World War II at 75: Tales from the home front

Schenectady residents supported soldiers and sailors overseas
Women wind armatures at GE during World War II. Women became a major — and important — part of the workforce.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Women wind armatures at GE during World War II. Women became a major — and important — part of the workforce.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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 fourth installment — the home front scene in Schenectady. Upcoming stories will include the end of the war in Schenectady and GE and the Nuclear Age — the early days of the Cold War.


As the war raged around the world, Schenectady settled into a strange sense of normalcy.

Residents kept tabs on the war through 15-minute newsreels shown between a double feature at the Lincoln Theater on State Street or listening to radio reports from Edward R. Murrow. While the city worked feverishly to support the war effort, they also sacrificed much for the same reason.

Rationing

Rationing, conserving, and reusing almost everything became the order of the day. Schenectadians, while harried by limitations on needed products, such as gasoline, fuel oil, sugar, medicine, meat, and other foodstuffs, recognized the importance of their sacrifice to support their loved ones in combat zones. Schenectadians viewed the sacrifice as patriotic, but that did not mean it was easy.

Grace R. Brown of Ballston Lake was a six-year-old resident of Watt Street when WWII began.

“My parents were required, as everyone else, to ration fuel for our family automobile,” she said. “We had the letter “B” on our car windshield.” 

The amount of gas available to a driver depended on their ration classification. Most common was “A” — which allowed three gallons of gas a week — and “B” for factory workers and traveling salesmen who were eligible for eight gallons a week.

Class “C” (for essential war workers, doctors and police officers), “T” (truck drivers) and “X” (politicians and “exemplary” people) allowed for unlimited refueling.

Green front lawns were torn out and planted with edible foods to make up shortages. These “victory gardens” grew throughout the city. New York State put out a series of pamphlets to help gardeners get the most substantial yield for their labor.

“All the families on my street had victory gardens,” Brown said. “A few families, such as ours, had chickens to provide eggs. The chickens were fun to keep.”

Even with rationing, Schenectady faced critical shortages of foodstuffs throughout the war. The worst shortages came in 1945, even as the war was driving to its conclusion. Meat nearly disappeared from Schenectady shelves in May and June, with stores running out of beef and chicken.

Local U.S. representative Bernard W. Kearney and Senator James M. Mead, with the support of a petition signed by 3,000 Schenectadians, pleaded with Congress to help alleviate the crisis. 

In early June, the federal government discontinued sugar rations, which were used for canning and jams, leaving many Schenectadians unsure how they would preserve summer fruits.

Women in the Workforce

As the calendar turned from 1942 to 1943, Schenectady, as with much of the country, faced a manpower shortage. With men heading to battlefields around the world, the remaining male labor force was placed under the War Manpower Commission (WMC) and the United States Employment Service (USES).

George F. Mahar led the Schenectady USES office, which kept track of the jobs held by every male in Schenectady. No employee was allowed to leave the county to work or take another job without approval.

To make up for the shortage, women stepped into the breach, ably filling positions in industry, retail sales, commercial enterprises and transportation. 

Women comprised a significant portion of GE’s wartime labor force. While women operated phone lines and worked in the secretarial pool before the war, they were now pressed into service on factory floors. Women wound armatures for engines, soldered electrical circuits, and designed turbines for rugged naval duty — alongside or in place of men.

The company did well as they paid female employees considerably less than their male counterparts.

Victory Campaigns and Drives

We covered student involvement in the second article in the series, but adults and retirees worked hard to provide vital resources and keep up the soldiers’ morale.

The “Folks Back Home” committee formed in 1941 at the behest of Mayor Mills Ten Eyck. With attorney and future Schenectady Mayor Archibald C. Wemple serving as chairman, the mostly female committee organized letter-writing campaigns for “the boys” overseas and coordinated Christmas card drives every year until they disbanded in May 1946.

Victory book drives organized by a committee from the Schenectady and Scotia Libraries, Union College, and the Red Cross collected books that ere sent to soldiers and sailors to keep them entertained while away from home. Schenectady engaged in four such yearly drives from 1942 to 1945.

The Red Cross, in association with Ellis Hospital, formed the Refugee Blouse Project. Volunteers from both organizations fashioned blouses from remaindered cloth.

The blouses were for women across Europe who had lost their homes and belongings. Volunteers produced 9,000 articles of clothing in just eight weeks.

Schenectady County excelled in providing scrap metal for use in tanks, shell casings and railroad tracks built in Europe and the Middle East. In early 1944, Schenectady County residents collected 1,486,948 pounds of tin. The 12.4 pounds of tin per capita was the largest donation in all of New York State during the war.


Next week we will return to Schenectady to celebrate VE and VJ-days and focus on the human cost of the war.

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 the Grems-Doolittle Library at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

 

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