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How Roo­sevelt’s fireside chat changed Amer­i­can in­dus­try and cul­ture.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY ROGER A. MOLA

Facts, fig­ures, and ex­ploded myths about the big­gest in­dus­trial boom in U.S. his­tory.

WHEN AMER­I­CANS TUNED THEIR RA­DIOS to hear Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt de­liver an in­for­mal ad­dress in De­cem­ber 1940, war seemed dis­tant. “The peo­ple of Eu­rope who are de­fend­ing them­selves do not ask us to do their fight­ing,” Roo­sevelt as­sured his lis­ten­ers. “They ask us for the im­ple­ments of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters which will en­able them to fight for their lib­erty and for our se­cu­rity…. We must be the great arse­nal of democ­racy…. We must ap­ply our­selves to our task with the same res­o­lu­tion, the same sense of ur­gency, the same spirit of pa­tri­o­tism and sac­ri­fice as we would show were we at war.”

A year later the United States was at war, and its air­craft pro­duc­tion had dou­bled. The fol­low­ing year, it dou­bled again, and by 1945 the coun­try had pro­duced 304,000 air­craft, more than Ger­many and Ja­pan com­bined.

More Floor Space

To mo­bi­lize for war, the Roo­sevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion cre­ated the De­fense Plant Cor­po­ra­tion to over­see the con­struc­tion of gov­ern­ment-owned mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries, which were then leased to man­u­fac­tur­ers. One of its largest projects was the 6.3-mil­lion­square-foot Dodge-chicago plant, built in 1942 on Chicago’s south side to make B-29 en­gines. Raw steel and alu­minum en­tered at one end and Wright R-3350 Du­plex Cy­clones emerged from the other, 18,000 times. In 1965, the plant be­came the Ford-city shop­ping mall. To­day, part of the com­plex houses a Toot­sie Roll fac­tory, with a vis­i­tors’ gallery that dis­plays a B-29 engine.

Made From Scrap

Air­planes weren’t. Scrap drives col­lected more than six mil­lion pounds of alu­minum pots and pans and other kitchen uten­sils, but many were re­cy­cled into… pots and pans. Air­planes were made from high­er­grade alu­minum, and the vast sup­ply needed came from build­ing new re­finer­ies, boost­ing pro­duc­tion at ex­ist­ing sup­pli­ers, and min­ing more baux­ite, the min­eral from which alu­minum is made.

When silk could no longer be ob­tained from Ja­pan, the War Pro­duc­tion Board launched a drive for silk and ny­lon stock­ings, and within four months col­lected 880,000 pounds, which could be con­verted into para­chutes and glider tow rope, but was a tiny frac­tion of what was needed. Econ­o­mists have shown that World War II scrap drives had al­most no im­pact on out­put, but his­to­ri­ans say they pro­moted pa­tri­o­tism.

The Work­force

After the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, U.S. air­craft and engine plants ran 24 hours a day and re­quired new work­ers to keep them go­ing. Many were women. Be­fore the war, women con­sti­tuted only a quar­ter

of the U.S. work­force. Most of them were sin­gle and held po­si­tions mainly in ser­vice, hos­pi­tal­ity, and re­tail. By 1945, 19.1 mil­lion women held 36 per­cent of jobs, and many were mar­ried be­cause a large num­ber of ser­vice­men wed be­fore de­ploy­ment. As women left the do­mes­tic and ser­vice jobs they had held be­fore the war, mi­nori­ties filled in. After a protest by the Broth­er­hood of Sleep­ing Car Porters, Roo­sevelt signed an ex­ec­u­tive order ban­ning dis­crim­i­na­tion in U.S. de­fense plants, and a half-mil­lion African Amer­i­cans mi­grated north and west to fill jobs in air­craft and mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries.

Riv­et­ing Sta­tis­tics

Sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand riv­ets are needed to fas­ten to­gether the pieces of a sin­gle bomber. The Ford plant at Wil­low Run, Michi­gan, made seven mil­lion riv­ets a day. Pro­duced in more than 500 stan­dard sizes, riv­ets were first sorted in what must have been the dullest job at the plant. They were then driven by a pair of work­ers. The riveter would drive, and her force was op­posed by the bucker, who ap­plied a buck­ing bar. Be­cause riv­et­ers had to fit in the cramped com­part­ments of air­plane in­te­ri­ors, work­ers were some­times se­lected for their small size.

One riveter, Rose Will Mon­roe, was plucked from a B-24 assem­bly line to ap­pear in Hol­ly­wood pro­mo­tional films, and an­other, Rose Bon­avita, set a record by driv­ing 3,300 riv­ets into a Grum­man TBM Avenger dur­ing one six-hour shift. But the im­ages of Rosie the Riveter—the Nor­man Rock­well cover of a 1943 is­sue of the Satur­day Evening Post, the de­scrip­tion in a pop­u­lar 1942 song, or the iconic poster widely used after the war to rep­re­sent the women who built air­planes dur­ing the 1940s—are com­pos­ites of many women.


When war broke out, only three U. S. com­pa­nies built mil­i­tary air­craft en­gines. Even­tu­ally, the orig­i­nal trio—wright Aero­nau­ti­cal in Pater­son, New Jer­sey, the Pratt & Whit­ney di­vi­sion of United Air­craft in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, and the Al­li­son Di­vi­sion of Gen­eral Mo­tors in In­di­anapo­lis— part­nered with Buick, Chevro­let, Dodge, Ford, Packard, Stude­baker, and others to crank out 808,000 en­gines and 799,000 pro­pel­lers for the Army Air Forces. By 1945 engine man­u­fac­tur­ers de­liv­ered a 10-fold growth in yearly out­put.

As the ma­chines and meth­ods of air­craft con­struc­tion im­proved, the unit cost of each air­plane fell. The Re­pub­lic P-47 cost the Army Air Forces $113,246 in 1939; it could be had for $85,578 in 1944. Cur­tiss P-40s cost $77,159 in 1939, and only $50,466 in 1944. A Boe­ing B-17 sold for $301,221 in 1939, but for only $187,742 in 1945.

Mix and Match

When a man­u­fac­turer’s ca­pac­ity to pro­duce a type of air­craft fell short of the de­mand, the mil­i­tary ser­vices and gov­ern­ment-formed com­mit­tees pre­vailed on com­pa­nies to li­cense their de­signs for con­struc­tion by others. The Eastern Air­craft di­vi­sion of Gen­eral Mo­tors built more than 5,000 of the 7,860 Grum­man-de­signed Wild­cats pro­duced. (GM’S were des­ig­nated FM-1 or -2, in­stead of F4F.) Eastern also built most of the Navy’s Avenger tor­pedo bombers. At a Nashville plant, Con­sol­i­dated built 133 Lock­heed-de­signed P-38 Light­nings. Bell Air­craft con­structed 652 Boe­ing B-29s in Ma­ri­etta, Ge­or­gia, and Con­sol­i­dated, Dou­glas, Ford, and North Amer­i­can all built B-24s.

Ef­fi­ciency Saves

B-24s, First to Last

More B-24 Lib­er­a­tors—18,482—were built than any other U.S. war­plane, and by 1944 a com­plete air­plane left the Ford-man­aged Wil­low Run fac­tory ev­ery hour. At a Dou­glas Air­craft plant in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, B-24s were as­sem­bled from Wil­low Run-pro­duced parts. The last as­sem­bled there, the Tul­samer­i­can, was paid for by the work­ers, through their pur­chase of war bonds. On its fi­nal mis­sion, on De­cem­ber 17, 1944, the Tul­samer­i­can took Ger­man fire and fell into the Adri­atic Sea off Croa­tia, killing three of its 10 crew­men. In 2010, wreck­age of the Tul­samer­i­can was found, its se­rial plate brought to the sur­face, and the last liv­ing sur­vivor, 92-year-old Val Miller of Ok­la­homa City, in­ter­viewed for a lo­cal pa­per.

War Pro­duc­tion Board posters urged par­tic­i­pa­tion in scrap drives.


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