Washington During Wartime
By Elliot Carter
Washington DC was transformed during World War II as the population swelled and defense dollars were pumped into the economy. The 1930 census records 468,869 District residents, by 1950 that number had nearly doubled to 802,178.
Temporary office buildings were erected along the Mall and around the Washington Monument for tens of thousands of record keepers. Many of the new staffers were women – “government girls” – and the expansion of government led to a citywide housing shortage. The local papers from this period ran dozens if not hundreds of stories about the housing issue.
There was a heightened fear of of aerial bombardment early in the war, best embodied by Stanley Baldwin’s famous warning that “the bomber will always get through.” District residents saw the Luftwaffe bombing of Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey and were concerned that DC’s symbolic value would make the city a compelling target.
Washington was never at risk in the same way as other wartime capitals such as Paris or London, but the military did put up some anti-aircraft defenses just to be sure.
Auto cannons (commonly dubbed “ack ack” guns) and machine guns were placed around the city and on the rooftops of government buildings along the Mall.
One overeager air defense soldier accidentally machine gunned the Lincoln Memorial in 1942 (seriously, this actually happened). Unfortunately, the only contemporary news coverage of this incredible event was a brief Washington Post story, and an even shorter NYT blurb.
Government organizations reacted to the war in different ways. The Library of Congress packed up their most valuable items and shipped them to Fort Knox under armed guard. The National Archives stored the Bill of Rights and other important documents onsite in a basement vault that was deemed bombproof.
For the prior 150 years, the White House grounds had been generally open to the public and certain administrations even had an open door policy to the executive residence. That tradition ended forever during World War II. Guard posts went up and the first in a long string of bomb shelters was carved out under the house.