Braceros in the Corn Belt Part Two: “Ambassadors of Goodwill”

This post is the second part of a two-part article. Read Part One for background information on labor shortage claims by larger agricultural companies and the work of Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard.

Dorothea Lange, “First Braceros,” photograph, 1942, Oakland Museum of California, Online Archive of California, accessed http://www.oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3x0nb000/?order=1

The U. S. government began importing Mexican laborers to work on American farms almost immediately after Secretary of Agriculture (and Carroll County native) Claude Wickard successfully negotiated with the Mexican government to begin what became known as the Bracero Program. The first workers arrived in the fall of 1942 and by February 1943, approximately 4,000 Mexicans were at work on farms in the American Southwest. Thousands more were employed by the railroad industry in the name of war preparedness. East Coast growers and processors soon demanded access to foreign workers and the federal government again complied. By April 1943, the program included Jamaican and Bahamian workers as well. By early 1944 bracero were at work laying railroad tracks and picking and canning produce in the Hoosier state.*

Thus far, histories of the Bracero Program have focused on the West and Southwest, touching on East Coast dairy workers, and neglecting the Midwest altogether. This is not only a gap in historiography, its a bizarre one, considering the Midwest’s role as the corn belt or breadbasket. It’s the region that has long fed much of the United States, and during WWII, the world. As economists, policy advisers, and policymakers look to historians’ studies of the Bracero Program as the root of current immigration and agricultural policies, it’s especially important to include the important agricultural region of the Midwest. Examining the stories available in Indiana newspapers is a good first step toward creating a more complete picture of the issue.

Alternative Labor in the Cornbelt 

Tipton Daily Tribune, August 7, 1942, 1, Newspapers.com

Even before the arrival of the braceros, Indiana newspapers reported on Wickard’s agreement with Mexico and anticipated the effect of the workers’ arrival. The Tipton Daily Tribune focused on the assertion that braceros would be imported “only when domestic workers are not available to meet the demand” and would “not replace other workers.” The article also detailed the guarantees negotiated by the Mexican government intended to protect the braceros: their wages would match prevailing local rates with a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour; they were guaranteed employment for at least three-fourths of their stay in any area; and the U. S. government was responsible for their transportation back to Mexico at the end of their employment.

The Bremen Enquirer added information on living conditions, noting that employers must guarantee “adequate housing, health and sanitary facilities.” This meant only three workers or a four-person family could live in a twelve by fourteen foot space with “facilities for cooking, sleeping, laundry, bathing, and adequate sanitary toilets and means of waste disposal.” Most newspapers reiterated statements on the shortage of workers caused by the war effort [see Part One] and patriotically supported the importation of workers from Mexico to help feed the troops. When the workers actually arrived in their hometown, however, the Hoosier response was mixed.

(Greencastle) Daily Banner, October 12, 1942, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mexican farm workers first arrived to work on Indiana farms managed by large companies with profitable government contracts. In May 1944, the Argos Reflector reported that the H. J. Heinz Co. had leased a three hundred acre farm north of Argos in Marshall County, “as part of their program to insure delivery of war time food commitments.” According to the Reflector, this was the Heinz Co.’s “largest venture in the country.” The article reported that 114 acres of the farm was planted with cucumbers, “one of the largest items of the company’s list of 57 processed foods.” The Argos reported that the company produced “about half” of the cucumbers provided to the U. S. navy where “pickles are an everyday part of the sailor’s menu.”

“Heinz Building Postcard,” n.d., Private Collection of Joe Coomer, Wabash Valley Visions and Voices, Indiana State University, accessed Indiana Memory.

The Reflector reported that the company was constructing forty “bunk houses” for “an estimated 200 Mexican field laborers.”  The article stated that the workers would harvest the cucumber crop and then would be offered jobs “in the tomato fields.” This Marshall County newspaper described the laborers both as “Mexicans” and “migrant workers” and so it is unclear if they were imported Mexican workers or migratory Mexican-American workers.* However, the fact that the company was building housing, implies that they were fulfilling the contract requirements for government-placed bracero workers.  It’s possible that Heinz was using both migratory labor and braceros. It’s also possible that the Argos Reflector did not or could not distinguish between workers from Mexico and migrant workers of Mexican heritage.

USCIS History Library, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, accessed https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/historical-library/library-news/bracero-program-images

While I have yet to uncover WWII-era interviews from Indiana based workers that might tell us about their experience, we can get a feel for how they were living from newspaper coverage. Newspapers reported that the braceros preferred outdoor farm work as opposed to work inside the canneries. The Reflector attributed this to their supposed preference for working outside, as if that were a trait of all Mexican people. Putting such a stereotype to one side, reading between the lines, and placing this information in context, however, we can draw some conclusions about their labor conditions. Peeling tomatoes, canning, and running label machines would have been monotonous and the large boilers likely made the work extremely hot and uncomfortable. Newspapers reported that the “200 field laborers” employed by Heinz were “selected for industrious and good conduct.” It’s highly likely that part of “good conduct” was not complaining about conditions.

“Karl Kae Knecht Cartoon,” August 12, 1943, University of Evansville Libraries, Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive, accessed Indiana Memory. Note the “Help Wanted” exclamations at the top of the cartoon.

In August 1944, the Indianapolis Star reflected the national claim that there were “critical shortages of farm labor” and stated that emergency workers were needed in several Indiana counties. The paper reported that sixty “Mexican workers” arrived in Starke County the previous week “to assist with the pickle crop.” The State Supervisor of Emergency Labor stated that 100 more Mexican workers would be assigned to farms in that county. The Star reported that twenty-five Mexican laborers would soon be at work in Wells County, also in picking cucumbers to be processed into pickles.

The Star made it clear that these were bracero workers and differentiated “Mexican workers” and “migrant workers.” After reporting the statistics for the “Mexican workers,” the paper noted that “further assistance is expected from an estimated 500 migrant families from Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.” We know even less about the experiences of these Mexican workers. The only thing we know for sure from this Star article is that they made $3.10 to $3.50 per day. However, the official bracero agreement did not put restrictions on hours.

Also in August 1944, an article in the Alexandria Times-Tribune reported that “several truck loaders [sic] of Mexican workers” were arriving in Grant County “to assist with the harvest there.” The Times-Tribune reported a local labor shortage in the “tomato growing belt” and the need for emergency workers. Again, we know little about the workers’ experience. However, the Reflector, the Star, and the Times-Tribune all mentioned the seasonal opening of the canneries in concert with the arrival of Mexican workers. While it is not always clear if the workers were migrant or bracero, it is clear that the Indiana canneries were benefiting from their inexpensive, non-unionized  labor.* In fact, in September 1945, the Elwood Call-Leader reported that “some 20 Mexican workers face deportation in Crown Point.” The men, who had been “employed in and around Kokomo,” were charged with “having failed to comply with regulations under which they were imported as workers.” This failure to “comply” could have been legitimate, but it could also refer to worker complaints about working or living conditions, mistreatment, or unfair pay.

(Elwood) Call-Leader, September 14, 1945, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Alice of Old Vincennes Tomatoes,” Private Collection of William D. Walker, Wabash Valley Visions & Voices Digital Memory Project, accessed Indiana Memory.

An August 29, 1945, an article in the (Seymour) Tribune raises some flags about worker mistreatment. The newspaper reported: “The Vincennes Packing Company here has twelve Mexican farm workers which they secured, and have housed in the building adjoining their plant.” This plant, which also canned tomato products, told the paper that “while these men were secured . . . for the use and convenience of their own growers, these men can be used at other farm work when they are not otherwise busy.” Again, in the same article, the manager of the company stated that while the Mexican workers were employed “to get tomatoes picked, and other canning crops taken care of . . . they can be used at other farm work when not needed for tomato picking.” It was mainly large companies that could afford to transport, house, and pay the guest workers, not small farmers. However, the large company farms and processors of Indiana were surrounded by small family farms. This Tribune article seems like a thinly-veiled advertisement to local farmers announcing that the packing company was willing to hire out their workers. The question begging to be asked is: who made money off this arrangement, the company or the workers? Nothing can be definitively concluded from this article, but the repeated declaration of the workers’ availability does seem suspect.

(Seymour) Tribune, August 29, 1945, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Open Your Hearts”: Railroad Braceros and Hoosier Response

Mexican railroad workers were also essential to the war effort as increased transportation was necessary to ship supplies from the heartland to the front lines. The response to the arrival of Mexican railroad workers by Indiana communities ranged from attempts to run them out of the neighborhood and pin local crimes on them to wholehearted welcome and support.

In Irvington, just east of Indianapolis, a small but vocal group of prominent citizens made it clear that they did not want Mexican laborers living in their neighborhood and especially not in the historic home of an important nineteenth century politician. Ironically, the politician whose home the residents suddenly wanted to save after years of neglect belonged to George Washington Julian, an important abolitionist who advocated for the civil rights of all people regardless of race or gender. In an 1855 speech on immigration Julian stated:

“Let them come . . .  let them have a welcome on these shores. Their motive is a very natural and at the same time honorable one, — that of bettering their lot. . . To proscribe him on account of his birthplace is mean and cowardly as to proscribe him for his religious faith or color of his skin. It is the rankest injustice, the most downright inhumanity.”

Oakland Museum caption: Bracero railroad workers. c. 1944. Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Jose Cruz.

Irvington residents, however, didn’t internalize the lessons of the man they claimed to revere. The Indianapolis News reported in January 5, 1944 that “Historic Irvington was up in arms” over plans to house Mexican workers of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the  Julian home. W. O. Teufil, local superintendent of the railroad, stated that the company had acquired the property and began renovating it to house twenty workers. He stated, “We certainly will make the property more presentable than it has been. Its historic value will not be destroyed. We simply plan to return it to the livable condition to which it once was.”

Indianapolis News, January 5, 1944, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

An Irvington city councilman, however, claimed that turning it into a boarding house would create a zoning violation, and the president of the Irvington Union of Clubs stated that the organization would “begin an immediate inquiry to learn the details of the plan in the hope that it could be stopped.” Teufil expressed his surprise to the opposition and stated: “These are not to be outlaw workers or anything of that sort.”

Indianapolis News, January 8, 1944,1, accessed Newspapers.com

On January 8, the Indianapolis News reported that the city “began preparing legal action to oust from twenty to thirty Mexican workers for the Pennsylvania railroad from the historic George W. Julian home.” Despite the fact that the railroad had gotten over a thousand dollars worth of permits, the city building commissioner notified the railroad that they had not obtained proper permits for renovation and that they needed to evacuate the workers.

In strong contrast to his neighbors, an Irvington resident named M. B. McLaughlin wrote a statement for the News condemning the behavior of those working to remove the Mexican workers from the Julian home through the false pretenses of zoning ordinances. He wrote:

Whether or not you realize it, you are selling short your sons, brothers, husbands on far fighting fronts by your proposed action in closing the Julian home . . . These strangers have come to do a vital job which, ultimately, may mean life, not death, for your dear ones . . . How proud your service men would be . . . if you would open your hearts and hearths to strangers among you.

(Muncie) Star Press, March 1, 1944, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

Meanwhile, the city prepared legal action, and on February 23, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Pennsylvania railroad was working to repair a local gymnasium to house the workers. More Irvington residents spoke out in support of the workers aiding the Allied cause. A local resident named C. S. Brook wrote the mayor, condemning the actions of his xenophobic neighbors. He wrote: “We would state that these few do not speak for Irvington.” Fortunately for the war effort, those working to keep the Mexican workers in the Julian home won out in the end. The Indianapolis Star reported on March 23:

 It was learned a ‘Good Neighbor’ policy promulgated between city officials, the Pennsylvania Railroad and Irvington residents would permit the Pennsylvania to continue housing 29 Mexican track workers in the old George W. Julian home…

Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, April 14, 1944, 3, accessed Newspapers.com

In a drastically different scene, Mexican workers employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad were heartily welcomed and thanked for their labor by the World War I veterans at an American Legion post in Valparaiso. Charles Pratt Post No. 94 invited thirty-five braceros to a “Pan American Day” celebration on April 14, 1944. The (Valparaiso) Vidette-Messenger of Porter County described the event in detail and extensively quoted its host, Post Commander Franklin Burrus. The celebration began with “the advancement of the colors of both countries while legionnaires and guests stood at attention. The Hoosier attendees broke into the U. S. national anthem and when they were finished, their Mexican guests “responded with their national anthem.” Commander Burrus then welcomed them in a touching speech. He thanked the Mexican workers for their contribution to the war effort and expressed his hope that through their alliance, Mexico and the United States would grow closer in times of peace as well. Burrus continued:

We of the Legion, having served in World War 1, and some in World War 2, probably have a deeper appreciation of the need for inter-American co-operation than many other persons. We realize that you men from Mexico are certainly making an important contribution to the prosecution of this war by your present work in the great industry of railway transportation. We realize that you are away from home, in another country, separated from intimate friends and loved ones and we know what that means. Nevertheless, we hope that your experiences here will all be pleasing to you and that your country and American will both benefit by your having been here.

(Valparaiso) Vidette Messenger, April 15, 1944, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

Luckily, we know a bit more about the workers in this story. They were in the United States for six months as a part of the bracero program’s railroad initiative. From quoted statements by their supervisor, Charles Weiss, we can glean that he greatly respected their work. Weiss told the Vidette-Messenger, “They are really making a great contribution to the war effort.” Weiss also seemed to care about the workers having a positive experience. He stated, “These men like it here and when they return to Mexico they will go as ambassadors of good will.”

“Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964,” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, accessed http://americanhistory.si.edu/bracero/introduction (Note: The museum does not list s credit for the poster).

Of course, these are the interpretations of an American supervisor, not a Mexican laborer. While we can’t understand the full experience of the workers from the newspapers, we can get a taste of this one festive evening. Four Mexicans “favored” the audience “with songs of their native country.” They must have performed for some time, as the newspaper reported  the  singing of “solos, duets and ensembles.” Fortunately, the newspaper gave the Mexican musicians’ names, several likely misspelled. These are the only names of Mexican workers that I came across in my research. They are:

Cesario Marquise

Francisco Martinis

Angelo Lopez

J. C. Custro

After the music concluded, the group watched the movie War on the High Seas about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Vidette-Messenger reported that the evening concluded with “the serving of refreshments, following which Angelo Lopez, formerly a Mexican soldier, put on a demonstration of the manual of arms and playing the drum.”

While this is the lengthiest description of a warm Hoosier welcome for Mexican railroad workers, it is not the only such story. In January 1944, the (Cambridge City) National Road Traveler praised the work of fifty Mexicans residing just east of Cambridge City who were making “the dirt fly,” laying railroad line. The paper also reported enthusiastically on their patronage of local businesses: “The Mexican workmen have been keeping local stores busy caring for their needs while here.” So while they didn’t roll out the red carpet like Valparaiso, Cambridge City was at least accepting and grateful for the economic boost. In June 1944, the (Richmond) Palladium-Item gave an update on the “fifty Mexican young men” living “in a 12-car camp unit near Cambridge City while working on the Pennsylvania railroad line between Indianapolis and Richmond.” The newspaper reported, “Although the boys have only been here two weeks of the six months they contracted to work, most of them already have decided they want to make Indiana their home.” This would not have been true for those Mexican railroad workers stationed in Elkart, however.

In September 1945, a fifteen-year-old white girl named Sally Joan Young was raped and murdered in Elkhart. In the ensuing weeks, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the Elkhart police and newspapers “fanned” false reports that “the crime had been committed by a Negro.” An African American man picked up on another incident was held in a nearby jail as “practically” guilty. He was “frequently and intensively questioned about the school girl slaying.” According to the Recorder:

Several Mexican railroad workers had also been arrested and grilled, by local police and the FBI, during the six-weeks attempt to pin the crime on a person of a dark-skinned racial group.

Eventually, a white man who was seen  in bloodstained clothes by several witnesses, confessed to the crime. The Elkhart Truth reported:

Incidentally, it will be recalled that, when the crime was committed, there was a quick flareup of suspicion toward members of two dark-skinned races resident in Elkhart. As it turns out, the murderer was neither a Negro nor a Mexican.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 10, 1945, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In researching this topic, I found only one mention of an interpreter employed for the workers. Thus we can imagine the  fear that the young men experienced as they likely received the same frequent and intensive questioning as the African American suspect by the police and the FBI.

More research is needed to examine complaints of the workers concerning injustices. Again, newspapers give us hints. In 1946, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the Mexican government would no longer send workers to Indiana. The Mexican Minister of Labor Francisco Trujillo “cited low wages, illegal withholding of wages, poor living conditions and lack of medical care.”

Indianapolis Recorder, February 23, 1946, 10, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Jamaican and Bahamian Workers 

In April 1943, Congress passed Public Law 45 allowing the importation of workers from the Caribbean. Approximately seventy thousand Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Bahamians arrived to work on U.S. farms between the passage of the law and the end of the Farm Worker Program in 1947.

In July 1943, the Greencastle Daily Banner reported that twenty Jamaican workers were “relieving the farm labor shortage in Gibson County.” They were at work “detasseling and hoeing hybrid corn on the 9,800 acre Princeton Farms, [the] largest agricultural unit in Indiana.” The paper reported that the workers lived in a new bunk house with separate building for the kitchen and mess hall where a Jamaican cook provided their meals. In August, the Banner followed up on the July report, stating that the Jamaicans would work for Gibson County orchard growers and then return to Princeton Farms for the corn harvest.

Jamaican Workers in Michigan, photograph, 1943, Detroit News Photograph Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, accessed Virtual Motor City.

Again, there are few reports of their experiences in the workers own words, but we can glean some information about their lives from these newspaper reports. For example, the Banner writer interviewed Hoosiers who worked with the Jamaicans. The farm manager described them as “happy-go-lucky” but also seriously “religious.” He said they complained little as the worked. They disliked only the cold Indiana mornings and the lack of Jamaican rum. These statements reek of stereotyping, but again show us that workers were motivated to not complain because they could be repatriated without pay.

Like they did for Mexican workers, Indiana newspapers generally painted a positive picture of the Hoosier reception of Jamaican workers, relaying that they arrived to help with or even save the harvest, and ease the labor shortage. For example, the Indianapolis Star reported August 8, 1944, that thirty-two Jamaicans would soon arrive in LaPorte County to pick peaches and in nearby counties others were “at work in connection with the canning industry.”

The Alexandria Times-Tribune reported a few weeks later that a large number of Jamaicans arrived in Madison County as “emergency pickers” for the tomato fields. The article also noted that the canneries would soon begin operations, reinforcing the connection noted in Part One between the demand for inexpensive foreign labor and the Indiana tomato canneries. The Daily Clintonian, likewise, reported from Vincennes that “eighty Jamaican and Mexican agricultural workers will arrive in Knox county around May 15 to aid in production and harvesting of the 1945 tomato crop.”

(Greencastle) Daily Banner, August 10, 1943, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In Martinsville, however, Jamaican workers had a close call with a riotous mob. The Martinsville Reporter told of “a display of mob spirit by a group of trouble makers and agitators . . . directed against the twenty or more Jamaican workers that had been sent into the county to relieve the current labor shortage.” There was apparently enough “loud talk” that the local National Guard unit armed themselves with “tear gas equipment” and sent for the state police. In the face of the show of force, “the loud mouth leaders of the agitators began to have business elsewhere.” And while the situation was diffused, the Reporter noted that “a spark at the right time might have caused grave trouble.”

Response of African American Newspapers

While many Indiana newspapers described these guest workers as saviors of harvests and important contributors to the war effort, African American newspapers saw their arrival through a different lens – the lens of available black workers who have been repeatedly denied similar jobs for a fair wage (as discussed in Part One).

Evansville Argus, April 2, 1943, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Indianapolis Recorder reported that there were plenty of agricultural commodities being produced and that the supposed labor shortage was not affecting production goals. The problem was distribution, not production or labor. The Evansville Argus took issue specifically with the guest worker program. In an editorial for the Argus, journalist Elmer Carter criticized the recent importation of workers from the Bahamas to Florida. Carter wrote,

Indiana Memory caption: Sixteen-year-old Russel Deyo (above), of Sparta, raises sweet potatoes and tobacco on a large farm he cultivates with his father. Russel B. Deyo, Sparta, Va. Jan 19 1947, New Farmers of American Records, University Library Special Collections and Archives, IUPUI, accessed Indiana Memory.

There are a hundred thousand unemployed disinherited black and white share croppers in the South anxious to work in Florida or anywhere else.

He stated that the Southern Tenant Farmers Union offered to send 20,000 share croppers to the area in need, but the Florida growers did not want them. The union workers would have been an integrated labor force of black and white workers, so the growers would have to pay black and white laborers the same wage. Carter says the workers were rejected because the growers did not want to pay black workers the same wage as white. Instead, they wanted Bahamians because they could exploit their labor. Carter called on Secretary Wickard to “examine the motives which have prompted the Florida growers to spurn the offer of unemployed and available American workers.”

As it was correct in assessing the labor shortage myth, the Argus was again correct about the exploitation of workers. Importing foreign workers weakened the bargaining position of domestic workers in their struggle to increase their wages. However, this was not because foreign workers cost less. Employers had to pay a minimum wage and transportation as well as provide housing. The incentive was that foreign workers could not bargain or complain. If they did, they were repatriated. According to historian Cindy Hahamovitch:

The importation program was certainly more palatable to growers than the effort to relocate domestic farmworkers from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity, but it undermined farmworkers’ efforts to lift themselves out of poverty. Farmworkers who struggled to bargain up their wages after 20 years of agricultural depression found themselves thrown into competition with farmworkers from abroad who could be deported for making the very same demands.

USCIS History Library, U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services, accessed

According to the Bracero History Archive, the worker safeguards negotiated by the Mexican government worked only in theory. In practice, however, U.S. employers ignored the safeguards and many braceros “suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor.” The U.S. extended the bracero program for decades, using it not only as a supply of cheap labor but as a policy for controlling immigration. Its legacy continued to influence policy making today. Regardless of the intentions of such bureaucrats and agricultural corporations in importing labor, there is no question that these Mexican and Caribbean men made an important contribution to the Allied war effort.

Note

* Indiana farms had used migratory workers for some time. Some of these workers may have been Americans with Mexican heritage or Mexican immigrants who came to the United States of their own accord, both legally and illegally. By using newspaper articles only, not in conversation with government records, it is not always clear if the workers described as “Mexican” were migratory workers or were workers imported by the United States government. I have noted with an “*” where the newspapers are not specific.

Further Reading:

Bracero History Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, http://braceroarchive.org/

Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. (New York: Routeledge, 1992).

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Gamboa, Erasmo. Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas, 1990).

Hahamovitch, Cindy. “The Politics of Labor Scarcity: Expediency and the Birth of the Agricultural ‘Guestworkers’ Program,” Report for the Center for Immigration Studies, December 1, 1999, accessed https//cis.org/Report/Politics-Labor-Scarcity.

 

Braceros in the Corn Belt Part One: Secretary Wickard & the Myth of the Agricultural Labor Shortage in WWII

In 1942, headlines in Indiana newspapers warned:

“Acute Labor Shortage Perils Midwest Farms”
(Valparaiso) Vidette-Messenger of Porter County

but also

“No Labor Shortage”
– Indianapolis Recorder

So which was it? An acute labor shortage endangering the farms of the corn-belt, and in turn, the country’s war production? Or no labor shortage at all? The answer is surprising and continues to impact policy today.

John Vachon, “Wheat,” photograph, 1941, Farm Security Administration Photographs, IUPUI University Library, http://ulib.iupuidigital.org/cdm/ref/collection/IFSAP/id/562

The Agricultural Front

Just before U. S. entry into the Second World War, large farming and agricultural processing companies—which had become dependent on the cheap labor that was abundant during the Great Depression—warned of an impending labor shortage. They claimed that there was not a sufficient number of workers available to fill the positions left behind by the men enlisting in the armed forces, or by the men and women who left the farm for war-related industrial work.

At the same time, with the introduction of President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program (which lent food and supplies to Great Britain and its allies), the U.S. needed to produce more agricultural products than ever before. The battle on the agricultural front would need a larger number of agrarian soldiers. Indiana newspapers worried over how Hoosier farmers would meet production goals as their sons left for the “army camps” and “defense industrial plants.” The Muncie Post Democrat continued:

Now that the sons are gone, the farm operators find it impossible to compete with industrial labor wages for help. This may result in many acres uncultivated this season . . . This condition rates as serious when food production is important in the defense program.

In spring 1942, Purdue University reported that “anticipated shortages of farm labor, resulting from enlistments in the armed forces and attractive industrial wages, have not developed.” However, as the year went on, Indiana newspapers became more frantic in tone. They reported that farmers were selling acreage and animals because they could not find farm hands to help with the work. The weekly industry newspaper, the Prairie Farmer, surveyed eighty-one midwestern counties and reported that  three-fourths of them “were found to be suffering from a shortage of farm hands.”

“Farmers on the Carlin Farm, Monroe Township, Kosciusko County, Ind.,” 1949, Collection of Elaine (Carlin) Brown, Pierceton and Washington Township Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Indiana Canneries and the “Labor Shortage”

By the fall of 1942, large Indiana agricultural businesses joined the national cry of “labor shortage.” Indiana newspapers gave extensive coverage to the professed concerns of the tomato canning industry.  The Muncie Evening Press ran the headline: “Labor Shortage Hits Tomatoes: Cannery Shutdowns and Crop Losses Threaten.”

The article reported that the “acute war-born labor shortage” would close a dozen canneries and that “picked tomatoes awaiting processing [were] lying idle and periled by rotting.” State government officials and the Indiana Farm Bureau spoke on behalf of the canneries and appealed to local men and women to go to work at the plants. Hasil E. Schenck, president of the Indiana Farm Bureau, stated:

Reduced farm production will be no reflection on the patriotism of farmers, for without manpower they can not produce food and fiber any better than industry can produce ships, tanks and guns without steel.

Indiana Governor Henry Schricker issued “an appeal to housewives and all others available to apply for work at the nearest cannery.” The Evening Press reported that the canneries were already employing WPA workers and were calling for women “peelers” and for school children “packers” to volunteer their services.

“Can label for IT brand Indiana tomatoes packed by R. W. Jones Canning Corporation,” n.d., Trade Catalogs for Indiana Businesses, Digital Images Elkhart Public Library, Auburn Indiana, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p16066coll3-21.

Yes, volunteer. These industry giants, many of whom had profitable government contracts, were asking for women and children to freely donate their labor. A few days after the call for volunteers went out, the Elwood Call-Leader praised the response of school staff and students in the Madison County area while rebuking the “apathetic and uncooperative” attitudes of local women—women who likely had increased workloads at home because of the war effort. According to the article, employment service and local government officials complained that “despite all appeals that have been made throughout the past week, many . . . women still do not realize the seriousness of the situation and are not willing to work, even [though] they are needed only to get through the brief critical period the industry is now facing.”

The Call-Leader added that army officials were “alarmed at the situation” and were “making a check to see whether the army will be able to get the tomatoes it has ordered.” The canneries’ message was clear. Without cheap or free labor, American boys on the front would go without food. Like corporations across the country, Indiana businesses began to demand that the government supply them with an inexpensive source of labor.

African American Newspapers and the “Labor Shortage”

And yet, African American newspapers saw “no labor shortage.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported that the companies need only to “hire negroes.” The Recorder, continued:

Nobody has yet proved there is a labor shortage in this country. . .  There is no need to work a few workers to death while others walk the streets hungry, seeking work. There are still enough qualified workers in this country to allow employers to continue their discrimination against workers because of the race, religion, and nationality of such workers.

Indiana’s African American newspapers reported that thousands of African Americans were looking for work and were willing to travel great distances to take jobs, but employers didn’t want them. For example, in November 1942, the Indianapolis Recorder and the Evansville Argus reprinted a report from Graphic Magazine that 3,000 African American men left “the Deep South” at the request of California farmers for help saving the harvest. When they arrived “there were no jobs for them!”

Graphics Magazine, reprinted as “Editors Expose Abuse of Negro Labor,” in Evansville Argus, October 31, 1942, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and Indianapolis Recorder, November 14, 1942, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Labor Shortage Myth

The observations of the African American newspapers were correct. There was no labor shortage that the federal government could not meet with domestic workers. However, the myth of the labor shortage had its own power.

Over the previous decade, the Great Depression created a large surplus of workers seeking employment. In 1941, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor reported that farmers had “come to consider this over supply as the normal supply, and to consider any reduction in the surplus supply as a shortage.” These departments concluded, however, that all of the shortages, perceived or real, could be met by moving surplus domestic workers into the areas of need. The catch, however, was that the balanced supply of available workers and demand for their labor required employers to pay a fair wage for agricultural labor.

Spencer Douglass Crockwell, “Work On A Farm This Summer,” poster, 1943, United States Office of War Information, Print Department Collection, Boston Public Library, accessed Digital Public Library of America

A remarkably organized effort of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the U. S. Employment Service (USES) was prepared to deal with any real “pockets of labor scarcity.” They expanded the New Deal migratory camp program, setting up permanent and mobile camps around the country to bring American workers across the country for harvests. However, because employers had to pay more reasonable wages, they still complained of shortage. In fact, they cited higher wages as evidence of a shortage.

Statistics from the Indiana division of the U.S. Employment Service show that Indiana’s available labor pool reflected the national situation. J. Bradley Haight, the Director of the U.S. Employment Service (USES) in Indiana estimated in 1942 that there were “100,000 individuals in the state seeking employment. He stated, “The job insurance division issued checks to 40,000 persons. This represents a reservoir of labor which is to be tapped.” However, the large growers, dependent on cheap labor, continued to cry shortage even as they were provided with workers by the FSA and USES—workers that they didn’t want to employ because of racial prejudice or unwillingness to pay a fair wage.

So these wealthy, powerful, and organized growers and processors of agricultural commodities demanded that the federal government respond to their manufactured labor shortage by importing foreign workers. The government quickly gave in to their demands. History professor Cindy Hahamovitch, writing for the Center for Immigration Studies, summarized the government’s response to the labor myth:

The officials who created the guestworker program never believed there was a national labor shortage in agriculture. . . They created the importation program, not because it was necessary, but because it was politically expedient to do so, because the nation’s most powerful growers were demanding the preservation of the cheap, plentiful, and complacent labor force to which they had become accustomed over the previous 20 years of agricultural depression.

The federal government complied because the myth was persuasive. A false labor shortage would have the same effect on agricultural production as a real one. No amount of statistics or economic reports could allay the fears of farmers worrying if sufficient help would be available at harvest time. Therefore, farmers anticipating a lack of aid and picturing their produce rotting in the fields, would plant less, and the country wouldn’t meet its production goals—just as if there was a real labor shortage.

Despite their best efforts to meet the real pocket labor shortages with domestic workers and their distribution of reports on the available domestic labor pool, the federal government needed to allay the small farmer’s growing fear of a massive shortage. By 1942, the Roosevelt administration was cornered into responding to the shortage myth by importing foreign workers. As Congress tore apart the Farm Security Administration and its program of migrating workers to areas of need, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture, Claude R. Wickard, left for Mexico to negotiate a deal that would affect agricultural and immigration policy for decades.

Hoosier Dirt Farmer as U. S. Secretary of Agriculture

Claude R. Wickard was a Hoosier dirt farmer through and through. He was born in 1893 and raised in Carroll County on his family’s farm. His father, a staunch democrat named for Andrew Jackson, was a strict disciplinarian who raised his son with every expectation that the farm was his present, future, and legacy. The younger Wickard, however, grew ambitious. He saw that the farm could be more productive and efficient with the application of modern methods. Against his father’s wishes, he enrolled in classes at Purdue, where he learned about scientific farming and got hands-on experience with sanitary hog care and breeding. He soon vastly improved the farm and received recognition from farming organizations as a leader in modern farming methods. His influence in local Farm Bureau organizations grew in the 1920s and he advanced to several leadership positions where he took on the challenges of his fellow farmers.

“Secretary of Agriculture Wickard Tours the Family Farm…” in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 82. [Claude Wickard on left]
Beginning at Purdue and continuing throughout his career, Wickard remained focused on rural social justice and “the farm problem.” To Wickard, social justice for rural folks meant that farmers should have equal buying power as urban workers. The inextricably related farm problem was what economists called a parity problem, that is, the prices farmers received for their products was not in balance with their expenses. Wickard, like many leaders of the New Deal, spent his early career trying to figure out how the state and federal government could achieve parity for farmers by solving the problem of overproduction.

By 1930, several factors made Wickard a prime political candidate. First and foremost, while most Indiana farmers were Republicans, Wickard was born into a staunchly Democratic family and remained loyal to the party despite the fact that the national party had not prioritized rural concerns through the 1920s. Thus, Wickard was one of the few farmers with influence in the Farm Bureau and other organizations who was also a Democrat. Second, Wickard’s embrace of scientific farming ideas made him open to production control as a method to achieving parity for farmers. Most farmers, who were already barely making ends meet while operating their farms at full production could not imagine cutting down on output. Wickard, however, could see that farmers needed help from the federal government to make the drastic, nationwide economic shift required to give them the same standard of living as the urban people they fed. This way of thinking aligned with the ideas of the men who would soon take over leadership of the nation. Wickard was poised to join them.

His political career began modestly. A group of county organizers convinced him to run for a state senate seat and he reluctantly agreed. Wickard stated in an interview:

I didn’t like politics . . . [but] like all other things, sometimes you’ve got to make your contributions to your community and to the Democratic Party . . . I had a feeling of responsibility toward my fellow citizen.

Wickard was elected state senator November 8, 1932 as Democrats swept elections across the country and Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the U. S. presidency.

In May 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act took effect and farmers saw that the new administration recognized their plight. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA or Triple-A), a division of the Department of Agriculture, was tasked with creating parity through taxing companies that used agricultural produce and decreasing production. Wickard was quickly elected chairman of the Corn-Hog Section of the Indiana Triple-A. He soon became the Assistant to the Chief of the National Corn-Hog Division, and in July 1933 Wickard went to Washington.

When he arrived in Washington as second in command of the Corn-Hog Section of the AAA, he was overwhelmed by the job. In his own words, Wickard was “just a farmer” and had to work to understand the complex economic issues the administration faced. And he got frustrated with the pace of bureaucracy. However, he was likeable, earnest, easy to work with, and his ideas about parity aligned with those of Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture. Most important to Wickard’s rise, however, was that he was known as a loyal Democrat and commanded the respect of midwestern farmers.

When the Department of Agriculture reorganized by region, as opposed to commodity in 1936, Wickard became Assistant Director of the North Central Division. By this point, Wickard was on Wallace’s radar and the secretary saw potential in the Hoosier dirt farmer. Wallace later noted that Wickard was rare in a department of apolitical technocrats and subject experts in that he was actually a Democrat. Wallace stated: “He was about the only one of the whole crowd in agriculture that had any claim to being a democratic politico.” In the fall of 1936, Wallace brought Wickard with him as he stumped for FDR throughout the Midwest. When FDR won reelection, Wickard continued to make himself useful to Wallace at the USDA and was quite successful and well-liked in  his division.

“A Speech to the Nation,”  in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 340.

In January 1940, Wallace recommended Wickard to FDR for the position of Undersecretaty of Agriculture. After making sure he was not aligned with Roosevelt’s Hoosier adversary Paul McNutt, the president agreed. Wickard was sworn in February 29, 1940. He served less than six months before Wallace resigned as Secretary of Agriculture to run as FDR’s vice president. Wallace recommended Wickard to succeed him and Wickard was sworn in as the U. S. Secretary of Agriculture September 1940.

Wickard, The Labor Issue, and The Bracero Program

With much of Europe dependent on U.S. agricultural production, the Secretary of Agriculture’s job was even more important than in peace time. Meeting war production goals was paramount. Wickard faced many challenges, among them, the increasing claims of a labor shortage.  In December 1941, Wickard testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee:

The farm labor shortage is not as serious as generally believed. Farm production has suffered, of course, from the loss of farm hands who have been drafted or got higher pay in defense plants. But the situation is not alarming.

While he downplayed the labor shortage claims, he did make it clear that farmers would “have to pay more for their help” than they had before the war stimulated the economy and reduced the labor surplus. As the earlier examination of newspaper articles has shown, this was not an option many corporations were willing to consider.

Less than a year later, Wickard had changed his approach to the issue. The (Richmond) Palladium-Item reported :

Secretary of Agriculture Wickard warned that the United States would face a food shortage unless it quickly solves the problem of manning the farms. He estimated the armed forces and factories may drain off approximately 2,000,000 farm workers by the end of 1942 in addition to those who have already gone.

By this point, it seemed like Wickard was treating the labor shortage claims as a legitimate threat to production goals. However, this same Palladium article still noted that “the most mentioned causes” of the shortage “were high wages.” Even at the peak of industry claims of a labor shortage, the crux of the issue was still that companies would “have to pay more for their help,” as Wickard told the House in 1941.

“Photograph [of Wickard] used for a newspaper owned by the Oklahoma Publishing Company,” 1946, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society, accessed Gateway to Oklahoma History.
While Wickard described his understanding of complex economic issues as limited and his progress in grasping what his statistician colleagues reported as slow and labored, he deeply understood and cared about agricultural issues and maintained a strong moral decision-making process throughout his career. Like most government officials with access to labor statistics, Wickard would have known that, while there was no labor shortage, a fictional labor shortage was just as dangerous to the war effort. It is, however, possible that his tenuous grasp of complex economic issues meant that he thought the shortage was real. (His biographer Dean Albertson implies the second). Wickard’s career record shows that he would not have acted to address the labor shortage had he not believed it was the best thing for the American people. There are many instances during his career when a different vote or decision would have furthered his political career, but he did what he believed to be the right thing for American farmers.*

Dorthea Lange, “Braceros,” ca. 1942, photograph, Oakland Museum of California, accessed Online Archive of California.

Tasked with addressing the issue, Wickard left for the Second Inter-American Conference on Agriculture in Mexico City early in July 1942, to make a deal that would import Mexican workers and ensure the United States met its production goals. Several agencies were involved in creating a plan to import Mexican agricultural workers, but it was Wickard who was responsible for negotiating an agreement between the interests of the Mexican government, the United States government, American farmers, labor organizations, and large farming and processing conglomerates.

Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Evequiel Padilla Peñaloza was reluctant to agree because of U.S. exploitation of and discrimination against Mexican workers in the past. Padilla insisted that any agreement include a number of guarantees for the rights of braceros. Padilla demanded Mexican workers receive the same guarantees of wages and working and living conditions as American workers. Wickard agreed to a minimum wage and work and living standard. However, there were no such guarantees for American workers. Thus, as labor organizations were quick to point out, these workers were guaranteed, at least in theory, more protection by the U. S. government than domestic farm laborers. After ten days of negotiations Wickard formalized the agreement August 4, 1942. In less than a year’s time, Indiana farms were benefiting from foreign labor. Hoosier response to these guest workers was mixed.

In Part Two of this post we will look at the stories of these farmers and foreign workers as told through Indiana newspapers:

Further Reading:

Albertson, Dean. Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Bracero History Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, http://braceroarchive.org/

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Claude R. Wickard. State Historical Marker. Indiana Historical Bureau, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4420.htm

Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Hahamovitch, Cindy .”The Politics of Labor Scarcity: Expediency and the Birth of the Agricultural ‘Guestworkers’ Program,” Report for the Center for Immigration Studies, December 1, 1999, accessed https//cis.org/Report/Politics-Labor-Scarcity.

Hurt, Douglas R. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Start Your Aircraft Engines!: Aviation Accomplishments in Speedway During World War II

Note: For those interested in learning more about aviation in the Speedway area during World War I, see “Speedway: An Aviation Hub During World War I.”

This weekend, some 300,000 fans are expected to descend upon the Town of Speedway to watch the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. The Speedway area has been home to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since 1911. The race attracted drivers and fans from all over the world. It has only been cancelled on two occasions: during World War I (1917-1918) and World War II (1942-1945). While there was no roar of race cars, the area was by no means quiet. Instead, the Speedway area became a hub for wartime production, with aircraft engines taking center stage.

James A. Allison, photo courtesy of Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Entrepreneur and Indianapolis Motor Speedway co-founder James Allison quite literally shifted gears when he devoted his precision machine shop’s resources on Main Street, just south of the track, to the war effort in 1917. Allison originally built the shop to redesign and rebuild foreign and domestic racecars. By mid-1918, the War Department awarded government contracts to Allison Experimental Company to build parts for the Liberty aircraft engine. According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Liberty represented “America’s major technological contribution to World War I.” The United States’ auto industry produced over 20,000 of these engines during the war and Allison’s Speedway company played its part in this endeavor. The Speedway area also saw the development of an aviation repair depot where workers helped repair, modify, and test hundreds of airplanes and aircraft engines.

Allison Engineering Company Main Street Building and Employees, 1921, photo courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Just one month after the war’s end, in December 1918, the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that the Indianapolis 500 would resume in May 1919. The focus in the Speedway area quickly shifted back to automobiles and racing, but interest in aviation there had just begun. During the 1920s, Allison Experimental Company (Allison Engineering Company by 1921) worked on rebuilding and inverting Liberty engines.

Liberty 12-A Inverted Engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Following James Allison’s death in 1928, General Motors Corp. filed an appropriation request to buy the company the following year. According to the request, General Motors planned to continue Allison’s work in the aviation industry. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce promoted the acquisition, stating that with General Motors’ purchase of the company:

Development of this city as a center for the nation’s aviation industry seems assured.

General Motors Corporation Appropriation Request to Purchase Allison Engineering Company. Courtesy of Rolls Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch Archival Collection.

The Chamber of Commerce was not far off the mark. During the 1930s, Allison Engineering Co. focused its efforts on developing a 1,000 horsepower liquid-cooled aircraft engine in the Speedway area. Known as the V-1710, it would become the primary engine that powered Allied fighter aircraft during World War II. Norman Gilman, chief engineer and general manager for the company, reasoned that a liquid-cooled engine could be placed inside the fuselage, where a radial type engine could not and therefore developed high wind resistance or drag, particularly at higher speeds. Despite initial hesitation from both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, the Navy placed an order with Allison Engineering Co. for a liquid-cooled airplane engine of 750 horsepower in June 1930. The company designed, built, and delivered this engine to the Navy in March 1932. After completing a 50-hour development test, the Navy accepted the engine in September of that year. The Army Air Corps followed suit and soon after placed an order for the engine with the company.

Throughout the mid-1930s, Allison Engineering Co. worked to improve the engine, with the goal of making it 1,000 horsepower. After several tests and improvements to the design, the company delivered the engine to the Army Air Corps at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in March 1937. One month later, the V-1710 passed the 150-hour acceptance test.

AllisoNews, March 31, 1942, vol. 1, no. 18, photo courtesy IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

By 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Allison Engineering (renamed Allison Division of General Motors in January 1941) committed itself to mass production of the V-1710 aircraft engine in Speedway. At the time, Allison employed 600 people, but this number grew exponentially as orders for the V-1710 came pouring in. In April 1939, newspapers reported that the company would soon triple its facilities with construction of a new plant that would span 200,000 sq. ft. By the end of the year, employment figures had almost doubled to 1,200. Allison Division constructed additional plants in Speedway and the Indianapolis area throughout the war years and with these plants came thousands of additional employees.

V-1710 engine, photo courtesy Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Demand for the V-1710 engine made Allison Division one of the three principal manufacturers of aircraft engines in the country during the war, alongside Pratt & Whitney and Wright Aeronautical. In January 1941, Life magazine ran a feature on the engine, highlighting it as the “plane motor on which the Army puts its biggest bet.” By July 1941, the War Department awarded Allison a new contract for the engines. With this contract, total orders for Allison engines since the beginning of the defense emergency program totaled approximately $242,000,000.

America has bet heavily on the Allison engine in its aircraft defense plans, just as the war industries board in 1917 bet everything on the Liberty engine . . . the Allison engine has been delivering regularly for the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force]. Allison is now producing 400 aviation engines a month, where a year ago it was delivering only 150, and expects to approach 1,000 engines a month by the end of 1941. – “More Air Power,” Mason City [Iowa] Globe Gazette, August 13, 1941, 4.

Curtiss P-40, photo courtesy AllisoNews, July 18, 1941, 4.,

Orders and output for the V-1710 engine continued to grow, particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. By this point, employment at Allison Division surpassed 12,000. It swelled to 23,019 in October 1943. The company’s growth impacted the Town of Speedway as well. As early as 1940, Indianapolis newspapers commented on Speedway’s growing pains, reporting that officials from the town were seeking state aid to address problems that had come about from the influx of workers to the plants. These problems included the need to improve streets, sanitary conditions, and the need for a better water system. The Indianapolis Times noted that with more employees at the Allison plants came “more money, more home buying, more eating, etc.” School enrollment in the area doubled, church attendance rose greatly, and many new homes were built.

Bell Airacobra P-39, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 1, 1941, 6.

Meanwhile, Allison Division continued to impress. By March 1944, it built and delivered its 50,000th liquid-cooled engine. By the war’s end, the total figure reached 70,000. These engines powered many of the United States’ fighter planes during the war, including the P-38 Lightning, the P-39 Airacobra, and the P-40 Warhawk. The engine was also used in several fighter planes flown by the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom.

Lockheed P-38, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 15, 1941, 4.
Program for the Presentation of the Army-Navy Production Award to Allison Division, General Motors Corporation, November 5, 1942.

Allison Division received high praise for the fine precision, workmanship, and durability of the V-1710. It won the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in production four times during the war: in October 1942, March 1944, October 1944, and June 1945. By the spring of 1945, Allison Division reduced production schedules of the V-1710 to focus more of its time on building jet engines, which could power planes at much higher speeds. The U.S Army Air Forces had awarded Allison a contract for the production of jet propulsion units in the fall of 1944. The Navy followed the Army’s lead and placed their own order with Allison in the summer of 1945, citing Allison’s “well established reputation for delivering the goods on time.” This reputation would continue through the end of the war in August 1945 and through the post-war years.

As had happened following the conclusion of World War I, racing returned to the Speedway area in 1946 to much fanfare. Left abandoned for nearly five years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had fallen into disrepair during World War II. Tony Hulman purchased the track in November 1945 and worked to restore it in preparation for the May 1946 500-mile race. Fans came in droves to witness the 30th running of the Indianapolis 500 that year, as racing returned to center stage in the Speedway area.

AllisoNews, March 1944, 1, accessed IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

Allison’s work in Speedway and its commitment to technological advancements did not end with World War II, but rather continues through today. In addition to continuing its investment and development in the aviation industry following the war, Allison also organized a new department for the design and development of transmissions. The transmissions were manufactured for commercial and military use, with many powering tanks during the Korean War. Their production ushered in a new chapter in the company’s history. Today, James Allison’s experimental company in Speedway , now known around the globe as Allison Transmission, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of fully automatic transmissions.

Speedway: An Aviation Hub During World War I

Speedway’s aviation repair depot was bordered by Main St. on the west, 14th St. on the north, Polco St. on the east, and roughly contemporary Ford St. and 10th St. on the south. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

May is finally here and with it racing fans from around the world will soon begin flocking to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to attend practices and qualifying races in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. For the past century, the Speedway ─ both the track and the adjacent areas of the town ─ have become synonymous with motorsports and racing.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, March 23, 1917, sec. 2, p. 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

In addition to racing though, the area holds another important place in Indiana and U.S. history ─ as an innovative aviation hub during both world wars. During World War I, the track was used as a landing and flight test field and hangars built on site helped house aircraft. Just south of the track, the Allison Experimental Company manufactured parts for the Liberty Engine, arguably one of America’s greatest contributions to the war. And at Speedway’s aviation repair depot, workers restored 313 planes, 350 engines, and numerous aircraft parts. Their work helped keep our nation’s pilots in the air and made the Speedway area a center for military aviation during the war.

The United States lagged far behind the British, French, and Germans in military aviation when it entered World War I in April 1917. Those countries had been fighting  for three years and in that time had understood and capitalized on the value of military aircraft for combat and reconnaissance. American entry in the war spurred rapid expansion of the industry in the country. Although time constraints forced the U.S. to purchase much of its military aircraft from the British and French during this period, the country made great strides in preparing pilots for air service abroad and in the production and repair of engines and training aircraft.

Liberty 12 Model A V-12 Engine. Photo courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum.

Indianapolis’ central location made it a prime site for aviation repairs and flight testing. Nearby flying fields included Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois and Scott Field in Belleville, Illinois, McCook Field and Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and Selfridge Field in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, among others. Additionally, the proximity of railroad lines in the city and automobile centers in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois made it easier to access raw materials such as steel, aluminum, and lumber, as well as supplies and spare parts used in repairing wrecked aircraft. Perhaps even more importantly though was the leadership of men like Carl Fisher and James Allison, co-founders of the Speedway, who dedicated their manufacturing resources in the area and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the war effort.

Airplanes waiting to be placed in “roundhouse” at Speedway. “Aviation Repair Depot at Speedway City May Become Permanent When Aerial Mail Service is Extended to Midwestern Country,” Indianapolis News, August 10, 1918, accessed Newspapers.com.

The U.S. Army established the aviation repair depot in Speedway on February 4, 1918 with the arrival of the 810th Aero Squadron from Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. According to William Menkel, former captain in the U.S. Air Service and commanding officer of the depot, it was the first of the repair depots to get under way and begin repairs in the U.S. Other repair depots later opened in Dallas, Texas and in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition to the 810th Aero Squadron, the Speedway depot was also home to the 809th, 811th, and 821st squadrons. 150 men served in each squadron.

821st Aero Squadron. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection.

In October 1918, the Speedway Dope, the newsletter of the aviation repair depot, reported that “the commissioned and enlisted personnel [at the depot] constitutes a cosmopolitan community. Mechanicians, [sic] clerks, cooks, and chauffeurs have come from all parts of the Union, and at the Speedway there is no East or West or North or South.” The majority of the civilian mechanics at the repair depot had little knowledge of aircraft before American entry in the war, but within a short time they became experts in the industry and in repair work. The U.S. Air Service established training schools for these men across the country and provided classes in engine assembly and wing and fuselage construction, while also teaching skills such as making and fastening metal parts to the aircraft, sewing fabric on wings, and applying dope varnish to the aircraft. The first wrecked aircraft arrived in April 1918.

Small Parts and Welding Department at the aviation repair depot. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

Damaged planes were unloaded and often sent to the Dismantling Department where the engine, landing gear, tail surfaces, and other parts were removed, cleaned, and worked on separately before reassembly began. While some of the planes that arrived only needed minor repairs before being shipped back out, others were total wrecks that needed to be completely rebuilt and tested.

By July, output reached three completed planes a day. Perhaps even more impressive though were the modifications made to the aircraft to help increase pilot safety. Workers at the repair depot analyzed incoming wrecks in order to find patterns in destruction. They then used this information to make improvements in design of the aircraft. For example, in his 1919 report on repair depots, Captain Menkel noted that many damaged planes that arrived in Speedway had smashed instrument boards. The instrument board was located so close to the pilot that in the case of a crash their head was likely to hit it. Workers at the depot moved the instrument boards farther away from the pilot’s seat during their repairs. This extra space reduced the chance that the pilot would hit it in a crash, thereby improving the pilot’s safety and lowering the chance of damage to the instrument board.

Propeller Room. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

The information learned from wrecked aircraft that arrived at the depot also resulted in other modifications, including the reinforcement of longerons and other parts of the plane to lower the chances of damage or fatal injury of the pilot and cutting out sections of the cowl frame to provide more distance between it and the pilot.

In a post report to Washington in January 1919, the Speedway Dope reported 313 airplanes repaired at the depot during 1918, representing a total value of $1,195,550.00 and 350 airplane motors valued at $638,699.00. In addition to these figures, the report noted repairs of wings, ailerons, elevators, rudders, and other miscellaneous parts valued at approximately $300,000.00. Added together, repairs at the depot well exceeded $2,000,000.00. Beyond the economic benefits and savings to the government was the fact that those working at the repair depot helped keep pilots in the air, reducing their chance of injury or death and ultimately giving the U.S. a better opportunity to win the war.

Articles in the Speedway Dope reiterated these sentiments, noting that those who trained or repaired airplanes in the Speedway area might be inclined to downplay the role they played in the war because they were not in the trenches abroad or flying in France. The repair and reconstruction of airplanes was a vital part of the war effort though.

Speedway Dope newsletter letterhead.

The third side of aviation has not only been neglected, but the public generally does not know that it even exists. The repair and reconstruction of damaged planes and motors, constitutes a bit part of the game of aviation. It is that part of the game that must be done and done right, or the other parts would fail to accomplish anything. True it does not carry any of the romance or glamour that follows the course of the pilot and his plane, and neither does it require the enormous financial outlay that goes with production . . . Yet this third side of aviation has been well taken care of and thousands of men who enlisted for service in France have remained at home repair depots and made it possible for others to enjoy foreign service and win international fame.

“The Third Side of Aviation-Rebuilding,” Speedway Dope, November 30, 1918, 1, accessed Indiana State Library Collections.

In the days immediately following the armistice on November 11, 1918, the Speedway Dope wrote that even though the war had ended, production at the depot should continue, as there was still plenty of work to do before completion of the final peace terms. Major Guy L. Gearhart, former commanding officer of the depot agreed. Maj. Gearhart recognized the important role the airplane would play in transportation after the war and believed the repair depot would become a permanent fixture in the Speedway.

A group of the Aviation Repair Depot Officers at the Flying Field, Speedway Motor Track. Left to right – Lt. A. D. McIlvaine, Sen. Instructor Frank Mills, Lt. James Wallace, Lt. William Groom, Lt. Col. A. W. Robins, Capt. Edward Laughlin, Lt. A. L. Maurer, Lt. Ralph M. Snyder, Lt. H. A. Knudson, Lt. R. J. Brandi, Lt. R. A. Ballard, Lt. Kincaid. Photo courtesy of the Speedway Dope, November 16, 1918, 1, accessed Indiana State Library.

The depot’s future remained unclear though. With the war over, immediate aviation interests in the area took a backseat to racing and motorsports. The Indianapolis 500, which had been cancelled in 1917 and 1918, recommenced in May 1919. The resumption of the annual race led to questions and concerns about the track and infield being used for aircraft. Despite initial orders calling for the closing of the depot in March 1919 though, the South Bend News-Times reported that recruitment for men for the U.S. Air Service at the Speedway aviation repair depot continued as of July. By the following year, however, the status of the aviation repair depot was again called into question. Some speculated that it would be removed from the Speedway area and relocated to Fairfield, Ohio. The government officially ordered the abandonment of the repair depot in September 1920 and publicized the sale of buildings and utilities in November of that year.

Although work in the Speedway area shifted back to racing and motorsports, aviation interests did not disappear completely. The Allison Experimental Company (Allison Engineering Company by 1921), located just west of the repair depot, continued to work to improve the Liberty aircraft engine into the 1920s. When General Motors purchased the company in 1929, it expressed a commitment to expanding its work in the aviation field. It was this commitment that made the Speedway area an aviation hub once again during World War II.

Be sure to check back in a few weeks when we examine the vital role the Speedway area played in military aviation in World War II!

Sources Used and Research Note:

William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books.

Much of the information about the aviation repair depot came from articles in the Speedway Dope. The publication ran from September 28, 1918 until February 1, 1919. Copies of the paper can be located at the Indiana State Library.

The Indiana Historical Bureau installed a new state historical marker commemorating the aviation repair depot in Speedway on April 24, 2018. Marker sponsors included Rolls-Royce North America, Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch, and the Town of Speedway. For more information on the aviation repair depot and additional sources, see: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4406.htm

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Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation

For the exciting tale of Rexroth’s turbulent Hoosier upbringing and the mischief he got into along the way, see part one: The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.
Kenneth Rexroth, Portrait of Andree Rexroth, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 122.

After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.

Montgomery Block, photograph, 1906, accessed Peter Lawrence Kane, “Bohemian Grave: The Montgomery Block,” San Fransisco Weekly, July 9, 2015, courtesy of archives.sfweekly.com

They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”

Andree and Kenneth Rexroth, “Bathers,” oil on canvas, n.d., accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:

My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.

Reprint of the WPA Guide to California (Pantheon Books, 1984) accessed Amazon.com.

By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and  into the otherwise standard guidebook.

While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,”  published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:

Kenneth Rexroth, “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” New Republic, March 24, 1937, 201, accessed ebscohost.com;

The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut

He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

James Laughlin, ed., New Directions in Poetry and Prose (New York: New Directions, 1937), photograph accessed via Amazon.com.

That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement.  A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.”  The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.

Oakland Tribune, September 1, 1940, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.
Kenneth Rexroth, Marie Rexroth, wax, silica, and pigment on board, c. 1936, collection of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, LLC., accessed jamesjaffe.com

While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving.  Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure.  He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:

I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.

This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service.  He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”

Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives accessed https://www.archives.gov/.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses.  However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.

National Archives caption: Registration in San Francisco, California. Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two days before evacuation, at a Wartime Civil Control Administration station. National Archives Identifier: 536056 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536056
National Archives caption: Posting of Exclusion Order at First and Front Streets in San Francisco, California, directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first section in San Francisco to be affected by the evacuation.
National Archives Identifier: 536017 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536017

Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.

National Archives caption: Waiting for Evacuation in San Francisco, California. With baggage stacked, residents of Japanese ancestry await a bus at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station, 2020 Van Ness Avenue, as part of the first group of 664 to be evacuated from San Francisco on April 6, 1942. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.
National Archives Identifier: 536065, accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536065

Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment.  He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.”  He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”

Kenneth Rexroth, The Phoenix and the Tortoise (New York: New Directions, 1944).

Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war.  Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”

W.G. Rogers, “Author of the Week,”Waco (Texas) Herald Tribune, December 25, 1952, 25, Newspapers.com

While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in San Francisco Magazine:

Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.

Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.

Webster Schott, “Writers Dig the Beat Generation,” Kansas City (Missouri) Times, February 27, 1958, 34, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bruce Lippincott, and Kenneth Rexroth Performing at the Cellar,” photograph, 1957, accessed Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.

Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, 1959, Fantasy Records, accessed garagehangover.com

Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:

Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.

“American Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reads One of His Poems as Three Musicians Play Instruments Alongside Him,” photograph, January 1, 1960, accessed Getty Images.

In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book at a Poetry Reading,” photograph
February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.com.uk

Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.

Six Gallery Poster, Allen Ginsberg Project, accessed ginsbergblog.blogspot.com.

On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”

Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:

Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.

Fred Danzig, “‘Beat Generation’ Got that Way through Draft, Missiles, Hydrogen Bombs, Wars,” (Elwood) Call-Leader, April 28, 1958, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book,” photograph, February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.co.uk

Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet.  In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”

The “Classics Revisited” series was compiled into book form, first edition in 1968. Image: Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1986)

Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.

Kenneth Rexroth, The Alternative Society (Herder and Herder, 1970).

Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s.  Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”

Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (McGraw-Hill 1972)

While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) and The Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977).  By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.

In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.”  However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.

Wolfgang Saxon, “Kenneth Rexroth, 76, Author; Ffather Figure to Beat Poets,” June 8, 1982, D26, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.

Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and  worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”

Left to right: Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and James Laughlin. Image is detail of photo by D. Sorenson, City Lights in North Dakota Conference, March 18, 1974, accessed Allen Ginsberg Project.

Further reading:

Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).

Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

Norman Norell: Dean of American Fashion

Norman Norell with models wearing Traina-Norell designs from his spring/summer 1949 collection. Image courtesy of New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archives.

During his 50 year career, Norman Norell crafted beautiful costumes, worked under war-time limitations, resisted pressure to substitute quality for quantity, and worked to bring the NYC fashion houses on Seventh Avenue on par with those of Paris. During his time in the industry, Norell managed to escape the pomp and circumstance of New York City and is remembered for leading a simple, “moral” life in the often cutthroat world of high-class fashion design.

Norman Norell was born Norman David Levinson on April 20, 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana. His father, Harry, owned and operated a men’s clothing store in the town and this is undoubtedly where he developed an eye for fashion. Harry soon opened a men’s hat store in Indianapolis, and in 1905 moved the family to the city once the business experienced success.  Norman completed high school in Indianapolis then moved to New York to begin his fashion education at Parsons Institute. At 19, he began studying at the Pratt Institute, where he studied drawing and fashion illustration. It was here that he combined the first syllable of his first name with the “l” sound of the beginning of his last name and adopted the name Norell.

Gloria Swanson in “Zaza.” Norman Norell designed the costumes for Swanson in this 1939 silent film. Photo courtesy of “Glorious Gloria Swanson.”

His early years in the fashion industry were spent designing costumes. He designed for a variety of projects, including silent film, burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclub acts. Norell costumed Rudolph Valentino in The Sainted Devil and Gloria Swanson in Zaza, but soon shifted his focus to women’s apparel. In 1928 he began a 12 year stint working for Hattie Carnegie. While a “fierce perfectionist . . . brilliant in her own way,” her process was considered fairly unoriginal – she bought pieces from Parisian couturiers, pulled them apart in New York, and turned them into more affordable clothes for her American clientele. Original or not, working with Carnegie gave Norell invaluable experience by visiting the Paris fashion houses and allowed him to fully understand the construction of women’s clothing. After a falling out with Carnegie over his designs for the Broadway production Lady in the Dark, Norell left and joined forces with Anthony Triana to form Triana-Norell in 1941.

Although he was a salaried employee of Triana, Norell was the designer of the company and as such was making waves in the fashion world. Bonwit Teller said of the new fashion house in the October 1941 edition of VOGUE, “The House of Traina-Norell comes on the season like an electrical storm. Its designer, young Mr. Norell, creates a collection so alive that everyone’s talking.” Just two months after that article ran, the United States’ entry into World War II changed nearly every industry in America, including fashion.

Cover of January 1942 edition of VOGUE. This, their first issue after US entry into WWII, addressed the changes fashion experienced due to the war. Image: Mason, Meghann, “The impact of World War II on women’s fashion in the United States and Britain” master’s thesis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2011.

Up until this point in the 20th century, women’s clothing styles changed at a faster pace than ever before. Silhouettes changed entirely about every 10 years, much more quickly than in previous eras. War time restrictions stopped this fast progress in its tracks. On March 8, 1942 the War Production Board issued limitation order number 85, or L-85, which set rules for the production of women’s clothing. Manufactures were banned from making blouses with hoods, blouses with more than one pocket, coats with epaulets, coats with sleeve circumference larger than 16 ½ inches, and reversible skirts. All of these measures reduced the use of material used for clothing production. Hems, which for the previous years had been widening from the sleek, narrow skirts of the 1920s, were reduced from 81 inches to 78 inches. These restrictions challenged American fashion designers, one which Norman Norell met.

Norman Norell design “Subway” from the 1942 Traina-Norell collection. This piece is an example of Norell’s war time work, with the simple neck and sleek, waist-less design he helped popularize. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Drawing inspiration from his favorite era of fashion, the 1920s, Norell introduced the chemise dress, or shirt dress in 1942. This design featured a simple round neckline, a departure from the “fussy” necklines of the time. The simplicity of this trend worked well within the restrictions imposed by L-85 and chemise dresses, along with a fur-trimmed trench coat, became the staple of the Traina-Norell label.

World War II cut American designers off from their long time inspirational lifeline of the Paris fashion houses. Until this point, American designers took their lead almost exclusively from Paris (recall Hattie Carnegie’s method of deconstructing Parisian pieces previously discussed). In 1942, Coty, Inc. introduced the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Awards to address this issue by promoting original American fashion design during the war. Fashion editor Bernadine Morris later wrote, “What Norman Norell had accomplished in the first collection was to give American fashion – producers and wearers alike – a freedom from dependence on foreign sources of inspiration. The American industry felt it could set its own directions, its own styles.”

Norell never compromised on quality; oftentimes, a single suit jacket would take a week to stitch. This quality came with a price tag, though. One article said, “Women purchasing a Traina-Norell garment were buying, at great cost, an American-made status symbol that would likely remain in their closets for decades.” The prices for a Traina-Norell piece ranged from $500 for a simple jersey dress to upwards of $4,000 for an evening gown.

The Traina-Norell brand continued to set trends throughout it’s nearly twenty year existence. Oftentimes, competitors would copy his designs and sell them for much less. This was so common that the year before he introduced his revolutionary wool culottes suit, he offered the pattern to any manufacturer who wanted it in order to prevent the manufacture of inferior versions of the design. One of his signature evening looks, the “mermaid dress” would not look out-of-place at a gala today. Other signature designs of Norell included the 1961 wide-flaring skirt, impeccably designed coats, the evening jumpsuit, and sweater topped dresses.

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In 1960, Anthony Traina retired and Norell began his solo carter with the Norell fashion house. Although the name of the brand had changed, the reputation for high quality, long-lasting clothing stayed the same. During his career, Norell won the Coty award three times and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. When the Coty Awards were discontinued in 1985, Coty’s parent company said it was because they had achieved their goal of bringing American fashion houses to the same level of those in Paris, and there’s little doubt that Norell played a big role in that.

Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, wearing a Norman Norell dress in 2010.

Norman Norell became known as the dean of American Fashion and was active in the industry up until his death on October 25, 1972, just before a retrospective exhibit of his work was to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was to open. Even today, Norell pieces are highly sought after and sell for high prices in vintage clothing shops. In December 2010, former First Lady Michelle Obama wore a vintage Norell dress at a White House Christmas party, one of the few times a first lady has worn a vintage piece at an official White House event.

View over 200 Traina-Norell and Norell pieces on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

A Challenge to Integration: The Froebel School Strikes of 1945

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1. See Hoosier State Chronicles for complete article.

On September 18, 1945, hundreds of white students at Froebel School walked out of their classes to protest African American students at the institution. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the striking students “urged that Froebel school be reserved for whites only” or that they be transferred to other schools themselves.

While the conflict between segregation and integration was far from new, the student strike in Gary would call into question the very values the United States fought to uphold during World War II, which had formally ended just two weeks before the “hate strike.” The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, composed of black ministers, made this point clear when it issued its “appeal to reason” to the citizens of Gary, Indiana:

It is indeed regrettable to note that after the nation has spent approximately 190 billion dollars, the colored citizens of Gary have sent about 4,000 of their sons, brothers, and husbands to battlefields around the world and have supported every war effort that our government has called upon us to support, in a united effort to destroy nazism and to banish from the face of the earth all that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo stood for; to find in our midst those who are endeavoring to spread disunity, race-hatred, and Hitlerism in our community.

Gary Post-Tribune, September 20, 1945, 3

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, sec. 2, p. 2.

Integration was not a recent development at Froebel when much of the white student body went on strike in the fall of 1945. In fact, Froebel was Gary’s only “integrated” school throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term warrants further explanation. When the K-12 school opened in 1912, Gary school officials recognized that African American students should not be denied the opportunities available to white students at the new school and established two separate rooms at Froebel for black students. By 1914, a report published by the United States Bureau of Education indicated that there were approximately seventy black students attending the school, but that “the other patrons of the school, most of whom are foreigners, strenuously object to mixing colored children with the others; so they are placed in separate classes in charge of two colored teachers. . .” Thus, despite integration, Froebel remained internally segregated.

Image courtesy of Randolph S. Bourne, The Gary Schools (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), accessed Archive.org.

A 1944 study conducted by the National Urban League showed that Froebel’s black students were “welcomed as athletes, but not as participants in cultural and social affairs.” They could not use the swimming pools on the same days as white students, were barred from the school band, and were discriminated against in many other extracurricular activities.

Conditions at Froebel improved slightly during the 1940s, due in part to Principal Richard Nuzum. He created a biracial Parent-Teachers’ Association, integrated the student council and boys’ swimming pool, and enabled black students to try out for the orchestra. Unfortunately, his efforts towards further integration angered many of Froebel’s white students and their parents, who would later criticize Nuzum of giving preferential treatment to African American students. These feelings, paired with a rising fear among many of Gary’s white, foreign-born inhabitants about increases in the black population in the city, largely contributed to the 1945 school strike.

Table courtesy of the “Report of Technical Advisers to the Special Investigating Committee Appointed by the Gary Board of Education,” October 21, 1945, 7.

Newspapers across the state covered the strike(s) extensively throughout the fall, and the story quickly made national headlines. By September 20, the strike spread to Gary’s Tolleston School, where approximately 200 additional students skipped classes. On September 21, 1945, the Gary Post-Tribune reported that between the two schools, well over 1,000 students had participated in the walkouts up to this point.

Eager to see an end to the strike, to avoid potential violence, and to get students back to school, Superintendent Charles D. Lutz and the board of education issued a formal statement on Friday, September 21, demanding that students return to classes on Monday. The school board threatened to take legal action against parents of students under age sixteen if they continued to strike, while those over age sixteen risked expulsion.

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The school board was not alone in its hopes of ending the strike. Gary Mayor Joseph E. Finerty, the Gary Council of Churches, and the school PTA all issued appeals hoping to bring an end to the walkouts. Other opponents of the strike included the NAACP and CIO United Steel Workers Union. Many blamed parents of the striking students for the racial tension existent in the school, stating that racial hatred was not inherent, but learned at home. A September 26, 1945 editorial in the Gary Post-Tribune also noted:

Fundamentally this is not a school problem. It has developed out of the changing population in the Froebel area. . . As a result of this influx of Negro families some white property owners feel their homes and churches have depreciated in value.

While students at Tolleston agreed to return to classes by the school board’s stated deadline, those leading the strike at Froebel refused to return until Wednesday, and only on the condition that the school board meet with them beforehand and comply with their demands.

These demands, which the Gary Post-Tribune published on September 21, were three-fold: 1) the removal of all 800 black students from Froebel; 2) the ousting of Principal Richard Nuzum, whom they believed gave preferential treatment to black students; and 3) that school officials stop using Froebel students as “guinea pigs” in race relation experiments (Froebel was the only high school in Gary with a racially mixed attendance at the time).

Horace Manual, Horace Mann High School Yearbook, 1942. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

The Gary school board met with the striking committee on September 25, and when it refused to give in to the students’ demands, the strike continued. Leonard Levenda, spokesman for the striking committee, was quoted in the Gary Post-Tribune on September 26, stating that the walkout was the result of “a long series of episodes provoked by the behavior of Negro students.” Levenda continued by blaming Nuzum for not taking action against African American students after these reported “episodes.” The strike continued until October 1, when students finally returned to classes after the school board agreed to formally investigate the charges against Principal Nuzum.

Walter White to Charles Lutz, letter, September 24, 1945, Papers of the NAACP.

In response to the incidents at Froebel, Mayor Finerty urged the formation of an inter-organization racial unity committee to help improve race relations in the “Steel City.” Finerty, as quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder on October 20, stated “we in Gary must take positive steps in learning to live together in unity in our own city. Now, more than ever, there is need for unity within our city and the nation.”

Another article in the Recorder that day examined the reaction of white leaders in Chicago, who did little to conceal their disgust for the strike and criticism of the strikers:

These racist demonstrations have been an insult to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of whites and Negroes who deplore this American form of Hitlerism. . .  We further pledge not to walk out on democracy and on this problem which has its roots principally in the attitude and actions of the white man, not the colored.

In early October, the Gary school board appointed a special investigating committee and temporarily relieved Nuzum of his duties as principal. By October 21, the investigation came to a close and a report regarding conditions at Froebel was issued. Nuzum was exonerated and returned as principal and the report called for the school to return to the status it had before the strike. Angered by these results, students staged another walkout on October 29. Levenda and other striking students argued that they were not going on strike, but rather “being forced out by the actions of Mr. Nuzum.”

Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1945, 31, accessed Newspapers.com

Searching for a way to bring a final end to the strike, Anselm Forum, a Gary-based community organization dedicated to social harmony, helped bring Frank Sinatra to the school to perform and talk with the students about racial tension in the city. While many students appeared attentive and understanding of Sinatra’s calls for peace and an end to racial discrimination, the striking committee refused to back down.

Frank Sinatra meets with members of Anselm Youth Forum, Gary ROTC, and Froebel students, 1945. Photo courtesy of Associated Press, via Hoboken Historical Museum Online Collections Database.

It was not until November 12, when State Superintendent of Public Instruction Clement T. Malan agreed to study conditions at Froebel that the striking students returned to classes. Even then, some mothers of the parents’ committee continued to oppose the students’ return.

Racial tension continued even after the strikes ended in November 1945. By the spring of 1946, students at Froebel threatened to go on strike again, but were stopped by the Gary school board and Froebel student council. Newspapers reported that the leaders of the previous strikes, in union with Froebel’s black students, issued an anti-strike statement in March 1946. In this statement, they encouraged the Gary school board to issue a policy to end discrimination in all of Gary’s public schools.

Due in large part to the “hate strikes” at Froebel, the Gary Board of Education adopted a policy on August 27, 1946, to end segregation and discrimination in the city’s public schools. Scheduled to go into full effect by September 1, 1947, the policy read:

Children under the jurisdiction of the Gary public schools shall not be discriminated against in the school districts in which they live, or within the school which they attend, because of race, color or religion.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society

In accordance with the policy, Gary’s public schoolchildren would attend the school nearest them and would be given equal opportunity “in the classroom and in all other school activities.” According to historian Ronald Cohen, the decision made Gary “one of the first northern cities to officially integrate its schools.” In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to abolish segregation in the state’s public schools. The law required that schools discontinue enrollment on the basis of race, creed, or color of students.

Despite these measures however, discrimination in the Gary public school system did not disappear. Because of segregated residential patterns, few black students transferred to previously all-white institutions. The 1950s saw a resurgence in de facto segregation in the city as the black population there continued to grow and fill already overcrowded black schools.

Froebel School state historical marker. Installed in Gary in 2014 at 15th Avenue and Madison St.

Corn, Tomatoes, & POWs: Hoosier Agriculture During World War II

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Lawn mowing was reportedly one of the most coveted jobs at Camp Atterbury amongst Italian POWs reportedly, which apparently weren’t used much in Italy.  Indianapolis Star, 13 June, 1943, 6, accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

In May 1943, Indiana newspapers advertised a new pool of workers who could alleviate the farm labor crisis caused by World War II. Hoosier farmers just had to provide equipment, tools, materials, and transportation. The only snag? The new laborers were Italian prisoners of war that Allied troops had recently captured in North Africa. These prisoners were currently interned at Camp Atterbury, a military training camp just outside Edinburgh, Indiana.  Would the enemy soon fill Hoosier fields, picking tomatoes and detasseling corn? The Franklin Evening Star speculated

It is entirely likely that more than one farmer will apply for this Italian labor. The farmers are badly behind their work…Industry and the draft have created a serious farm labor shortage at the very time most farmers are trying to increase production…for the food needed for victory.

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The Call-Wood Leader [Elwood, Indiana], 19 May 1943, 1, accessed newspapers.com
Farmers across the nation felt the pressure of wartime demands. In addition to soldiers, an unprecedented number of workers were needed to produce food, clothing, supplies, and munitions for troops. Balancing all these demands proved difficult. The Bureau of Agriculture reported that between April 1940 and July 1942, two million men had left their agricultural jobs for employment in the military or war industries. Reports surfaced of farmers unable to get all their work done without additional help. The Tribune in Seymour Indiana reported that a Maryland farmer, “another victim of the manpower situation,” had to plow under thirty five acres of beans after his call for pickers came up empty.  Hoosier farmers hoped the situation wouldn’t repeat in Indiana.

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OWI Poster No 58, Office of war Information, Washington, DC, 1943, photo courtesy The American Legion.

Meanwhile, the federal government emphasized farmers’ need to produce more, despite the labor shortages, to help win the war. President Roosevelt created Farm Mobilization Day on January 12, 1943. He declared “food is the life line of the forces that fight for freedom.” Soon after, the Office of War Information produced pamphlets, posters, and films filled with catchy slogans like “Food Fights for Freedom!” “Food is a Weapon-don’t waste it!” and “Raising Food is a Real Job!” The government created various labor programs, including the Women’s Land Army and the Bracero Program, to mobilize civilian women and Mexican guest workers respectively to help fill the void on the nation’s farms.

After the US entered the war in 1941, prisoner of war (POW) labor became another possible solution to the labor crisis. The first POW arrived in the country in April 1942 from the Pacific. As the war continued, up to 30,000 POWs arrived in the US each month from battlefields abroad. The War Department decided to utilize this labor force and created camps across the nation to bring POWs work sites across the nation. At the war’s end, nearly 425,000 Japanese, Italian, and German POWs were held in prisoner of war camps across 46 states.

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Map of major POW camps across the nation, accessed HistoryNet.

Hoosier farmers and food processors jumped at the chance to hire the first of many POWs to arrive in Indiana, despite their enemy status. In Johnson County alone, 250 people attended a meeting on May 24, 1943 to discuss the farm labor shortage and to learn how to register for potential POW labor from Camp Atterbury. After POWs filled positions within the camp to keep it running, such as bakers and cooks, launderers, repairmen, and gardeners, the rest could be employed outside the camp at local farms and factories. To the dismay of many farmers, at first the POWs could only work within a 25 mile radius of the camp. They picked apples, beans, and tomatoes, and hoed, detasseled, and picked corn. However, since their labor became so vital, the radius was soon lifted. In the summer of 1943, some Italian POWs also worked in tomato and corn canning plants as far away as Austin and Elwood, Indiana.

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OWI Poster No. 59, Office of War Information, Washington DC, 1943, photo courtesy The American Legion.

POW labor came with stipulations. POWs could not engage in dangerous work or labor that directly benefited the war effort. They could also only be employed in cases where civilian labor could not be found. In addition, farmers paid the US Treasury and the War Department the standard prevailing wage in the area so POWs would not usurp local, civilian labor. In turn, those departments paid the POWs 10 cents an hour, up to 80 cents per day for their labor, which was less than the prevailing wage.

POWs did not receive cash, but scrip they could spend only at their camp’s canteen. The War Department reinvested canteen profits back into the camps, often to buy “extras” to occupy the POWs in their spare time, such as musical instruments, art supplies, sports equipment, and books. In time, the POWs organized their own choral contests, soccer and volleyball leagues, and boccie ball games.

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Italian POWs playing volleyball in their spare time at Camp Atterbury, Indianapolis Star, 14 Jund 1943, 17; accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

 

Canteen profits may have been used to finance construction of a small chapel POWs built at Camp Atterbury in 1943. Most of the POWs at the camp were Catholic and wanted a place of their own to attend daily Mass. Prior to construction, prisoners held mass in their rec room and had an altar in an open field. POWs who were employed as skilled artisans before the war designed and built a new brick and stucco 11’x16’ foot chapel for worship. They also painted frescos inside on the ceiling and walls. The chapel still stands at Camp Atterbury.

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Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury built this chapel, photo accessed AtlasObscura.

Entertainment, rations as large as American enlisted men’s, and payment for labor sprouted media reports accusing the War Department of “coddling” the POWs. However, the War Department had logical reasons for providing proper treatment to the POWs in their care besides abiding by stipulations of the Geneva Convention, which laid out rules for proper POW care. Providing good food, leisure activities, and small payment for their work promoted internal camp security and helped sustain a more productive POW labor force. Leaders also hoped good treatment of POWs at home would encourage similar treatment of American prisoners abroad in enemy hands.

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Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury clearing ground for their own garden, Indianapolis Star, 14 June 1943, 17; accessed Indiana State Library, Clippings File.

Italy’s surrender to Allied forces in the fall of 1943 threatened Hoosier food producers’ new labor supply. In February of 1944, the War Food Administration advised farmers not to count on Italian POW labor during the upcoming summer. After surrender, Italy became a “cobelligerent” nation and joined the Allied forces. The Italians at Camp Atterbury and across the nation were no longer really prisoners of war, but still were not free until the war ended. Italy’s new leader, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, encouraged all former Italian POWs to help the Allied cause and join labor battalions, called Italian Service Units. Italians were still guarded by American soldiers like other POWs, but now could perform labor that directly benefited the war effort and received other benefits, like increased wages. The War Department began to transfer Italians at Camp Atterbury in January 1944 to these units. All were gone by May 4.

Soon after, German POWs arrived and replaced the Italian POWs, just in time to help out in the fields during peak production months in the summer and fall. Several smaller, temporary camps, called “branch camps” were established at Austin, Windfall, Vincennes, Eaton, and Morristown, Indiana to bring some of the Camp Atterbury POWs closer to additional work sites across the state. By October, there were nearly 9,000 POWs in the Camp Atterbury system. Living conditions at the branch camps were less accommodating than Camp Atterbury, which contained proper barracks, a recreation room and a mess hall. Since the branch camps were temporary, POWs often lived in tents close to their work sites. At the Austin camp, prisoners lived in a fenced area behind the Morgan Packing Company where many of them worked. At Windfall, a local farm across from the town’s high school served as the branch camp’s location.

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Entrance to prisoner of war branch camp in Eaton, Indiana. Photo courtesy of indianamilitary.org.

The arrival of POWs made an impact on everyday life in these Indiana towns and influenced Hoosiers’ perception of the war. Windfall only had a population of 835 in 1940. 750 German POWs and 100 American guards arrived in the town on August 24, 1944, doubling the town’s population. The POWs arrived by train late at night. Gretchen Cardwell, Windfall native, remembered nearly everyone in the area came to town to watch the POWs step off the train and march to the camp. As the train whistle sounded, she remembered

“The crowd of onlookers grew silent. It was almost as if everyone held his breath as we awaited the sight of our hated enemies. This group was quite different than we expected.”

Instead of proud, haughty, frightening enemy soldiers Gretchen recalls seeing missing buttons, tears and tatters in their uniforms and slumping shoulders. “It was hard to accept this new vision of the enemy.”

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Stokely Foods, Inc. advertisement for labor, Tipton Daily Tribune, 5 June 1944, accessed newspapers.com.

As the POWs began working in fields and factories in communities across Indiana, native Hoosiers began to identify similarities between them and the enemy. Farmers appreciated the hard work ethic many of the POWs exhibited harvesting tomatoes and detassling corn. At Windfall, POWs worked in 40 food processing plants in the area. In Morristown, 400 POWs worked at 17 canning plants. POWs peeled and packed tomatoes, canned corn and peas. At the Morgan Packing Plant in Austin, POWs stacked cans in the warehouse, cooked tomatoes before they were canned, helped run the labeling machine, and loaded canned tomatoes for shipping. When the German POWs returned to Camp Atterbury in the fall of 1944, locals at Windfall admitted they would miss the POWs, especially “the outdoor concerts of a large chorus of voices” of the prisoners singing as they worked or rested in the evening.

By the end of the war, more than half of all the prisoners of war held in the US during World War II provided essential agricultural manpower. Farmers saw POW labor as so essential, President Truman eventually gave into pressure and kept them in the states to work in farms, canneries, and food processing plants through the fall of 1945 and into 1946 before repatriation. In all, POWs saved hundreds of acres of crops from going to waste, in Indiana and the nation.

Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part Two

Melba Philips, photograph, n.d., University of Chicago News Office, accessed http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/041116.phillips.shtml
Melba Phillips, photograph, n.d., University of Chicago News Office, accessed University of Chicago News Office.

See Part One to learn about Phillips’s contributions to physics via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect and her work to prevent the future use of atomic energy for war.

The Second World War, particularly the use of the atomic bomb, gave way to the Cold War. Living in the shadow of the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union induced anxiety among many Americans. While Senator Joseph McCarthy became the public face of fear of homegrown communists, many other paranoid and xenophobic senators participated in the witch hunts. In 1950, Nevada Senator Pat McCarran sponsored the McCarran Internal Security Act, which allowed for investigation of “subversive activities;” made an “emergency” allowance for detaining people suspected of such activity; and even made picketing a courthouse a felony if it “intended” to obstruct proceedings. The act also provided for a five-member committee with the Orwellian title of the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), which was headed by McCarran and tasked with rooting out communists, communist-sympathizers, and other “subversives.” The SACB, or the McCarran Committee as it was more commonly called, went to work immediately.

Demonstrators demand repeal of the Smith and McCarran Acts, circa July 19, 1950, Los Angeles, Charlotta Bass / California Eagle Photograph Collection, 1880-1986, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll102/id/1320
Demonstrators demand repeal of the Smith and McCarran Acts, circa July 19, 1950, Los Angeles, Charlotta Bass / California Eagle Photograph Collection, 1880-1986, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research.

In 1952, Melba Phillips was called to testify before the McCarran Committee of New York, the state version of the U.S. congressional committee, on her political activity. She was called because of her involvement with the Teachers Union. According to an October 14, 1952 New York Times article, a witness claiming to be “a former Communist official” testified that “he helped set up secret units of Communist teachers” and that “300 of the 500 dues-paying Communist teachers in this city went into a secret set-up whose top unit consisted of leaders of the Teachers Union.” Several prominent New York teachers refused to confirm or deny communist leanings, while outside of the courthouse students and teachers gathered in protest, chanting “Pat McCarran, hit the sack. We want our professors back!”

According Dr. George Salzman, a University of Massachusetts at Boston professor who was a student of Phillips’s at that time ,

“She let the Committee counsel know that her lineage went back to the Mayflower, and she wasn’t about to take part in the witch hunt.”

Phillips was subsequently fired from her university positions due to a law which required the termination of any New York City employee who invoked the Fifth Amendment. Bonner explained, “McCarran was a specialist at putting people in the position in which they had to invoke the Fifth Amendment. It was a deliberate expression of the McCarthyism of the time.” In a 1977 interview, Phillips briefly discussed the incident (although she was reluctant because she was trying to keep the interviewer focused on her scientific accomplishments). She stated: “I was fired from Brooklyn College for failure to cooperate with the McCarran Committee, and I think that ought to go into the record . . . city colleges were particularly vulnerable, and the administration was particularly McCarthyite.” Phillips stated that she wasn’t particularly political. Her objection to cooperating had been a matter of principle.

New York Times, October 14, 1952, 1, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
New York Times, October 14, 1952, 1, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Phillips did not let her dismissal extinguish her passion for science education. While unemployed, she wrote two textbooks, which became university classroom standards: Classical Electricity and Magnetism (1955) and Principles of Physical Science (1957).

Melab Phillips and Francis T. Bonner, Principles of Physical Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1957)
Melba Phillips and Francis T. Bonner, Principles of Physical Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1957).

In 1957, Phillips became the associate director of the Academic Year Institute of Washington University in St. Louis, a teacher-training school.  Her appointment came at the behest of Edward Condon who had also been named as a security risk by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. On Condon’s decision to hire her, Phillips stated, “there was much discrimination against people who had had any trouble of a ‘political’ kind, and it took a lot of courage, It took courage to hire any of the people in trouble during that time.”

Edward Condon, photograph, n.d., accessed National Institute of Standards and Technology, https://www.nist.gov/news-events/events/2016/01/government-science-cold-war-america-edward-condon-and-transformation-nbs
Edward Condon, photograph, n.d., accessed National Institute of Standards and Technology.

At the institute she developed programs instructing high school teachers about how to teach elementary science and physics. She remained at Washington until 1962 when she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. Among her accomplishments there, she worked to make science accessible to non-science majors. She also made laboratory work an important part of the student experience. She explained that “we worked very hard in our laboratory in Chicago . . . unless the students get ‘hands on,’ it seems they don’t fully understand the material.”

In 1966, she became president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, of which she had been a member since 1943. This respected organization was founded in 1930 as “a professional membership association of scientists dedicated to enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching.” Phillips became not only AAPT’s first female president, but one of its most memorable and effective leaders. Phillips was proud of the work of the organization and wrote the official History of the AAPT. She worked to make physics more important to teachers at the high school level in addition to college. She stated,

“The people in the universities whose future depends on their writing more and more research papers have very little patience with the problems of education at a lower level. This has to do in part with why the Association of Physics Teachers ever got started.”

Phillips remained at the University of Chicago until she retired as Professor Emerita in 1972. Even after her retirement from the University of Chicago, she continued to teach at other schools as a visiting professor. She taught at the State University of New York, Stony Brook from 1972 to 1975, and at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing in 1980. Phillips was awarded more honors than can be mentioned without compiling an extensive list. Notably, however, in 1981, the AAPT awarded her the first Melba Phillips Award, created in her honor, “for exceptional contributions to physics education.”

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Image courtesy of alibris.com.

In 1987, Brooklyn College publicly apologized for firing Phillips, and in 1997 created a scholarship in her name. Melba Phillips died on November 8, 2004 in Petersburg, Indiana at the age of 97. The New York Times referred to Phillips in her obituary as “a pioneer in science education” and noted that “at a time when there were few women working as scientists, Dr. Phillips was leader among her peers.” Her accomplishments helped pave the way for other women in the sciences. In a 1977 interview, Phillips addressed the problems women face in aspiring to science careers an a 1977 interview, stating:

We’re not going to solve them, but, as I’ve been saying all the time; if we make enough effort, we’ll make progress; and I think progress has been made. We sometimes slip back, but we never quite slip all the way back; or we never slip back to the same place. There’s a great deal of truth in saying that progress is not steady no matter how inevitable.

Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part One

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Indiana native Melba Newell Phillips pioneered new physics theories, studied under the famous J. Robert Oppenheimer, worked passionately to improve science education, and advocated for women’s place at the forefront of science research. After the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, Phillips and other scientists organized to prevent future nuclear wars.  She took a great hit to her career during the Cold War as she stood up for the freedom to dissent in the oppressive atmosphere of McCarthyism. Colleagues and students have noted her “intellectual honesty, self-criticism, and style,” and called her “a role model for principle and perseverance.”

Phillips was born February 1, 1907 in Hazleton, Gibson County. According to Women in Physics, Phillips graduated from high school at 15, earned a B.S. from Oakland City College in Indiana, taught for one year at her former high school, and went on to graduate school. In 1928, she earned a master’s degree in physics from Battle Creek College in Michigan and stayed there to teach for two years. In 1929 she attended summer sessions on quantum mechanics at the University of Michigan under Edward U. Condon.  When she sought Condon’s help on a physics problem, her solution, rather than his, ended up being the correct one. This led to a lifelong friendship and Condon recommended Phillips for further graduate study at the University of California, Berkley. Here she pursued graduate research under Oppenheimer and earned her Ph.D. in 1933. Within a few years she was known throughout the physics world because of her contribution to the field via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, photograph, in Ray Monk, Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2014)
J. Robert Oppenheimer, photograph, in Ray Monk, Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2014)

The 1935 Oppenheimer-Phillips Effect explained “what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or ‘heavy hydrogen’ atoms) in reactions with other nuclei,” according to a University of Chicago press release. When Oppenheimer died in 1967, his New York Times obituary noted his and Phillips’s discovery as a “basic contribution to quantum theory.” Manhattan Project scientist and professor emeritus of chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook Francis Bonner explained in the release that normally such an accomplishment, now considered “one of the classics of early nuclear physics, “would have meant a faculty appointment. However, Phillips received no such appointment, perhaps due in part to the Great Depression, but also likely because of her gender.

Oppenheimer-Phillips Effect

Instead, Phillips left Berkley to teach briefly at Bryn Mawr College (PA), the Institute for Advanced Study (NJ), and the Connecticut College for Women. On February 16, 1936, the New York Times reported that she was one of six women to receive research fellowships for the 1936-1937 academic year as announced by the American Association of University Women.  The announcement read: “Melba Phillips, research fellow at Bryn Mawr, received the Margaret E. Maltby fellowship of $1,500 for research on problems of the application of quantum mechanics to nuclear physics.”

New York Times, February 16, 1936, N6, ProQuest Historical New York Times
New York Times, February 16, 1936, N6, ProQuest Historical New York Times

In October of 1937 Phillips served as a delegate to the fall conference of the association at Harvard, where the discussion centered around the prejudices against women scientists that halted not only their careers, but scientific progress more generally. According to a 1937 New York Times article, Dr. Cecelia Gaposchkin, a Harvard astronomer, detailed the “bitter disappointments and discouragements” that faced women professionals in the field of science.  Certainly, Phillips related, as her career moved forward slowly despite her achievements in physics.

Pupin Physics Laboratory, Columbia University, "Short History of Columbia Physics," accessed http://physics.columbia.edu/about-us/short-history-columbia-physics
Pupin Physics Laboratory, Columbia University, “Short History of Columbia Physics,” accessed http://physics.columbia.edu/about-us/short-history-columbia-physics

Finally, in 1938, she received a permanent teaching position at Brooklyn College. In 1944, she also began research at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. Phillips was highly regarded as a teacher and Bonner noted she became “a major figure in science education” who “stimulated many students who went on from there to very stellar careers.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. officially entered World War II with the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. No previous war had been so dependent on the role of science and technology. From coding machines to microwave radar to advances in rocket technology, scientists were in demand by the war effort.

In July 1945, the Manhattan Project scientists successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico.  In August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing the country to surrender and effectively ending World War II. Over 135,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 64,000 in Nagasaki.  Many thousands more died from fires, radiation, and illness. While a horrified public debated whether the bomb saved further causalities by ending the war or whether it was fundamentally immoral, scientists also dealt with remorse and responsibility.

atomic-bomb
Leslie Jones, “1st Atomic Bomb Test,” photograph, Boston Public Library

Henry Stimson, Secretary of War in the Truman administration, stated, “this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.” Oppenheimer, however, reflected, “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.” More bluntly, Oppenheimer told Truman, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Many physicists retreated to academia, but some became politically active, especially in regard to preventing further destruction through scientific invention.

Representing the Association of New York Scientists, Phillips and leading Manhattan Project scientists helped organize the first Federation of American Scientists meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1945. The goal of the Federation was to prevent further nuclear war. That same year Phillips served as an officer in the American Association of Scientific Workers, an organization working to involve scientists in government and politics, to educate the public in the science, and to stand against the misapplication of science by industry and government. On August 16, 1945 the New York Times reported that Phillips and the other officers of the Association signed a letter to President Truman giving “eight recommendations to help prevent the use of atomic bombs in future warfare and to facilitate the application of atomic energy to peacetime uses.”

By the end of the 1940s, Melba Phillips’s accomplishments in physics and science education were well-known throughout the academic physics community. However, by the early 1950s, she was accused of being affiliated with communist subversives and fired from her university positions.  What happened to this Hoosier physics pioneer?

Find out with Part Two, Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience.