Can you imagine a world without your phone? During World War II, Americans were expected to go without a lot of things – food, car tires, gasoline and perhaps, most troubling, telephone service.

"Couldn't you find me just one teeny, little telephone?" the comely wife begs her husband in 1944's "The Case of the Missing Telephone," one of the AT&T Archives and History Center videos available on the Tech Channel.

The era of sacrifice for the greater good ended 70 years ago this week. On Aug. 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allies. In giant type, newspapers proclaimed the end of the war. Now it's our turn to remember AT&T's invaluable contributions.

"Behind the clatter of rivets, the roar of war engines and the thunderous procession of the bombs is the ring-ring-ring of the telephone bell," reads the 1943 AT&T booklet, "Victory Calling."

Here are 8 amazing ways we helped win the war:

  1. Almost 18 percent of our work force – or 67,700 Bell System employees – joined the armed forces. Of these, 6,200 were women. In all, 1,230 employees gave their lives, according to the 1945 AT&T annual report.
  2. We built and ran telephone systems at hundreds of military camps and bases, many in less-populated areas. Operators left home posts to handle the calls in the war centers.
  3. By 1943, AT&T had laid cable containing 20 billion feet of wire to serve government projects alone. Even so, the long distance lines were often jammed. Calls to Washington, D.C., increased by more than 200 percent during the war.
  4. Overseas telephone service, developed by the Bell System, provided instant communication on battlefronts. Written messages were exchanged via our teletypewriter exchange service.
  5. We helped the U.S. Army's Signal Corps – in charge of communications for the armed forces – teach soldiers to install and maintain telephone and teletypewriter systems. Classes were at our training schools.
  6. Day or night, telephone operators were poised, ready to report it if enemy aircraft should venture over domestic skies. An intricate system, developed by AT&T and the military, meant connecting calls – in about 30 seconds – from aircraft spotters to Army Information Centers.
  7. All 2,000 of AT&T's scientists and engineers had a single focus – the war. "Bell Telephone Laboratories – fountainhead of so much of the world's knowledge of electrical communication – is working hand in hand with the Army and Navy to create the best electrical weapons that can be devised," the AT&T booklet said.
  8. We meant it when we said "war calls come first." Walter S. Gifford, then AT&T president, said, "We telephone people are in the strange position of spending money for advertising, urging people not to use our service if they can avoid it... The one important thing is to win the war."

Wartime videos

Here are three videos we produced during World War II. Some videos were shown in theaters before the main picture. At other times, they were loaned to civic groups and schools.

  • "War and the Telephone" (1943) used a newsreel-style format to make clear that the demand for phone service was increasing and the necessary materials were shrinking.
  • "Newfoundland Long Lines" (1943) is a dramatic account of one wartime telephone project. The film was a joint project of AT&T and the U.S. Army. Though the color is fading, it is still a fascinating look at the logistics – including horses – needed to build a communication system quickly.
  • "The Case of the Missing Telephone" (1944) may be the most entertaining of the war videos. It takes a film noir approach to tell a shadow-filled drama with a dilemma. A daffy dame is married to a dapper detective. They are about to move to a new house. It's perfect, except for one thing: the telephone is missing! Of course, the detective investigates.

There is a happy ending – not in the video, but in real life: Telephones and phone service were never rationed after World War II, said Bill Caughlin, AT&T corporate archivist.

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