World War II Home Front on Puget Sound

  • By James R. Warren
  • Posted 9/13/1999
  • Essay 1664
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Fearing a second world war, the United States began to build up its armed forces in the late 1930s, helping to revitalize the Depression-becalmed economy of the Puget Sound region. The area's aircraft and ship builders shifted into high gear after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Every sector of business and domestic life was affected by the war effort. The society underwent dramatic change as women took the place of men on production lines, thousands of Japanese Americans were interned, and equal numbers of African Americans migrated to the Northwest in search of defense jobs. Historian James R. Warren (1925-2012) surveys the scale and legacies of our area's mobilization during World War II in this essay, adapted with permission from the Puget Sound Business Journal.

The Beginnings of War

As the 1930s ended, German troops were marching across Europe, and Japan controlled much of China and threatened all of Asia. An isolationist Congress finally, grudgingly, acceded to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's urgent appeals for national defense funding.

In the Puget Sound area, war contracts were soon revitalizing moribund industries with a swelling flow of urgent orders for war materials, equipment, and supplies. Labor shortages replaced unemployment lines and a great migration developed as Americans moved from poorer areas, particularly in the South, to areas with major war industries. Census takers in 1940 counted slightly more than 1.7 million Washington residents. The war effort quickly added a quarter-million more -- including thousands of African Americans.


In September 1940, the United States implemented its first peacetime draft, requiring that all male citizens and resident aliens between 21 and 36 register for compulsory military service. Fifteen months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war on the Axis Powers (chiefly Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan). Americans quickly mobilized in support of a total war effort.

Washington, a comparatively small and undeveloped state, played a disproportionately important role in the country's efforts to gear up for war. In January 1943, Washington Secretary of State Belle Reeves issued a report titled War Production in Washington. A year and a month after Pearl Harbor, she wrote:

"No state has been more profoundly affected economically by the expansion of war industries than Washington. By the middle of 1941, migration of war workers was already at full tide and the relation of prime military contracts in the Puget Sound area to the value of manufacturing products in 1939 was relatively five times greater than for the country for a whole. The relationship of war work to normal activity has been about twice as great as for Los Angeles and four times greater than for San Francisco."

Seattle ranked as one of the top three cities in the nation in war contracts per capita, and Washington state ranked as one of the top two in the nation for war contracts per capita. Airplane and ship contracts in 1943-1944 were valued at three times the total of all manufacturing in the state in 1939.

Flying Fortresses

The National War Production Board in August 1942 revealed that up to July 1, 1942, more than $1 billion in contracts had been awarded Seattle's aircraft industry and $709 million had been awarded shipyards in Seattle. Secretary of State Reeves added that by 1944, "floor space of Seattle airplane plants increased from 800,000 square feet to 2.4 million square feet by early 1942 and has since been increased another 1.7 million square feet. The Boeing Aircraft Co. employed about 7,500 persons in 1940. The Seattle plant now has over 22,000 workers and the new Renton plant about 10,000."

Boeing's Seattle and Renton plants produced 8,200 planes, including 6,981 B-17s and more than 1,000 giant B-29s. Civilian use of Boeing Field was greatly curtailed to accommodate the production of thousands of Boeing bombers. The military also annexed Tacoma's McChord Field, prompting that city to plead with the Port to develop Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at Bow Lake -- midway between the Sound's two major cities. Work began in 1942. The new airport was completed in 1944.

Floating an Armada

Puget Sound-area shipyards constructed an unbelievable number of war vessels. At the combined Todd Shipyards/Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding operation, 33,000 men and women worked in Tacoma to build five freighters, two transports, 37 escort carriers, five gasoline tankers, and three destroyer tenders. At the Seattle yards, 22,000 employees built 46 destroyers and three tenders for the U.S. Navy, plus other vessels.

Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock/Associated Shipbuilders turned out 38 minesweepers, three seaplane tenders, 10 floating drydock workshops, 15 covered wooden lighters, three wooden tugboats, and other vessels. The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton commissioned 19 major ships, including eight destroyers, eight destroyer escorts, five escort aircraft carriers, and other vessels. They also repaired many battle-damaged ships.

The Lake Washington Shipyard at Houghton, now annexed to Kirkland, employed 6,000 workers to repair dozens of merchant vessels and ferries during the war and to turn out ships for the Navy. The shipyard site is now the location of Carillon Point, a residential-commercial development. Fifteen smaller shipyards in Seattle and others in Tacoma, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Gig Harbor, Bellingham, Friday Harbor, Anacortes, Olympia, and Winslow (now Bainbridge Island) also produced vessels for the war effort.

Plywood and Powdered Eggs

Lumber, one of the state's basic industries, was also in great demand. Many billions of board-feet were needed to build everything from barracks to minesweepers. Specialized lumber products were developed as substitutes for critically scarce metals. For example, water-resistant plywood was produced to use in construction of training planes and barges.

Washington continued as a leading agricultural state. In 1941, Washington farm products increased in value to $250 million. Improved preservation processes, such as dehydration of fruits, vegetables, milk, and eggs permitted such foods to be shipped to distant war fronts. In 1943, with millions of Americans serving in the armed forces, the annual need for powdered eggs reached 400 million pounds, compared with 250 million pounds the year before.

The state fishing industry continued as one of the most productive in the country. Salmon and halibut were the major products, but various other seafoods were also harvested. During the war years, the Army and Navy purchased virtually all of the salmon canned in Washington and Alaska.

The Suburbs Do Their Part

Renton gained a huge Boeing airplane factory early in the war that turned out hundreds of B-29 Superfortresses. The Pacific Car and Foundry plant there produced 926 Sherman tanks during the war, and company engineers designed a tank recovery vehicle to haul tanks damaged on battlefields to repair facilities. The firm produced more than 1,300 of these rescue vehicles.

In Bellevue, which didn't incorporate as a city until 1953, the Coast Guard appropriated the whaling dock on Meydenbauer Bay and converted the whaling vessels to be used as part of the government fleet. Because war workers in need of housing were renting summer cabins and other available shelters on the Eastside, Overlake Transit scheduled 26 bus trips a day to carry commuters across the recently opened Mercer Island Floating Bridge.

During the war, the first few buildings were built in what became Bellevue Shopping Square. Though building materials were reserved for wartime needs, the government allowed construction of a motion picture theater there in an effort to keep entertainment-hungry Eastside residents from moving to crowded Seattle.

Life on the Home Front

Every city, county, and region in the state was involved in the war effort. Every individual, company, and agency felt the effects of the war in dozens of ways. The war was constantly on every mind and war news each day motivated citizens to work long and often unusual hours. Many companies scheduled three eight-hour shifts each day, seven days a week.

Japanese Americans bore a special burden when thousands were uprooted in April 1942 and interned in camps away from the Pacific Coast. Seattle's Japan Town, once the second largest in the nation, was emptied in a few days (and never recovered). Local grocers and the Pike Place Market lost the bounty of hundreds of Japanese American truck farms, including the 55 families who had produced Bellevue's famed strawberries. Although most of their neighbors acquiesced to the internment of Japanese Americans, a few community leaders questioned its validity or necessity. Tacoma Mayor Harry P. Cain said, "America has always been interested in selection, and I feel it would be preferable to make careful selection of those who are evacuated then just to say, 'Let's get rid of our problem by the easiest, most obvious way, by moving everybody out'" (Smith).

The Puget Sound region was site of dozens of military bases during the war, including Paine Field, the Whidbey Naval Air Station, Sand Point Naval Air Station, Fort Lawton, the Keyport Torpedo Station, and Bangor Naval Ammunition Depot, among many others. The Navy also took control of Piers 90-91 and other Port of Seattle facilities.

Huge numbers of servicemen assigned to the area, some with their families, brought a rush of business to cities near Army and Navy bases, even before the U.S. entered the war. This was especially true in Tacoma, Olympia, Bremerton, Seattle, and the smaller, nearby towns. In 1937, Fort Lewis hosted the nation's largest military exercise to date, involving 7,500 soldiers and officers of the Third Division. Several of the officers later made headlines, among them Gen. George C. Marshall, Maj. Mark Clark, and Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the two years prior to Pearl Harbor, the number of men at Fort Lewis and McChord rapidly increased from 7,000 to more than 26,000. After Pearl Harbor, more than 50,000 soldiers at a time trained at Fort Lewis.

The Atomic Age

After Victory in Europe (V-E) Day on May 8, 1945, all efforts turned to defeating Japan. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans had been shipped to the Pacific ready for the sure-to-be-bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands. They and the entire world could hardly believe the news when, on August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress dropped an atomic bomb, the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT, on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Washington residents finally learned what had been going on at Hanford in Eastern Washington. Radioactive ingredients, including plutonium, had been prepared there for use in the bomb. We learned that workers in our state had both designed the plane and refined the fissionable materials that ushered in the Atomic Age.

On August 14 and 15, 1945, Puget Sound residents celebrated the end of the long and bloody conflict. Within a week of V-J Day, hundreds of men began quitting their jobs to pursue suspended civilian careers, and many women defense workers – celebrated collectively as "Rosie the Riveter" – laid down their tools and picked up aprons and frying pans (not always happily). Dreams of returning to "normalcy" would prove elusive. The war had changed the region's economy, population, and social structure in profound and permanent ways.


James R. Warren, "A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999; Page Smith, Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 121. Adapted with permission. Original copyright 1999, Puget Sound Business Journal.

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