country, but they couldn’t dance with white people. The old prejudices, the old misconceptions about people who were different from you very much still applied.”

Unfortunately, what little progress was made did not stick — after the war when soldiers returned home, the prejudices, segregation, and racism remained.

“If you look, for example, at the housing expansion in Evansville in the 1950s, many if not all of those subdivisions had racist covenants. Houses couldn’t be sold or even rented to people of color,” says MacLeod. “That stuff found a way to continue for a long time.”

Another important societal element in Evansville during the war was the American Red Cross Canteen, which grew in reputation as thousands of soldiers rode the railways on their way from training to war. Through the kindness and funds of Evansville residents, an average of 1,280 meals were served each day to the GIs, with no money collected from them.

Resembling a small home along the intersection of Ohio Street and Fulton Avenue right next to the L & N Railroad Depot, the canteen is said to have seen more than 1.6 million service men and women during its three years of operation. According to historian Harold Morgan, money, food, and contributions came to the canteen from a 50-mile radius around Evansville. The Tri-State stepped up to take care of the troops being transported, something that stuck with the men.

Letters written by soldiers on display at the Evansville Wartime Museum talk fondly of the canteen, MacLeod adds, mentioning how the kindness and humanity shown by the volunteers in Evansville stayed with them as they shipped out.

Evansville changed for the war and it changed after the war. It’s not a leap to say that World War II was the single biggest event in Evansville’s history, says MacLeod,
and what happened still ripples through time, effecting the city today.

“I think it really made us what we are today,” he says. 

Life After War

The war changed Evansville in more ways than one. A major influx of workers migrating to Evansville for jobs caused housing shortages in the area. Purpose-built housing was constructed across the city to accommodate workers. With manufacturers like the Evansville Shipyard employing more than 19,000 people at its peak, there was an almost overnight need for housing in the city.

The war also came with a societal change both in Evansville and abroad. The outlook of women in the workforce was much different. They were offered more opportunities in manufacturing and industry at companies like the Evansville Shipyard, Republic Aviation, and Chrysler. Women constituted a third of the workforce in Indiana during the war.

World War II also gave some new opportunities to African Americans as they found work in factories and other skilled jobs, which were largely closed off to them before 1941. Though the country was still segregated at the time (Evansville remained a racially divided city) and would continue to be segregated in the immediate aftermath of the war, this push into the workforce was a steppingstone into the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Local companies like Shane Uniform, Servel, and Anchor Industries reconverted back to their original fields after switching to war-centric production in the early 1940s.

Americans now had money burning a hole in their pockets as the war began to close with military spending toward the war effort pulling the city and nation out of the economic turmoil of the Great Depression.

“People had made fair amounts of money during the war and didn’t have a lot to spend it on because of rationing,” says Thomas Lonnberg, chief curator and curator of history at the Evansville Musuem of Arts, History and Science. “After the companies reconverted, there was a lot of demand to spend this money here locally that helped push the economy back in a positive direction.”

Evansville became a hotbed for refrigeration as companies switched back to pre-war manufacturing. Servel and International Harvester reentered the refrigeration market. Hoosier Cardinal produced ice cube trays for refrigerators, and Sunbeam Electric produced the Coldspot refrigerator for Sears. In the early 1950s, Evansville was known as the “Refrigerator Capital of the World.”

The booming economy and social progression all came crashing down in the late 1950s, however.

International Harvester sold its operations in Evansville to Whirlpool, Servel began selling off brands and facilities as it had failed to modernize its production, and Chrysler — a significant part of Evansville’s industrial economy — moved its factory to St. Louis due to transportation and labor challenges.

“It was a great boom when (Chrysler) came to the city at that point but likewise, when it left in the late 50s, that also had a major impact on the city,” says Lonnberg. “There was this overall feeling that Evansville was a bad labor market at a certain point in the late 50s, early 60s.”

The economy in Evansville was hurting to the point a report was commissioned by a group of 100 community leaders who were concerned about the loss of Evansville’s manufacturing businesses and inability to attract new companies. This two-part Fantus report identified the problem of Evansville’s difficulties attracting industries as a rift between labor and management and the city’s reputation of stubborn unions.

Some historians say Evansville suffered from the same problems other cities nationwide and internationally were feeling at the time.

“Business and industry and unions in Evansville tried to prepare for the post war world even during the war,” says local historian and author James MacLeod “And they did a reasonably good job of doing so. The Evansville economy in the 50s and 60s — actually, over a 20-year period — does pretty well, which, is a little surprising to a lot of people because I think the prevailing perception that people have is that the Evansville economy really cratered.”

The Fantus report would eventually be used to spring business, labor, and community leaders into action, revitalizing the local economy. In the wake of 8,000 lost jobs, Evansville pursued changes recommended by the report and by 1969, the city was booming once again.

 


 

Floating History

World War II left a visible mark on Evansville. Its contribution to the war effort is something to behold and you can still find local relics from the deadliest war in human history.

Docked on the Ohio River just off Riverside Drive is the USS LST-325 Ship Memorial. The last fully operational World War II-configured Landing Ship Tank in the world, the LST-325 was commissioned in February 1943 and served in the European Theater as part of invasion forces in Italy and France, including unloading troops on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day in June 1944.

The LST is open to tours year-round and leaves the port in Evansville in early fall of each year to sail the nation’s inland rivers.

Another piece of World War II history, the P-47 Thunderbolt “Tarheel Hal,” made its return to Evansville in October 2020 and now can be seen at the Evansville Wartime Museum, along with hundreds of other artifacts from the city’s time in the war effort.

The Evansville P-47 Foundation acquired Tarheel Hal from the Lone Star Flight Museum in Houston, Texas, a successful procurement after numerous prior attempts to bring a P-47 back to Evansville.

“This is why this museum was formed,” says Richard Kuhn of the museum’s board of directors. “It was to get an airplane, this airplane. This is a once in a lifetime thing. If we had not gotten this, Evansville would never have a P-47.”

In January, the P-47 Foundation announced Tarheel Hal would be formally renamed Hoosier Spirit II in honor of the first P-47 manufactured at the Evansville Republic Plant. Indiana State Rep. Wendy McNamara also introduced House Bill 1197 to request that Hoosier Spirit II be designated as the official state aircraft of Indiana.

Tarheel Hal is one of four flying P-47 Thunderbolts from World War II. The plane is made mostly of aluminum and weighs 10,000 pounds. Though it never flew in combat, the P-47 flew in air shows for nearly 20 years and still flies today.

“There’s not an item on that airplane that’s not in perfect condition,” says Kuhn. “If we wanted to pull it out of the hangar today and fly it to Chicago or wherever, we could.”

 


 

Honoring the Fallen

Evansvillians have fought in many of America’s wars over the years and their efforts have been memorialized with the installation of many monuments across the city. Below are just some of the structures in Evansville dedicated to the soldiers who served in the military.

Korean War Monument
Located along Riverside Drive, Evansville’s Korean War Monument was sculpted by Stephen Shields of Owensboro, Kentucky and dedicated on Aug. 19, 1992. The fundraising for the project was directed by a local Marine Reserve Unit that served with the 1st Marine Division in Korea.

Desert Shield-Desert Storm Monument
Also sculpted by Stephen Shields, this monument depicts two soldiers from the Persian Gulf War. Located across from the Civic Center, it was one of the first to be dedicated to Persian Gulf War veterans.

Vietnam War Memorial
Constructed on the riverfront at the intersection of Chestnut Street and Riverside Drive, this black granite V-shaped monument lists the names of Evansville residents who were in active duty in the Vietnam War.

Four Freedoms Monument
One of Evansville’s most recognizable pieces, the Four Freedoms Monument was erected in 1976 to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. The four 26-foot columns represent the four freedoms mentioned by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 as America entered World War II — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from oppression. The 50 slabs surrounding the monument represent the 50 states in the union.
 


 

The Civil War

Evansville isn’t well known for major military contributions in the Civil War. But the Union city found other ways to impact the war effort.

A combination of its location on the Ohio River, railroad access, and position across from Kentucky — a slave state who claimed neutrality but hosted many Confederate bases — made Evansville a critical city.

In addition to storing supplies along the riverfront, injured soldiers were transported up the river to five hospitals in the area. Evansville also hosted regiments that gathered and trained in the city before moving south. In summer 1862, three different regiments with 1,000 men each were organized in Evansville.

“Lew Wallace, who later wrote Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ, brought a regiment to camp on Reitz Hill,” says Vanderburgh County Historian Stan Schmitt.

 

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