During those years three out of every twenty Montanans left, and it wasn’t hard to see why.
West Coast factories were paying $7.75 a day, the same as the mines in Butte, though conditions were a lot safer and the work a lot easier. For most, it wasn’t even a contest – they went.
Looking at ration cards shows us that in 1940 Montana had 559,456 people, but by 1943 there were around 470,000, a drop of nearly 16%.
Many that left never came back. “This enormous migration out of Montana shaped communities, politics, and the economy for decades after the war ended,” historian Kris Holmes writes.
The draft played a large part in that exodus. The Selective Training and Service Act had been passed by Congress in 1940, and that meant all men between the ages of 18 and 65 had to register for the draft.
If you were between 18 and 45 you could be called up, and many were. If you chose not to fight you’d be labeled as a “conscientious objector” and given a job in the Civilian Public Service.
The Civilian Public Service operated out of 150 camps, and three of them were located in Montana from 1943 to 1946 – Belton/West Glacier, Terry, and Missoula/Seeley Lake. Many of these men worked with troubled children or in mental health clinics.
The one-on-one work that many mental patients received at this time improved the system as a whole. The men did more than that, however.
The Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project was built, Glacier National Park was maintained, and the whole state enjoyed their services as smokejumpers from Camp Paxson.
No pay was given to these men.
Most men didn’t have any objections to the war, however, and a total of 57,000 Montanans served in the military at that time, and quite a few of them were women.
More than 40,000 Montanans signed up that very first year. Almost 10% of the state’s population served in the war, “a greater percentage of its people than almost any other state.”
Teens joined the war too, most from the Montana National Guard, which saw 1,500 join up with the U.S. Army’s 163rd Regiment. Howard McKinney from Bainville was just 14-years old when he joined up.
It would be costly, as the death toll proved immense. Montana lost 1,850 men killed in WWII and another twenty went missing. That’s for the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
Another 415 were reported as wounded by the Army. “The state’s death rate in the war was exceeded only by New Mexico,” Michael P. Malone writes. That was per capita – New York suffered the worst, with more than 30,000 dead.
More than 62 million people around the world were killed during the war, 37 million of them civilians. 23 million Soviets died in the war. 210,000 were killed in the twin atomic bomb drops.
America lost 419,400 men and women in the war, or 0.39% of the 1939 population of 131 million. Those that lived often suffered psychological wounds, early forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD:
“Some returning veterans felt dread and anxiety about the world after the war. They had witnessed the unbelievable inhumanity of the concentration camps…after these horrors, people wondered if life would ever feel normal and peaceful again.”
Also in 1942 it was estimated by the state that Montana would lose 40,000 people just in one year alone, while some agencies were estimating that number at closer to 75,000.