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Pearl Harbor attack sparked Philadelphia-area industrial boom

It was the Day of Infamy, a day that altered the destiny of the United States and the world, and in John T. Meli's memory, it also was a day that doomed a neighborhood tradition in Chester City - the street football game.

At Sun Shipbuilding's "Negro Yard" in 1943, workers who helped build the SS Marine Eagle. (Philadelphia Record Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
At Sun Shipbuilding's "Negro Yard" in 1943, workers who helped build the SS Marine Eagle. (Philadelphia Record Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania)Read more

It was the Day of Infamy, a day that altered the destiny of the United States and the world, and in John T. Meli's memory, it also was a day that doomed a neighborhood tradition in Chester City - the street football game.

That's because after Dec. 7, 1941, some once-sleepy streets filled up with traffic.

When Japanese bombers attacked the remote military installation known as Pearl Harbor, the entire Philadelphia region was drafted into the war effort.

The attack set off what one expert called the most intense period of industrial expansion in world history. The banks of the Delaware River were at the epicenter, and on the 69th anniversary of the raids that claimed 3,500 lives, the aftereffects of Pearl Harbor are still rippling.

"This was a terrifically important industrial corridor, from Delaware to Trenton," says Howard Gillette, a history professor at Rutgers University-Camden.

"People won't believe it when you tell them," says Delores Shelton, 77, of Chester. "This whole area was the hearts and guts of the war."

Shelton's father and two uncles worked at Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., now the site of Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack.

She adds almost incidentally that as African Americans, they were assigned to a segregated yard. After Pearl Harbor, she says, everyone was too busy to waste time on hate.

Her relatives were part of a stunning growth in a workforce that peaked at 35,633 - an 18-fold increase over prewar levels, according to Dave Kavanagh, a shipyard veteran who grew up in Sun Village in Chester and now runs the Sun Ship Historical Society.

That number about equals Chester's entire population today.

Across the river, Camden matched Chester job for job. New York Shipbuilding Corp. employed about 35,000, according to the Camden County Historical Society.

Along with sending soldiers and sailors to the battlefronts, the region involved itself in the war effort in almost every way. In Chester alone, industrial employment tripled between 1939 to 1943, says Meli, a management professor emeritus at Widener University.

Shelton and her husband, John, recall the pride they felt when they visited Pearl Harbor 10 years ago and saw the anchor of the USS Arizona, sunk on Dec. 7, 1941. It was made in Chester by Baldt Anchor & Chain.

Philadelphia's Frankford Arsenal made bullets; Midvale Steel, armor plates; Westinghouse, in Lester, ship engines. Budd Co., a peacetime maker of auto bodies and fenders, churned out aircraft manifolds, bombs, and bazookas.

When his family moved to 834 W. Second St. in Chester in late 1941, John Shelton recalls, there was a parking lot full of shiny new cars at the city's Ford Motor Co. plant.

The family had migrated from Plains, Ga. - his aunt was President Jimmy Carter's nanny. They had not yet adjusted to the Pennsylvania chill when they heard the frightful news of the attack on the same Philco radio that kept them updated daily on the tribulations of Blondie and Dagwood.

The Ford plant soon began making jeeps and trucks.

The region was well-primed for wartime production, having experienced a World War I boom. Even before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. economy was rallying, thanks to tremendous export demand, particularly from Britain, already engulfed in the war.

"We were two years into a recovery that was pretty strong," says Philip Scranton, a Rutgers historian. "What Pearl Harbor did was to open a huge multiple-front conflict that we had to fund economically and build industrially.

"For three years, the government ran the economy."

Kavanagh remembers a symptom of the government's involvement: Sun Ship had to start issuing checks instead of paying workers in cash. He says a 1942 issue of Our Yard, the company magazine, offered a primer on how to sign a check.

A top government priority was shipbuilding, says Christopher J. Tassava, an industrial historian at Carleton College in Minnesota. Not only warships, but all the planes, tanks, supplies, and munitions would be useless without means of transport.

On San Francisco Bay, for example, the small city of Richmond became a mega-shipbuilding hub of 120,000, says Tassava. The growth was so sudden and local labor so scarce that women were recruited for blue-collar jobs. Today, a park in Richmond is named for Rosie the Riveter.

The Philadelphia region had skilled labor on hand, but desperately needed more.

From 1942 to 1945, Sun Ship launched 247 cargo ships and tankers, prompting incredible demands for hired help. The shipyard whistle that told the workers when to show up, eat lunch, and go home governed the day-to-day rhythms of the town.

Meli, who grew up near Chester High School, was 9 in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, he says, the neighborhood was never the same.

"You had a lot of people coming from different parts of the state and outside the state," he says. "You started seeing different kinds of people. There was a bustle."

Pedestrian and auto traffic escalated, putting the kibosh on the tag-football games Meli and his friends used to play in the streets.

Housing was at a premium, setting off a frenzy of construction. Families such as the Sheltons and the Melis took in boarders.

The manufacturing jobs were lucrative. Delores Shelton's father got a big raise when he left his janitor's job at the Delaware County National Bank to become a Sun Ship welder. He was able to afford a house on Providence Avenue.

The postwar years were less kind to the likes of Camden and Chester. Meli says demands for production and housing meant deferred maintenance for factories and residential buildings. That hastened deterioration once the boom ended. The air came out of the gritty industrial towns.

Many residents who had saved money during the war now opted for the new houses springing up in the more-attractive suburbs.

With the decline in jobs, too, came an increase in racial and ethnic tensions.

The natives didn't always embrace the newcomers. "Many new migrants were not liked," Tassava says. The locals "expected them to go back home."

John Shelton says blacks knew they were more needed than welcome in Chester, and not just at the shipyard.

"Racial issues were everywhere," he says, "on every job."

Gone, along with the "bustle," was the sense of common purpose that had begun with Pearl Harbor.

Still, when it came time to celebrate the victories over Germany and Japan, and the cadets at the Pennsylvania Military College set off their fireworks, race didn't matter, Delores Shelton remembers.

"Even though it was a segregated city," she says, "on those occasions we were all together."

If You Go

A Pearl Harbor memorial wreath ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday aboard the Battleship New Jersey, built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, launched on Dec. 7, 1942, and now docked on the Delaware River in Camden. The ceremony is free and open to the public. For information, call 856-966-1652.