In addition to its considerable work luring wartime industries and military bases to Utah, the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club found itself once again in the center of the state’s efforts to organize itself. This time the subject was civil defense.
With war in Europe underway and Germany’s Luftwaffe bombing London, the state began setting up a civil defense effort. There weren’t as many government agencies and bureaucracies around. On June 21, 1941, Backman was appointed Utah Civil Defense director. “When originally it was decided to have civil defense activity, it was referred by Governor Herbert S. Maw to the Chamber of Commerce, the labor groups, and folks of that kind,” recalled Backman. He held the job for twenty years.
In September of 1941, just a few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chamber, then with Earl J. Glade as board president, organized twenty-six standing committees on civil defense. When in December the city organized its own defense committee, Backman was on hand representing Governor Maw’s effort. He suggested that the city make use of organizations already existing. One idea, he offered, would be to use The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “block teachers” program.
Even though they were far inland and supposedly safe from any immediate attack, the Civil Defense workers concerned themselves with safeguarding the airport, finding housing for a growing number of military personnel coming to Utah, and providing information and training for its volunteers.
Backman took his own responsibility seriously. “‘With Gus as civil defense chief,’ said one of his staffers, ‘nobody would dare bomb Utah,’” reported The Salt Lake Tribune. Gus’s reply was, “Well, you know, they never did.” But, years later, Utah’s newspapers delighted in retelling the story of how he caused a near-total blackout of the Salt Lake Valley.
“One night in 1943 a ‘red light alert’ popped on in his office,” reported The Salt Lake Tribune. “In the vague, tangled defense system of the day, Gus couldn’t confirm it, and after some fretful moments, called Utah Power & Light to say, ‘Pull the switch.’”
The entire county went pitch black. Kennecott’s operations were stopped cold and didn’t get back on line for thirteen hours, said The Tribune. “People huddled beside candles in blacked-out basements, citizen volunteers were poised at the ready in the darkened streets.” Except at Fort Douglas, which had its own power supply, and was lit up “like a bombardier’s dream.” No enemy aircraft appeared, the signals got straightened out, and the power eventually came back on.
That, however, was easy compared with one of the Chamber’s other assignments. “When rationing came in, there was no place for administration, so they assigned that job to civil defense, if you please, and civil defense headquarters at that time was down at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce,” recalled Backman. “We had to organize the setup for the operation of all the rationing. And believe me, that was some job.” Without the help of the Chamber’s staff of men and women, it couldn’t have been done, he said. “We were also able to obtain the services of such fine people as Ed Richards, Wally Sandack, and Ruth Robinson…who at that time were glad to come in and take some kind of job under the Rationing Board.”
Wartime rationing was a complicated affair, described by historian Jessie Embry: It “required massive organization. People had to register and then be issued stamps which would allow them to buy sugar. Backman…invited local boards to send representatives to discuss how to organize the upcoming registration. Delegates attended from sixty-three of the eighty-seven local boards and from twenty-four of the twenty-nine counties.”
Newspapers told the public how and where to register. The tedious registration itself was done at schools, with the help of teachers. “Government officials praised every effort the citizens made. Backman especially praised the teachers for their part. ‘Such a registration so vital toward the safeguarding of our resources could never have been accomplished had it not been for the unselfishness of our teaching profession…. The nation, the state and the citizenry owe the teachers much for their public spiritedness,’” he said. In the end, 550,000 Utahns had registered, and only 50,000 hadn’t registered.
“We were allocated a certain amount of sugar, but due to the fact that we had about 50,000 or 60,000 boys
Backman abandoned the rationing post when the government decided that all local directors had to go on the federal payroll. “I wasn’t going to be on the federal payroll, because then they could tell me what to do, and up to that time they hadn’t told me much about what I could do.”
He was not a fan by then of the federal bureaucracy. He was replaced by a “wonderful fellow,” Grant Ivans, a professor of animal husbandry at Brigham Young University. Backman went over to commiserate with him, saying saltily that because Ivans was in animal husbandry, no one knew better than he how to live with horses’ behinds. But those weren’t the exact words he used.
The civil defense assignment would last well beyond the end of the war and into the Cold War.
Unfortunately, there was at least one black spot on the Chamber’s war-related actions. Utah had been chosen by the Federal Government as a Japanese-American interment site, with a camp in Utah’s desert at Topaz. In February 1944, Backman came before the mayor and city commission asking that they grant no more business licenses to people of Japanese ancestry. The Board of Governors rationalized that some sixty business licenses were already held by people of Japanese ancestry and that the community had done everything that it should do to absorb those who were moved from the Pacific Coast, even though “we appreciate full well that the Japanese who have been granted licenses are American citizens and on that premise are entitled to consideration.”
World War II required an extreme effort from the Chamber in many different areas. Perhaps the most far-reaching benefits to Utah came from the Chamber’s industrial promotion efforts, which brought military installations and defense plants to the state.
Sources: Gus P. Backman typescript in Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, Mormons & Gentiles, (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co., 1984). Jessie Embry, “Fighting the Good Fight, Utah and the Home Front During World War II, Utah Historical Quarterly 63 (Summer 1995): 242-65. Salt Lake Telegram, 17 February 1944. The Salt Lake Tribune, 12 July 1964.