War brought women into labor force

Echoes of our past
William Wangemann • forThe Beacon

Summer is almost over and Labor Day is less than a week away. As everyone knows Labor Day was set aside to honor the laborers of America.

The first observance of Labor Day is believed to have been a parade on September 5, 1882, in New York City, probably organized by Peter J. McGuire, a Carpenters and Joiners Union secretary.

About 20,000 attendees picnicked, smoked cigars, and listened to speeches by the union leadership in Union Square.

By 1893, more than half the states were observing a "Labor Day" on one day or another, A bill to establish a federal holiday was passed by Congress in 1894. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill soon afterward, designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

At no time in our history was labor more important that the desperate war years between 1941 and 1945.

No country on earth could have produced the enormous amount of war goods that American industry did during those critical years.

For example American industry produced over 2,600,000 machine guns, 2,400,000 trucks, 325,000 airplane of all types, 22 aircraft carriers and 349 destroyers to say nothing of millions of rounds of ammunition.

Practically every factory in the US converted to war production almost overnight. Here in Sheboygan County our local industries all converted to war production.

For example Jung Shoe Company produces tens of thousands of army boots. Local glove companies made tens of thousands of leather gloves for the Air Force.

R-Way Furniture Company produced wooden glider parts for the army. Kohler Company produced torpedo tubes for submarines, artillery shells, generators and on and on.

The list is too long to mention here.

Even the tiny Evergreen Broom Company contributed to the flow of needed products when they received a contract from the navy for thousands of brooms. Working night and day for months they proudly filled the contract.

Extra workers were needed in these factories by the millions. Laborers worked 10, 12 even 16 hours a day, 7 days a week to produce a flood of supplies and equipment needed to defeat the Axis powers.

At this time women were being hired, the first time in history, to do jobs that formally only men were hired for.

Women were taught to weld, operate complex machinery, drive heavy trucks and operate railroad locomotives. As aircraft of all types rolled off the assembly lines Women’s Air Service Pilots flew the newly built planes to destinations where they were needed, sometimes thousands of miles away. These female pilots freed up hundreds of male pilots for combat duty.

Of all the commodities rationed nothing had greater effect on the general public than the rationing of gasoline.

Just before a recent Labor Day I had an occasion to take a short trip on I-43, at which time I was amazed at the nearly bumper to bumper traffic heading north for the Labor Day holiday.

How different it was on Labor Day of 1943 with gasoline rationing now in full effect and new tires non-existent.

The average motorist in Sheboygan in 1943 was given an A classification which allowed him 4 gallons of gasoline, and later 3 gallons, per week. Every vehicle in the A classification was required to display a sticker with a large letter A in the left hand corner of his windshield. There were also vehicles classified as B and C and T for trucks.

Under certain circumstances a vehicle under the B classification could obtain more gasoline and vehicles under the C classification were entitled to an even greater amount of gasoline. For instance Doctors, Clergymen and even embalmers were able to obtain more gasoline because of the fact their duties were considered essential.

What puzzled people most was the fact that oil refineries were producing more gasoline then at any time in the history of our country. The problem was not a shortage of gasoline but the absolutely desperate shortage of rubber.

By strictly rationing gasoline the government felt they could also prevent people from using up their tires. If a family wanted to drive their car to a vacation spot they had to save up their allotted gas rationing coupons without which they could not purchase gasoline.

But even with a saved up cache of ration coupons travelers were taking a great risk because if they suffered a blow out this could spell disaster, as there were no replacement tires anywhere.

It was tradition in Labor Days gone by that the central Labor council would sponsor a large parade through downtown Sheboygan culminating in a large picnic honoring labor at which local union leaders and city authorities would make long speeches extolling the virtues of the American laborer.

But in 1943 the need for continuous production was so serious that the parade and all other celebrations in Sheboygan were cancelled so that there would be no interruption of the vital war production from local industry.

But the rationing of gasoline was not the only item that was in short supply. Sugar, which was still being produced in large quantities, much of it coming from Hawaii, could not be transported to the mainland due to the fact that ships that were used to transport the sugar had all now been commandeered for the transportation of troops and war goods.

Meat, canned goods and some clothing items all were rationed. The need for nylon, which was in short supply and needed for the manufacture of parachutes and high strength cables such as those that were used to tow gliders, was so acute that ladies across the United States were asked to turn in their nylon stockings at collection points across the country.

The response was so great that thousands of pounds of nylon was collected which virtually eliminated the shortage of this critical material.

As Sheboygan residents in 1943 struggled with rationing, shortages and loved ones going off to war in faraway places, the Labor Day of that year was not one to celebrate.

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