World War II (1941–45) brought economic, social, and cultural changes to Mississippi. From the Civil War to World War II, Mississippi had historical continuity: it was predominantly agricultural, poor, racist, and insulated from the rest of the world, though World War I chipped away at that insulation. Although Mississippi did not eliminate its problems because of World War II, the state did begin to become more closely aligned with the nation as a whole.
From 1941 to 1945 Mississippians’ per capita income rose from $313 (44 percent of the national average) to $627 (just over 55 percent). During this period farm mortgages declined from $102 million to $83 million as farmers paid off their debts. Yet at war’s end, Mississippi still had the lowest per capita income of any state.
Between 1940 and 1945 Mississippi’s farm population declined 26 percent, while the number of farms declined almost 10 percent. During the war years 30 percent of all white tenants and 14 percent of all black tenants left the farms, and most of the exodus occurred among farmers younger than age thirty-five. More than 237,000 Mississippians served in the military. Jobs opened up in the towns. Former sharecroppers could make more money in a week at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula than they had made in a year before the war.
Travel within the United States and Europe and Asia reduced Mississippi’s provincialism. Not only did Mississippians begin to see the world, but people from other states and countries came to Mississippi for training. Camp Shelby, created during World War I near Hattiesburg, was reactivated and expanded in 1940, and by 1943 the post spread over three hundred thousand acres and was home to as many as seventy-five thousand soldiers. Over the course of the war, hundreds of thousands of soldiers trained there or were inducted into or separated from the service there. In 1940 Biloxi ceded land on which the US Army Air Corps then constructed a basic training and technical training facility, Keesler Field. The installation had a peak military population of sixty-nine thousand, at which time it was the largest air base in the world.
Smaller installations were scattered across Mississippi. Camp Van Dorn was built just outside Centreville to house and train a division. Camp McCain, eight miles south of Grenada, served as many as fifty thousand troops. Foster General Hospital was built in West Jackson and activated on 14 December 1942. Army air fields sprang up across the countryside, with the largest at Greenville, Columbus, Jackson, Laurel, Greenwood, and Meridian and smaller auxiliary bases at Clarksdale, Grenada, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Madison, and Starkville. Ordnance plants were located near Flora and at Prairie in Monroe County, near Aberdeen. A small naval base was developed at Gulfport. The military also used facilities at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State College (now Mississippi State University), Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi), Millsaps College, and Mississippi College.
German prisoners of war captured in North Africa were housed at compounds throughout Mississippi, which had four major prisoner of war camps. Camp Clinton, just outside Jackson, housed about thirty-four hundred prisoners, including the highest-ranking German officers, among them Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, who had led the Afrika Korps. The other major prisoner of war camps included Camp McCain, which housed seventy-seven hundred prisoners; Camp Shelby, which housed fifty-three hundred prisoners; and Camp Como, in the northern Delta, which at one time held thirty-eight hundred Italian soldiers who had surrendered in North Africa, though they were soon moved out of Mississippi and replaced by a smaller number of Germans. In 1944 the four base camps developed fifteen branch camps, ten of them in the Delta, where prisoners worked in the cotton fields, often in the summer heat. The other five branch camps were in the pinelands, where prisoners worked in forestry.
The war years brought attention to Mississippi’s racial problems. On 25 June 1941 Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in war industries and addressing grievances. The subsequent national movement to remove racial barriers produced fear and tension in a state long accustomed to segregation and states’ rights. Rumors about black veterans planning uprisings back home while white men were away at war led to problems with Mississippi’s long allegiance to the Democratic Party. Rumors also surfaced about a 1943 massacre of black soldiers of the 364th Infantry Regiment who were stationed at Camp Van Dorn in Wilkinson County. The rumors persisted until a December 1999 US Army report repudiated the incident. By 1945 not only was the state’s agrarianism disappearing, but its politics and racial institutions also were beginning to change.
- Robert F. Couch, Journal of Mississippi History (August 1964)
- Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed., A History of Mississippi (1973)
- Neil McMillen, ed., Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South (1997)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Chester M. Morgan, Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 1995)
- Merrill R. Pritchett and William L. Shea, Journal of Mississippi History (November 1979)
- John Ray Skates, Journal of Mississippi History (May 1975)