A City at War: Chicago

A City At War: Chicago reveals the most significant social, political and industrial events that went on in Chicagoland during World War II. About a third of all war material came out of Chicago, even the birth of the atomic bomb that ended the war.

0:00Copy video clip URL Title card reading, “A City at War: Chicago.”

0:15Copy video clip URL Information on the Chicago Marine Heritage Society, the main contributor to the project.

0:45Copy video clip URL Disclaimer that the video contains propaganda footage to create support for World War II.

0:58Copy video clip URL Historical footage plays over a radio transmission about Pearl Harbor and the American decision to enter the second World War. 

2:27Copy video clip URL Title card. Introductory credits play as narrator Bill Kurtis provides historical context about the United States’ involvement in WWII. 

3:20Copy video clip URL On December 29th, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt calls for America to get involved in the war. Narrator Bill Kurtis introduces the Lend Lease Act, signed by Roosevelt and guaranteeing the production of war material to support the US’s allies. Kurtis transitions to Chicago’s importance in the war. 

4:18Copy video clip URL City of Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson gives examples of what Chicago had to offer to the war. Historical footage also argues Chicago’s importance.

4:48Copy video clip URL Kurtis introduces the pre-1941 debate in Chicago over whether America should enter the “European War” between the America First Isolationists and Interventionists. Samuelson talks about former Chicago mayor Edward J. Kelly, an Interventionist. Joy Bivins from the Chicago History Museum explains the power Kelly had at the time of the war.

5:50Copy video clip URL Roosevelt visits Chicago in 1937. Stephan Benzkofer, a Chicago Tribune contributor, explains how Roosevelt’s speech in Chicago cautioned Chicagoans about fascism and preparing for war. A clip from Roosevelt’s speech plays. Mary Pat Kelly, a relative of Mayor Kelly, talks about the friendship between Roosevelt and Mayor Kelly. Kelly forms a Civilian Defense Committee before Pearl Harbor.

7:37Copy video clip URL A pro-war US propaganda film plays. Perry Duis, author of We’ve Got a Job To Do, comments on reception to the propaganda. Bivins also comments on the propaganda encouragement to “not talk.”

9:24Copy video clip URL Kurtis introduces the way Mayor Kelly got the Black population in Chicago involved in the war effort to strengthen his and the Democratic Party’s political base. Ethan Michaeli, author of The Defender, and Professor Adam Green from the University of Chicago comment on Kelly’s maneuvering. Kurtis points out Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which prohibited segregation in defense plants. Bivins notes, however, that inequality for Black people persisted throughout World War II, including the three hundred thousand Chicagoans that enlisted or otherwise contributed to the war effort. 

11:06Copy video clip URL Kurtis explains the general Chicagoan support of the war effort, particularly Eastern Europeans. Dominic Pacyga, author of Chicago: A Biography, provides context for their interest in the war, namely Germany’s invasion and occupation of Poland. Pacyga also points out that Chicago, at the time, was home to the third-largest Jewish population in the world. “Of the approximately three hundred thousand Jews here in Chicago, the overwhelming majority had family in Europe that they had left behind. When the Nazis rose to power, they were forced to emigrate and give up everything they had to the Third Reich in order to survive. They were very much aware about what was going on in Europe in terms of antisemitism and the Holocaust,” supplies Dr. Edward Mazur from the Chicago Jewish Historical Society.

12:37Copy video clip URL Chicago’s Greek population also was thoroughly in support of the war, as Greece had been under siege since 1940. Harry Mark Petrakis, a writer, shares his experience seeing the movie adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as a young teenager, which disillusioned him from war, but also shares that he did decide to fight in the Second World War due to the revelations about what the Nazis were doing, though he was denied from service. Petrakis talks about watching the war effort while not being able to contribute.

14:18Copy video clip URL Joseph Heinen, author of Lost German Chicago, talks about the loyal German community’s insistence not to be identified with the German American Bund, which supported Nazi efforts and who had several thousand members within Chicago. Dr. Mazur talks about fistfights that broke out between members of the German American Bud and Jewish Chicagoans.

15:02Copy video clip URL Roosevelt issues proclamations naming all German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants who were “not actually naturalized” and over the age of 14 “alien enemies,” subjecting them to arrest and/or imprisonment. Author and historian Rich Lindberg describes cases where “young men were arrested arbitrarily who had no connection to the acts of sabotage that were so greatly feared.”

15:40Copy video clip URL Eberhard Fuhr, a German immigrant arrested on suspicion, shares his story. “I was in high school, and in my senior year, the principal came in and said, ‘Eberhard, I’ve got to ask you to step in the hallway. Two FBI agents, they put handcuffs on me.” The FBI take Fuhr and his brother and arrest them on suspicion, transporting them to 4800 S Ellis Avenue in Chicago. John Zukowsky, an architectural historian, describes the mansion, which was converted to a detention center. Fuhr and his family were not released until 1947. 

17:20Copy video clip URL Another detention center, Fort Sheridan, was the administrative center for prisoners of war, supplies Zukowsky. Gibby Vartan, a child during the war, talks about his encounters with both German and Japanese people who were detained. His encounters with the two groups were noticeably different and colored by racist attitudes toward Japanese Americans at the time. Zukowsky mentions other smaller camps around Chicago: Camp Skokie Valley, Camp Thornton, Camp Pine, and Camp Grant.

18:24Copy video clip URL Lindberg brings up Herbert Hans Haupt, a German saboteur who was captured by the FBI and executed despite committing very little actual sabotage.

19:40Copy video clip URL Kurtis briefly goes over anti-Italian sentiment in the US, contrasting it with the relatively more severe Japanese sentiment. Jean Mishima, born in California and forced into internment as a child, recounts her experience. “My parents lost everything. Our identification number was 43055, and I was 43055C. The camps were billed like army barracks. There was absolutely no privacy. I don’t think I realized what was really happening.” Kurtis explains that Mishima and her family were relocated to Chicago, and Ryan Yakota of the Japanese American Service Committee lays out issues faced by Japanese Americans in Chicago. Mishima elaborates on her family’s experiences in Chicago and the lasting effects of their internment.

22:23Copy video clip URL The documentary focus returns to the war effort. Toby Mack, from the Chicago Navy Memorial, provides a perspective on the ways the federal government raised money, particularly war bonds, to help the country recover from lingering effects of the Great Depression. Mack explains the role Navy Pier played in the war bond effort.

24:20Copy video clip URL Kris Habermehl, an aviation journalist, comments on the production that war bonds generated, as do Beverly Dawson, author of Glenview Naval Air Station and Toby Mack. Many women, points out Kurtis, worked on the industrial side of the war effort. A propaganda film encouraging women to join the workforce plays. Joy Bivins comments on how World War II changed the working landscape for women.

26:41Copy video clip URL At the Prarie Shipyard, workers build LSTs (Landing Ship Tank), ships that bring troops, tanks, and other equipment to beaches to support invasions. Habermehl charts the route these ships took, through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and into the war. 

27:38Copy video clip URL Kurtis speaks on the Pullman Car Company’s role in the war. Valerie Van Heest, author and diver, talks about companies in the Chicago area, such as the Henry Grevian Company, that contributed to the war effort. Mack explains a type of ship made in Chicago: mine sweepers.

28:26Copy video clip URL Chicagoans make torpedoes to destroy enemy ships. Old footage and Habermehl discuss the conversion of a Chicago can company into a torpedo production hub. Dr. Joseph Troiani, US Navy, Ret., talks about the explosive potential of Torpex (torpedo explosive). At the Dodge Chicago plant, the world’s largest building at the time, 35,000 employees created B-29 engines. Beverly Dawson points out that these engines powered the planes that would eventually carry the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

30:46Copy video clip URL Other factories in the Chicago area make food, coffee, military electronics, military caskets, gas cans, grenades, and other items for the war. Perry Duis talks about the dirtier side of corporate involvement, and Kurtis chimes in on the exploitation of child labor in Illinois, with children working in factories and in scrap drives. Marty Robinson, a Chicago broadcaster, talks about his own experience collecting scrap.

33:50Copy video clip URL Footage plays of Chicago’s blackout drills as Marty Robinson recounts his experience with them.

34:22Copy video clip URL Kurtis and Robinson go over the large number of Chicagoans that served in the military. “In almost every window was a white flag,” says Robinson. “A banner with gold trim around the outside and stars in the middle of it. Blue stars for someone who was serving, a gold star for someone who had been killed in the war. Some houses had three and four stars in them. everyone had someone who was involved in the war.” A number of speakers for the documentary share their own stories with grief and fear at the time of the war.

36:18Copy video clip URL Kurtis turns the topic of the documentary to rationing in the States and the stamp system. Stephan Benzkofer, contributor to the Chicago Tribune, shares details about what was rationed, such as sugar, gas, and shoes. Lindberg describes how many worried that the system was influenced by government corruption as Kurtis talks about the growth of “Victory Gardens.”

38:45Copy video clip URL Kurtis discusses sports and other forms of entertainment that served as a respite for Chicagoans during the war. John Schulian, a sports writer, talks about the ways the war affected professional baseball teams and the growth of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Schulian also touches on the Chicago Bears at the time while Chuck Schaden, a radio historian, talks about the work of radio in bringing the country together through entertainment. “Chicago radio was heard coast to coast.” Marty Robinson chimes in with his own memories of listening to Chicago radio as a kid, including programs like Jack Armstrong and Captain Midnight.

42:23Copy video clip URL The documentary covers the work Mayor Kelly did to keep service men and women entertained and taken care of. Mack explains how a large portion of the Chicago lakefront was turned into a servicemen’s club. Lindberg talks about the prevalence of both prostitution and gambling run by Chicago’s organized crime. 

44:26Copy video clip URL Kurtis introduces the topic of carrier pilots who trained on Lake Michigan, where they trained with the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable and at various naval training centers such as the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Kurtis explains how the center was segregated at the time. However, at the same time that the center was segregated, the Golden Thirteen at Great Lakes were the first Black commission naval officers in the US Navy History, points out Jeffrey Gray. 

46:34Copy video clip URL Valerie Van Heest covers steel production and distribution in Chicago.

47:20Copy video clip URL A tour guide walks a group past a sculpture at the University of Chicago marking the site of the first self-sustained nuclear reaction. “Almost hate to mention it. University of Chicago could be the birthplace of the end of everything. The start of the nuclear age,” says Tim Samuelson. Kurtis and Professor Roger Hildebrand, a participant in the Manhattan Project, describe the start of the Manhattan Project and University of Chicago’s involvement in it. Professor Peter Vandervoot from the University of Chicago talks about the university’s specific goal: to create a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Samuelson provides a short biography of Enrico Fermi, the leader of the University of Chicago section of the Manhattan Project. Vandervoot goes over the specific locations in the University used for project research, including the “metallurgical laboratory,” a cover for uranium research. Samuelson also comments on the secrecy of the project. Kurtis explains the experimentation process and its success. Hildebrand mentions the “suicide squad” assigned to dump cadmium solution over the pile in case of an emergency. 

50:56Copy video clip URL In covering the end of the war, Kurtis goes over Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s enforcement of Japan’s surrender. Citizens of Chicago at the time talk about the city’s reactions to the war ending. As the documentary covers the mixed results of the war ending, Joy Bivins discusses the different reactions women had to moving back into more traditional family life rather than working themselves. Perry Duis explains how the city never actually experienced a state of post-war depression. Gibby Vartan, Brigadier General USAF, Ret., speaks on manufacturing after the war. Mary Pat Kelly gives an overview of Mayor Kelly’s influence in the war. Kurtis points out the differences between WWII and modern wars.

55:20Copy video clip URL Credits. Kurtis closes out the documentary. 



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