Daily life changed dramatically for North Carolinians during World War II. As men left to fight overseas, women moved into the workforce. Families coped with rationing and did their part for the war effort by buying war bonds, helping with civil defense, salvaging materials, growing victory gardens, and entertaining troops at the USO. The state’s citizens watched as construction workers hurriedly built military bases, German submarines sank American ships off the Outer Banks, wartime industries sprang up, and POWs moved into internment camps from the mountains to the coast. This section provides an overview of the home front experience.
Fighting the War on the Home Front
Jo Ann Williford
Reprinted from Tar Heel Junior Historian 25 (spring 1986), 2–5.
Well-trained, well-armed forces are essential to winning any war. But who sees to it that the food, clothing, machinery, and ammunition needed by the military are produced efficiently and that troop and civilian morale remain high? These matters are the responsibility of the people who fight the war on the homefront. During World War II life for the men, women, and children of this state and across America changed drastically and required many sacrifices.
Equipping, transporting, and maintaining troops during the war proved an expensive undertaking that had an immediate impact on North Carolina. By December, 1942, North Carolina had more servicemen within its borders than any other state, housing the nation’s largest army artillery post (Fort Bragg), largest Coast Guard station (at Elizabeth City), two large Marine bases (Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point), and the largest glider base (Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base). Taxes paid by Americans covered part of this expense. The remainder of the cost had to be borrowed by the federal government from individuals and banks.
This borrowing was done primarily through the sale of war bonds and stamps. A person who bought a war bond loaned his money to the government for several years. Schoolchildren bought many war stamps and pasted them in special books. When the books were filled, the students traded them in for a war bond. Special stamp and bond booths popped up in North Carolina schools from the elementary levels through high school. Competitions between classes and schools were sponsored to see which competitor could raise the most money.
Elementary school pupils in Durham County contributed money to the war effort during a bond drive.
There were major campaigns to encourage adults to buy bonds as well. Many lures enticed them. Sometimes movie stars made visits to North Carolina to ask people to support the war. For the price of a war bond, citizens of Wake County got to ride around the county courthouse in a jeep or see a Japanese submarine captured at Pearl Harbor. Some counties and organizations contributed to war loan drives that paid for specific pieces of war equipment. Rutherford County residents’ donations purchased a Flying Fortress (B-17) during the fourth war loan campaign, and the bomber was duly named the “Rutherford County, N.C.” Salem College students earned citations from the United States Treasury Department for buying enough bonds and stamps to pay for one “Tank-Ammunition Trailer M-8” and for “One Field Ambulance.” In all, North Carolinians contributed millions of dollars to the war effort through the purchase of bonds.
Although North Carolina’s eastern seaboard never suffered a direct attack during the war, the state’s newspapers and Office of Civilian Defense mobilized to prepare citizens for the worst. One Chowan Herald headline in July, 1943, solemnly warned that “Air Raids Seen As Possibility in N.C. Cities Along Coast” and urged its readers to watch out for enemy aircraft “seriously, and on a 24-hour basis. . . .” Sirens were installed from the coast to the mountains to warn of the approach of enemy planes. Air raid drills were held. Men and women studied printed plane silhouettes to learn the shape of enemy aircraft and carefully scanned the state’s rural skies. Volunteers underwent training for such duties as air raid wardens and first aid specialists. Citizens learned how to blackout their homes and businesses so at night their lights would not be visible from the air or sea.
Civil defense wardens saw to it that people obeyed the rules. One Wilmington department store clerk was arrested, convicted, and fined “for smoking a lighted cigarette upon the streets after having been warned by a person in authority to extinguish it.” Residents of Morehead City and Beaufort began to take the blackout regulations seriously when 114 violators were arrested and fined during a one-week campaign to enforce the rules. People who lived along certain coastal roads closed to night traffic because of the German U-boats off the coast had to tape over their headlights so that only narrow slits remained open. They could not drive faster than fifteen miles per hour on the closed roads either.
The State Office of Civilian Defense sponsored a war gas school as well, located at Chapel Hill. There they taught gas officers how to identify deadly war gases, how to use gas masks, and methods of first aid and decontamination in case of gas attacks. They even applied small doses of mustard gas to their forearms to study its effects and how the cleansing agent stopped them.
Like families across the country separated by war, the Pucketts of Greensboro kept in touch through letters. While Lewis Puckett was stationed overseas with the U.S. Navy for over a year and a half, his wife Beth assumed the position as head of the household and raised their two children, Sherry and Steven. Sherry, age 8 at the time, wrote this letter to her father. Letter courtesy of the Greensboro Historical Museum. For additional Puckett letters, go here: http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ttt/id/35833.
Another major problem faced by all Americans was wartime shortages of groceries and consumer goods. The shortages occurred for several reasons. Some imported commodities were given only to the military during the war. Other imported goods were limited in quantity because of shipping losses. Production of many American items was stopped by the government because they were not essential to the war effort. Most food, clothing, and equipment went to support the armed forces. What remained had to be shared by civilians.
Two systems dealt with shortages. One method evenly distributed certain goods, giving all citizens an opportunity to purchase set amounts of the items. This was called nonselective rationing, and it applied to such things as sugar, meat, butter, and shoes. Each citizen held ration stamps issued by the government worth a certain number of points. These were used along with money to buy rationed goods. Shortages in fresh produce could also be met by individual or community victory gardens. By growing and canning their own vegetables, the public reduced their need for commercial canned goods required for servicemen overseas.
The second method, called selective rationing, was used for products that were extremely scarce. For instance, there were no new cars manufactured in America between February 7, 1942, and the end of the war in 1945. Neither were many bicycles, typewriters, refrigerators, or other metal products made once the war started. Metal was needed to manufacture planes and weapons. Used cars and bicycles available for sale went to people who needed them most—particularly those who had jobs important to the war effort.
North Carolina's children helped the war effort. In the top photo, students in Concord collect scrap rubber and metal, 1942. Forsyth County first graders grow incredible radishes in their school victory garden.
Americans restricted by the rationing system still managed to donate scarce items to the war effort by salvaging. Today we would call it recycling. The military’s need for paper, grease, nylon, rubber, and metal remained high. Citizens were urged to save products containing these materials and turn them in at collection centers. Schoolchildren across the state carried out scrap drives. They collected such things as keys, tin cans, bathtubs, old metal and rubber toys, and newspapers. The city of Raleigh tore up old streetcar rails to donate for scrap metal drives. However, when someone suggested that the state should melt down the Revolutionary War cannons standing at the Capitol, there was an outcry of protest. There were limits to the sacrifices the public felt willing to make. The Revolutionary War cannons survived World War II intact and remain on Capitol Square to this day.
A manpower shortage was yet another problem. Those left at home, women and the men excused from military duty, filled jobs previously held by men who had entered the service. “Rosie the Riveter” became the symbol for women who took over important jobs in defense plants and other vital areas. North Carolina women helped build Liberty Ships in the yards of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company at Wilmington. They also worked at the Fairchild Aircraft Plant in Burlington, assembling military planes. Schoolchildren replaced farm laborers who had left for war. For six weeks in 1943 the school day in Wake County was shortened to operate from 8:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. so children could spend their afternoons picking cotton on Wake County farms. Even Governor J. Melville Broughton and his wife spent several afternoons picking cotton.
The USO was organized in 1941 to provide social, recreational, spiritual, and welfare facilities to members of the armed services. The USO’s associated agencies include the Young Men’s Christian Association, the National Catholic Community Service, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Salvation Army, the Jewish Welfare Board, and the National Travelers Aid Association. This World War II–era poster lists separate facilities in Raleigh for whites and blacks, typical of USO operations in the segregated South.
For almost four years the American people were reminded daily that they must do their part to speed the victory by rationing, salvaging, promoting troop morale with USO entertainments, contributing their resources, and preparing for defense. In the end North Carolinians could be proud of their efforts. After the war Governor Gregg Cherry, recalling the sacrifices they made, stated that, “This was cooperative democracy at its best.”
Danger and Death in Torpedo Junction
Joe A. Mobley
Reprinted from Tar Heel Junior Historian 25 (spring 1986), 6–9.
Explosive action erupted off the North Carolina coast during the first six months of World War II. Even before Germany declared war on the United States in December, 1941, the waters of the Atlantic had become a major site for German submarines or U-boats [unterseeboots] on the lookout for the ships of their enemies. North Carolina fishermen often reported spotting German submarines on the surface before the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. After that event, when the war between America and Germany became official, American ships in the vicinity of North Carolina’s Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras also fell prey to the skilled and deadly hunters on the U-boats.
Unlike the United States, Germany entered the war well prepared. The powerful German navy boasted an entire fleet of 500-ton U-boats, each manned by a determined crew. Shortly after Pearl Harbor the German Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of the submarine fleet, dispatched six of the dangerous underwater vessels to destroy American East Coast shipping. He called his naval campaign Paukenschlag, which means “Roll of Drums.” By January, 1942, at least nineteen German submarines patrolled the western Atlantic. The accuracy of their attacks quickly earned the ships and crews the nicknames of “hearses” and “pallbearers” among American seamen because death followed U-boat strikes time after time.
These Nazi raiders first struck off the Tar Heel coast on January 18, 1942. Several hours before the dawn of that day the oil tanker Allan Jackson was proceeding northward in a calm sea sixty miles off Cape Hatteras. The tanker transported crude oil from Colombia, South America, to New York. At 1:30 A.M. a German U-boat lurking in the area fired two torpedoes that struck the Allan Jackson and exploded. The second explosion split the ship in two and spilled its cargo of 7.5 million gallons of crude oil into the Atlantic. The vessel and the oil-soaked sea around it were engulfed in flames. Unfortunately most of the tanker’s lifeboats were not serviceable and many sailors died. Some of the crew who managed to abandon ship clung for hours to wreckage. Later that day the United States destroyer Roe picked up the survivors.
The first submarine attack along the Tar Heel coast had been costly. The tanker and its valuable cargo were lost, and only thirteen of the thirty-five crewmen survived. The sinking of the Allan Jackson marked the start of the large-scale destruction of Allied shipping that quickly earned the North Carolina coast the wartime name of Torpedo Junction.
U-boats sank eight more Allied ships during January, 1942, and the same number went down in February. Among these victims was the British tanker Empire Gem. Only the captain and one crewman survived its sinking. One Hatteras resident recalled watching the ship’s demise. “Here at Hatteras the island shook with explosions at sea. We could hear the cannon. We felt the shocks, one after another. Windows rattled. . . . A big oil tanker, the Empire Gem . . . burned for days, filling the sea with flames and smoke.” Another victim was the American Venore. Twenty-one sailors from the Venore died when that vessel sank off Diamond Shoals. Other ships destroyed by German torpedoes included the Brazilian passenger ship Buarqueand the Norwegian cargo vessel Blink. Although twenty-three men from the Blink escaped in a lifeboat, seventeen died after drifting on the wintery Atlantic for three days.
By March, 1942, the Nazis had organized their U-boats into killer packs that communicated by wireless radio and attacked at night. Too often North Carolina residents unwittingly aided the German attackers by burning electric lights at night. Incredibly unprepared for war, American officials had failed to order a blackout of the Atlantic coast. City and harbor lights lit up the Tar Heel shoreline. Prowling German submarines caught their prey silhouetted against the illuminated horizon. Allied ships were also easy victims for other reasons. Their convoys were unescorted by warships, they failed to take evasive action like zig-zagging while running the gauntlet off the North Carolina coast, and they filled their radio transmissions with information about their cargoes and destinations. Even American naval vessels foolishly radioed their positions and departure dates, to the delight of the listening Germans.
During March the U-boats sank an average of almost one Allied ship per day along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. On the night of March 18, five vessels went down off Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout—the tankers Papoose, W. E. Hutton, and E. M. Clark, and the freighters Liberator and Kassandra Louloudis. People living next to the shore heard the explosions and watched the fires burning at sea. America’s wartime government did not allow official reports on the shipping destruction to be released, but coastal residents “knew that wasn’t the ocean burning out there.”
As the destruction continued, death tolls ran high. The sinking of the American tanker Dixie Arrow, for instance, claimed eleven lives on March 26. On the following day the Panamanian freighter Equipoise sank with the loss of thirty-eight crewmen. At least one North Carolinian, James Baugham Gaskill of Ocracoke Island, was killed by the German raiders. Gaskill was an engineer aboard the freighter Caribsea, torpedoed southeast of Ocracoke. The total number of deaths mounted as the U-boats repeatedly moved in for the kill.
The crews of the undersea boats that hunted so effectively in North Carolina’s waters were men especially suited and trained for submarine warfare. They were sailors who could withstand danger, cramped quarters, and long hours of tension. These “sea wolves” worked and slept in shifts. Sometimes they suffered Blechkaller, a form of nervous strain that could drive them to violent hysteria, especially after long hours hiding on the bottom of the ocean while depth charges dropped by the Allies exploded around them. The tenacity, self-control, and “killer instinct” of German submariners, especially the commanders, accounted for much of their success. In less than three months the U-boats sank fifty large vessels off the Tar Heel coast. So far not a single submarine had been destroyed.
By mid-April, 1942, however, the tide of battle began to shift in Torpedo Junction. The United States and its friends slowly developed methods to combat the sinister undersea boats. The American government finally ordered a blackout of the eastern coastline. Great Britain dispatched a number of armed trawlers to search for U-boats off North Carolina. United States Navy and Coast Guard planes patrolled for submarines, and ship convoys adopted protective maneuvers. American mines and nets blocked the approach of submarines and provided safe anchorage at Cape Lookout.
Depth charges dropped by the coast guard explode in the Atlantic during a sub hunt. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
With the enactment of these antisubmarine measures, the scene was set for the first sinking of a German U-boat by an American vessel during World War II. That event occurred on April 14, 1942, when the United States destroyer Roper caught the German U-85 on the surface at Wimble Shoals. The Roper eluded a torpedo fired by the U-85 and then opened fire with its deck guns, seriously damaging the U-boat as it submerged. Depth charges from the destroyer tore apart the submarine. The Roper crew recovered the bodies of a number of German sailors who floated to the surface.
The United States Navy claimed another victory on May 2, 1942, when a destroyer sank a U-boat off Cape Fear. A week later the Coast Guard cutter Icarus sank the U-352 at Cape Lookout with depth charges and sustained fire from its deck guns. A number of the U-352’s crew, including Captain Hellmut Rathke, were captured and transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in North Carolina. The United States Navy sank two other U-boats at undisclosed sites off the Tar Heel coast, one on May 11 and the other on May 19, 1942.
These American successes did not halt entirely the destruction of Allied shipping off North Carolina. Between May and July, 1942, twelve vessels were sunk, a number by German mines. Nevertheless, from the end of July, 1942, to the close of the war, the Germans managed to sink only a few ships in North Carolina waters. According to David Stick, an authority on North Carolina ship disasters, eighty-seven vessels were lost off the Outer Banks during the war. Two thirds of these went down during torpedo attacks by U-boats. The others struck mines, were stranded, or foundered at sea. When these ships descended to the ocean floor, they joined hundreds of other silent wrecks in North Carolina’s maritime graveyard. There they still rest—eerie underwater reminders of World War II’s naval battles off our coast when German U-boats patrolled and briefly dominated Torpedo Junction.
A Long Way from Home: Prisoners of War in North Carolina during WWII
One of the least-known stories of World War II is the internment of more than four hundred thousand enemy soldiers from Germany, Italy, and Japan on American soil. By the end of the war in 1945, the United States government had established 155 base camps and more than 500 branch camps for prisoners of war (POWs) in forty-five of the forty-eight continental states (the exceptions were North Dakota, Nevada, and Vermont). Most of these facilities went up in the South and Southwest, which offered isolation, security, and a warm climate.
North Carolina received its first group of POWs when German sailors rescued from U-boat 352, which sank off the coast on May 9, 1942, were confined at Fort Bragg. The War Department eventually set up seventeen base and branch camps across the state at the following sites:
Butner (base camp)
- Camp Mackall
- Camp Davis
- Camp Sutton
- Roanoke Rapids
- Scotland Neck
Fort Bragg (base camp)
- New Bern
- Seymour Johnson Air Base
The Geneva Convention provided that the living quarters and rations of prisoners of war equal that of the captor country’s forces. The United States generally treated POWs well and hoped that the Axis governments would reciprocate by treating American soldiers fairly. POWs in this country were housed either in tents with wood heaters or in heated barracks constructed from pine lumber and covered with tar paper siding and roofs. The prisoners, most of whom were German, were astonished by the amount and quality of the food they received. They found that life in an American POW camp was much more luxurious than life in the German army. During their free time, they formed music bands, worked on art projects, grew flower and vegetable gardens, and played their favorite sport from back home—soccer.
The crew of the U-352, sunk off the Outer Banks, became the first German POWs confined in the United States. They were initially imprisoned at Fort Bragg, where this photo was taken. U.S. Army photo.
The Geneva Convention also allowed captor nations to employ POWs as long as the men were well cared for and did not work in war-related jobs. Consequently, enemy prisoners became an important source of labor in the United States, which faced a shortage of manpower caused by military enlistments and conscription. Most POWs in North Carolina performed agricultural work such as planting and harvesting crops. Others cut timber for pulpwood or labored on military bases. Prisoners hired out to private contractors earned the same pay as regular workers. However, they received only eighty cents per day, which went into their personal savings accounts or into coupons for use in the base canteen to purchase items such as candy, soft drinks, cigarettes, and soap. The remaining money from their labor went back to the United States government, and much of it was used to provide libraries, recreational equipment, and other comforts in camp.
Many of the German soldiers captured early in the war were members of the elite Afrika Korps, and they believed strongly in a Nazi victory. Those captured later had experienced firsthand the devastation brought on their country by the Allied armies, and they thought German defeat was inevitable. These two factions often clashed over their political views, and violence erupted in some camps.
As the Allied victory approached, the War Department began to reeducate German POWs, teaching them about democracy and the American way of life before they returned home. At Camp Mackall in Richmond and Scotland Counties, prisoners organized political parties and voted on issues to understand the democratic process. POWs at Camp Butner north of Durham learned about tolerance when a local Jewish merchant provided them with hard-to-find band equipment. After viewing films of liberated concentration camps, one thousand men at that camp removed their uniforms and burned them in outrage. Yet some prisoners pointed out that widespread discrimination against African Americans and other minorities existed in the United States.
With the return of peace, POWs in the United States continued to work until the American army was demobilized and the many thousands of veterans reentered the work force. Some German prisoners were moved to England or France for a year to help rebuild those shattered countries, but by 1947 most had returned home.
Despite the large number of enemy soldiers in this country, few attempted to escape, and even fewer succeeded. (Federal prisons saw more escape attempts than POW compounds during that time.) Most escapees were caught within a day or two, but Kurt Rossmeisl managed to avoid capture. Rossmeisl walked away from Camp Butner on August 4, 1945, and caught a train to Chicago. There he lived under the name Frank Ellis, obtained a social security card, found employment, and even joined a local Moose lodge. Tired of being on the run and fearful of capture, Rossmeisl finally turned himself in on May 10, 1959, fourteen years after the end of the war. One German POW escapee remains unaccounted for today.
Prisoners often made items to trade, sell, or give away. This watercolor landscape of the barracks at Camp Butner was painted in 1945 and signed “E Kamler.” It came to the museum by way of the niece of a guard at that camp, who may have purchased it or received it as a gift.
At the end of the war, all of the POW compounds in North Carolina were abandoned, and the land and many of the buildings were sold as surplus property. Today only a small number of people remember when prisoners of war lived, worked, and even played soccer in the Tar Heel State.
Robert H. Bailey, Prisoners of War (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981).
Robert D. Billinger Jr., “Behind the Wire: German Prisoners of War at Camp Sutton, 1944–1946,” North Carolina Historical Review 61 (October 1984): 481–509.
Robert D. Billinger Jr., “Mysterious Nazi Prisoners Next Door,” Tar Heel Junior Historian 25 (spring 1986): 10–12.
Arnold Krammer, Nazi Prisoners of War in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1979).
John Hammond Moore, The Faust-Ball Tunnel: German POWs in America and Their Great Escape (New York: Random House, 1978).
Ron Robin, The Barbed-Wire College: Reeducating German POWs in the United States during World War II (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).
Complete one of the following assignments:
Option 1 (Choose this option if you are seeking technology credits for this course.)
Test your on-line investigative skills by researching the following five items using only the Internet. After each answer list the steps you took to find the answers. (If any questions stump you, record and submit your search strategy.)
- What type of epidemic swept the North Carolina Piedmont in 1944?
- Find three websites that state the number of Japanese American civilians interned during World War II. Do the figures from the sites differ significantly? If so, which site do you trust the most and why?
- Find a website containing a lesson plan, article, image, or other information about the American or North Carolina World War II home front that would help you in your classroom. What is its address? How could you use it?
- Find a website that discusses children’s experiences in World War II in another country. What is its address?
- List at least five foods that were rationed in the United States during the war.
Briefly research daily life on the southern home front during the Civil War. Write a short essay comparing the Civil War home front with the American home front during World War II. Your comparison can be broad or can focus on one or two aspects, such as shortages, changing women’s roles, children’s experiences, or propaganda.
Popular culture—movies, music, media, cartoons, fashion, fads, toys, fiction, etc.—relates important information about larger political, social, and economic realms. Create a list of popular culture items that will make the World War II home front come alive for your students. Briefly discuss how you could use those items in your classroom to teach about the home front.
And you're done! Thanks for participating!