Oregon History: World War II

photograph of Willamette University football team
The Willamette University football team was stranded in Hawaii in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It took weeks to get back to the mainland. (Image courtesy Willamette University)
Learn more about the team's experience.
[Also see Life on the Home Front: Oregon Responds to World War II, a Web exhibit by the Oregon State Archives]
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, pulled the United States out of neutrality and plunged the nation again into world war. Because Oregon lay along the nation's Pacific Coast, it was considered in the war zone. The consequences were almost immediate. To create a wartime mentality as well as to prepare against attack, residents of coastal communities faced nightly blackouts. Block wardens monitored compliance. Shades and blankets covered windows and many painted over the upper half of their car headlamps. Volunteers joined the Ground Observer Corps to log the make and identity of airplanes. Soldiers maintained coastal patrols, supplementing Coast Guard personnel in their watch of the sea. Jeeps ran along the beaches to isolated dugouts where foot patrols with dogs stood duty.
War preparedness had begun in the late 1930s with scrap drives. Schoolchildren competed to see who could tally the heaviest pile of metal. The occasional school that located an old logging railroad locomotive surged to top honors. With the declaration of war, Oregonians confronted rationing of tires, gasoline, meat, sugar, and clothing. For those who lived far from town, rationing necessitated careful trip planning.
Japanese Americans packing for enternment camp
Japanese American evacuees move to the Portland Assembly Center after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. (Image courtesy Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center)
Learn more about the internment of Oregon's Japanese Americans during World War II.
Executive Order 9066 of February 19, 1942, fell heavily on the Japanese-American population of Oregon. Although most were American citizens and many had sons, brothers, and fathers who had enlisted or were drafted into military service, the families of Japanese background living west of the Cascades in Oregon were placed under curfew and ordered to report to evacuation centers, preliminaries to removal to distant relocation camps. Over 120,000 Japanese-Americans from Oregon, Washington, and California endured relocation. Japanese-Americans in Hawaii--more fully in the war zone--were exempted from relocation. Those removed lost homes, crops, farm animals, property, bank accounts, and personal possessions.
The war gripped the United States and Oregonians. Dozens of towns erected permanent billboards that carried the names of citizens killed in defense of their country. Oregon had 2,826 wartime deaths and over 5,000 wounded. Tensions rose when a Japanese submarine surfaced off the mouth of the Columbia River and on June 21, 1942, fired 17 shells at Fort Stevens. Concern rose again on September 9 of the same year, when a small airplane, launched by a catapult from the deck of a Japanese submarine off Brookings, carried Nubuo Fujita and Shoji Okuda over the Siskiyou National Forest to drop incendiary bombs on Mount Emily. Oregon suffered civilian casualties on May 5, 1945, when participants in a church picnic near Bly poked an incendiary balloon that had floated across the Pacific. The device, intended to set forest fires, exploded and killed the minister's wife and five children.
artist's drawing of an air ship
Inventors were encouraged to submit their ideas for ways to protect Oregon from Japanese attacks. Shown above is one of the more fanciful ideas, an artist's conception of the composite-type air ship. (Oregon State Archives image, Folder 6, Box 20, Military Dept. Records)
Learn more the extensive efforts to protect Oregon during World War II.
A wartime economy helped pull Oregon out of the Great Depression. Federal expenditures mounted dramatically. The investment included facilities, construction salaries, and assembling of large numbers of personnel who needed housing, food, clothing, and other services. The U.S. Army built Camp Adair north of Corvallis and Camp Abbott on the upper Deschutes River south of Bend. These troop-training facilities served thousands of recruits. Camp Adair even included a fake Japanese village where soldiers practiced assaults should they reach the main islands of Japan. The Umatilla Army Depot near Hermiston became a sprawling repository for munitions in hundreds of semisubterranean silos. The Army also constructed hangars and airfields at Portland, Astoria, Newport, North Bend, and Floras Lake. The U.S. Navy built the Tongue Point Naval Station at Astoria and at the Tillamook Naval Air Station erected two of the largest wood-frame buildings in the world. Blimps, stationed at Blimperon 33, moved out of these massive hangars and glided up and down the coast to patrol for enemy ships and submarines.
wartime cartoon
Social problems such as prostitution and juvenile delinquency dogged Oregon during the war. Above, a prostitute carrying venereal disease consorts with Axis leaders, all enemies of the American war effort. (Image source: Prostitution and Venereal Disease Article, The Oregonian, April 12, 1942. Magazine Section, Page 3)
Learn more about social life on the home front.
The electricity from Bonneville, dubbed by some in 1939 as the "dam of doubt," moved through the BPA grid to aluminum plants from Longview to Spokane. Inexpensive electricity heated the smelters to process bauxite into rolls of aluminum, which moved by rail to the Boeing manufacturing plants on Puget Sound. There was no doubt about the dramatic rise of employment where nearly 50,000 workers by 1944 were able to produce 16 airplanes every 24 hours. In Portland and nearby Vancouver, Henry J. Kaiser's shipyards employed an estimated 100,000 workers. Men and women worked side by side to build "Baby Flattops" and "Liberty Ships." By 1945 some 150,000 workers were engaged in 85 shipyards in Oregon and Washington.
Jobs in aluminum plants, shipyards, military bases, and lumber production for the war effort created a surge of migration. During World War II an estimated 194,000 people moved into the state. For the first time, Oregon's African-American population grew substantially--in Portland increasing from 2,565 in 1940 to 25,000 in 1944. Drawn by jobs, steady salaries, and the area's reputation as a decent place to live, newcomers coped with inflated rents, shantytowns, camps, and trailer parks. In 1942 Edgar Kaiser met some of the housing problem by building Vanport on the south bank of the Columbia. With 35,000 residents, the community became Oregon's second largest town until destroyed in May, 1948, by breaking levees during a major flood. Public housing projects, dubbed "cardboard palaces" by some, met short-term needs and, in some instances, were used for years or were transformed into student housing on college campuses.
When World War II ended, Oregon was a different place. The economy was good, even when labor disputes erupted with the West Coast Longshoremen's Union. The federal projects of the 1930s created an extensive infrastructure for the use and enjoyment of national forests and the public domain. Many Oregonians had disposable income and savings. The future beckoned far more brightly than during the drab years of the Great Depression or the uncertainties of World War II.