The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, pushed a reluctant United States into the Second World War. Factories across the country, including those in Central New York, answered President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for American manufacturers to shift production towards military preparedness.
Before the outbreak of the war, factories located in Syracuse and Onondaga County, NY, made shoes, typewriters, air conditioners, washing machines, and many other civilian products. Between 1941 and 1945 however, Syracuse industries manufactured antiaircraft gun mounts, antitank landmines, rifles, machine guns, radar systems, and airplane and ship signaling lights.
Syracuse University pitched in by hosting the War Service College, the Cadet Nurse Corps, and the Army Specialized Training Program to train military and nonmilitary students for jobs that could help the war effort and purchased surrounding real estate to house troops while they were completing their courses.
Bausch and Lomb in Rochester became the principle manufacturer of high-grade glass needed for reconnaissance cameras, bomb sights, binoculars, and other optical equipment used by the Army, Navy, and Air Force; between late 1941 and August 1944, the company produced four million pounds of glass.
In total, approximately 120,000 men and women worked in Monroe County war production, and 38 companies earned Army-Navy E Awards for production excellence.
Employment in Elmira’s 92 factories increased by 900% between December 1941 and December 1942, while 90% of its population worked on $80 million in war contracts — the highest war manufacturing per capital in the country.
The Elmira Holding and Reconsignment Point, a 670-acre facility established north of Horseheads (Chemung County) in December 1942, was one of 10 sites chosen to store tanks, guns, and other weapons before they were shipped overseas.
Military installations associated with World War II brought an additional industry to the largely rural areas in Central New York. The Seneca Ordinance Depot, located in the town of Romulus in central Seneca County, opened in 1941 as ammunition storage facility.
The 11,500-acre facility ultimately displaced 150 family farms between Seneca and Cayuga lakes but brought 9,000 workers to the area for construction. The depot became one of Seneca County’s biggest employers, eventually employing Italian prisoners of war and local women to keep up with the demand for workers.
The depot was designed as one of the major ammunition depots for the East Coast, handling and storing some of the materials for the Manhattan Project as well as materials to support troops in the European theater.
The famed Seneca white deer herd began appearing after the fence was erected in 1941. A handful of white-tailed deer that carried a recessive gene for all-white coats were isolated within the depot. The depot initially allowed only brown-coated deer to be killed, so the herd of white deer grew.
The Seneca Ordinance Depot, renamed the Seneca Army Depot in 1961, continued to serve as a major munitions supply and storage facility throughout the 20th century, expanding in the 1950s and 1960s to include and the Sampson Air Force Base runway and the North Depot Area, a storage area opened in 1956 to house special weapons.
(Beginning on July 4, 1983, and running for several years, antiwar and anti-nuclear activists mounted major protests at the Seneca Army Depot, staging civil disobedience protests and establishing the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice.)
The Sampson Naval Training Station, located at the north end of Seneca Lake, opened in 1957. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 410,000 naval recruits were trained at Sampson.
After the war, the training station evolved into a space for Sampson Veterans College before being converted into an air force base during the Korean War (1951–1956). After the training base’s closure, the land was eventually transferred to the State of New York in the 1960s and is now managed as Sampson State Park in Seneca County. (Read more about the park and its history here.)
Around the same time of the naval training station closure, the Naval Sea Systems Command set up a sonar testing field station near Dresden (Yates County) on the west shore of Seneca Lake.
Providing an ideal acoustic environment supported by the water’s near-constant temperature, depth that simulates an ocean environment, and canal connections to the Great Lakes that allows for easy transport of large barges and equipment, Seneca Lake has become the Navy’s primary sonar array calibration and testing facility for the United States’ underseas warfare system.
Illustrations, from above: “Be A Cadet Nurse,” United States Public Health Service poster, 1944 (Gilder Lehman Collection);
This essay is drawn from the National Park Service’s Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study. You can read about the study and the Finger Lakes National Heritage Area here.