Birth of a Nation
David G. Mitchell
While it has been said that some people are born great and others have greatness thrust upon them, the same can also be said of nations. In 1939, the United States was still mired in the Great Depression. Its military ranked far behind most of the countries of Europe. Other than a brief foray into the Great War during its waning months, the only recent war that it had fought with a world power was the conflict forty years earlier with the fading power of Spain. The United States may have been a sleeping giant, but it was in deep slumber.
The Second World War created all of the necessary conditions for the United States to emerge as a world leader. By 1945, war had decimated the European and Asian powers, both in terms of infrastructure and work force. Millions of Europeans and Asians were dead and European and Japanese industry was nearly destroyed. By comparison, in the United States fewer than half a million soldiers, sailors and marines were killed—fewer than were lost during the War Between the States eighty years earlier. More importantly, perhaps, American industry had been forced to modernize and had been completely reinvigorated by the demands of war. The United States was poised to be both the supplier to the free world and, no longer isolationist, the leader in the fight to thwart communist expansion.
Perhaps the greatest catalyst to American industrial growth during the war years was the need for ever-increasing numbers of, and ever-more advanced military aircraft. In The American Aircraft Factory in WWII, military and aviation historian Bill Yenne has compiled the engaging story of the growth of America’s aircraft industry and made it not just a story of aircraft production, but a story of America.
Yenne takes readers from the initial race in the first few years of the twentieth century to produce the first working aircraft capable of carrying a human aloft through the growth of the industry prior to the Second World War. American aircraft production in those early years, and even up to the start of WWII, was still largely one of handcrafted construction by skilled craftspeople. The assembly line technique employed in the auto industry was not the norm. Manufacturers were all too aware that aviation pioneer Glenn Martin had moved into a large factory in 1929, only to end up in bankruptcy a short time later after the stock market crashed.
With the dawn of WWII, rapid innovation and maximization of production became a necessity. In Southern California, known in the aircraft industry as the Southland, manufacturers collaborated in ways that would have been unimaginable before the war had begun or after it had ended. As Yenne explains:
The Southland manufacturers—Consolidated, Douglas, Lockheed, North American, Northrup and others—shared inventions, technical information, and materials through their Aircraft War Production Council. This involved 10,000 material exchanges and 1,500 technical reports in 1942 alone. As with the American aircraft industry in general, Southland manufacturers evolved faster production methods, enlarged factories, built new plants, combed the country for technicians, and started new training schools. Women were hired by the thousands. From a negligible proportion, they became 35 percent of the total aviation workforce in the Southland by the beginning of 1943.
Think about that for a moment. More than a third of the Southland workforce that was building the greatest weapons in the American arsenal was women. With the men off fighting the war, it was left to the women to venture out into the workforce so that they could fill the jobs previously held by men. How empowering must it have been for those women who were building the planes that allowed the Allies to win the war? It is no wonder that within a generation, women would begin their long fight towards their inevitable integration as permanent members of the American work force.
Yenne’s exploration of the technological advancements in the aircraft industry, the growth of giant aircraft facilities to accommodate military needs, and the evolution of the role of women in industry is both fascinating and enlightening. He reminds us in every page that the development of the American aircraft in the industry was much more than an allocation of resources to accomplish a task. It required cultural evolution against a backdrop of military planning, and Yenne captures that with an energy that is not usually associated with a story that fundamentally revolves around an assembly line. Even more compelling than the text, The American Aircraft Factory in WWII also includes an essential compilation of aviation industry photographs. They are photos that capture the industrial might of the United States, the military strength of an emerging global leader, and the faces of the everyday people who built the American aircraft industry into the world leader that it had become by 1945.
More than anything, however, this is a story of the planes that allowed the United States to enter a war half a world away. Planes had largely given the Axis powers the advantage in the early years of the global conflict and it was American planes that shifted the balance of power back to the Allies. Those very same planes that won the war also paved the way for US economic dominance during most of the latter half of the twentieth century, for the social changes of the women’s movement that flowered twenty years later, and even the America’s victory in the race to the moon. In the American Aircraft Factory in World War II, Yenne pays fitting tribute to the cultural, military and social influence that American planes had on the American way of life during the Second World War. Readers will find it difficult not to become fans of military aviation history and of the men and women who gave us that history on the factory floors of America and in the skies over Europe and the Pacific Rim.
Books mentioned in this column:
David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.