Arthur Jeremiah Crowley’s Personal Perspective Of The Great Depression And World War II

My grandfather, Arthur Jeremiah Crowley, was born in 1918 during a time of great economic boom for the United States. At the same time Henry Ford was creating the automobile industry with his highly efficient assembly line innovations and World War I was raging my grandfather was living his early childhood in Grand Terrace in Southern California’s Inland Empire. The focus of this essay is not on Crowley’s childhood, however a story from his early youth, which he has told several times, is worthy of noting and helps explain his optimism and appreciation for life as a young adult during the great depression.

As a young boy, Arthur Crowley lived on a ranch with his father Jerry, mother Nora, and five sisters. This meant crowded living conditions for everyone. The Crowley’s at that time, however self-sufficient, were not financially wealthy. They were farmers with a variety of fruit trees and various farm animals with which they earned their living and kept food on the table. To make more room for his sisters Art slept outside underneath an old horse hide from their old horse named Pete. The horse hide shelter/blanket was affectionately referred to as “Old Pete.” When it would rain he would simply pull “Old Pete” over his head. This kept him dry and warm on rainy nights. My grandfather never complained because for him this was good enough. What he viewed as good enough was his contribution to his family. Crowley realized how important family was even at a very young age. This theme helped shape my grandfather’s experiences during the Great Depression, through World War II, and until the end of his life.

I interviewed Art Crowley for one hour concerning a span of time that was full of great flux and uncertainty as his loyal wife of seventy years, Viola Crowley, sat and listened with a proud smile on her face. The time period that was the topic of the interview started in October of 1929. The US stock market crashed that year due to careless, and now illegal, investing practices. The stock market crash of 1929 caused thousands of people to lose their jobs and marked the beginning of the Great Depression which lasted more than a decade. After more than ten years of economic recession the world’s economy was resurrected by the manufacturing and military demands of World War II.

World War II began in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Less than two years later, on December 7, 1941 the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack against the US Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day US President Franklin Roosevelt, with congressional approval, declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy. World War II continued until 1945 when the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forcing Japan to surrender. The close of World War II marks the end of the time period I discussed with Crowley.

When the stock market crashed in 1929 Arthur Crowley was eleven years old. He was attending a parochial school in Riverside, California. His parents, Jerry and Nora, wanted for each of their children to attend private school. However, they did not have enough money to send all six of their children to private school for their entire education. Each child was limited to two years, grades five and six, at the private parochial school. This is one example of a sacrifice my grandfather and his siblings had to make in order to give everyone a chance at attending the school favored by their parents.

Crowley commuted to school from Grand Terrace to Riverside riding the old electric streetcars. He sat up front each day intently watching the driver run the car. My grandfather claimed to be able to run one of those electric street cars from memory just by watching the driver.

Electric streetcar
Electric streetcar in Riverside, California, circa 1940.

According to Crowley his family really started feeling the effects of the Great Depression in 1932. In that year they were forced to move off their ranch because Redlands Federal Bank had to foreclose on their property. The Crowley family was unable to keep up with the interest on their mortgage because of the ripple effect of the recession throughout all sectors of the economy. These were tough times for Arthur Crowley and his family. The strong sense of family values that Jerry Crowley had instilled in them, and a little help from President Roosevelt’s New Deal, kept them afloat.

After moving off the ranch in Grand Terrace, Jerry Crowley got a job with the federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA). Jerry built roads, bridges, and civic buildings of all kinds while working for the WPA. This government program along strong family cohesiveness helped Jerry Crowley keep his family happy and safe during the worst economic recession in US history.

By today’s standards the sacrifices my grandfather made during the depression years seem tough. Art Crowley said, “That was just the way life was.” Despite the hardships he felt very well taken care of by his parents throughout the 1930s. He had one pair of shoes, one pair of overalls, and one shirt. “In those days that was good enough,” Crowley remarked. “I walked to school barefoot because I didn’t want to wear out my shoes.”

Another issue we discussed in the historical context of my grandpa’s life was racism and segregation. Crowley observed quite a bit of racism during his high school years as he grew into a man that was more aware of the world around him. Most of the racism he saw was directed at the Mexican population of California’s Inland Empire. The Mexican community was the largest minority group in the area at that time. One instance of segregation he remembered in particular was the usage policy at the local public swimming pool referred to as “The Plunge.” The pool was open to white people all day long, seven days a week except on Sunday afternoons after four pm. This was the only time the Mexicans were allowed to use the pool. The only reason they were allowed to use the pool at that time was because the pool was drained at eight pm every Sunday. This alleviated the irrational fear by racist whites that the water would become unfit to swim in if the Mexicans used the pool. Even though the anti-Mexican racism did not have a direct negative impact on my grandfather he knew it was wrong and it did affect many of his Mexican high school friends and classmates.

In 1936 Art Crowley graduated from Colton High School. He spent a year after high school in the desert working for the Pacific Borax Company sacking borax, an essential raw material in the production of gunpowder. At the time Germany was one of the leading importers of borax from the US. “We wouldn’t have been selling so much borax to Germany if we had known that in a few years they would be shooting it back at us,” stated Crowley.

After a year of sacking borax my grandpa decided that this was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life so he attended San Bernardino Junior College for three years. He graduated with an AA degree in 1940 and got a job with a gas company. December of that year Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor bringing the US into World War II.

The gas company Crowley was working for immediately re-classified his job as temporary aware that he may be drafted at any time. In search of more permanent employment Arthur got a job with Lockead Aircraft. Since Crowley’s new job was in the war production industry he became ineligible for the draft. At Lockead Aircraft he contributed to the production of the P-38 Lightning, the fastest planes in the world at the time. The factory he worked out was so efficient they were able to manufacture one P-38 every hour. “I remember when the test pilot flew the 100,000th P-38 out of our factory,” recalled Crowley.

P-38 Lightning by Lockead Aircraft
P-38 Lightning by Lockead Aircraft

In 1944 my grandfather was released to the draft board because enough women had been trained to work manufacturing jobs. Art Crowley was no longer needed on the home front. His services were required elsewhere. On his twenty-sixth birthday in 1944 he was drafted into the US Navy. His first six months in the navy were spent in training in Great Lakes, Illinois. The next six months were spent in Corpus Cristi, Texas where he received additional training. While in route to his first permanent assignment in San Diego, California it was announced that the Japanese Empire has surrendered. After seven months of active duty in San Diego Crowley was honorably discharged back into civilian life. He was able to able to contribute to the US victory in World War II without leaving friendly soil or facing the horrors of combat. The training he received from the US Navy helped him get a better job after the war.

In 1945 the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the mainland of Japan forcing them to surrender. According to my grandfather, “The public consensus at the time was that it was the right thing to do.” The only other option available was a full scale invasion of mainland Japan where every man, woman, and child was being trained to fight. A mainland invasion would have caused far more casualties for both sides. The US had been fighting for four long years and everyone was eager to see the end of the war. It took time for the public to realize the awesome destructive power of an atomic bomb, but even then its’ use was still justified for most people.

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki Japan
Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki Japan

Arthur Jeremiah Crowley lived through some very interesting times in United States history. I am grateful that I was able to talk with my grandfather and receive a firsthand account of his experience. It is firsthand accounts that make history interesting. Interviewing my grandfather has been an extremely rewarding experience. It enabled me to build a personal connection with events that happened before my time. Each one of those events have had a profound impact on the direction of my grandfather’s life and thereby my own.

Art Crowley was surrounded by family when he died peacefully in his Colton, California home on April 8, 2012.