The American Home Front During World War II: Enemies on the Home Front

Color illustration of a white man in a suit and wearing a Civil Defense helmet and armband holding a worried-looking white child. Behind them are suggestions of flames and a representation of the sign that V Homes can display.
“Let ‘em come.. V Homes are Ready! Make Yours a V Home Now!” Billboard sign, Office of War Information, ca. 1942-1945.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514856).

Black and white newspaper photo. In the foreground, a soldier holds a piece of metal wreckage. Above him, another soldier inspects damage to a walkway that has had a hole blown through it.
Some of the damage done by the Japanese submarine raid at Ellwood oil field, California. Kitsap Sun, February 23, 1942.

Kitsap Sun (1942) “Some of Damage Wrought by Sub Raid on Coast.” Kitsap Sun (Bremerton, Washington), February 25, 1942, p. 1.

The attacks of December 7, 1941 that began at Pearl Harbor were not the only targets of America's enemies. By the time World War II was over, Japanese forces had attacked the US mainland and almost all American territories in the Pacific. Some of these places of the Greater United States fell under enemy occupation. [1] In the Atlantic, German U-boats targeted cargo ships. Germany, Japan, and Russia all had operatives and spies living and working across the country. They planned sabotage missions and sent sensitive information to America’s enemies. Even England had spies posted in the US. Across the Greater US, Civilian Defense volunteers learned to identify planes by sight and sound, worked to enforce blackout mandates, and took first aid courses. Elsewhere, American civilians lost their homes and their lives.[2]

Enemy Attacks

Once the US formally entered the war, Germany sent U-boats into American waters. They targeted merchant cargo vessels up and down the East Coast and in the Caribbean. Their goal was to cut Europe off from American supplies, and to cut American industry off from needed materials. Within eight months, the Germans had sunk hundreds of merchant ships and disrupted the transportation of millions of tons of raw materials, fuel, and supplies. Afraid of losing vessels, the US stopped shipping food, supplies, and fuel to Puerto Rico. The US also stopped importing Puerto Rican products like rum. This hobbled the economy of the island. Afraid of losing tourist business, several coastal cities on the US mainland chose not to enforce blackout orders. The result: U-boat crews had no problem seeing and sinking cargo vessels silhouetted against the city lights. [3] They sank several ships close enough to shore that beachgoers were witnesses. In 1942, when the US began protecting cargo ships with military convoys, attacks by U-boats virtually stopped.

In the Pacific, Japanese forces repeatedly attacked (and in some cases occupied) the Greater American home front. Planes and submarines reached as far west as the Philippines and attacked Fort Stevens in Oregon and the Ellwood oil field in Goleta near Santa Barbara, California. Dutch Harbor in Alaska was bombed, and Japanese forces invaded the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska. The Japanese also targeted forests in Oregon. The goal was to cause panic, destroy needed lumber, and divert labor from production to fire fighting. Attacks on Hawai’i continued into March 1942, including a second attack on Pearl Harbor. Civilian targets included areas on Maui, Kaua’i, and the Big Island. [4] Elsewhere in the Pacific, Japanese vessels destroyed the settlements on Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Islands in 1941. Two of the colonists (part of the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project) were killed during the attack on Howland Island.[5] When Japan attacked the Naval station on American Samoa in January of 1942, several shells hit residential homes and businesses. [6]
A color photograph looking up a small rise of grasses at the façade of Battery Russel. It is a grey, boxy structure built of concrete. No windows or doors exist anymore. The sky above is bright blue with wisps of cloud.
Battery Russell at Fort Stevens, Oregon. Photo by Allan Hutchinson-Maxwell, 2023.

Allan Hutchinson-Maxwell, used with permission.

In 1941 and 1942, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, and parts of Alaska were captured by Japanese forces. Civilians on Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines who survived the conquering battles were subject to terrible conditions under Japanese occupation. This included forced labor, eviction from their homes, family separation, starvation, imprisonment, torture, and execution. Homes, businesses, and infrastructure were damaged and destroyed.[7] Additional damage and death happened as American forces fought to retake these territories.[8]

And then there were the balloons. Late in the war, from November 1944 to April 1945 Japan launched over 9,000 balloons called Fu-Go. They carried anti-personnel and fire bombs into the recently-discovered Pacific jet stream. Their goal was to reach North America and cause damage. [9] About 300 of the balloons made the trip into the Greater United States, reaching as far east as Michigan. This was the first intercontinental weapon in modern times. Fu-Go balloons resulted in forest fires and temporarily cut power to the Manhattan Project. One also caused the death of six Americans in Oregon when they found it during a picnic outing. [10]

Black and white drawings of an assembled FuGo balloon and its parts. They include the bomb, battery, release mechanism, and others.
Parts of a FuGo balloon, ca. 1945.[19]

From the Japanese World War II Balloon Bombs Collection, National Air and Space Museum Archives (NASM-NASM.XXXX.0558-M0000012-00250).

Covert Operatives

Germany, Japan, Russia, and Britain all had spies working across the Greater United States leading up to and during World War II. An expanded network of spies in Latin America included those for Spain, who, though technically neutral, sided with Germany.[11]

German U-boats brought at least 10 German operatives to America. In June 1942, submarines landed four spies each on beaches in New York and Florida. Armed with money and explosives, their job was to sabotage military production and cause fear. In 1944, U-boats landed two spies on a beach in Maine. The operatives had made their way to New York City and Chicago to carry out their plans by the time the FBI captured them. Some occupants of German U-Boats captured or killed were also probably spies on their way to being deployed. [12]

Not all German spies arrived by submarine. Many had been living and working in the United States for years and several were naturalized citizens. Some were working aboard the SS America as it traversed the Panama Canal Zone, collecting information and recruiting accomplices. The FBI broke up at least four German spy rings between 1938 and 1942, arresting and charging 51 spies (men and women). Some were recruited to work for the US as double agents.[13]
Black and white photo of a storefront. The awning reads “Velvalee Dickinson.” In the window are several dolls and accessories.
Doll shop in New York City that Velvalee Dickinson used as a front for her spying on behalf of Japan during World War II. FBI Photo.

Collections of the FBI.

Spies for Japan, some of whom were American citizens, included several in Hawai’i, the Philippines, and a doll seller in New York City. Even early on during the buildup to World War II, Japanese operatives were working in the US, including former Navy Yeoman First Class Harry T. Thompson and former Navy Lieutenant Commander John S. Farnsworth. Much closer to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Takeo Yoshikawa was using his cover at Japan’s foreign ministry on Oahu to report on naval deployments, arrivals, and departures. He worked with a small team of trusted drivers and with the knowledge of his superiors at the foreign ministry. One of his chosen observation points was at the Pan American Clipper landing at Pearl City. Yoshikawa also worked with a Nazi spy stationed in Hawai’i. Authorities arrested and convicted the German spy. Yoshikawa was well on his way to Japan as part of a diplomatic exchange before authorities discovered his role.

Not all those spying for Japan were of Japanese ancestry. Authorities charged at least 18 white people and convicted at least 10 of them. While no person of Japanese ancestry living in the US was convicted of any serious act of espionage or sabotage during World War II, 18 white people were convicted as Japanese operatives. Among those 10 was Velvalee Dickinson. By coding ship and troop movements as repairs to dolls in a series of letters, she conveyed critical information to the Japanese and contacts in Argentina.[14]

Black and white phot of a room full of desks with mostly white women seated at them, working. There is at least one man present.
US Army Signals Intelligence Service cryptologists working at Arlington Hall, Virginia, ca. 1943. Employed as a linguist advisor, Soviet spy William Weisband, Sr. infiltrated the “Russian Section” at Arlington Hall. The US only found out he was a spy in 1950.

Collections of the US Army Archives.

Before the United States entered World War II, Russia and Germany had been uneasy allies. But in June 1941, Germany invaded Russia.[15] With a common enemy, Russia became part of the Allied forces. Even so, several Russian spies were operating in the US during World War II, including as many as five spy rings.[16] Many operatives were serving in the US military or working for the federal government, including as part of the Manhattan Project and those developing jet fighters and other military technology. Among them were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Although their guilt remains contested, they were executed at Sing Sing prison in New York in 1953 for sharing atomic secrets with the Russians. Morris and Lona Cohen, who got full plans of the atomic bomb to the Russians 12 days before the Trinity Test, escaped the US before capture. They were eventually arrested in Britain, but spent the rest of their lives in Russia as part of a prisoner exchange.[17]

British intelligence operatives, unlike the others, were here with the grudging blessing of the US government. They also worked behind the government’s back to encourage the US to enter the war. Through the British intelligence outpost in New York City, Winston Churchill worked to convince the United States to enter the war. At the same time, FBI agents were receiving training in espionage and counter-espionage from the British.[18]

Attacks on the Greater United States home front and the presence of German, Japanese, and Russian spies led to reactions fueled by fear and national security.
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