The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1993, Volume 39, Numbers 1 & 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

By Lucinda Eddy

All photos from this article

Prior to 1940, San Diego had established its reputation as a quiet residential community of retired Midwesterners and Naval officers. Two international expositions in 1915 and 1935 showcased the city and drew nationwide attention to San Diego’s ideal climate, scenic beaches and many points of historic interest. Both expositions also promoted the economic opportunities available through development of the city’s natural, land-locked harbor, but in spite of the efforts of earlier generations to create a great commercial port, San Diego failed to develop a strong industrial base. Naval expenditures, tourism and real estate accounted for a sizable share of the city’s economy, but growth continued at a leisurely pace and San Diegans largely promoted their town as the “Ideal Home City”.

In the late 1930s, sunny San Diego still seemed light years away from the gloom which had spread across Europe and Asia, as war engulfed both continents and threatened to erupt into a full global conflict. Although Americans remained determined to avoid any direct intervention, the certainty of a second world war drew steadily closer. By 1940, San Diegans began to feel the impact of worldwide events as local industry responded in order to supply allied nations with badly needed equipment and planes for their defense. The military beefed up their operations as well. Suddenly and dramatically, life in San Diego changed.

Almost overnight San Diego was transformed from a sleepy border town to a teeming wartime metropolis. Life Magazine and other national publications referred to San Diego as a “boom-town,” but the Saturday Evening Post best described the tremendous changes taking place as the “Blitz-Boom.” San Diego’s major defense industry, aircraft, met the challenges of expanded production and began 24-hour, 7-day a week operations. Advertisements nationwide brought thousands of workers into the city to supply the needs of the defense plants. Already San Diego claimed the Navy’s largest air base and the city’s harbor housed the repair and operations base for many of the Navy’s major aircraft carriers. U. S. Army and Marine Corps camps sprang up throughout the county to train the large numbers of incoming soldiers. The influx of civilian and military personnel caused the city’s population to soar. By summer, 1941, the population had increased from 203,000, to more than 300,000, surpassing in little more than a year the projected growth for the next two decades.

Although attention was largely focused on the war in Europe, aggressive action in the Pacific made many residents on the West Coast uneasy. Numerous false alarms occurred throughout the summer and fall of 1941, however, most people still believed a surprise attack was unlikely.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Stunned San Diegans listened to initial news reports about the extent of damage to the Pacific Fleet and the loss of life. Days would pass before the true losses were known. In the meantime, local residents heard conflicting and frightening accounts of death and ruin. The knowledge that San Diego lay as exposed and physically unprepared as Hawaii caused near panic as civilian and military authorities scrambled into action to defend the city and coast. Authorities were frustrated by emergency plans which proved to be uncoordinated and impossible to implement. The only defensive measure to succeed on that fateful Sunday was closure of the harbor.

With President Roosevelt’s official declaration of war, San Diego quickly mobilized to defend the city and its surrounding coastal communities. Military bases and camps expanded still further as tens of thousands of young men and women arrived for training before going overseas. Aircraft industries set records for wartime production and residents organized civil defense programs throughout the county. When rationing went into effect, in 1942, San Diegans, like Americans everywhere, did their part by learning to make do with less. Citizens planned scrap metal and paper drives so that vital materials could be recycled for war production and bought war bonds to help finance the cost of the war. They volunteered for the Red Cross and local USO, served as enemy spotters for the Navy and opened their homes to countless young men and women away from home for the first time.

San Diego was a city bursting at the seams. Between 1943 and 1944, San Diego’s permanent and temporary population had reached nearly half a million. The impact on city services affected housing, transportation and schools. An overburdened sewage system coupled with drought, created serious water shortages. San Diego’s former reputation as a town for retirees changed radically as a large, youthful population filled city streets day and night, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. Uniforms and defense company badges replaced the conservative business attire of pre-war days. Well-to-do residents now crowded onto streetcars with factory workers as gas and tire rationing made public transportation a necessity. This sudden transformation left many old-time San Diegans dazed. In spite of the many wartime shortages, a population explosion and a city turned upside down, spirits and patriotism ran high as local citizens and the military united to support and defend the homefront.

Victory in the Pacific finally brought an end to the war. On August 14, 1945, San Diegans launched a spontaneous celebration following the news that Japan had surrendered. VJ-Day signalled the end to one of the most difficult and exciting periods in the city’s history. San Diegans looked forward to life returning to normal, but, in fact, nothing would ever be quite the same again. The city’s image as a sleepy border town had vanished into memory.


Consolidated Aircraft Corporation moved west from Buffalo, New York in the mid-1930s. San Diego’s ideal climate, the availability of land and the city’s growing reputation as a center for Naval and aviation operations, appealed to Consolidated’s founder and president, Major Reuben H. Fleet. He began with a small plant and 757 employees. With the “Blitz-Boom” came expanded facilities and a work force of more than 16,500. Employment reached its height in 1943 with 45,000 workers. During the war years, Consolidated produced 33,000 planes at its various locations, the best known being the B-24 Liberator bombers and the PBY Catalina flying boats.

Production of the B-24 Liberator bomber began during the “Blitz-Boom.” B-24s served mainly as heavy bombers, capable of flying on long missions. Some also came equipped to function as troop transports and cargo planes, fuel tankers, or photo reconnaissance planes. In both the European and the Pacific fronts, the Liberator played a significant role in allied air assaults because of its ability to cover the great distances between bases and targets.

As the war progressed, nearly 18,000 B-24 bombers rolled off the assembly line, more than half at Consolidated Aircraft plants. The San Diego plant produced 6,724 of these. Production schedules during the first eight months of 1944, set new records with the completion of eleven bombers each day! Consolidated workers celebrated when the 5,000 B-24 came off the line by autographing the entire body of the plane.

The versatility of the Catalina made it popular not only as a patrol bomber, but useful, too for photo reconnaissance missions in the Pacific. Catalinas played a pivotal role in the Battle of Midway, but distinguished themselves in the Atlantic Theatre, as well, where they flew cover for shipping convoys and patrolled for enemy submarines.

Photos: 54 ~ 55 ~ 56 ~ 57 ~ 58 ~ 59 ~ 60 ~ 61 ~ 62 ~ 63 ~ 64 ~ 65 ~ 66 ~ 67 ~ 68 ~ 69 ~ 70

A Day Which Will Live in Infamy

Photos: 71 ~ 72 ~ 73 ~ 74 ~ 75 ~ 76

Winning the War with Propaganda

Photos: 77 ~ 78 ~ 79 ~ 80 ~ 81 ~ 82

Paying for the War

The United States’ entrance into World War II came with a hefty price tag. After the lean years of the Great Depression, the government’s ability to shoulder the high cost of war was limited. While half of the financing came from taxes, the remainder was obtained through loans. The sale of war bonds to individuals, business and industry, enabled the government to borrow most of the money it needed. Between 1942 and 1945, the government launched eight war loan drives, eventually totaling $135 billion in war bond sales.

Photos: 83 ~ 84

Doing Without

A wartime economy meant Americans would have to make do with less.

The purchase of war bonds gave everyone a chance to do their part to win the war. Americans saved as never before with the belief that each war bond brought the United States closer to victory. Every sector of the community contributed as nationwide promotional campaigns filled magazines, newspapers, billboards and the radio air waves. In San Diego, retail stores did their part to promote the sale of bonds. This San Diego Union ad for Walker Scott’s Department Store features war bonds as the perfect holiday gift.

The rapid expansion of armed forces, coupled with the conversion of industry to war production, resulted in the necessity to ration many goods used by civilians on the homefront. Concerns about hoarding, price gouging and black markets led the government in 1942 to establish a national rationing system for all consumer products in short supply. Automobiles, tires, gasoline, food items, women’s silk and nylon hosiery, cloth, leather, shoes and appliances were just some of the shortages San Diegans experiences. Even youngsters were not spared as bicycles disappeared along with shiny, metal toy trucks and cars.

Rationing boards established in communities across the United States issued books of ration stamps based upon an individual’s qualifications. Here, San Diegans file applications for gas ration stamps. Applicants received a sticker for their vehicle marked “A”, “B”,”C”, or “I”. These stickers indicated the amount of fuel a person could purchase each month and had to be displayed at all times on the vehicle’s windshield. Gas station attendants verified stickers before the customer could buy fuel. Individuals who used their cars to take others to work or whose jobs were considered vital to the war effort, received “B” or “C” stickers and a larger allotment of gas. The average San Diegan was issued an “N” sticker which meant about four gallons per week. Gas rationing closed many parks and tourist attractions, eliminated travel except for emergencies and ended this nation’s love affair with the automobile.

Many food items like butter, sugar, coffee, chocolate and red meat were rationed to ensure the troops overseas had enough to eat. Government set the standards for an individual’s basic requirements and food rationing stamps were issued accordingly. Everyone registered for stamps including infants. Sugar was in such short supply that special sugar coupons were issued, good for a limited time. San Diegans did not see plentiful supplies of sugar on grocery shelves until well after the end of the war. Shortages made people frugal and many wartime cookbooks offered recipes for meatless dishes and suggestions for stretching one’s meat points to get the most out of cheaper and more available cuts of meat. Sugarless desserts were especially popular.

Photos: 85 ~ 86 ~ 87 ~ 88 ~ 89 ~ 90 ~ 91

Doing Our Part

Scrap drives proved to be a popular means for local civilians to do their part to help the War effort. Paper, metal and rubber were all important materials that could be recycled for use in industry again.
Photos: 92 ~ 93 ~ 94

Women Go to War

Prior to World War II, most women did not work. Those who did held jobs in traditional fields as school teachers, secretaries and nurses. In 1941, Consolidated Aircraft hired an initial group of forty women who performed light tasks such as sewing, wiring and simple assembly.
Photos: 95 ~ 96 ~ 97 ~ 98 ~ 99 ~ 100 ~ 101

A City Bursting at the Seams

Gas rationing made public transportation a necessity. Both streetcars and buses shored downtown city streets during the war. The San Diego Electric Railway Company imported used vehicles from across the nation to handle the overflow of military and civilian passengers. This view taken near the corner of Fourth and Broadway, shows modern buses and a vintage streetcar operating side by side. page 102

The San Diego Electric Railway Company also faced a critical shortage of drivers. Many former employees had joined the armed forces, leaving serious vacancies. The company used a variety of patriotic appeals to encourage potential job applicants including women. page 103

Crowded downtown restaurants made long waiting lines a frequent occurrence in spite of an increase in local eateries. San Diego’s wartime population surpassed the ability of restaurateurs to keep pace. Oftentimes, hungry patrons would finally reach the door only to be turned away because there was no food left. page 104

In spite of shortages, San Diegans responded to the impact of war amazingly well. The region’s climate, open space and the sense of patriotism generated by a strong military presence, significantly boosted the morale of natives and newcomers and made life tolerable during the most difficult of times.

Police departments faced critical manpower shortages as the city spread rapidly outward and new communities sprang up overnight. Fortunately, crime did not escalate with the increase in population. The San Diego Police Department actually spent less time engaged in handling criminal matters than they did issuing traffic citations and parking violations on the city’s crowded streets. page 105

San Diego’s military presence made a strong visual impact downtown where pedestrians in uniform far out numbered the civilian population.

Much to the dismay of civic leaders, city government lost valuable tax reenues from lands appropriated by the military, but had to expand services to accomodate growth that had not been anticipated for another twenty years. This map shows just how much of San Diego County the military claimed for federal housing projects. [The following are shown on the map on page 106.]

1. Camp Callan.
2. Marine Rifle range.
3. Camp Elliott.
4. Kearny Mesa housing project.
5. Naval training station.
6. Navy housing unit.
7. Marine Corps base.
8. Fort Rosecrans.
9. Navy fuel depot.
10. North Island naval air station.
11. Eleventh Naval District headquarters.
12. Navy hospital.
13. Navy destroyer base.
14. Navy housing unit.
15. Naval radio station.
16. Farm Security Administration dormitories.
17. Farm Security Administration trailer camp.
18. Farm Security Administration dormitories.
19. Public Building Adiministration dormitories.
20. Federal Works Agency demountable houses, 1000
21. Federal Works Agency demountable houses, 500.

The San Diego Electric Railway Company proudly acknowledged the city’s excellent wartime record for public transportation use in its publication, Transit Topics. [Bus and street car ridership in various cities: page 107.]

A City Turned Upside Down

Photos: 108 ~ 109 ~ 110 ~ 111 ~ 112 ~ 113

San Diegans Celebrate V-J Day

Photos: 114 ~ 115 ~ 116 ~ 117 ~ 118 ~ 119

Lucinda Eddy is Assistant Director of Museums for the San Diego Historical Society as well as Curator for the Museum of San Diego History. She serves as project director and coordinator for exhibits and is a frequent lecturer both locally and nationally through her affiliation with the American Association for State and Local History. Ms. Eddy received a master’s degree in history from the University of San Diego with a special emphasis in architecture and preservation planning.