The American Home Front Before World War II: The Greater United States

Black and white photo of a large mountain of guano being mined by Chinese workers. Several workers are dwarfed by the size of the mountain of guano. Wooden wheelbarrows wait at the base to transport the guano.
Chinese workers on the Great Heap of guano on the Chincha Islands, Peru. Photo by Alexander Gardner. Published in Rays of Sunlight from South America, Philp & Solomons, Washington, DC, 1865, page 277.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

To understand the geography of the American home front in World War II, we need to go back as far as the middle of the 1800s. This overview is chronological, and focuses on those places where civilians were impacted by World War II. It excludes several uninhabited places and locations solely of military bases. In 1940, almost 19 million people – 12.2% of the US population -- lived in these US jurisdictions.[1]

The Guano Islands

In the early 1800s, farmers around the world were looking for ways to improve agricultural production. They were particularly interested in quick and economical ways to replenish soil quality. One method was to use guano – bird droppings – found in tropical areas where birds congregated. [2] By the 1840s, a very lucrative international guano trade had been established. High demand and limited supply drove prices up. The result was that individuals, companies, and nations scoured the globe for sources. [3]

In 1856, the United States government passed the Guano Islands Act. It allowed Americans to claim territory with guano deposits on behalf of the US government. Almost 100 islands were claimed, and several were still part of the Greater United States when World War II broke out. [4] In the Pacific, these included Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, and Midway Atoll. After conflict with Britain about claims of Canton Island, the two countries agreed to a “condominium agreement” where the island was shared.[5] All of these islands and atolls remained uninhabited until the early 1900s. By 1903, the Commercial Pacific Company had built a telegraph station on Midway Atoll. With an average of 24 staff plus the Superintendent’s family, it was a key piece of the communications network connecting San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines via Hawai’i, Midway, and Guam. On July 4, 1903 the first round-the-world cable message traveled through the Midway cable offices, circumnavigating the globe in under 10 minutes. The cable station on Midway Atoll included imported soil and trees, the cable office, and living quarters for the operators who lived and worked there.[6]

Baker Island, Howland Island, and Jarvis Island were populated in the 1930s as part of the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project with three to four residents each. As part of the same project, seven Americans settled on Canton Island.[7] Dozens of Pan American Airways staff also lived on Midway and Canton beginning in the 1930s as the airline built bases to support trans-pacific air flights.
Black and white photo of the cable station, including four 2-story buildings with dark roofs, and what looks like a bungalow. Two towers with what look like water tanks and windmills are in the foreground. Low scrub and sand surround the buildings.
View of the Commercial Pacific Company cable station on Midway Atoll, ca. 1915.

Collection of the Digital Archives of Hawai’i (PP-45-7-001).

Territory of Alaska

In 1867, United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million (roughly $149 million in 2023). This put Alaska Native and other residents under American control. Alaska became an official territory of the US in 1912, and a state in 1959. In 1940, just over 72,500 people lived in Alaska.[8]

Territory of Hawai’i

The Kingdom of Hawai’i was overthrown in 1893 by foreign landholders supported by the US Marines. They removed Queen Liliuokalani from power and imprisoned her in her palace. Against the wishes of many Native Hawaiians, Hawai’i became a territory of the United States in August, 1898. In 1940, just over 423,300 people lived in Hawai’i.[9]

Black and white photo from a newspaper. Taken from the street, there are several people and carts in front of the Taisho Bazar building. The second floor has a large YMCA sign.
Taisho Bazar, a Japanese-run shopping mall located in the YMCA building, Cebu, Philippines, ca. 1930s-1940s. There were many Japanese families and businesses in the Philippines, as well as American institutions, prior to World War II.


Guam, The Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Wake Island

At the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States took control of several former Spanish colonies. These included the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. In 1899, the United States annexed Wake Island as a possible refueling and communications station between its new Pacific territories (Hawai’i, the Philippines, and Guam). In 1940, approximately 22,300 people lived on Guam; just over 16 million in the Philippines; and just under 1.9 million people lived in Puerto Rico. Dozens of Pan American Airways staff also lived on Wake Island beginning in the 1930s as the airline built bases to support trans-pacific air flights. [10]

American Samoa

Samoa was an independent country when it became a center for trade and refueling in the Pacific in the 1850s. In the 1800s, Samoans disagreed about which family should rule. This conflict erupted in civil war in the 1880s and 1890s, and the US, Britain, and Germany took sides according to their own interests. They sent warships and troops, escalating the conflict. In December of 1899, these foreign powers signed an agreement that ended the war and divided Samoa. The eastern islands became part of the United States (American Samoa); the western islands went to Germany (now the independent nation of Samoa). In 1940, approximately 12,900 people lived on American Samoa.[11]
An unused envelope with a cachet (design) on the left side showing a map of the Americas. At the location of the Panama Canal, the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (represented by women with flowing hair) meet.
Panama Canal Zone first day cover, 1939. Designed by Walter Garfield Crosby. This first day cover commemorates the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal.

Collection of the Estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt, National Archives and Records Administration (MO 1953.424).

Panama Canal Zone

Before the Panama Canal was built, ships moving between the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans had to navigate the dangerous currents at the southern tip of South America. Among the countries looking to build a canal was the United States. When Panama became independent from Colombia (with the help of the United States), the new government gave the US the go-ahead to build the canal. In exchange for a one-time $10 million payment (approximately $343 million in 2023) and annual leasing fees from the Americans, the US received control of the canal and 5 miles on either side. This area was known as the Panama Canal Zone. Construction of the canal began in 1904 and in August 1914, the canal opened to commercial traffic. The population of the Panama Canal Zone in 1940 was just over 51,800. [12]

U.S. Virgin Islands

When World War I began, the American government was worried that enemies would use the Dutch West Indies to launch attacks against Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone. So, the United States approached Denmark about acquiring the islands (this had been an on-again/off-again conversation since the 1860s).[13] In 1917, just days before the US entered World War I, it took possession of the US Virgin Islands for a payment of $25 million (about $596 million in 2023). In 1940, there were just under 25,000 people living in the US Virgin Islands.[14]

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.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023