World War II at 75: When the war came to Schenectady

ALCO-made M3 tanks roll past the old Van Curler Hotel
ALCO-made M3 tanks roll past the old Van Curler Hotel

Editor’s Note: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard observes the milestone with a six-story series of articles that examines Schenectady’s role in the war effort and other topics, including today’s installment — what happened in Schenectady when the war came. Other stories will include major inventions and technical improvements performed in Schenectady that changed the course of the war, the home front scene, the end of the war in Schenectady and GE and the Nuclear Age — the early days of the Cold War.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, at 7:48 a.m. (Hawaiian Standard Time), Japanese bombers appeared over the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and other military installations in Hawaii and the Pacific Ocean.

When the attack ended, 2,403 Americans had lost their lives, and 1,143 were injured. Eighteen ships, including six battleships, were sunk or put out of action.

By the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “the day will live in infamy” and declared war on Japan on December 8, Schenectady was on a war footing.  

News of Pearl Harbor Reaches Schenectady

With the time difference, news of the Pearl Harbor attack filtered into Schenectady by mid-afternoon on December 7. Listeners to WGY radio received stern messages of the attack, the coming war, and a notification that all soldiers were to return to their bases immediately.

The minutes of the regularly scheduled meeting of the city council on December 8 are shockingly free of any mention of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yet, a few of the measures passed that night point to the arrival of war, most notably “Ordinance 9536” detailing the city manager to hire guards to protect the city reservoir and pumping stations.

While the conflict is not explicitly mentioned at the council until February 21, the passage of ordinances and launching of committees during this period showed the city in action.

The Schenectady War Transportation Bureau formed to maintain a free flow of traffic through the city while prioritizing passage to the city’s major industries.

Tucked away in a cabinet in the Efner History Center at City Hall is a fascinating hand-drawn map from M29-B detailing where every employee of GE lived within the Capital District. Circles, triangles, and shading denote what shifts the GE employees worked, how many employees lived in given homes, the fastest routes to allow the workers to get to the Schenectady plant, and carpooling options as rationing of fuel kicked in. Keeping GE fully staffed was of the utmost importance.

The U.S. War Production Board, which directed the conversion of private industry to wartime manufacture, took control of locomotive production on April 4, 1942, through General Limitation Order No. 97. The order stated that manufacturers must secure prior approval to build engines that were outside of the war effort. As a result, many of ALCO’s contracts were voided, with production redirected to militarily significant locations such as army bases, naval ports and food distribution lines.

Viewing stable housing as a necessity during wartime, the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA) forced landlords to return to the rates charged as of April 1, 1941, in “defense rental areas,” of which Schenectady was one. Apartment rates stayed the same through the end of 1944.

Civil Defense

The Schenectady Office of Civil Defense at the corner of State and Clinton Streets opened just days after the bombing and volunteers poured in. Community groups such as the Schenectady Lions Club implored their members to sign on.

The first Civilian Defense blackout drill in Schenectady occurred on Monday, January 5, 1942. The goal was to sheath Schenectady in darkness so that enemy planes would not be able to bomb the city and slow its war production.

Air raid sirens barked throughout the city at 7:14 p.m., and darkness descended. Observers including Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Mayor Mills Ten Eyck and City Manager C. A. Harrell took to the roof of the Van Curler Hotel (now SUNY Schenectady) to note areas where light was visible.

ALCO, by previous arrangement, turned on its lights after just one minute to continue its vital production.

After a few minutes, sirens rang out all clear, and the first test ended.

Although officials were pleased, the experiment turned up many locations throughout the city that needed improvement. Further drills would follow.

Union College Goes to War

Union College, like the rest of the city, participated in blackout drills. Students were pressed into service as monthly air raid wardens and patrolled the campus looking for light pollution. 

When students returned to class in September 1942, they could choose from twenty-one classes in engineering, science, and management that focused on war training. New courses such as principles of metallography, heat transfer and airflow and colloidal chemistry joined stalwarts such as radio communications and electron tubes, production and cost controls and machine design.

Student Involvement

From early 1942, students from elementary schools to college rallied to support the war effort. Students at Nott Terrace High School raised funds to build five “Tanks for MacArthur.” Younger students collected scrap paper, organized metal drives, and contributed to war loan drives with money and by marching in parades.

Arguably, the most important contributions to the war were taking place along the Mohawk River on the GE Campus. That is where we will pick up the story next week.

Chris Leonard is the City Historian of Schenectady. He can be reached at [email protected] All photos are courtesy of the Efner History Center in Schenectady City Hall or from the author’s own collection.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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