World War II

Seeds of War

The seeds of World War II were sown in the treaties that ended World War I. As a result, dictatorships arose in Germany and Italy. Benito Mussolini led the Fascists in Italy, and Adolph Hitler led the Nazis in Germany. At the same time, a military dictatorship grew in Japan. Although Japan had an Emperor, the country was actually controlled by a military team led by men named Tojo and Yamamoto. Aggression by each of these three countries led to instability among their neighbors, and outright warfare in several areas. 

The Lines Are Drawn

During all of these events the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, was powerless to control any of the war-like activities. Governments in Britain and France tried to negotiate through diplomatic channels, but they weren't successful. The United States government said we were neutral. But our actions made it clear that our government favored Britain. War finally was declared in Europe when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Because there seemed to be some connection between the governments in Berlin, Rome and Tokyo, journalists called them the Axis powers. After World War II began the opposing countries, including Russia, were called the Allies.

The U.S. Joins the War

The United States entered World War II on December 8, 1941. The day after the Japanese had attacked U.S. military and naval bases at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Because Japan was considered an Axis power, the U.S. declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy too. 

Wartime measures went into effect quickly. There was a draft of young men for the armed services. Rationing was instituted on gasoline, rubber, automobiles, clothing and food. Sale of war bonds to finance the war began. Prices were controlled. And factories were converted to the production of military items such as tanks, rifles, ammunition, airplanes and ships. People on the "Home Front" were encouraged to conserve energy, to plant "Victory Gardens" and to buy war bonds. Adults and children across the country collected salvage materials such as copper, aluminum and scrap iron. Children were taught to collect milkweed floss as a substitute for kapok, because the Japanese controlled the supplies of this kapok used to stuff life jackets.

Men and Women Join the Military

World War II impacted Iowa immediately. The draft, officially called the "Selective Service," registered 882,542 young men. And 262,638 men and women served in some branch of the armed forces. This was the first war in which women could serve on active duty. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC), the Women Air force Service Pilots (WASPS) and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) were three branches of service for women. The major training center for the WAAC (later called the Women's Army Corp) was at Fort Des Moines. Families with members in military service hung flags in the front windows of their houses along with a blue star for each member. If a family member was killed in action, a gold star was substituted, leading to the organization of the "Gold Star Mothers."

Iowa Workers Help the War Effort

A slogan when the war began was "Food Will Win the War." With the aid of mechanized farm implements and hybrid seed corn, production reached levels undreamed of previously. In 1940 there were 212,318 farms in Iowa with a production value of $561,836,688. In 1945 there were 208,934 farms in Iowa, with a production value of $1,232,010,705. 

Many factories in Iowa were converted to the production of war materials. Among these were Solar Aircraft in Des Moines, the John Deere plant in Ankeny, and the Army Ordinance Plant in West Burlington. Value of manufactured products in Iowa rose from $243,390,000 in 1939 to $671,100,000 in 1947.

During World War II the induction of young men into the armed forces led to labor shortages at home. Women were employed outside the home in greater numbers than ever before, doing work customarily thought to be "men's work" such as assembly line jobs in factories. This led to a new nickname for these women—"Rosie the Riveter." 

Fear at Home

Popular music and movies also tried to help the war effort. Songs  such as "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and "Comin' In On a Wing and a Prayer" were sung enthusiastically by Iowans. Iowans went to movies that glorified the Allied war effort and vilified the actions of the Axis powers. Wartime propaganda used all forms of the media available at the time to develop a unified homefront.

As during any war, there were fears of attack. Iowans feared bombing by the Japanese. They feared German spies and were alert for subversive talk or action. School children in Iowa purchased "War Savings Stamps." The stamps were pasted in a booklet and when a certain number were saved, the child was entitled to a war bond. Even though the danger of air raids was slight, Iowans installed "black-out curtains" for their windows. They held black-out sessions closing off any light to the outside. 

Iowa's Prisoner of War Camps

Actual contact in Iowa with enemy forces was limited mostly to the few prisoner-of-war camps established in the state. There were major camps in Clarinda and Algona, and a smaller camp in Eldora. Both German and Italian prisoners of war were held in these camps. They performed farm labor for area farmers. In the Algona camp one of the prisoners carved a Nativity Scene that is preserved and exhibited each Christmas season.

One story about prisoners of war in Iowa was told by an African-American soldier home on leave in Clarinda. He said that discrimination was brought to him most forcefully when he saw German prisoners eating in a cafe which he was not allowed to enter. 

Five Brothers Killed Together 

One of the most famous Iowa war stories was the deaths of the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo in the sinking of one ship in the Pacific. The five brothers enlisted on the condition that they could serve together. The Navy granted their request. When their cruiser was torpedoed, all five were killed. They are remembered today with a ship named for them, with the Convention Center in Waterloo which bears their name, and for a movie made about them.

Life Was Never the Same Again

World War II ended in 1945. Returning Iowa soldiers, called "GIs", came back to a different society where women did all kinds of work, urban jobs outnumbered farm jobs, and where a federal program called the "GI Bill" allowed veterans to attend college at government expense. Thousands of Iowa veterans received college degrees as a result of this program. 

The second world war in the 20th century took its toll on the world and on Iowa. Official records report that 226,638 men and women from Iowa served in the armed forces. Of those, 8,398 died. Those who remained at home in Iowa's towns and on the farms helped support the war effort in a variety of ways. Those who went to far-reaching areas of the world—far from Iowa—contributed to the war effort firsthand. Many of those individuals returned to their Iowa homes and many are still living to share their stories. 


This article explains World War II and its impact on Iowa. Find out what happened and what it meant for Iowans.

Media Artifacts

Investigation Tip:
What else was happening in our state and our nation during World War II? Research other events occurring at this time to see the big picture of history.