World War II
The events between 1939-1945 dramatically affected the lives of people all over the globe. In September of 1939, Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hilter, invaded Poland, provoking a declaration of war by France and Britain. Italy entered into a loose alliance with Germany, in an attempt to form new empires. The economic depression of the 1930s had allowed dictators like Hitler to gain power; other countries had been too concerned with problems of their own to focus on the political upheavals brewing in Germany and Italy. A full-scale war began in 1937 between Japan and China. Japan continued to invade islands across Southeast Asia, and eventually attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. This prompted the U.S. to declare war on Japan. The other Axis Powers, Germany and Italy, then declared war on the U.S. At this point, the US was in the throes of preparing for a total war on multiple fronts in Europe and the Pacific that would not end until the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945.
This banner hung in the window to indicate how many members of a household were serving in the war. One star was added for each family member in the service. A gold star indicated that their soldier had lost his life.
This banner was a gift of the Dameron family of West Baton Rouge
The Selective Service Act of 1940 was the first peacetime military conscription in the U.S. It required that men between the ages of 21 and 30 register with local draft boards. Later, when the U.S. entered World War II, all men between the ages of 18 to 45 were made liable for military service, and all men aged 18 to 65 were required to register with the draft boards. In addition to draftees, thousands of men and women also volunteered for the Armed Forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In West Baton Rouge, a heavy penalty was imposed on men who did not register by February 16, 1942. Of the nearly 16,500,000 Americans that served in the Armed Forces during WWII, approximately 1,162 came from West Baton Rouge. At least fifteen of those men died serving their country.
Many West Baton Rouge Parish residents joined the local Louisiana Home Guard, Company A, 7th Batallion, which was based in Plaquemines Parish at Pointe à la Hache. They served as a type of militia to help maintain order at home during this time of war. Teddy E. Landry (standing, far right) of Port Allen became the commanding officer of this unit in 1943.
First edition of Bagasse featuring the Keep 'Em Smiling Club emblem.
Keep 'Em Smiling Club
An organization of patriotic West Baton Rouge Citizens had as its main objective to “keep them smiling” - "them" being the men and women who were working away from home in the military. The club was aptly named the Keep ‘Em Smiling Club, and they served the armed forces by sending gifts and food to hometown soldiers. The club’s chairman, A. E. Camus, a WWI veteran, stated that “no work will be spared to keep ‘em smiling.”
The club’s most memorable project was the publication of a newsletter titled Bagasse, named to represent the strong heritage of the parish’s sugar industry. The staff of Bagasse collected and published information about the location and activities of local soldiers who were stationed away from home. This allowed the soldiers and other volunteers overseas to know about the condition of fellow men and women working for the cause, as well as local happenings back home that might be of interest. Four hundred and fifty copies of the first issue went out in December of 1942, alongside Christmas care packages. The publications were sent wherever soldiers were stationed. The publishers noted in the second issue (April 1943) that they had even secured a volunteer to deliver the paper to Berlin, Germany. The local newspaper, the West Side Journal, was also delivered to at least two hundred soldiers each week.
Enemy Prisoners in Port Allen
The state of Louisiana had the third largest number of Prisoner of War (POW) camps in the U.S., behind California and Texas. There were five main camps for Axis prisoners in Louisiana and a number of satellite camps. One such satellite POW Camp was established in Port Allen at the corner of Louisiana Ave. and Sixth Street, called Prisoner of War Sub-camp No. 7. German prisoners were brought here on November 19, 1943.
The U.S. War Department had standard requirements for the construction of POW camps, and this camp was built according to these conditions for approximately 350 prisoners. The camp consisted of tar-papered buildings within a barbed wire enclosure of two separate 10 to 12-foot-high fences. Guard towers were placed at strategic points within the enclosure. The men slept on beds with mattresses in tents with wooden floors. The PW’s (prisoners were called just PW’s during WWII) at the Port Allen camp were German soldiers captured in North Africa in the summer of 1943. They were the remnants of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s “Afrika Korps.” Due to the labor shortage on the homefront, the prisoners were used for various jobs including work in the surrounding sugar cane fields. By 1944, eight planters in West Baton Rouge were using the men at their plantations, including Cinclare, Poplar Grove, Westover, Smithfield, Devall, and Alma (in Pointe Coupee). The planters stated that the prisoners were “fair farm workers but not excellent” due to their lack of previous experience in agricultural work. The planters paid wages to the government rather than directly to the workers. Some money went toward the care of the prisoners, some was saved to be repatriated to the Germans when they were released, and the rest was provided to the prisoners in the form of canteen coupons to be used for toiletries or tobacco at the commissary.
Historic records reveal one incident of conflict between the PW's and the local population. A strike occurred at the camp after the 240 prisoners there refused to work in order to show solidarity for one punished detail of prisoners. In retaliation, the prisoners were only allowed bread and water until the strike was over; they lasted about 3 days.
However, there seemed to be a lack of hostility toward the prisoners. Residents of Port Allen collected musical instruments for the Germans at the camp and hosted dances for them at the Community Center. People from West and East Baton Rouge recall how the young German men would often whistle at local girls as their work convoys passed. On the weekends, girls would try to talk to the young men through the fence from houses that backed up to one side of the camp on Michigan Ave. Friendships developed between some farmers and POW laborers as well. Several prisoners corresponded with residents. After leaving one even stated that he wished he were back in Louisiana because of the difficulties of getting food in war-torn France, where he had been transferred.
War in Europe ended on May 8, 1945 (Victory in Europe Day, shortened to V-E Day). In the Pacific, the war ended on August 15, 1945 (Victory in Japan Day, shortened to V-J Day). V-E Day was celebrated solemnly in West Baton Rouge, whereas V-J Day was met with cheering crowds and work holidays because the war was officially over. On a world-wide scale, war casualties were in the millions, with more civilians killed than soldiers. Many of these civilian deaths were the result of genocide by Axis Powers. The Holocaust was the systematic killing of Jews by German Nazis that resulted in approximately 6 million Jewish deaths in concentration camps set up in Axis-held European territory. Many other groups were also targeted for death. Trials for Nazi war criminals were first arranged in Nuremburg, Germany.
Charles Haywood Dameron - an Army Major, young lawyer from West Baton Rouge, and son of West Baton Rouge Museum founder Ethel “Puffy” Claiborne Dameron - was put in charge of War Crimes Investigation Team No. 6824. He started collecting evidence at Hartheim Castle in Linz, Austria, where thousands of physically and mentally handicapped citizens were “euthanized” and later, where thousands of Jewish and Romani citizens were also murdered. He interviewed local citizens in Austria, examined German records, and sent his report to General George Patton. His investigative work uncovered records left by the Nazis, known as the Hartheim Statistics, which detailed how inmates at the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp were brought into the gas chamber and crematorium at Hartheim.
All Americans were encouraged to do their part to help win World War II. Propaganda posters exhorted citizens to conserve resources, buy war bonds, and work in munitions factories. The programs touted on such posters symbolized the nation’s shared resolve to defeat her enemies through active patriotism.
Once the war was underway, consumer production had to take a back seat to military production. It was also difficult to maintain shipping of food and other consumable supplies during the war, so the government strategized to prevent over-charging, food shortages, or hoarding. In order to make sure that everyone got their share, rationing was instituted for a number of products by the Office of Price Administration (OPA). Rationed items included tires, cars, bicycles, gasoline, fuel oil, solid fuels, stoves, rubber footwear, shoes, sugar, coffee, processed foods, meats, canned fish (tin for cans was scarce), cheese, canned milk, typewriters, and fats (glycerin in fats saved during cooking was used to make black powder for explosives and bullets).
Over the course of the war, four booklets with ration stamps and instructions were issued to individuals; book one was issued in 1942. In 1944, the OPA began making tokens instead of ration stamps. Each token, red for meats and fats and blue for canned and processed foods, was worth one ration point. The red and blue stamps would be worth ten points. This saved hours of time sorting stamps, and made it easier for store owners to “give change.”
Sugar became quite a valuable commodity during this era of rationing. In fact, black market selling of sugar was infamous. The Ladies Home Journal explained to housewives why they needed to go without as much sugar: “Sugar cane is needed to make molasses. Molasses is used to make industrial alcohol which is needed to make explosives. Explosives are needed to sink the Axis!” The nation requested a maximum level of sugar production, and Louisiana sugar producers, like those in West Baton Rouge, responded with effectiveness. In spite of wartime shortages of men and materials, Louisiana sugar producers utilized new machines like the cane harvester that could do the work of many men in order to meet the demand.
Many citizens began growing gardens at home so that large-scale farmers could send their produce to the Armed Forces. These homegrown gardens were called Victory Gardens. Mr. A. S. Genre of Port Allen is shown here tending his vegetables in 1942.
“Get in your scrap today. Even if it’s just a very small amount it will help build planes, guns, ships and supply ammunition to whip the Axis. Every pound counts.” – West Side Journal.
The Government asked that citizens bring unused tools, auto parts, kitchen utensils, and other metal objects to designated areas to make planes, tanks, trucks, etc. People all over West Baton Rouge participated in gathering scrap metal materials as part of this nation-wide scrap drive. They even collected about a thousand pounds of salvage materials from the courthouse and jail in Port Allen. Much of the material gathered across the nation was not of good enough quality to use for military production; however, it did boost the morale of people on the home front to feel they were doing their part to help the war effort.
Funding the War
War Bond drives occurred to raise money for the war. Citizens could purchase bonds as a way to loan money to the U.S. government. Students, youth organizations, and ladies clubs solicited sales of defense stamps and bonds in the parish. West Baton Rouge continuously raised enough money to exceed its quota during national drives.
Women in Wartime
Women became an integral part of the workforce after the majority of men left their jobs to work for the military. Despite the urgent need for workers, women on the factory lines were underpaid.
Many of the plants in Baton Rouge, as well as Harding Field, a training base for U.S. fighter planes and bombers, employed local women. Hundreds of thousands of women also joined the military for the first time; their jobs ranged from nursing, to piloting, to communications management. Those in the Army were known as WAC’s (Women’s Army Corps) and those in the Navy were called WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). There were also women in the Coast Guard and Marines. Women faced difficulties holding onto their new found freedoms when the men returned from war.