The American Home Front During World War II: A Date That Will Live in Infamy

Envelope with an illustration showing a V-shaped formation of airplanes flying towards a target. Target is identified by an arrow, “To Tokio.” Image is in blue; text is in red.
“Let this be America’s Answer.” Postal cover, 1942.

Collection of the National Postal Museum (2002.2035.234).

On December 7, 1941 Japan executed a coordinated, multi-pronged attack on the US home front. Within a few hours, they attacked Hawai’i, Guam, Howland Island, Midway Island, Wake Island, and the Philippines. These were not just military targets. They also hit sugar mills and the Honolulu airport in Hawai’i; the Pan Am Hotels in Guam and on Wake Island; and the settlement on Howland Island.[1] Hundreds of civilians perished that day, some as young as 3 months old. Among the dead were two of the colonists on Howland Island, doomed when the US refused to pick them up earlier in the year.

Repelled by American forces in many of these locations, Japan quickly took control of Guam, the Philippines, and Wake Island. Civilians on these islands suffered greatly under Japanese rule. They lost their homes and family members, and were subjected to forced marches and forced labor, internment and incarceration, starvation, injury, and execution. While the US eventually retook these pieces of the American home front, the damage done by both sides was often extreme.
Black and white photo overlooking ruins of buildings. In the foreground, only a few walls are standing. In the distance, windows are blown out and there is evidence of fire. A handful of people wander the streets.
Bomb damage to the downtown section of Manila, The Philippines, Feb. 1945. While the Japanese occupation of The Philippines caused considerable damage, the bombing by the US during its recapture devastated the islands.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 204952271).

News of the attack spread quickly into American homes. The first report was broadcast by NBC radio while the attack was still under way.[2] As the Japanese were retreating from Pearl Harbor, news came that the Philippines had also been bombed. From Honolulu, a reporter called New York City and on a live feed, declared, “This is no joke. This is war!”[3] Eleanor Roosevelt learned of the attack as she was getting ready to go on-air for her very popular afternoon radio show.[4] While FDR was in intense meetings with his Cabinet, Eleanor told her listeners of the attack. She then went on to present her planned broadcast.[5] Less than three hours after the Japanese attack started, the War Department had ordered 1.5 million draftees into uniform “by tomorrow.” They also arrested all Japanese people in Norfolk, Virginia and placed the entire Territory of Hawai’i under martial law.[6]

The next day, FDR called December 7, 1941 “a date that will live in infamy.” Referencing the Japanese attacks on Hawai’i, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway Atoll, he asked Congress to declare war on Japan. With only one vote against, Congress complied.[7] Allied with Japan, Germany and Italy declared war on the US, and America was fighting a world war on multiple fronts.
Illustrative color poster. A blonde cocker spaniel dog, with a sad face, peers over the back of a blue char draped with part of a US Navy uniform. Behind, a banner with red border and gold star against a white background hangs on the wall.
“…because somebody talked!” Poster, Office of War Information, 1944. The gold star indicates a family member has died in the war. At the time, cocker spaniels were the most popular family dog in America.[13]

Collection of the Library of Congress (

A New Landscape

A lot changed after the US entered the war. Although the American people, industry, and the government had done a lot in the years before, there was still much to do. New factories were built and old ones expanded and retooled.[8] Millions of Americans moved into industrial areas for work creating localized housing shortages. Women and enemy prisoners of war filled jobs left vacant when service-age men went to war. The draft was expanded, requiring those between 18 and their 65th birthday to register, and fathers were no longer exempted.[9] African Americans began to be drafted in larger numbers than before. Between the draft and industrial expansion, unemployment dropped to 1.2% by 1944.[10]

The war effort was everywhere. Products disappeared from the market. Areas around military training facilities and ports of embarkation were dense with uniforms. Radio shows, Hollywood films, and books for all ages had Patriotic themes. Everywhere you turned, posters, the government, and celebrities were reminding you to buy war bonds; to save your scrap; to plant victory gardens; to be cautious. Decals, pins, posters and jewelry appeared, all bearing the rallying cry: “Remember Pearl Harbor!” To provide military access to settlements in Alaska, the construction of the Alaska Highway was approved and begun early in 1942.[11]

The war also reached directly into American homes. Families hung blue and gold stars in windows. The government implemented rationing. Civilians collected and donated materials needed for the war effort and they planted victory gardens, preserving the produce. Some Americans sought out illicit markets for rationed products. Many found themselves in very different working and living conditions than they were used to. Some found themselves interned and incarcerated. Others found themselves living under military rule. And some found themselves, their homes, and businesses under attack.[12]
This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: November 16, 2023