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Monday, December 10, 2012

Sidebar: World War Two and Wyoming

Regular readers here may have noted that there's been a lot of entries regarding World War Two recently. And, as a result, they might legitimately ask "What does an attack on Guam have to do with Wyoming?"  Well, probably more than is apparent.

 US troops advancing on Bouganville.

Wars change everything. That's one of 'Holscher's Laws of History".  And World War Two was such a colossal war that it's impact on the United States as a whole is almost incalculable.  Wyoming was no exception.

To start with, nearly every able bodied young man, and indeed quite a few able bodied middle aged men, served in the military during those years.  By the wars end, men were entering right out of high school, with some leaving high school to enter the service.  A good friend of mine's father, for example, entered the Army prior to completing high school, a fairly common story in those days.  And, as noted, it wasn't just young men.  The legal community, for example, in Wyoming was seriously depleted by so many lawyers entering the service.  There's actually one Wyoming Supreme Court legal opinion of the period noting that one of the appellate parties' lawyers was absent due to being in the service, and that the party was therefore appearing pro se (without lawyer), but that they were certain that had the lawyer been there, the party would have been well represented.  It should be noted, by the way, that entering the service with a JD at that time did not mean a direct commission for the lawyer, and plenty of lawyers served in the war as enlisted men.

 1941 version of James Montgomery Flagg's famous World War One recruiting poster.

The first group of Wyoming soldiers to enter the service did so as National Guardsmen in 1940.  Most of Wyoming's Guardsmen were in the 115th Cavalry (Horse Mechanized).  The unit was a pioneering one, reflecting an Army attempt to blend horse cavalry with mechanized cavalry, which received high marks by none other than Lucian Truscott, one of the stars of the Allied effort in North Africa and Italy.  Mobilized in 1940, as noted, the unit was not actually sent overseas until late 1944, by which time only a few Wyomingites remained in the unit, and by which time the unit was a mechanized cavalry unit.  Most of the Wyoming troopers had been cadred out of the unit into others well before that, after having spent the first couple of months after Pearl Harbor patrolling the Pacific Coast..  The unit, which had been a popular one for membership on the part of high school students prior to the war, saw more than it share of former members who went on to distinguished service in other units of the Army and Army Air Corps.  Two of the former members that I had the honor of meeting had been pilots in the Army Air Corps.

Probably for these reasons, World War Two is one war that has a monument somewhere in nearly every Wyoming community commemorating servicemen who fought in the war.  Many communities have memorials that list every single soldier, sailor, Marine and Coast Guardsman who served from the county.

The war visited Wyoming in other ways, other than through the numerous service men the state contributed.  The state had at least four active bases during the war, two of which predated the war.  Ft. F. E. Warren had been a longstanding Army base outside of Cheyenne, having originally been named Ft. D. A. Russell.  The post had shared a huge training range with the National Guard between Cheyenne and Laramie in the form of the Pole Mountain Training Area. It remained a training range into the war, although the National Guard had just established a separate training range at Guernsey. The Guard had just been able to use that facility for a single season prior to the war starting.

 Architectural detail on veterinary hospital at F. E. Warren.

F. E. Warren was used for a variety of purposes during the war. Some soldiers received basic training there.  A Quartermaster Replacement Training Center was headquartered there and operated at Pole Mountain.

The Army also had a preexisting facility outside of Sheridan in the form of Ft. MacKenzieFt. MacKenzie was a remount station, a facility that trained horses and, more particularly, it was the regional headquarters for purchasing them.  Horses and mules remained significant to the Army throughout the war, with mules becoming increasingly important just as the importance of horses decreased.  Sheridan had long been a very "horsey" area, making it a natural for a remount station.  This facility would close shortly after the war, its purpose having been rendered obsolete..  Its grounds are now the property of the State Veteran's Administration hospital.

Casper saw a base created in the form of the Army Air Corps Casper Air Base. The base trained bomber crews.  The substantial air base grounds are now those of the Natrona County International Airport.  The facility was substantial enough to have a satellite base in Scottsbluff Nebraska.  Natrona County had another long standing military facility, that being the the Naval Petroleum Oil Reserve, which was a Federal reservation formed to store oil for the Navy's use.  That facility still exists, although it no longer serves that function.

Converse County had a prisoner of war camp, located at Douglas.  The camp contained German and Italian prisoners of war.  Only one building of that facility remains.  I haven't seen it, but apparently it contains murals painted by Italian prisoners.  A couple of the surviving buildings from the Casper Air Base likewise feature murals, albeit painted by airmen artists.

Another type of internment camp existed during the war at Heart Mountain, near Cody.  Heart Mountain War Relocation Center was an internment camp for Japanese Americans, who were kept in such camps if they were previously living on the Pacific Coast.  Today the site is a historic site dedicated to the memory of those who were kept there during the war.

Wyoming's industry also played a role in the war.  Cheyenne had a facility that constructed nose turrets for the B-17 bomber.  An important modification to that design occurred there, leading to the nickname for the turret design being the "Cheyenne Turret".  Uranium was mined in a quarry just outside of Laramie, and partially processed just outside of town at a facility that is still visible, for use in the early stages of the Manhattan Project.  The oil industry of course played a major role in the war, with the United States being an oil exporter at that time.  Likewise, coal was an important war material produced within the state.

Agriculture employed a higher percentage of Wyomingites at that time than it does now, and agriculture was a vital part of the war economy.  Agricultural workers were exempt from the draft as critical war workers, although almost every young cowboy volunteered anyhow.  The Holscher Meat Packing plant in Casper was engaged in military contracts, amongst others, during the war.  Wool production was vital at a time when every soldier was issued at least some wool uniforms, and the soldiers in Europe wore wool everyday.

Finally, the war changed things in ways that we can hardly recognize now, unless we lived through them, which most of us did not.  The war had a massive impact on the mobility of society that the prior World War One had not, and to a large extent the concept of Americans as mobile people, who grow up in one place and then leave to work in another, or many others, came about during the war.  Americans were relatively mobile, of course,  prior to the war, but not like they were after the war. The war, or rather the aftermath of the war, also sent many people to college and university through the GI Bill for the first time.  Many sections of society found college available to them for the very first time. That trend only continued to develop after the war, with not attending college being unthinkable for many in our modern society. Before the war, entire demographic groups rarely went to college.  The World War Two generation was, for a large percentage of Americans, the first generation to attend university. 

Technological developments during the war ended up revolutionizing how Wyomingites traveled, although for the most part they likely generally are not aware of that today.  Before the war most families in the state had a car, and some more than one, but those cars and trucks were all two wheel drive vehicles. The 4x4 vehicle really got its start because of the Second World War, as Jeep and Ford made thousands upon thousands of Jeeps, and Dodge made thousands of trucks of a type that would become the post war Power Wagon.  The widespread road accessibility of the country from late Fall through late Spring came about because of World War Two. Also because of that, however, the need for back country cowboys, or even home ranch cowboys, was greatly reduced, working a revolution in agriculture which destroyed the jobs of hundreds of cowboys.  Indeed, Wyoming's ranches, already growing due to the stress placed upon small ranches due to the Great Depression, were able to continue that trend in part for that reason.  One rancher and his family could now cover ground that had taken several cowboys to do, in winter, before, and that was even true to a lessor degree in the Summer.

In short, no war since the Indian Wars impacted Wyoming so much as World War Two.  Memorials to the war are located in every county, and no wonder.  The impact of the war was vast, and remains so.

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