Illinois' 200th: World War II caused dramatic changes to way of life, economy

When the U.S. entered World War II, everyone sacrificed.

"From Victory Gardens to rationing to the draft, everyone was in," said Mary Kerr, of Washington, Illinois.

Life went on, she said, but it was different.

"We went on with the churches and the schools, but it wasn't the same. Nothing was the same as it was before Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor."

While individuals dealt with upheaval daily, Illinois changed, too.

Factories geared up, and many people moved here to fill the jobs. Thousands of men enlisted and thousands more came through the state either en route to or arriving at training stations.

The U.S. Naval Station Great Lakes had opened before World War I as a recruit training center, but by the early 1930s enrollment had slowed. World War II boosted the population at the station from 6,000 to 68,000, according to the Navy. In all, about 1 million sailors trained at the facility in North Chicago until the war ended in 1945.

Thousands of others, including many World War I veterans, flocked to the Illinois State Militia, also known as the Reserve Militia, where they agreed to serve for two years. They stood watch over bridges, railroads and other transit centers. When the war ended, hundreds were activated to serve as shuttle drivers in Chicago as the large number of GIs returning overwhelmed buses and trains, according to the Illinois secretary of state's office.

By the end of 1945, Illinois had registered 1,954,674 men between ages 18 and 38 at 361 separate local draft boards. Of these, 629,516 were called to serve. Another 328,338 enlisted of their own accord, bringing the total number of men from Illinois entering the services to 957,854.

The number of Illinois women joining the military during the war was 13,587. Counting those who already were in the military and those whose National Guard units were activated, Illinois supplied the U.S. armed forces with nearly 1 million of its citizens during the course of the war.

From Dec. 7, 1941, through Sept. 2, 1945, 17,521 Illinois servicemen and women were killed in combat or later died of wounds or injuries sustained in battle.

At home in Illinois, factories were booming.

In Peoria, production of earth-moving equipment by Caterpillar Inc. had already picked up because of the federal Lend-Lease program, supplying goods and war material to Allied countries. But once the United States entered the war, production escalated. Bulldozers were vital to the war effort as they allowed creation of air fields and cleanup of debris after battle.

Female employment grew by 50 percent as women filled jobs left by men who went to war.

One of those "Rosie the Riveters" was Ruth Lockart, who recently participated in the oral history project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. The project was to reach out to World War II veterans and those who grew up during that time.

When America went to war, she was on the family farm in Paris, but she wanted to get involved in the war effort and moved to Chicago where her sister lived. She trained as a riveter at the American Aircraft Institute and later went to work at Howard Aircraft Corp., which had factories in Chicago and at the DuPage Airport.

"The one I worked on was the Nightingale," Lockart said. "We'd go to the factory at 8 a.m. and then we'd be off at 5 in the evening. We'd take a streetcar to the factory."

"I have always been proud that I was a Rosie the Riveter," Lockart said. After the war, she went to beauty school in Paris and married a soldier who fought in the European Theater.

During the war, Illinois was home to several prisoner of war camps. From 1944 to 1945, the village of Washington, near Peoria, was the site of one camp that started with 50 German prisoners who helped make K-rations for the troops. The camp expanded over the months to have more than 200 POWs, according to a book published by Mary Kerr about the Washington camp.

Children were very intrigued by the POWs, she said, noting that many would ride their bikes to the camp and talk to prisoners.

"Many people didn't have contact with the prisoners and didn't know if they were good or bad," Kerr said. "But if you had contact with them, you probably went away thinking that they were OK."

• Andy Kravetz of the Journal Star in Peoria can be reached at Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at

  Mary Deichstetter of Elgin was one of the "Rosie the Riveters" who headed to factories and shipyards to work as part of a homefront effort during World War II. In this photo dating to 1942, she is 18 years old (on right) and on a lunch break with a friend. Laura Stoecker/
People in Elgin celebrate V-J Day, the end of World War II, on Aug. 14, 1945. When the war ended more than 4,000 Elgin-area men and women had served in various branches of the military. More than 100 died in the service of their country. Courtesy of Elgin History Museum
World War II led to increased reliance on women in the manufacturing workforce. Many women remained in their manufacturing jobs after the war, such as this woman working on the assembly line in 1947 at the Benjamin Electric Manufacturing Co. in Des Plaines. Courtesy of Des Plaines History Center

A year-long birthday celebration for Illinois

Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire, but there's a lot more to Illinois history than that.

Native American settlements thousands of years old, the battle over slavery, the transfer of influence from southern to northern Illinois, wars and riots, the gangsters and politicians and artists and athletes that shaped our state - all are part of a yearlong series of articles to mark Illinois' bicentennial.

The Daily Herald and dozens of publications across the state are joining forces on the series, which will continue until Illinois' 200th birthday on Dec. 3. Find previous stories at <a href=""></a>.

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