In the conventional telling of Phoenix history, World War II marks the pivot between the "old" and "new" city. The reality is not quite so neat. But the war does deserve its own niche, separate from the more expansive decade of the 1940s.
As with the Great War, the most immediate local beneficiaries of the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939 (China had been fighting for its life against Japan since 1937) were the cotton farmers of the Salt River Valley. Even with America nominally neutral, Washington tilted policy toward Britain and France, and our extra-long staple cotton was critical to making tires.
But unlike World War I, the Second World War would touch Phoenix much more profoundly. It would bring military bases and new industries. Population increases would strain the city. Simmering racial hostilities would break through. One of the great injustices of American history would literally run through the heart of town.
The valley's destiny lay not merely with the land but in the sky. It, along with Tucson, was identified as an ideal place to train military pilots thanks to the abundant clear days. Even before America entered the war — and in spite of a large isolationist sentiment in the Congress and the country — FDR's War Department began seeking locations for air bases in the Southwest. They were meant to enhance "preparedness," Roosevelt's armed neutrality, but also train British, Canadian and Chinese pilots.
Phoenix leaders, led by the Chamber of Commerce, pushed the city to spend $40,000 on a site west of Glendale and offer it to the War Department for $1. The deal succeeded and in little more than two months Luke Army Airfield was opened, honoring Arizona's Medal of Honor winning air ace from World War I, Frank Luke. Before an independent Air Force in 1948, the flying branch was under the Army, first as the U.S. Army Air Corps and later as the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Like a majority of wartime installations in the area, Luke was built by Del Webb Construction Co. Webb, a fierce FDR supporter, had grown wealthy and his company into the largest construction firm in the Southwest thanks to work from the New Deal. It would grow larger still thanks to the war.
Thunderbird Field near Glendale traced its roots back further, to 1939, with Southwest Airways and its Hollywood investors, including Henry Fonda and future combat pilot James Stewart. (This Southwest was the forebear of Bonanza Airlines and Hughes AirWest). Thunderbird began training Allied and U.S. pilots in 1941. It was expanded to Thunderbird Field No. 2, far north of the village of Scottsdale (and is today's Scottsdale airport). Mesa acquired empty desert land to the southeast that became Williams Army Airfield. The Litchfield Naval Air Facility opened in 1943. All these bases also had a constellation of auxiliary fields. Together they trained most of the 60,000 pilots that came out of Arizona bases.
The Army sent thousands of soldiers through Phoenix, too, and temporarily quartered some of them nearby. These were engaged in desert warfare training to the west, in a vast empty space bounded by the Mexican border and Searchlight, Nevada, the western Arizona desert and California's Mohave. Patton trained troops there in advance of the November 1942 Torch landings in North Africa.
When Japanese warplanes attacked the Pacific Fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, sending the battleship Arizona to the bottom in a massive explosion that killed 1,177 sailors aboard, Phoenix had mostly shaken off the effects of the Great Depression. Enormous amounts of New Deal investment made the biggest difference. But FDR's rearming of the nation brought back factories and the 1937 recession ran its course. The result was more people had disposable income to travel to the enchanting little city in Arizona. It had begun seriously marketing itself to tourists in the 1930s. The city was the namesake of a Navy cruiser. The USS Phoenix was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th but escaped damage. It went on to earn 11 battle stars in the Pacific War (later, sold to Argentina, it would be sunk by a British submarine in the Falklands War).
Phoenix's population was more than 65,000 in a very compact space. It accounted for about 35 percent of the county's population (Mesa was only 7,200; most lived outside incorporated areas). Arizona's total population was around half a million and most of the state was wild and empty. It had been a state for less than three decades and was still called "the Baby State" and "the Frontier State." It was the last star in the 48-star field of the American flag. Downtown was the center of shopping, entertainment, and lodging, and it would become more so once war began.
The city was still Southern in its segregation and racial attitudes. And it was Western in its live-and-let-live attitude toward vice, with a large red-light district, many bars, and gambling dens. Both would have consequences.
The war provided an enormous economic stimulus. Between fears that Japan might invade the West Coast and Washington's desire to decentralize industry, it was also a plum for inland cities. Unfortunately, even with its proximity to California, Phoenix was poorly positioned to compete. First, it had virtually no industrial base. Second, its leadership and outlook was of an agricultural empire.
Some leaders, however, hoped to change that. Among them were lawyer Frank Snell and Charlie Bernstein, the powerful head of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. Helped by Sens. Carl Hayden and Ernest McFarland and federal subsidies, they recruited an Alcoa extrusion plant to 35th Avenue and Van Buren. Garrett, Allison Steel and Goodyear Aircraft, whose roots went back decades in Litchfield Park, also opened factories.
People flocked to the jobs. But this, along with the draft, led to a severe labor shortage for agriculture. Phoenix leaders who had embraced the deportation of "Mexicans" in the Depression — most of whom were American citizens — suddenly demanded that Washington open the borders for Mexican workers. They also worked on railroad maintenance, as did members of native tribes. Women entered the workforce as never before, including the factories.
On Nov. 26, 1942, the day the film Casablanca premiered in New York City and as American soldiers invaded North Africa, Phoenix was hit with the Thanksgiving Day Riot. It was one of many disturbances that roiled American cities during the war but it was new to the small Arizona capital. An African-American soldier with the segregated 364th Infantry Regiment struck an African-American woman with a bottle in a bar. A military policeman shot the man — and beyond this things get murky.
According to some tellings, the MP was also black, attached to an all-black Military Police unit. It had previous run-ins with the 364th, and the wounded soldier's friends returned to their bivouac and retrieved rifles, then came back to Phoenix's "Niggertown" to fight the MPs. Other sources say the MP unit had both whites and blacks. The ensuing battle lasted all night and brought in Anglo law enforcement and soldiers. Twenty-eight blocks were cordoned. Some African-American soldiers took shelter in houses. The authorities fired into the flimsy residences — by some accounts using machine guns. The official death count was three, but some say it was much higher, hence the name "Phoenix Massacre." The military arrested 180 black soldiers, most of whom had nothing to do with the riot, and court martialed several, handing out severe prison terms. The incident fell down the memory hole of Anglo Phoenix.
But this, along with rising venereal disease rates, caused the military to declare Phoenix off-limits. It was a catastrophe for business and Snell and Bernstein demanded that several officials, including the police chief, be dismissed and the "vice" cleaned up. The City Commission bowed — the famous "card room putsch." The city was opened again to the troops but the Commission reneged on the deal making Snell determined to bring new governance.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It began the internment of some 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans (Nisei) from the West Coast to concentration camps in the interior. The forced expulsion was not limited to California, Oregon, and Washington (no Japanese-Americans were interned in the territory attacked, Hawaii). It included the southern half of Arizona with the exclusion line following Grand Avenue to Van Buren Street, Tempe's Mill Avenue, Apache Boulevard, and Mesa's Main Street. Thus, Japanese in south Phoenix, for example, were interned. Paradoxically, Japanese farming near some of the bases and factories north of the line remained.
Only about 600 Japanese lived in the Salt River Valley, almost all farmers. But antipathy from Anglos was deeply rooted. Arizona's Alien Land Law of 1921, eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, was specifically aimed at the Japanese. Sympathetic Anglos held their land for them until they could return to owning it. Others, however, were envious of the Japanese farmers' success in bringing some of the most challenging parts of the Valley into cultivation. In the 1930s, several attacks were made, including dynamiting Japanese property. So the ground was fertile for support of internment.
Two large internment camps were built in Arizona, on the Gila River Indian Reservation and at Poston — again, built by Del Webb. The Japanese formed social and sporting events. Many young men volunteered for the Army of the nation that interned them. In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Gila River camp and mingled with the internees, and from that point on pressed her husband to revoke the executive order.
The war radically changed everyday life in Phoenix. The city faced a severe housing shortage — but little could be done aside from urging residents to take in borders. Housing construction stopped, along with all non-war-related manufacturing. Gasoline was rationed and neither tires nor private automobiles could be bought. Union Station was packed with trains and passengers, with dozens of young women staffing a 24-hour Canteen to help soldiers. The railroad system was pushed to its limits and beyond. Only essential train travel was available to civilians, so the tourism economy took a breather, too.
Young men of all ethnic groups volunteered for service — Arizona would produce such heroes as Ira Hayes, the Pima who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima; ace Grant Turley; John Butler, a naval aviator who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross at the Battle of Midway; Medal of Honor winner Silvertre Herrera (who I later met several times at the Luke-Greenway American Legion Post), and Manuel Mendoza. Famed cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who created the sardonic and long-suffering infantrymen Willie and Joe, attended Phoenix Union High School.
Between the fiery death of the USS Arizona and the flag raising on Mount Suribachi, the state played into two of the war's most iconic images.
Department store executive and amateur pilot Barry Goldwater desperately wanted to see action but the Air Corps turned him down because of his eyesight. He enlisted anyway and worked at Luke. One of his jobs was assembling land for the gunnery range that now bears his name. Ranchers who resisted selling had their land taken by government decree. Eventually, Goldwater was cleared to fly and served as a gunnery training officer.
Luke was also where a future Phoenix leader would get his first taste of Arizona. Lincoln Ragsdale was a Tuskegee Airman, a member of the famed all-black combat pilots. He was the first African-American to train at Luke Field and was not welcomed there or in town. Nevertheless, after the war he returned to Phoenix, built several businesses, became the wealthiest African-American in the city, broke the color barrier by moving to Encanto-Palmcroft, and was a tireless advocate of civil rights.
Future federal Judge Valdemar Cordova from the Grant Park barrio dropped out of Phoenix Union at age 17 to enlist in the Air Corps. Assigned to bombers in Europe, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, he flew missions until being shot down. Captured by the Germans, he spent a year and a half in a Stalag.
The city's wartime role included housing German and Italian prisoners of war. They worked on projects around the Valley, including cleaning and digging canals. I will not dwell on the sensational 1944 escape of German U-boat sailors, which has been extensively covered elsewhere (and most didn't get far). I do recall my mother telling me how they would march through the streets, on the way to a work assignment, singing military songs — much more disciplined than their Italian counterparts, who were largely happy to be out of the war.
Two lesser-known stories from the POW camp: A second escape happened when a couple of sailors hid in a lumber truck. Again they were captured. And in 1945, a sailor named Werner Dreschler was placed in the camp. He was soon found hanged. Apparently Dreschler had a reputation of being a snitch in a previous camp. Seven Germans were tried and convicted. And even though the war was over, they were hanged on Aug. 25, 1945. Whether justice was served is an open question. Why was Dreschler put there in the first place? And would Allied POWs have handled a traitor any differently?
After the war ended, Phoenix did not see a massive influx of vets ready to buy houses. Nor did it gain a new economy based on "clean industry." That would have to wait. In fact, unlike many cities, Phoenix had made no preparations for the transition to a peacetime economy. As the military bases and manufacturing plants closed the city fell into a sharp recession. Some feared Phoenix would return to Depression or worse.
A 1942 parade on Central Avenue with African-American soldiers marching. McCulloch Bros./ASU Archives.
An overhead view of Thunderbird Field, laid out to look like the mythical bird.
A sailor on horseback carries Old Glory during a parade.
Phoenix didn't face blackouts but the wartime poster beside the Gass Brothers Chop House at 21 N. Central proclaims, " Food: 1) Buy it with thought; 2) Cook it with care; 3) Use less wheat and meat; 4) Buy local foods; 5) Serve just enough; 6) Use what is left, don't waste it. In those days, Phoenix was virtually self-sufficient because of the Valley's agricultural bounty.
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.