1940-1974

The War Hits Home

The Second World War ended Ann Arbor's existence as a quiet college town. By 1940 Ann Arbor had a population of 30,000 and contained a University of 12,000 students, the great majority of whom were enrolled in the traditional humanities and arts. Even so, potential for change in the University's orientation from an undergraduate institution to a training center for twentieth-century experts in the hard sciences was being tentatively explored. The war would make demands on the city's industries that would eventually make Ann Arbor a center of space-age technology.

Initially, a few vestiges of the old remained. There were no traffic fatalities in the city during 1939 and the municipal parking lots provided the following year were among the first in Michigan outside Detroit. In addition to a small, but vigorous, parochial school system, Tappan and Slauson Junior High Schools graduated between eighty and ninety students each into the city's one high school at State and Huron streets adjacent to the University campus.

Ann Arbor was still a place where these youngsters might, during the summer months, string up an old tire over the Huron River. Yet that same beguiling sunshine contained a quiet terror. The winter March of Dimes campaign provided care for those sure to contract infantile paralysis when the warm weather came. Every summer between 1940 and 1955, the Ann Arbor News daily carried a doleful litany of those stricken.

Movie theaters in the campus area provided entertainment for the college students as well as the younger Ann Arbor residents. But there was little to alarm the conscientious parent in "Sewanee River" with Don Ameche and Al Jolson, or "Typhoon" ("a tornado of tropic romance") with Dorothy Lamour. A major social event of the year was the annual flower show held in Yost Field House every June. Great rows of windows let filtered sunshine in on a thousand varieties of garden and tropical flowers.

This summer, however, was different. By May, news of the German offensive into Belgium occupied an unusually prominent place on page one. Everyone knew what University President Alexander G. Ruthven meant when in accepting the gift of a solar telescope to the University he deplored the use of science to support warfare. The undertow began even before the United States entered the war in December 1941. Local doctors were called into the Red Cross. Rumors of fifth column activity right here in Ann Arbor appeared. Soon after Pearl Harbor casualty lists and Ration Guides were a permanent feature of the newspaper.

The war blunted the edges of life in Ann Arbor. Bright moments were all too few. Some of the best, however, were provided by Tom Harmon. "Old 98" gave everyone Tom Harmon something to cheer about on Saturday afternoon. But during the week spectators became producers for the war effort. King-Seeley, Economy Baler, Precision Parts, Fram Corporation, and Argus turned out the city's contribution. Everyone did what he could. The local Boy Scouts ran a paper collection drive. Each scout or cub who personally collected over 1,000 pounds received a ribbon decoration with an attached Eisenhower medal, inscribed "for extraordinary patriotic achievement." Despite massive citizen participation in the war effort, need for labor remained high. By 1945 the classified section of the News carried an unprecedented four and one-half columns of help wanted ads. Curiously enough, the wonder drug penicillin became available locally in 1945, while at the same time tobacco users had to wait an hour in line at Cunningham Drugs to buy a pack of cigarettes.

The war slowed and obscured Ann Arbor's growth. But change did take place. Three events foreshadowed the immediate future. On March 9, 1945, the ribbon cutting ceremony was held for the newly completed multi-lane industrial highway from Michigan and Wyoming avenues in Detroit to the Willow Run bomber plant. Charles Ziegler, state highway commissioner, predicted that someday high-speed expressways would link the heart of Detroit with both the Thumb area and cities west of Wayne County. A month later, a city committee, anticipating the charter revision of 1956 which gave Ann Arbor a professional city manager, recommended that a finance director be appointed to attend full-time to the city's burgeoning accounting and budget needs. On August 21 Mayor William E. Brown authorized the use of parking meters in city parking lots.

In the halcyon days of mid-August 1945, these considerations were momentarily forgotton. The war was over; crowds danced in the streets. The Ann Arbor News headline for August 13 said it all: "Printing of Ration Books Halted." The war was already becoming legend. The State Theater offered John Wayne in "Back to Bataan."

That fall everyone's attention turned to the anticipated expansion of the city's population. The mayor predicted a housing shortage unless the city limits were increased, and to make annexations easier supported an amendment to the water and sewage ordinances. A year later he became a successful prophet. The University of Michigan in 1945 had 11,800 students; the number enrolled the following academic year was 19,000.