Filmmaker John Davies' first brush with World War II came as a boy growing up in Wheaton.
"We'd go out and play on the tanks," remembers Davies, 64, recalling visits to the military exhibits at Cantigny Park. His parents, Mary and Jack, who were Welsh, had a much more intimate knowledge of that war. They were stationed in Coventry, England, during those years and lived through "The Blitz" of German bombs. If Davies left a couple of vegetables on his dinner plate, his dad would say, "Eat all of them. You don't know what rationing is."
The young Davies didn't see a link between that far-off war and his life in the Chicago suburbs. But his latest film, "A City At War: Chicago," narrated by legendary Chicago newsman Bill Kurtis, tells that story. Davies, writer, director and executive producer, teamed with co-executive producer Brian Kallies, a Chicago native, to show how World War II couldn't have been won without the contributions of Chicago and the suburbs. The film airs at 8 p.m. Thursday and throughout the weekend on WTTW. Underwritten by the Chicago Marine Heritage Society and chairman Capt. Dave Truitt, the program is slated to run nationally on public television during Memorial Day weekend of 2018.
After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, 1,400 manufacturing plants in Chicago and the suburbs transformed almost overnight from making tin cans, toys, wagons and tractors to cranking out tanks, planes, ships and torpedoes.
"It was as much a manufacturing win as a military win," Davies says of the local war effort.
With the work of Chicago colorist Pete Jannotta, the documentary uses old 16 mm and 8 mm home movies, as well as footage from the National Archives. It shows how the Torpedo Ordnance Corp. in Forest Park produced hundreds of torpedoes each month, employing thousands of women who were new to the workforce, as well as three little people who were small enough to work on details in cramped spaces.
Radio Flyer's products went from wagons to gas cans. Hammond Organ started making caskets. More than 15,000 aviators from Glenview Naval Air Station and 40,000 crew members from Naval Station Great Lakes near North Chicago trained for the war on the decks of two luxury Great Lakes passenger steamers converted into makeshift aircraft carriers on Lake Michigan. Davies featured that in his documentary last year titled, "Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan."
Prisoner of war camps magically appeared throughout the area. The largest camp was at Fort Sheridan in Lake County, where 4,000 prisoners, mostly Germans, were housed and trucked off to local farms and businesses as laborers. Another large POW outpost was Rockford's Camp Grant. In Des Plaines, prisoners were housed at Camp Pine. Camp Skokie Valley was housed in Glenview. Other camps were set in Thornton and on the South Side of Chicago. Suburbanites who spoke German often developed relationships with the enemy prisoners.
The area's "Every Citizen Must Help" program involved everyone from little children gathering scrap metal to retired folks serving as lookouts for enemy planes.
"There is that tremendous unity," Davies says. But the film also shows the abuse of child-labor laws, war profiteers, the usual corruption and mob activity, and propaganda campaigns against foreign nations and even Americans of Japanese descent. Internment camps and relocation programs changed the population of Chicago from just 400 people with Japanese ethnicity before the war to more than 20,000 by the war's end.
"People were nervous," Davies says. "People in the war didn't know when or how it was going to end."
Some of the changes made for the war have stuck around. The small Cook County farm town of Orchard Place was chosen in 1942 to be the site of the Douglas Aircraft Co. manufacturing facility. That 2 million-square-foot facility was the largest wood building in the world, as steel was in such high demand for the war. Today, the property is home to O'Hare International Airport, but it still goes by the abbreviation ORD for Orchard.
Engines for the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb were made in Chicago, and the bomb was developed at the University of Chicago.
Commentators with personal memories include author Harry Mark Petrakis, Chicago broadcaster Marty Robinson and several historians.
"Chicago produced not only the material for the war effort, the tanks and the machines, Chicago produced men and women who won the war," says John Zukowsky, an architectural historian and consultant for the film.
The film includes entertaining moments, such as unearthed footage of P.K. Wrigley's All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but a death toll of 60 million to 80 million worldwide overwhelms everything else.
"The losses are too staggering," Davies says. "Isn't war just a terrible way to settle conflicts between countries?"