A Wave of Workers
Employee Explosion Transformed Washington
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page B01
Third of five articles
For the Washington businessmen who gathered at the Mayflower Hotel on April 10, 1944, the pressing matter at hand was not the war itself, but how to handle the population boom it had created in their city.
The influx of workers to wartime Washington had doubled the number of federal employees in the capital over the previous three years, and it was dawning on some business leaders that the new residents were going to become a permanent fact of life.
Organizers of the meeting at the Mayflower called for a $100 million public and private building program to transform a city cluttered with makeshift housing and office arrangements into a "modern world capital," according to news reports.
"We've all got to go to work," Charles T. Penn, a leader in a group called the Washington Building Congress, told the audience.
Such accounts reflect an aspect of World War II's legacy that is sometimes overlooked. While the purpose of the new National World War II Memorial is to pay tribute to the troops who forged democracy's victory over fascism, it also memorializes a conflict that left indelible marks on the character of the Washington region.
The leap in the city's population foreshadowed the postwar growth of its suburbs; the Pentagon, built hurriedly in an Arlington swamp in the early 1940s, still undergirds the Northern Virginia economy; and through its role as the nerve center of the vast allied forces, the city gained a sense of its global stature that it has never shed.
"Washington up through the 1930s was a provincial city, and World War II cracked open its insularity," said Carl Abbott, a historian and author of "Political Terrain," which traces the city's growth. "As the command post for the world's most far-flung military enterprise, it had emerged, in political terms, as the most important city in the world."
In his book "Washington Goes to War," journalist David Brinkley described the evolution this way: Washington "never did explode. Instead, it began to adjust to a new form of existence: more harried, more crowded, more contentious, faster, lonelier, bigger. And while some of the strains of wartime would subside when the fighting was over, the city would never again live by its old rules."
From 1940 to 1943, the number of federal employees in the city swelled from 134,000 to 281,000, according to the Washington Board of Trade, boosting the region's population to roughly 1.4 million.
The early wave of wartime workers included 20-year-old Irma Lee Wyatt of Paducah, Ky. She'd taken the civil service exam in her home town, and by November of 1940 was packing her bags for a train to Union Station. She was joining a human stampede, one of tens of thousands of "government girls" who were needed to staff a growing federal bureaucracy as the country girded for war.
"They offered me a job before they even graded my exam," said the former Irma Wyatt, now Irma Lee Westrell, a retired management analyst in Bethesda. "At that time, a warm body who could type was a very valuable asset."
The flood of clerical workers was severe enough to set off a typewriter shortage, one of many that arose in the growing city. As often happened, there was a call for donations. "An idle typewriter is a help to Hitler," one radio jingle warned.
The city was cramped, the streetcars full. "Today there is only about one civilian employee in The Washington Area for each government employee," the Board of Trade said in a 1945 pamphlet. "This explains why you must wait in line at the theatre and the restaurant, why your laundry is late and it takes six weeks to have your radio repaired."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company