Arizona during World War II

Arizona during World War II

Location Arizona, United States
Date 19401945
Casualties ~2,349
Events The Machita Incident
October 16, 1940
The Phoenix Massacre
November 27, 1942
The Great Papago Escape
December 23, 1944

The history of Arizona during World War II begins in 1940, when the United States government began constructing military bases within the state in preparation for war. Although far removed from the frontlines in Europe and the Pacific, Arizona's contribution to the Allied war effort was significant. Multiple prisoner of war camps and Japanese internment camps were established across the state, as well as several new airbases and associated sites, resulting in the birth of Arizona's aviation and manufacturing industries at the end of the Depression-era. The population of the state also experienced a major increase; many veterans returned to Arizona after the war ended in 1945, laying the foundations for the large metropolises of Phoenix and Tucson.[1][2][3]


Economics and population growth

Before World War II, Arizona's main source of income was generated by the "Five C" industries – cattle, cotton, copper, citrus, and climate – which flourished after the beginning of the 20th century and the World War I-era. However, the collapse of the Stock Market in 1929 and the ensuing depression eventually put the state into a period of decline. According to James E. Sherman, the beginning of the Depression-era created a whole new string of ghost towns in Arizona as people left to find opportunity elsewhere. The situation went mostly unchanged up until the beginning of the war in 1939.[1][4]

Once it seemed as though intervention in Europe was inevitable, the federal government authorized the military to build new bases in Arizona, which would be used mainly for training purposes. With the "overnight" construction of airfields and other war-related infrastructure, Arizona's economy began to shift away from the "Five 'C's" to a modern, aviation-driven, manufacturing and technology-based economy. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the benefits of participating in the war actively added to the already recovering economy. Although the cattle, cotton, and copper industries began to bustle once again, manufacturing eventually took over. In 1940 the gross income for manufacturing was $17 million. By 1945 the number had grown to $85 million and by the 1960s manufacturing had become the state's number one income-producing industry.[1]

The population of Arizona, particularly in Phoenix, swelled as result of the war and it was the new military installations and associated manufacturers that provided the impetus for the growth. Many veterans who were stationed in Arizona during the war returned after the fighting was over, having found it to be a good place to find work and raise a family. In 1940, the population of Arizona was less than 500,000, but by 1950 it had grown to 750,000. The population of Phoenix in 1940 was 65,000. By 1960 it had become the largest city in the Southwest with a population of 439,000.[1][5]

Military bases

Major airfields in Arizona during World War II.

Construction of military bases in Arizona was undertaken for several reasons. The state's warm weather, clear skies, large amounts of unoccupied land, good railroads, cheap labor, low taxes, and its proximity to California, made it attractive to both the military and private manufacturers. In August 1940, the government announced its intention to turn Tucson's airport, Davis-Monthan, into a major airbase. Within the next few months, the base was expanded from 300 acres to 1,600 so as to accommodate 3,000 personnel and the largest of the Air Corps' bombers. Consolidated Aircraft established a plant at Tucson Municipal Airport to modify bombers flying in from San Diego, Fort Worth, and Detroit. Two other bases were also built nearby: Ryan Field, located west of Tucson, and the Marana Field, located north of Tucson, near the town of Marana.[1][6]

In February 1941, the city of Phoenix purchased 1,440 acres of land for $40,000 and then leased it to the federal government for $1 a year. In March, Del Webb Construction began building what would become the largest fighter-training base in the world. Luke Field, which was named after Arizona's World War I ace, Frank Luke, cost $4.5 million and was used mainly for advanced flight training. Soon after, the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation established a large plant west of Phoenix to build parts for combat aircraft while the Garrett Corporation built the AiResearch plant inside Phoenix's Sky Harbor to make parts for the B-17 bomber. Other manufacturers eventually set up shop as well, including the Allison Steel Company and Alcoa.[1]

Thunderbird Field No. 1 was another important airbase in Arizona during the war. Built by Southwest Airways to resemble an Anasazi Thunderbird from the air, the project cost $500,000 and was completed over a five-week period between January and February 1941. By the war's end in 1945, more than 10,000 American, British, and Chinese pilots had trained there. The base also shares a unique connection with Hollywood. In 1942, it was used for the making of the war film Thunder Birds, starring Preston Foster and Gene Tierney. Furthermore, many of the investors who helped finance the construction of the base were famous actors, such as James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda.[1][7]

Several other installations were built as well, including Mesa's Williams Field, Scottsdale's Thunderbird Field No. 2, and the large Desert Training Center in western Arizona. Fort Huachuca, Arizona's only major army base, was reinforced by over 10,000 men between the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942. In the small town of Bellemont, near Flagstaff, the army built the $30 million Navajo Ordnance Depot, which required 8,000 workers to build and 2,000 employees upon completion. Many of the staff were Native Americans.[1]

Internment camps

A painting of the Poston War Relocation Center by Tom Tanaka, who was interned there. It was painted on a piece of a cardboard box and says "Poston Arizona May 17, 1942."

On March 18, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which created the War Relocation Authority for the internment of Japanese-Americans. Most of the internees were from the West Coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington, and they were sent to a series of ten camps distributed across the country. Two of the largest camps were located in southern Arizona.[8]

The first of the camps was the Poston War Relocation Center, which was built within the Colorado River Indian Reservation, near the town of Poston, in early 1942. The second, the Gila River War Relocation Center, was built shortly thereafter and located in the Gila River Indian Reservation, near the town of Rivers. Both eventually blossomed into the third and fourth largest cities in Arizona during the war with populations of 18,000 and 13,000, respectively. The Gila River Center was considered to be one of the "most relaxed" out of all ten camps, being that many of the administrators were sympathetic for the internees. However, the desert heat and dangerous wildlife – rattlesnakes and scorpions – was a considerable discomfort during the long summers.[8][9]

The engineers who built the camps typically designed them in "block arrangements," with each block containing fourteen barracks, one mess hall, one recreation hall, one ironing room, one laundry room, and male and female latrines. Other structures included warehouses for food, workshops for vehicles and equipment, administration centers, schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices, and canteens. Empty lots were used by children and the athletic as baseball fields. Adults found work in the large vegetable fields outside of the Gila River Center or in the manufacture of war-related goods, such as camouflage nets and model ships for training purposes. A system was also created for raising livestock like cattle, chickens, and hogs. Many adult males were drafted into the military or voluntarily joined. Excluding draftees, 487 men from the Gila River Center volunteered to join the United States Army, twenty-three of whom were killed overseas.[8][9]

Prisoner of war camps

With America's entry into World War II came the construction of hundreds of prisoner of war camps for approximately 40,000 German, Italian, and Japanese men who were captured overseas. The largest of all the newly built prisons was Camp Florence, located near the town of Florence and not far from the Gila River Center. Over 13,000 prisoners made Camp Florence their home between its opening in the summer of 1943 and December 1945. The 500 acre complex featured barracks, a hospital, a bakery, a swimming pool, ball fields, and several theaters, all surrounded by the usual concertina wire and watch towers. All of the prisoners were from either Germany or Italy, many of whom had been captured during the North African Campaign. The Italians were solely enlisted men; officers were held at camps in other parts of the country. Apart from athletics, to occupy their time and earn money the prisoners could acquire a pass to work in the vegetable fields in the area. Also, those who renounced Italy's fascist government were organized into service units and shipped to military facilities throughout the United States, including Fort Lawton in Seattle, Washington.[10][11][12]

Although Camp Florence was much bigger, Camp Papago Park was the most famous, for it was the site of the largest Axis prisoner of war escape from an American facility. Located near Phoenix, Camp Papago Park had a maximum population of 3,100 and consisted of five separate compounds; four for enlisted men and one for officers. Both German and Italian prisoners were admitted at first, but by January 1944 the facility had been designated for use by the former only. The Great Papago Escape, as it is known, occurred on the night of December 23, 1944. While other prisoners were distracting the guards with a Christmas celebration, twenty-five Germans, most of whom were from the Kriegsmarine, crawled through a 178-foot tunnel they had painstakingly dug and fled into the desert.[12][13]

Several hundred soldiers, FBI agents, and Papago Indian scouts were mobilized to search for the Germans and all of them were eventually caught over the next few weeks without a single shot fired. Most knew they had very little chance of getting back to Germany and were found in Maricopa County, however, a few did attempt to make the journey to Mexico. On January 1, 1945, two unnamed prisoners were captured by Papagos less than thirty miles from the border. Soon after, Captain Lieutenants Friedrich Guggenberger and Jürgen Quaet-Faslem were captured within ten miles. One group of three men even built a collapsible boat to sail down the Gila River, but, to their disappointment, they found the river mostly dry and ended up leaving the boat behind.[12][14]

The final holdout was Captain Jürgen Wattenberg, who was captured over a month after the escape. Instead of heading south, Wattenberg and two of his subordinates, Walter Kozur and Johann Kremer, made shelter out of a cave in the mountains north of Phoenix. From there they explored the area and even dared to venture into the city. According to author Ronald H. Bailey, Kremler "pulled off the most bizarre caper of the entire escape." Every few days he would make contact with one of the German workers sent outside of the camp's perimeter and exchange places with him. The exchanged prisoner would spend the night in the cave with Captain Wattenberg while Kremer slipped back into camp. Inside, Kremer would gather food and information. To deliver the food he would either join a work detail and escape again or send it out with another worker. This continued for some time until January 22, when a surprise inspection revealed Kremer's presence in camp. Kremer must have given his captors information because on the following night Kozur was captured by three soldiers at the abandoned car used to hide the provisions. Four days later, on January 27, 1945, Wattenberg walked to Phoenix and was arrested by the police.[12]

At least some of the escapees expected severe punishment – they had heard rumors that American prisoners of war were executed by their German captors in retaliation for the bombing of Dresden – however, their only consequence was to be put on bread and water rationing for as many days as they were missing from camp. None of the American guards received serious punishment either.[12]


During the war Mexican-American community organizations were very active in patriotic efforts to support American troops abroad, and made efforts to support the war effort materially and to provide moral support for the young American men fighting the war, especially the young Mexican-American men from local communities. Some of the community projects were cooperative ventures in which members of both the Mexican-American and Anglo communities participated. Most efforts made in the Mexican-American community, however, represented localized American home front activities that were separate from the activities of the Anglo community.[15] Mexican-American women organized to assist their servicemen and the war effort. An underlying goal of the Spanish-American Mothers and Wives Association was the reinforcement of the woman's role in Spanish-Mexican culture. The organization raised thousands of dollars, wrote letters, and joined in numerous celebrations of their culture and their support for Mexican-American servicemen. Membership reached over 300 during the war and eventually ended its existence in 1976.[16]

Native Americans

Navajo code talkers during the Battle of Saipan in 1944.

Native Americans played a major role in World War II; over 44,000 men and women from many different tribes served in the American military between 1940 and 1945. The most celebrated of all are the code talkers from the Navajo Nation. In need of a way to protect communications from Japanese eavedroppers, the Marine Corps raised several outfits of Navajo radiomen who could use their native language as a code on the battlefield. The first group, which consisted of twenty-nine men, was recruited by Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran who had lived in the Navajo reservation of Arizona and was fluent in the Navajo language. Johnston and the "original twenty-nine," as they were known, are credited with developing the original code, however, it was modified and improved by others as the war progressed.[17][18]

At least 540 Navajos served in the Marine Corps during World War II, about 400 of whom were trained as code talkers. Because many of them lacked birth certificates, it was impossible to verify the age of some recruits. After the war it was revealed that boys as young as fifteen had enlisted. Navajo code talkers fought in every major campaign of the Pacific theater between 1942 and 1945; from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. They saved countless lives with their simple transmissions and also helped hasten the war's end. Their code was never broken and continued to be used by American forces during the Korean War and at the beginning of the Vietnam War.[17][19][20]

Reservation life was also affected by the war. For example, when the government announced its plans to build the Poston War Relocation Center on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, the Tribal Council opposed the idea because "they did not want to participate in inflicting the same type of injustice as they had suffered" years before. However, the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs overruled the Tribal Council on the basis that the relocation camp would provide the natives with new, developed farm land, built by army funds and labor, which would be turned over to them when the war was over.[21]

Another more serious incident occurred in late 1940 at the Papago Reservation west of Tucson. Following President Roosevelt's signing of the Selective Training and Service Act, attempts were made to register all able-bodied American Indian males for the draft. This did not sit well with the Papago leader Pia Machita, who refused to allow his fellow tribesmen to register because he did not recognize the United States government. Federal authorities knew that Pia's followers were mostly illiterate and therefore ineligible for the draft, but Pia was unaware of this and resisted. In response, federal officers launched a raid on the morning of October 16, 1940, to arrest Pia for draft evasion, but the Papagos captured them, beat them up, and then sent them on their way. Pia then fled into the desert, leading to a manhunt and his eventual capture and incerceration.[1]

The Phoenix Massacre

In what is usually referred to as the Phoenix Massacre, at least fourteen people were killed or wounded during a violent confrontation in downtown Phoenix between soldiers of the African-American 364th Infantry Regiment, officers from the African-American 733rd Military Police Battalion, and local civilian police. The trouble began on Thanksgiving, November 27, 1942. According to the official army history of the 364th Infantry, a soldier, reportedly drunk, became involved in an altercation with a woman at a cafe in Phoenix. There was a disturbance, so MPs were called in to arrest the soldier. Another group of soldiers, also from inside the cafe, witnessed the arrest and protested. A crowd formed and the MPs each fired a shot into the air to try and disperse it. One of the MPs then fired a second time into the ground. However, the bullet ricocheted and struck a man of the 364th.[22] Later, after the MPs and local police had dispersed the crowd, soldiers of the 364th stationed at Camp Papago Park heard an exaggerated account of the incident and decided to arm themselves and seek revenge. Arriving in Phoenix, the rebellious soldiers engaged in a street battle with the police forces that lasted "all night." Although figures for the number of casualties are disputed, the history of the 364th says that two soldiers and one civilian were killed and eleven others, mainly civilians, were wounded. Fifteen soldiers were court-martialed for "disobeying orders, mutiny, and inciting a riot." One man, Private Joseph Sipp, was sentenced to death, however, President Roosevelt intervened in his case and had his sentence commuted. The others received prison sentences of up to fifty years.[22]

The story of the 364th Infantry was not yet over though. Transferred to Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, men of the 364th were involved in another shooting with MPs on May 30, 1943, resulting in the wounding of two other soldiers. After that, the regiment participated in the Louisiana Maneuvers and was then shipped away to the cold and unexciting Aleutian Islands, largely because of the incidents at Phoenix and Camp Van Dorn.[22] This incident was known as the Camp Van Dorn Slaughter.


Army and Air Forces[23]
County Killed in
Action (KIA)
Died of
Wounds (DOW)
Died of
Injuries (DOI)
Non-Battle (DNB)
Finding of
Death (FOD)
Missing in
Action (MIA)
Apache 27 3 20 1 51
Cochise 68 8 24 10 1 111
Coconino 31 14 4 49
Gila 47 12 21 7 87
Graham 31 4 12 1 1 49
Greenlee 18 4 6 2 1 31
Maricopa 277 35 161 40 1 514
Mohave 9 2 9 2 22
Navajo 36 5 17 6 64
Pima 145 13 1 67 12 1 239
Pinal 66 15 32 2 115
Santa Cruz 28 1 13 1 43
Yavapai 47 4 22 7 80
Yuma 55 6 1 13 5 80
State at Large 31 3 33 8 3 78
Total 916 115 2 464 108 8 1613
Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard[24]
Type Total
Killed in Action (KIA) 278
Killed in Prison Camps 11
Missing in Action (MIA) 17
Wounded in Action (WIA) 413
Released from Prison Camps 17
Total 736


  1. ^ Cite error: The named reference Melton.2C_pg._xxi-10_.26_94-99 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Melton, Brad; Dean Smith. Arizona Goes to War: The Home Front and the Front Lines during World War II. University of Arizona Press. ISBN 978-0-8165-2190-6.
  2. Trimble, Marshall (2012). "Arizona Highways – Arizona Centennial Issue". Arizona Department of Transportation: 14–19.
  3. "Development of Metropolitan Phoenix: Historical, Current and Future Trends" (PDF). 2000. Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  4. Sherman, James E.; Barbara H. Sherman (1969). Ghost Towns of Arizona. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-0843-8.
  5. "Urban Growth: Phoenix" (PDF). Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  6. "World War II Arizona Army Air Fields, Aircraft Wrecks and Internment Camps". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  7. Mallett, Daryl F. (2009). Falcon Field. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-7137-9.
  8. 1 2 3 "War Relocation Camps in Arizona 1942–1946". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  9. 1 2 "Gila River Relocation Center". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  10. "On American Soil: Camp Florence, Arizona". Archived from the original on December 25, 2012. Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  11. "Florence, Arizona". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 "The Not-So-Great Escape: German POWs in the U.S. during WWII". Ronald H. Bailey. Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  13. Hartz, Donna; George Hartz (2007). The Phoenix Area's Parks and Preserves. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-4886-9.
  14. "Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Guggenberger - German U-boat Commanders of World War II - The Men of the Kriegsmarine -". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  15. Christine Marín, "Mexican Americans on the Home Front: Community Organizations in Arizona During World War II," Perspectives in Mexican American Studies (1993) 4:75-92
  16. Julie A. Campbell, "Madres Y Esposas: Tucson's Spanish-American Mothers and Wives Association," Journal of Arizona History (1990) 31#2 pp: 161-182,
  17. 1 2 "Official Site of the Navajo Code Talkers". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  18. "Native American Indian Heritage Month". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  19. "Navajo Code Talkers cryptology". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  20. "Navajo Code Talkers". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  21. "National Park Service: Confinement and Ethnicity (Chapter 10)". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  22. 1 2 3 " – A Historical Analysis of the 364th Infantry in World War II" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on March 16, 2013. Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  23. "WWII Army Casualties: Arizona". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  24. "WWII Casualties: Arizona". Retrieved September 26, 2012.
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