World War II

By: Ben H. Procter

Revised by: Joseph G. Dawson III

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: April 1, 2021

World War II produced social, political, and economic consequences for Texas. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the New Deal’s programs made the federal government more influential in the state. Responding to the start of the war in Europe in September 1939, the U.S. Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt called for American businesses to produce more military goods. Many Texas companies landed manufacturing contracts, soon creating new jobs of all kinds. To fill those jobs, Texans left farms and small towns and went to cities. When Congress approved funding, the U.S. War and Navy Departments also authorized expanding and adding to Texas military bases, which created more employment for thousands in construction trades. After 1940 the U.S. military services trained thousands of American soldiers, sailors, pilots, and aircrews at Texas bases. This flood of new residents placed demands on city and county services across the state. Results of these activities led to demographic shifts, social changes, and remarkable prosperity by 1945.

On the home front during World War II Texans adjusted their lives and sacrificed in many ways to support "our boys overseas." Federal government rationing requirements became a way of life for the duration of the war. The government issued stamp books to shoppers, who presented stamps when they purchased crucial items such as meat, sugar, coffee, shoes, rubber, and auto parts. Federal limitations required motorists to display windshield stickers that permitted them to buy gasoline only on certain days. At increasingly frequent intervals communities held scrap-metal drives; adults bought war bonds; school children had time allotted during class periods to buy, then paste, war savings stamps in bond books; and many a family, as in World War I, planted "victory gardens" to grow their own food so that food harvested from farms went for the war effort. Farmers, with prices high, cultivated the soil to its maximum, thereby helping the United States become the granary for the Allied nations. During these years most Texans thrived; the Great Depression became only a memory. Along the Gulf Coast from the Beaumont-Port Arthur area southward to Corpus Christi, the greatest petrochemical industry in the world was built to refine fuel for the American and Allied war machine. Wartime industries mushroomed throughout Texas: steel mills in Houston and Daingerfield; the largest tin smelter in the world in Texas City; enormous aircraft factories in Garland, Grand Prairie, and Fort Worth rivaled the giant bomber factory at Willow Run near Detroit, Michigan; extensive shipyards in Beaumont, Port Arthur, Houston, Galveston, and Corpus Christi; a revitalized paper and wood-pulp industry in East Texas; and munitions and synthetic rubber factories in different parts of the state. As a result, manufacturing increased fourfold, from $453,105,423 in 1939 to $1,900,000,000 in 1944. Labor was therefore at a premium, especially with men in the service, with defense contracts readily available, and with wages escalating. Consequently, 500,000 Texans—Anglos, African Americans, and Hispanics—moved from rural areas to job markets in nearby cities, as did thousands of people from other states. Women entered heretofore male occupations and became punch-press operators, assembly-line workers, welders, and riveters—hence a popular wartime song, "Rosie the Riveter." Appearing on posters and magazine covers, the fictional “Rosie” became the symbol of wartime women workers.

Congress passed a national draft law in September 1940, and, whether they were drafted or voluntarily enlisted, Texans flowed into all branches of the U.S. military services throughout the war. Units directly associated with Texas included the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division, the Ninetieth Infantry Division, and 112th Cavalry Regiment, but many others relocated to the state for training. The draft law directed that men inducted must be at least five feet, five inches tall, pass a vision examination (with or without eyeglasses), possess half of their own teeth, and not have a criminal record.

The abundance of military bases was one of the most significant federal influences on wartime Texas. Moderate weather and clear skies in Texas provided many good training days each year. Established military installations, such as Fort Bliss near El Paso, the large Army Air Forces complex in San Antonio, and Camp Hood near Killeen, grew in area and personnel. Also, the U.S. government built many new Texas bases and ordered thousands of Americans to train there. Pilots and aircrews flew from fields near numerous Texas towns such as Amarillo, Bryan, Dalhart, Laredo, Lubbock, San Angelo, San Marcos, and Waco. The U.S. Navy expanded docks and pilot training in Corpus Christi and added to its Naval Air Station near Dallas. From 1942 to 1944 at Sweetwater, near Abilene, a federal program attracted hundreds of women to become “WASPS”—Women Airforce Service Pilots, flying airplanes from place to place. Those posts and bases impacted local economies and social activities, as military personnel sought entertainment and diversion in the nearest community. Men and women in uniform became common sights on streets throughout the state.

During the war Texans on the home front continued to enjoy entertainment and sports. Civilians organized baseball teams from neighborhoods, churches, schools, and towns, and military personnel fielded teams on their bases. The Texas League organized professional minor-league teams in several of the state’s cities, including Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Beaumont. Texas League players sought to play in the “majors” for the National and American leagues. Although there were only a few major league teams located in the East and Midwest, many Texans picked and followed a favorite. Baseball continued to hold tremendous attention of many Americans.

Among other sports, football was rising in popularity. Many Texans attended games from their town’s high school or a nearby college. College football played only five postseason bowl games—but two of those started in Texas in the mid-1930s, the Cotton Bowl and the Sun Bowl. In addition to sports, Texans, like most Americans, attended two or more movies per month at admission prices that ranged between ten and twenty-five cents. In an age before television and home air-conditioning, movie houses lured theater-goers to watch films in air-conditioned comfort. Military posts projected movies in their own theaters.

While the state government cooperated with federal authorities to sustain an all-out war effort, Governor Coke R. Stevenson seemed to epitomize a dual role, that of cooperation as well as representation of Texas interests. Because of his relaxed demeanor—he was a pipe smoker with a calm expression that seldom betrayed his thoughts—this staunchly conservative man received the appellation "Calculating Coke" from Capitol correspondents. Although he accepted rationing in 1942, Stevenson denounced gas rationing in Texas, where gasoline was as much a necessity, he asserted, as "the saddle, the rifle, the ax, and the Bible." Coke also negotiated a no-strike agreement with labor, an arrangement that pleased anti-Unionist Texans. At the same time he received high approval ratings from his constituency for raising departmental budgets, while eliminating the $42 million debt that had accrued since the Depression. During these war years Stevenson improved the state highway system, raised public school salaries, initiated a building program for the University of Texas, and emphasized the necessity of soil conservation. During the Stevenson administrations a number of trends developed that greatly affected Texas in postwar years. After 1937 the anti-New Deal Jeffersonian Democrats gained adherents, and with each passing year their disaffection hardened. In 1940 they were appalled when President Roosevelt ran for a third term; four years later he repeated this desecration, which, they believed, was leading the nation toward dictatorship. Besides, FDR was far too liberal for them, first in his support of labor unions, then in New Deal spending programs, and, most devastating of all, in replacing Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas in 1940 with left-winger Henry A. Wallace of Iowa. If price-fixing of Texas oil was not enough, Texans deplored First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s outspoken support for Black equality under the law, together with the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright (1944), by which Blacks achieved a major political breakthrough by obtaining the right to participate in White primaries. Some African American leaders pressured state colleges to routinely admit Black students—a call made more stridently in the postwar years. Consequently in 1944 the Jeffersonian Democrats formed a new political organization named the Texas Regulars; and in the November election they polled 135,000 votes for president, even though no one headed the ticket. Their divisiveness caused tremendous difficulties in postwar Texas for the dominant Democratic party.

Many Texas Regulars and those of like ilk also concerned themselves with other aspects of higher education as represented at the University of Texas. Under governors W. Lee O'Daniel and Coke Stevenson a majority of Texas Regulars received appointment to the University of Texas board of regents and then attempted to rectify what they considered to be the evils of academia. In the spring of 1942 the regents, by a four-to-two vote, fired three liberal economics instructors. Over the course of the next two years they tried to abolish the tenure system, but University of Texas president Homer Price Rainey obstinately blocked their efforts. After they proscribed John Dos Passos's novel USA from a supplemental reading list of the English Department, declaring it to be obscene and perverted, Rainey dramatically denounced the regents at a general faculty meeting on October 12, 1944. Three weeks later they fired him. Such threats to academic freedom and the growth of higher education were of utmost concern to Texans in August 1945, especially since Rainey decided to run for governor in 1946.

In turn, social conditions emanating from World War II motivated minorities to demand equal rights in Texas. Blacks, suffering from segregation under the "separate but equal" clause of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), saw no change in attitude by Governor Stevenson. The pervasive patterns of “Jim Crow” policies segregated schools, restaurants, hotels, libraries, and most theaters throughout the 1940s. Violence erupted in public life. In Texarkana on July 13, 1942, a mob dragged Black Texan Willie Vinson from a hospital bed and hanged him after he was identified by a White woman as the man who had victimized her; the governor, however, took no action on the matter and reasoned that "even a White man would have been lynched for this crime." On the night of June 15, 1943, when a riot exploded in Beaumont, where three people were killed and hundreds injured, Stevenson ordered the president pro tem of the Texas Senate to handle it since both he and Lieutenant Governor John Lee Smith were, at that time, out of the state. Then in 1944 came the Smith v. Allwright decision and in August 1945 the end of the war. Since 257,798 Black Texans had registered under the selective-service system and approximately one-third had served in segregated units usually commanded by White officers, they returned home after being discharged more determined in their demands for equal rights under the law.

Mexican Americans were also discriminated against but usually in less obvious ways. In 1945 thousands of Mexican Americans, upon returning home from service to their country—five had won the Medal of Honor—were determined to seek equality under the law. By 1948 the American G.I. Forum was formed to protest discrimination against Mexican American veterans and soldiers.

As for women, after their many contributions to the war effort both on the home front and militarily, they too began to demand equality, having been placed in the same category, as one writer stated, "with minors and idiots." Although having the right to vote, they could not serve on juries and grand juries until January 1, 1955. Nor could a woman buy a car or house or stocks and bonds, make contracts, agree to promissory notes, sue if injured, or sign a bail bond without her husband's signature. In fact, she could not establish a business without the court's permission and, even then, could not have a credit rating. In addition to suffering salary discrimination both in public and private sectors, women had to endure a double standard under the law. As much as anything else, however, in 1945 Texas women had to combat "tradition and custom." Judge Sarah T. Hughes insightfully asserted that women had to challenge traditional viewpoints of being "satisfied with their role" or "too humble about their abilities." A notable Texas woman who departed from custom and tradition was Oveta Culp Hobby. President Roosevelt approved Hobby to command the new Women’s Army Corps (WACs) during the war.

Yet during World War II obvious changes in Texas were demographic and economic. Because of wartime demands, people migrated to the state in increasing numbers—as many as 450,000 in less than four years. Since industrial jobs were plentiful in or near such cities as Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth, Texans saw rapid urbanization, along with its accompanying benefits and evils. In turn, oil became the dominant resource and commodity in the state—cotton and cattle were no longer "king"—and the petrochemical industry along the Gulf Coast stimulated the economy. Texans, however, had instituted a more diversified approach in productivity during the war years. In West Texas, from El Paso to the Pecos River to the Panhandle, farmers depended more and more on irrigation and scientific agriculture; in East Texas a number of people shifted to dairying and cattle ranching, while maintaining a prosperous lumber industry; and, from Brownsville to Laredo, the Rio Grande valley continued its development as a lush truck-farming and citrus country. With better roads connecting all parts of the state, with rural electrification touching even the most remote areas, and with more than 600,000 veterans returning home in anticipation of enjoying greater freedoms and the benefits of a victorious war, Texas in 1945 was moving to a more diversified, urban status.

Thomas E. Alexander, Silver Wings: The U.S. Army Air Force in Texas, 1940 –1946 (Abilene: State House Press, 2017). Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528–1995 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996). Alwyn Barr and Robert A. Calvert, eds., Black Leaders: Texans for Their Times (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1981). Brian D. Behnken, Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Lance Bertelsen, “How Texas Won the Second World War,” Southwest Review 76 (Summer 1991). Walter L. Buenger, “Between Community and Corporation: The Southern Roots of Jesse H. Jones and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.” Journal of Southern History 56 (August 1990). Seymour V. Connor, ed., Saga of Texas Series, Vol. 6, Seth S. McKay and Odie B. Faulk, Texas After Spindletop, 1901–1965 (Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1965). C. Dwight Dorough, Mr. Sam (New York: Random House, 1962). George N. Green, The Establishment in Texas Politics (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1979). Richard B. Henderson, Maury Maverick: A Political Biography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970). William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (New York: Harper, 1963). Seth Shepard McKay, W. Lee O'Daniel and Texas Politics, 1938–1942 (Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1944). Irvin M. May, Jr., Marvin Jones: The Public Life of an Agrarian Advocate (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980). J’Nell Pate, Arsenal of Defense: Fort Worth’s Military Legacy (Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 2011). Lionel V. Patenaude, Texans, Politics and the New Deal (New York: Garland, 1983). James S. Powell, Learning Under Fire: The 112th Cavalry Regiment in World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010). Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959). Bascom N. Timmons, Jesse H. Jones (New York: Holt, 1956). Ralph A. Wooster, Texas and Texans in World War II (Austin:  Eakin Press, 2005). Emilio Zamora, Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs: Mexican Workers in Texas during World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009).

Time Periods:
  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ben H. Procter Revised by Joseph G. Dawson III, “World War II,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 1, 2021