From THE WAR Episode 2 :
NEWSREEL "WARTOWN": A army of 150,000 men, women and children
invaded an American city. Whites, Negroes, Indians, Creoles, Cajuns--
they came from every corner of the land, their roots in every curve
of the globe: Moscow, Indiana, Warsaw, North Dakota, Hamburg,
California. Milan, Missouri, Baghdad, Kentucky. Some came out of
patriotism, some out of grim necessity, some for a richer life, all
came to do a war job. This could be any one of a hundred great
American war centers. It happens to be Mobile, Alabama, but the
story is the same in every war town in America.
NARRATOR: The chronic unemployment that had eaten at Mobile and every
other American town for more than a decade during the Depression was
MUSIC: Sing, Sing, Sing, Benny Goodman
NARRATOR: Idle factories were back in business. Mass
production was an American invention, but now it reached levels its
inventors could never have imagined. Nearly all manufacturing was
converted to the war effort. In 1941, more than 3 million cars had
been manufactured in the United States. Only 139 more were made
during the entire war. Instead, Chrysler made fuselages. General
Motors made airplane engines, guns, trucks, and tanks. And at its
vast Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan – 67 acres of assembly
lines under a single roof that one observer called “the Grand Canyon
of the mechanized world” – the Ford Motor company performed
something like a miracle -- 24 hours a day. The average Ford car had
some 15,000 parts. The B-24 Liberator long-range bomber had 1,550,000
parts. One came off the line at Willow Run every 63 minutes.
If the American military wasn’t yet quite equal to the Germans or the
Japanese, American workers would soon be able to build ships and
planes faster than the enemy could sink them or shoot them down. By
the end of the war, more than one-half of the all the industrial
production in the world would take place in the United States.
MUSIC: The Basie Boogie, Count Basie
NARRATOR: Mobile was among the fastest-growing of all
American war towns. Even before the war began, powerful Democratic
Congressman Frank Boykin landed his city a 26 million dollar defense
contract that transformed the municipal airport into Brookley Field,
a major Army Air Force supply depot and bomber modification center
that provided 17,000 civilian jobs. In 1940 Gulf Shipbuilding had
had 240 employees; by 1943, it had 11,600. In the same period
Alabama Dry Dock went from 1,000 workers to almost 30,000. They
included Hank Williams, the future country music star, and the
parents of future home run hitter Hank Aaron.
CLYDE ODOM: It was seven days a week. And during
the war when it was so strong, it was twelve-hour days five days a
week, ten hours on Saturday, eight hours on Sunday, you felt like
you've had a week off. There was such a influx of people that they
got on each others’ nerves and there wasn't enough uh watering holes
to entertain everybody. And so they get out and have fights and
drink and all that kinda stuff.
NARRATOR: African-Americans streamed into Mobile from all over the
South in search of defense work and a fresh start. They found both.
But they also found the same kind of discrimination they had known at
JOHN GRAY: Mobile was a pretty fair-minded city.
And before this time, whites and blacks got along pretty good as long
as you had the status quo. But when blacks began to get homes, to
buy homes and to ride in big cars, it, it turned some people off. The
policemen would stop you and give you a ticket. My cousin got a
ticket for driving sixteen miles an hour in a fifteen mile zone.
NEWSREEL: One hundred and fifty thousand people, ten full military
divisions, the civilian equivalent of Rommel’s entire African army
bivouacked without warning in the narrow confines of one peaceful
southern city. Less then three years ago you might have walked blocks
in Mobile without encountering a person, today you stop to scratch
your head and a line forms behind you. No wonder there is such a
chaos and congestion of traffic…
KATHARINE PHILLIPS: Mobile became so crowded in six
months that people were living in vacant lots. They put up tents in
vacant lots. People went into the boarding houses and one room would
hold as many as four men. They would sleep for so many hours; get up
and leave the bed; go to work and another man would take the bed.
NEWSREEL: This was a neighborhood grocery store. These girls:
welders, checkers, and machinists.
NARRATOR: Emma Belle Petcher was from the tiny town of Millry,
Alabama. Most of her girlfriends had taken secretarial jobs once
they’d gotten out of high school, but Emma Belle, like her father,
loved to take things apart.
EMMA BELLE PETCHER: I always fixed my own
appliances at home, growing up. The washing machine got a nail in
the pump. I took the pump apart and took the nail out of the housing
of the pump. And, you know, run, I didn’t have the patience to call
in a repairman who would be, maybe three days later and he wouldn’t
tell you morning or evening, so I’d empty the washing machine, turn
it upside down, take the screwdrivers and, course I, I knew how to do
all this stuff.
MUSIC: Pistol Packin’ Mama, Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra
EMMA BELLE PETCHER: So, I packed my little cardboard
suitcase and got on the bus and went to Mobile. So they put me in a
school to learn airplane accessories – that was starters, generators,
alternators and some other things. So we did those parts, just those
little instruments, over and over and over until graduation. We had
to almost put them together blindfolded.
NARRATOR: Petcher breezed through all her tests and got a job working
on airplanes. By 1943, six million women had entered the work force,
and nearly half of them were working in defense plants. LIFE
magazine paid tribute to the mythical “Rosie the Riveter” as “neither
drudge nor slave but the heroine of a new order.” In Mobile, 2500
women worked at Alabama Dry Dock, twelve hundred at Gulf
Shipbuilding, and 750 at Brookley Field, where Emma Belle Petcher
worked her way up to inspector, responsible for quality control.
EMMA BELLE PETCHER: You would be assigned X number of planes to be
responsible for. I was to inspect the torque in the screws in the
wings, and go into the gas tanks, and crawl up in the wings with
flashlights. Well, I was so conscientious, I just didn’t make the
KATHARINE PHILLIPS: I worked at the government nursery school which
was downtown in Christ Church rectory and we had the children of the
women that worked in the shipyards. “Rosie the Riveter” would come
bring her child in all of her headgear and her togs that she did her
riveting in and drop her precious little baby off and go down and
work all day and come back at five o’clock and pick the child up.
NARRATOR: So many children flooded into Mobile that its overrun
schools were pronounced the worst in the nation by the U.S. Office of
Education. Some native citizens of Mobile were openly scornful of
the newcomers. A schoolteacher called them “the lowest type of poor
whites, these workers flocking in from the backwoods. They prefer to
live in shacks and go barefoot… They let their kids run wild on the
streets. I only hope we can get rid of them after the war.”
EMMA BELLE PETCHER: No one did it verbally, or to you , but the air
of the old aristocratic Mobile people were really, you know, had to
put up with a lot.
KATHARINE PHILLIPS: Well, in Mobile, the people that came here to
work in the shipyards came from the small towns. So we considered
‘em rednecks. And they really weren’t, they were very fine
Americans. But they were more of our farming type of southerner.
But they adjusted quickly.
EMMA BELLE PETCHER: But, you know, everybody was thrown into it
together. Whether they liked it or not. They were all together.
NEWSREEL: …and the story of Mobile is the story of every American