Prior to the entry of the United States into World War II, the depressed South Carolina economy had already started to recover. Federal money constructed or expanded military and naval installations across the state, including Camp Croft in Spartanburg, Fort Jackson in Columbia, the Charleston Navy Yard, and several smaller bases. Economic expansion centered in major urban centers. Large population increases occurred during the war years in Charleston County (thirty-three percent), Richland County (eleven percent), and Greenville County (three percent). But South Carolina’s total population changed little from 1940 to 1944, remaining about 1,890,000. While thousands left the state for military duty or jobs in other states, an equal number of outsiders came to South Carolina.
The war brought a much-needed boost to South Carolina’s agricultural sector, which had struggled since the early 1920s. Agricultural wages in the state more than doubled between 1939 and 1943 as state farmers tried to keep up with war-time demands for cotton and produce. Despite the dramatic increase, farm wages in South Carolina still lagged behind those in the rest of the country, and many farmers faced significant labor shortages. These shortages were partially alleviated by employing German prisoners of war (POWs) on farms in such counties as Aiken, Greenwood, and Marlboro. Seasonal camps of from two hundred to four hundred POWs were constructed in these and other counties between 1943 and 1945, with a central camp for nearly two thousand prisoners placed at Fort Jackson in 1944.
In the textile industry, increases in production and the labor force occurred as manufacturers successfully met war-time production goals. Cotton consumption by textile mills increased more than sixty percent between 1939 and 1943. But heavy war industries, such as aircraft plants in Georgia and weapons plants in North Carolina, did not exist in South Carolina. The closest to such industries in the state was the Charleston Navy Yard, which produced more than three hundred medium-size and small vessels while repairing numerous others. Aiding the yard were small steelworks, such as Kline Iron and Steel in Columbia and Carolina Industries of Sumter, which built ship components and then delivered them to Charleston for assembly. Military bases across the state also gave employment to civilians, who provided services, repairs, and construction expertise.
Estimates are imprecise, but at least 900,000 men received military training in South Carolina during the war. More than 180,000 South Carolinians, including 2,500 women, entered the armed services. More were willing to serve, but forty-one percent of those examined statewide were rejected for various mental or physical problems, making the recruit rejection rate in South Carolina the second highest in the nation. Civilian defense began to organize in South Carolina more than a year before Pearl Harbor. By summer 1941 the State Council of Defense was soliciting 12,500 aircraft spotters for eight hundred posts across South Carolina. In the last months of the war, the council claimed that more than 250,000 South Carolinians had volunteered for duties ranging from serving as nurses’ aides and salvage workers to providing war bond activities and aircraft spotting.
South Carolinians contributed to the war effort in other ways as well, especially through rationing. Tire rationing began less than a month after Pearl Harbor, with just 2,921 tires allotted the entire state for January 1942. Six months later gas rationing began on the East Coast, and many in South Carolina grumbled about bearing the brunt of this war measure. By 1943 the entire nation was under the same restrictions. This system reduced gas consumption for private cars to between three and four gallons every two weeks for the remainder of the war. In March 1943 nationwide food rationing began. Under the mandatory system coordinated through the federal Office of Price Administration, all canned and processed foods were severely rationed, as were red meat, sugar, and coffee. Foods exempted by the rationing board were fresh vegetables and fruits as well as seafood. Victory gardens were successfully promoted in cities and towns to supplement family needs, so that by 1943 more than 330,000 plots were reported across the state.
With housing rents rising even before Pearl Harbor, many cities and towns had to impose rent controls early in the war. While Columbia imposed them less than a year after the Japanese attack, the housing shortage in Charleston became so acute by 1940 that the navy established a city clearinghouse. This helped, but housing remained scarce and complaints grew that local landlords and residents were gouging the public. The housing shortage along with problems in food distribution and labor needs forced the federal government to list Charleston as one of eighteen cities in the nation considered Congested Production Areas that needed special assistance. Greenville and Spartanburg also faced shortages, but to a lesser degree.
Amid war-time conditions, segregation laws came under pressure. The influx of non–South Carolinians with different ideas on social customs led to temporary changes, especially on military bases. Nevertheless, African Americans remained at the bottom rung of the social ladder. Although some minorities gained promotions to skilled jobs, most of these went to recent arrivals. Segregated United Service Organizations, restaurants, and movie houses remained standard throughout the war. When reports reached South Carolina congressmen about “violations” of southern traditions on military installations, those congressmen did not hesitate to protest. U.S. Senator Burnet Maybank wrote a strong objection to the captain of the Charleston Navy Yard after a constituent protested that blacks were working alongside whites and that some minorities were getting promotions above whites. Although segregation would remain entrenched in the early postwar period, seeds of change were planted during the war, particularly through landmark court decisions. In 1944 the federal district court ordered South Carolina to provide equal salaries to black and white teachers. In the same year, in the case of Smith v. Allright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the all-white primary unconstitutional. Politicians in the state, led by Governor Olin D. Johnston, fought these and subsequent court rulings, but African Americans in South Carolina were slowly but steadily gaining voting rights by the end of the war. Between 1940 and 1946 the number of registered African American voters in the state increased from fifteen hundred to fifty thousand.
As the war ended, most white South Carolinians expected prewar social customs to remain. These hopes were mixed with fears of an economic depression like the one that followed World War I. Fortunately, although some military bases closed and others downsized, the GI Bill helped maintain a strong economy by providing low-interest loans and free education to former servicemen. Thousands of veterans entered the University of South Carolina and other state schools in the immediate postwar years. As the cold war accelerated by the early 1950s, several bases on the verge of closing gained new life and expanded as the nation retooled to confront the threat of global communism.
Callcott, W. H., ed. South Carolina: Economic and Social Conditions in 1944. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1945.
Downey, Tom. “‘The Situation Has Been Badly Fumbled’: South Carolina’s Response to Gas Rationing during World War II.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 95 (April 1994): 156–71.
Hamer, Fritz. “A Southern City Enters the Twentieth Century: Charleston, Its Navy Yard, and World War II, 1940–1948.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1998.
Moore, John H. “Nazi Troopers in South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 81 (October 1980): 306–15.
–––. “No Room, No Rice, No Grits: Charleston’s Time of Trouble, 1942–1944.” South Atlantic Quarterly 85 (winter 1986): 23–31.
South Carolina. Adjutant-General’s Office. The Official Roster of South Carolina Servicemen and Servicewomen in World War II, 1941–1946. 5 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1967–1972.
Springs, Holmes B. Selective service in South Carolina, 1940–1947. Columbia, S.C.: Vogue, 1948.