Since Tennessee is my home, where my family lived for generations, I use locations in the state for my World War II love stories. My research has turned up some interesting information about Tennessee during World War Two.
When you see the beautiful mountains of East Tennessee it is hard to imagine how the region could have contributed to the war effort, yet Tennesseans in this area did much to win a war being fought thousands of miles away. Not only did their sons and daughters fight in the armed forces but the people at home worked hard to support them. For now I’ll skip over the enormously important Oak Ridge facility and focus on the activities in the rest of the eastern portion of the state.
Many Tennesseans were inducted into the Army just across the Georgia border south of Chattanooga at Fort Oglethorpe. Established in 1902 the fort was the home of the Sixth Calvary. At the beginning of WWII the Army expanded and transformed Ft. Oglethorpe into an Army induction center. In 1943, it became the third training center for the newly established Women’s Army Corps after Ft. DeMoines, Iowa, and Daytona Beach, Florida. Ft. Oglethorpe also housed Prisoner’s of War.
Chattanooga had been an industrial center prior to the war so its industry naturally converted to the production of war materials. Combustion Engineering produced piping and boilers for ships and other military uses. Air Products Inc. manufactured portable and stationary oxygen generators for both medical and aviation use. Men flying missions over Europe used bottled oxygen to breathe at high altitudes. Heavy duty military tires for jeeps, 2 1/2 ton trucks and half-tracks were made at Mohawk Rubber company. Southern Ferro Alloys Co. produced ferrosilicon for the steel industry. And a new ordnance plant, Volunteer Ordnance Works, was built to produce TNT for war use.
Other Chattanooga manufacturers converted from civilian production to war materials. Cavalier Corporation converted their furniture production to ammunition boxes. Chattanooga Stamping and Enameling shifted from making vitrious-enameled products to manufacturing things like gasoline cans, anti-tank mines, and cargo hoist assemblies. A manufacturer of oil field equipment, the Wheland Company, switched to producing 90 mm and 75 mm guns.
Chattanooga’s Baroness Erlanger Hospital trained nurses as part of the Cadet Nurse Corps which the government created to alleviate the shortage of trained nurses. Other East Tennessee hospitals that participated in the Cadet Nurse training program were Appalachian in Johnson City and Fort Sanders, Knoxville General and St. Mary’s in Knoxville.
Just east of Knoxville in Blount County, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) had built a plant for smelting aluminum ore in 1913, choosing the site because the Little Tennessee River rushing through the mountains had the potential for generating the enormous amount of electricity needed for the smelting operation. In 1919 the area surrounding the original plant incorporated as the town of Alcoa, Tennessee. By the outbreak of World War II in 1941 Alcoa already produced light-weight aluminum for airplanes. During the war their production increased by 600% with a work force soaring to 12,000. The North Plant, built in the early 1940’s, was at the time the world’s largest plant under a single roof. Alcoa and their employees contributed much-needed aluminum in various forms for the war effort.
Another important contributor was Tennessee Eastman Corporation. The subsidiary of Eastman Kodak built the Holsten Ordinance Works near Kingsport in 1942. As a contractor for the US government the plant produced the powerful explosives RDX and Composition B, a mixture of TNT and RDX. During WWII this plant became the world’s largest manufacturer of high explosives.
Tennessee mining operations provided coal which Tennessee Products Corp transformed into coke at their Chattanooga plant. The same company produced ferro-manganese and pig iron at Rockwood. At Copperhill, Tennessee, site of a long-time copper mining operation, Tennessee Copper Company manufactured sulfuric acid for production of TNT.
Elizabethton’s North American Rayon Corporation produced viscose rayon yarn for use in war materials. Made from wood pulp, rayon was considered the first synthetic fiber, although it was made from a natural source. In Johnson City, Harris Manufacturing Company made shells.
Knoxville industries also converted to war production. Electro Manganese Corp contributed electrolytic manganese, essential for making steel. Rohm and Haas Company built a plant to manufacture methyl methacrylate sheeting or plexiglas for use in submarine periscopes, airplane canopies, windshields, and the bombardier’s nose compartment in the B-17 heavy bomber.
Throughout the war the Tennessee Valley Authority generated electricity to power aluminum production, the secret Oak Ridge facility and various other industries across the entire valley. To meet the demand, by 1942 TVA had twelve dams and one power plant under construction. One of those dams was Fontana, completed in 1945. This enormous, 480 ft. high, concrete dam on the Little Tennessee River sits on the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Douglas Dam on the French Broad River went into operation on March 21, 1943, after only 12 months and 17 days of construction. Demand for power by both the aluminum industry and the Oak Ridge site spurred the break-neck speed. Other dams that came online during the war years were Watts Bar, Cherokee, Ocoee, Appalachia, Ft. Loudoun, and Kentucky.
East Tennessee’s citizens served in every branch of the armed forces which left few able-bodied men on the home front to staff the industrial plants and construction sites. Throughout the war industries struggled to recruit and keep employees. Men too old to fight, men who did not meet the physical requirements of the military, African-American men and lots of women, both black and white, worked in the plants. Most of the women had never worked outside their homes before the war. Although the government discouraged employees from moving from one war industry job to another for higher wages or benefits, it was a constant problem. Shortages of materials also plagued the war plants.
While loved ones fought overseas, both patriotism and the chance to make real money after years of depression spurred the workers in East Tennessee to work long, hard hours for a common goal. Win the war!