People and the War

California National Guard

While many units served in California, certain units had strong ties to the state. Foremost was the California National Guard’s (CNG) 40th Infantry Division which fought in the Pacific Theater. Also fighting in the Pacific was the 7th Infantry Division, which included the CNG’s 184th Infantry Regiment.

The CNG’s 40th Tank Company from Salinas participated in the defense of Luzon until forced to surrender on the Bataan Peninsula. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions were all formed in California. In Europe, the CNG’s 144th Field Artillery Group landed at Normandy and the 159th Infantry Regiment fought in the “Battle of the Bulge.”

The 13th Armored Division, declared by Governor Warren as “California’s Own,” fought in the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns of 1945. Californians Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Generals Henry “Hap” Arnold, George Patton, and James Doolittle were among the key military leaders during the war.

People of war collage
An old vehicle collage

A Changing Society

The war brought tremendous change to California society. In the five years after 1940, California’s population grew by 2.5 million or 30%. Accompanying this growth, pressure would be placed on the state’s infrastructure and government, forcing them to expand as well. The rush to expand production and replace the men who went into the military opened up opportunities for women and minorities. Of the six million women who entered the national workforce, 40% found employment in California defense industries. Black Americans also benefited from the demand for laborers. California saw a threefold increase in the black population. Also, tens of thousands of “Dust Bowl” farm laborers escaped California’s fields to find higher wages in defense plants. Because of the relocation of Japanese farmers and the flight of Dust Bowl migrants, farms faced labor shortages. In 1942, negotiations with Mexico would fill this labor force gap. Over 309,000 laborers were imported to work on US farms; 219,000 came from Mexico. Instant cities grew up around Bay Area and Los Angeles shipyards which employed over 300,000 workers. This rapid growth put tremendous strain on many communities – e.g., housing shortages, and scarce emergency, health, and social services.

Internment and Civil Rights

Asian-Americans had been singled out for discrimination in California for nearly a century before the war. Japanese-Americans in particular faced restrictive anti-immigration laws and legislation forbidding land ownership. This legacy of prejudice would find its fullest expression with the relocation of a whole people. The Japanese attacks along the California coast at the beginning of 1942 triggered calls for the removal of all Japanese in coastal areas. With the signing of Executive Order 9066, President Roosevelt began one of the greatest reversals of civil rights to take place in American history.

Shortly, over 112,000 Japanese living on the West Coast (including 93,000 in California) found their livelihoods, property, and lives under threat. Between 1942 and 1946, they would be forcibly evacuated to dozens of assembly, internment, and isolation camps.

Two of the ten US internment camps were in California at Tule Lake and Manzanar. Arrests and internment would not be limited to the Japanese, but would also include Italian-Americans. Many other ethnic and political groups would also be singled out as potential “enemy aliens” by the FBI and local law enforcement. Sadly, it would be decades before many received any formal apology or restitution.

Internment camp collage
Collage of women workers during WW2

Role of Women

Six million women entered the workforce during the war to fill roles that were new to them. As ten million men nationwide entered military duty, women became welders, riveters, and steamfitters in the shipbuilding plants of Northern California and the aircraft manufacturing plants of Southern California. The shortage of “manpower” opened the door for women to become chemists, reporters, engineers, and draftsmen.

In 1942, a woman’s role in military service was expanded beyond primarily nursing to include all branches of military service. For the first time, women served as non-combat pilots, gunnery instructors, and air traffic controllers in newly formed organizations such as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVES), and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

Of critical importance was the effort of women to maintain normal daily life in the face of food and gas rationing and shortages of consumer goods. Women were called upon to plant, harvest, and can their own food. Women managed households and raised families on their own, while coping with the ever present possibility that a serving husband, son, brother, or father might not return home.

Civilian War Duties

World War II was like no other war before or since. All Americans, not only those in the Armed Forces and those in defense industries, were urged, and to a certain extent expected, to participate. Participation ranged from such passive efforts as growing victory gardens to actively serving in volunteer organizations that were involved in the defense of the state. Californians participated in organizing scrap metal drives, providing recreational activities such as dances for service members, and serving on local defense councils and in Civil Defense and Aircraft Warning Service units. If you had a civilian pilot’s license you could serve in the Army Air Forces’ Civil Air Patrol that conducted coastal and border patrols and provided training and logistical support to the Army. Over 75,000 Californians served in the California State Guard and thousands more served in the over 330 licensed militia companies of the California State Militia.

People standing in line for food
People standing in line for food
People standing in line for food
People standing in line for food


Recycling and conservation were a necessity during the war. The increased need for the production of military goods and the necessity to clothe and feed soldiers translated into a shortage of civilian consumer goods. Rationing of food, gasoline, and rubber meant that Americans cut down on their consumption of meat, sugar, and coffee, as well as unnecessary travel. These scarce goods could not be purchased without government issued ration stamps. Production of most durable goods was also halted for the duration of the war, making reuse a necessity. In order to supplement food rations, Americans were encouraged to plant victory gardens. Every available space was used to cultivate fruit and vegetables. Scrap drives were organized to engage everyone in collecting old paper, rubber, metal, and even waste fat from cooking.

Americans backed the war effort another way, by putting their wages into war bonds. These bonds were purchased at less than face value and cashed in with interest after a set number of years. The purchasing of bonds helped fund the war, allowing for 40% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to be put toward military spending.


Blessed by weather and geography, California was poised to reap billions of defense dollars. California went from a primarily agricultural economy in the 1930s to one of defense related activities and industries. The weather allowed for military training year round and resulted in a disproportional amount of military bases.

This resulted in a boom in the construction industry, which in turn provided many new, highly paid civilian jobs. The civilian population went from 6,950,000 in 1940 to 9,344,000 in 1945. Despite tight wage and price controls imposed by the federal government, California prospered during the war. With the end of “the War,” California’s economy continued to grow.

Many of the new industries transitioned to making consumer goods. The aerospace industry became a major employer. The “GI Bill” resulted in an expansion to California’s colleges and universities as well as a major housing boom. Then came the “Baby Boom.”

Women workers during WW2
Women counting bracelets

Government Responds

California’s two wartime governors, Culbert Olson and Earl Warren, and the State Legislature faced a busy agenda of drafting legislation which supported California’s vital role during and after the war. This did include legislation that supported the federal relocation programs for Japanese-Americans.

Government grew to 213,000 federal and 28,000 state employees. Many women entered state civil service to replace the men called to war. Many state departments and agencies took an active role in the war effort. This included helping to coordinate California’s programs with federal ones as well as assisting returning veterans. The State Printing Office was contracted by the federal government to help produce counterfeit Japanese currency as part of an effort to sabotage their economy. This top secret operation was carried out at the old State Fairgrounds in Sacramento.

The Secretary of State had to oversee the counting of soldier’s war ballots, many State Parks were closed and converted into training facilities, and the state’s prison industry program also participated in the war effort.


Hollywood became very involved in the war, prompting its leading men such as Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Clark Gable to enlist. Ronald Reagan, later Governor of California, narrated military training films. Two agencies were established by the Office of War Information to ensure that filmmaking encouraged morals and patriotism: the Bureau of Motion Pictures, which reviewed scripts, and the Bureau of Censorship, which supervised films exported to other countries.

Studios produced cartoons and short films, encouraging war bond purchasing and rationing. Newsreels that ran before feature films began to show real wartime footage which was intended to keep wartime fervor from waning. Newsreels showed graphic footage of concentration camps after the war’s end. As popular as movies were, it was the radio where families gathered for news and entertainment, including President Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” Vivid radio broadcasts from war correspondents, sometimes from the front lines, brought the war home. Most Americans learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which initiated America’s involvement in World War II, through their family room radio.

Hollywood posters around WW2
USO poster


With the establishment of so many new military installations, and many of those in rural areas of the state, communities were hard pressed to provide adequate, “wholesome” recreational activities for offduty service members.

Commanders would declare “off limits” establishments and areas that were deemed unsuitable for service members. Such edicts were strictly enforced by Army and Marine Corps Military Police and Navy Shore Patrols who reinforced undermanned local police and sheriff’s departments. The United Services Organization (USO) would stage “camp shows,” and using War Department provided plans and funding, opened USO Centers in communities adjacent to military installations. These centers were famous for providing free coffee and doughnuts as well as a quiet place to write a letter home, or read a book. Dances were often held at the USO or local community clubs and churches. In major cities, establishments such as the Hollywood Canteen allowed average service members to interact with major celebrities.

War Bonds

In order to help pay for the war, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., started planning for a voluntary “Defense Bond” (after December 7, 1941, “War Bond”) program in the fall of 1940. Part of the program was a massive public relations campaign that encouraged buying bonds as a patriotic duty of all Americans. The program was designed to make purchasing bonds as easy as possible, regardless of an individual’s financial resources. Appeals to purchase bonds were placed in movies, and the Treasury Department would stage huge bond rallies that featured Hollywood celebrities, and war heroes would urge people to buy bonds. The tour of Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings, titled Four Freedoms, raised over $132 million in War Bond sales.

Over $250 million of advertising was donated from 1941 to 1943 as part of the campaign. More than 85 million Americans purchased bonds totaling $185.7 billion.

War bonds posters
War bonds posters

“Called to Action: California’s Role in World War II” Exhibit ran May 23, 2015 – April 29, 2016 at the California State Capitol Museum. This exhibit is now closed.