America’s political neutrality in World War II dissolved in the early morning of December 7, 1941, when over three hundred Japanese aircraft roared over the island of Oahu. Their mission was direct and succinct—to take Pearl Harbor by surprise and inflict as much damage as possible. Due to the unpreparedness of the naval base, and the sheer unexpectedness of the attack, the end result proved to be devastating. The event, in which the US suffered 2,335 military casualties, immediately incited a response on behalf of America, and on the following day, Franklin D. Roosevelt officially declared war. My grandfather from Platteville, Wisconsin lied about being 18, like many others, after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and signed up to defend our country by fighting in the Pacific.
After Pearl Harbor, America’s participation in World War II shifted the very foundation of the country. The states focused its attention on defeating the root axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The American economy became retooled for war, and there were integral changes occurring at societal and industrial levels. The war effort became unceasing, as did the motivation for victory, which was ultimately achieved by September 2, 1945 after the fall of Nazi Germany and the subsequent surrender of its allies.
America is often viewed as a holistic superpower throughout the entirety of World War II’s history, but there is one major concept that is often overlooked. The US was still operating at a state level, and each state was unique in regards to its contribution to the war. Nebraska’s large airfields, for example, were vital for training pilots and crew members. Coastal states such as California and Florida provided the foundation for a strong navy. However, there is one Midwestern state in particular whose importance in the war proved to be multifaceted—the Badger State, Wisconsin.
By the time the war had concluded, over 300,000 Wisconsin residence involved themselves in the armed forces, of which roughly 8,000 lost their lives. In addition, nearly 13,000 Wisconsin soldiers were wounded in the conflict. The 32D ‘Red Arrow,’ an infantry division which composed itself primarily of National Guard soldiers from Wisconsin, participated in World War II from the very conception of America’s involvement. The Red Arrow is noted as the first unit to be sent overseas in its entirety, as well as one of the first US divisions to experience ground combat. Their efforts were momentous, comprising of four separate campaigns throughout the war. Not only were they the first, they were the last as well—the division fought to the very end of the war, even after the official surrender of the Japanese. By the time they returned, the 32D Red Arrow division decorated itself with eleven Medals of Honor, 157 Distinguished Service Crosses, and thousands of other awards including Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, and Legions of Merit.
Wisconsin’s endeavors did not pertain only to overseas combat. Most of the Badger State’s contributions to the war were happening, quite literally, on their very own soil. The agricultural industry skyrocketed as the US military prepped itself for combat, and Wisconsin farmers received millions of dollars in order to keep up with the demand for fresh produce and other goods. This demand was spurred on by Wisconsin’s labor force as well. Through the efforts of the farmers, citizens could focus less on food availability, and more on wartime production.
The facet of production proved to be Wisconsin’s strongpoint during World War II, as the state was capable of turning out a variety of goods. Due to its geographical location—bordering to two of America’s deepest lakes—some of the largest naval production facilities existed here, and ship and submarine building became a primary focus. Munitions were also made in historically large quantities in Wisconsin during this time. The city of Baraboo gave rise to the Badger Ordinance Company after a $65 million dollar authorization on behalf of Franklin D Roosevelt himself. The construction of this manufacturing plant preceded America’s involvement in the war by a few months, but as soon as war was declared, this facility became the largest singular producer of ammunition in the entire world. It contributed millions of pounds of smokeless powder, rocket propellant, and rocket grain, which were used primarily in hand grenades and M1 rifle cartridges.
Wisconsin, as well as many other states, entered a time of economic prosperity during (and following) the war. Women entered the workforce en masse as soldiers left the country to fight, driving down unemployment rates and ushering in a new era of industrial production. By the end of World War II, Wisconsin businesses had received nearly five billion dollars’ worth of orders pertaining to the war effort.
There is one aspect of Wisconsin’s World War II involvement that is often hidden away by its many layers of history. It is something that even the citizens of Wisconsin themselves were made unaware of at the time due to its secrecy. By the end of the war, Wisconsin had intermittently housed around 40,000 prisoners of war throughout the state (nearly ten percent of all POWs in America). The transferal of England’s war captives to American soil originated from a rumor, which suggested Hitler had plans of sending weapons via airdrop to various camps in order to spark retaliation. At the time, the decision—although driven by fear—was best for both countries.
Major pre-existing military camps, such as Fort McCoy, served as housing facilities for these prisoners of war, which consisted primarily of Germans, Koreans, and Japanese. Most of these POWs “paid their keep” by helping production efforts, especially in regards to agriculture, and in some instances they would work side-by-side with Wisconsin’s labor force. This further benefited the state’s ability to produce food and military goods, and helped bolster their economy.
The state’s decision to not disclose these POW camps to the citizens was due in part to the uncertainty of their response. Because tensions were so high, the possibility of violence on behalf of those who lived in Wisconsin was a definite possibility. That said, those who did know, and those who worked alongside them, treated these prisoners of war respectably. Many people donated goods, and in most cases, these POWs lived in relative comfort. There are several firsthand accounts from Wisconsinites, such as Alice Schmidt, that their interactions with these prisoners were always positive, and never met by fear.
Following the war, several POWs, especially those from Germany, did not want to return back to their country. Wisconsin’s economic stability and vocational opportunities were highly desirable to those whose home countries were in shambles from the conflict. Indeed, several eventually returned to settle in Wisconsin post-war, and establish their lives there. Many who did move back stayed in contact with the citizens they befriended and worked with.
World War II in its entirety was a time of indescribable destruction and uncertainty on a global scale, however, it simultaneously allowed America to ban together in pursuit of a common goal. Each state and its respective citizens put forth their unique strengths and proved to the world what America was capable of. Wisconsin stood at the forefront of this effort, and solidified itself as a very important cornerstone of the United States’ involvement in the war.