Steel, a Bomb, and a City; Youngstown’s History of War

By Morgan Petronelli

Youngstown, Ohio, built on the foundations of the booming steel industry, played a significant role in World War II — manufacturing materials that were transformed into weaponry and other war items that went to aid U.S. military.

Although a particularly small city on the map, Youngstown has made its name one to remember by the hard work, blood, sweat and tears of its workers.

David Simonelli, a history professor at Youngstown State University, said Youngstown was an “arsenal of democracy” during the war.

“[It] was the colloquial term used to describe the U.S.’s smaller cities that produced vast amounts of material for the war effort,” Simonelli said.

He also said that many young men in Youngstown signed up for the military prior to the war, thus making them involved in a plethora of major events including D-Day, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, describes life in Youngstown during WWII as a “boom time” for the city, but also a time of sacrifice.

“It was a time of rationing and self-sacrifice, family sacrifice and community sacrifice for the purpose of forwarding the war effort and making sure we were victorious,” Lawson said.

Lawson said recycling materials such as old streetcar tracks were used in the steel mills. Rationing other items such as tires, panty hose and food was common during that time period.

Steel mills were the epicenter of activity in the city at the time of the war. The mills ran 24/7 with three shifts and even deferred some employees from being drafted due to being so vital to the company and steel-making process.

Lawson said that when Youngstown men at the mills were drafted, their positions were quickly filled in by women in order to keep the steel manufacturing going. Some of the major steel companies in the area included Youngstown Sheet and Tube, U.S. Steel Corporation, Republic Steel Corporation and Sharon Steel.

Donna DeBlasio, a history professor at YSU, said that other businesses made alternative products related to steel other than what they were making beforehand such as Trustcon (Trust Concrete).

The concrete company, owned by Republic Steel at the time, made reinforced concrete, but transitioned to welding and manufacturing airplane landing mats to be used in the South Pacific. DeBlasio’s own mother, a “Rosie the Riveter” type, used to work at Trustcon.

These steel companies helped the federal government and the Roosevelt Administration sell war bonds to finance the war effort overseas. This included bringing celebrities into town — one specifically being Marlene Dietrich, a Hollywood movie actress, who visited Youngstown in the effort to solely sell war bonds.

There have been rumors circling around that Youngstown was a possible bomb target during the war. Due to high cloud coverage and its location way inland from the coast, Simonelli said the probability of Youngstown being a bomb target was unlikely, but a possibility.

“It makes sense anywhere you’re producing an industrial product — and frankly if you take out the steel mills, you’re going to be hard pressed to build much of anything else unless you really got it all stockpiled,” DeBlasio said.

Despite not knowing for sure if Youngstown was a definite bomb target, the city was still a big enough steel producer that it made it a contender for a rumor to swirl around.

Youngstown’s steel mills kept producing through multiple other wars. Without those wars, the need for steel slowly faded away along with the steel mills and mill workers who eventually left town in search of new work. Although the city’s significance to the war effort will forever be remembered in history.

“The war effort built Youngstown and Youngstown built the war effort,” Simonelli said.