Chapter 9: Expansion of Aircraft Production
THE success of the American aircraft production program during World War II was to a large extent the result of bold prewar action and a consequent expansion of industrial capacity in 1940 and 1941. The high priority accorded the production of aircraft during those two years made possible the victories over Germany and Japan in 1945 – triumphs which certainly would have been delayed had it not been for the overwhelming air supremacy achieved by U.S. armed forces as early as 1944.
Until 1940 the American aircraft industry had continued to operate on a handwork basis. Each plane, though conforming to the standard for other planes of its type and model, had the distinctive qualities of any handcraft product. By 1942 the industry had been converted to mass-production methods, and with government aid in the expansion of plant facilities, the assembly lines stood ready to roll out planes by the thousands and on time schedules that theretofore would have been regarded as impossible. More than that, the automotive industry, leader in the development of mass-production methods, was in process of conversion to the production of aircraft and aircraft parts. Almost 90 per cent of the enormous costs involved in such expansion and conversion were met by the government. The job of providing the necessary productive capacity was virtually complete before the United States had been at war one year.
Such mobilization plans as existed in 1938 reflected earlier uncertainties as to the national military objective and suffered from the lack of legislative authority and necessary funds. The critical
production problem had seemed to be that of allocating industrial facilities among the several procurement agencies of the Army, including the Air Corps, and between the Army and the Navy. The Army-Navy Munitions Board served in the latter sphere, while the task of avoiding costly competition among Army agencies fell to the office of the Assistant Secretary of War. Field procurement offices of the several technical services had surveyed some 20,000 of the nation’s industrial plants, approximately half of which had been earmarked for conversion to particular types of munitions production in the event of war. But the services had no right to place orders in accordance with these surveys. The Air Corps, for instance, was bound by law to a procedure of competitive bidding in the placing of its contracts, and this allowed no room for the awarding of contracts in accordance with M-day allocations of production facilities. When Congress authorized negotiated contracts in July 1940, previously established allocations already had become for the most part meaningless. Plans had called for detailed production surveys of allocated facilities with a view to determining the monthly production to be expected after M-day, but Congress was slow to provide the funds necessary for such surveys, and the time lag between the fixing of a requirement and the completion of the survey tended to be such as to render the survey out of date by the time it was finished. All M-day plans, moreover, had been geared to estimates of requirements so modest as to have little practical utility for the huge program of aircraft expansion launched in 1939–40.1
The most practical and potentially the most fruitful of the measures proposed in the pre-Munich era was the “educational order.” Allocations of plants and plant surveys could give no real assurance of the manufacturer’s capacity to deliver the materiel as required, for any industry trying to produce an unfamiliar and complicated military item faced very serious problems, especially of tooling, which could lead to costly delay in the attainment of quantity production. Since 1927 the War Department had made persistent efforts to secure approval for a program of educational orders – i.e., for actual production contracts with selected companies for small quantities of items expected to be in critical supply in time of war. Such orders were intended to test a company’s ability to produce the item, to give it necessary experience, and to secure production data which otherwise could not be had. But Congress failed to enact the necessary
legislation until June 1938, and only in 1939, under the pressure of a deteriorating world situation, did Congress provide liberal funds for the purpose.2
Even then, the War Department was reluctant to give the Air Corps any substantial portion of the $34.5 million appropriated for educational orders during fiscal years 1939 through 1941. Although the Air Corps submitted proposed orders and Arnold urged that funds be made available, the industrial planners judged that the Army’s technical services, and particularly the Ordnance Department, had the greater need.3 This probably was true, for the Air Corps, which always had maintained a close working relationship with industry in preference to any substantial dependence on government arsenals, was undoubtedly in better position than were most of its sister arms to plan its expansion on the basis of a practical knowledge of industrial capacities. Moreover, by this time a mounting flood of foreign orders and the newly inaugurated Air Corps program were bringing into use most of the facilities of the aircraft industry. Only in the development of supplementary facilities would the educational order have served a real purpose, and here the aircraft industry, which feared the creation of future competition, opposed Air Corps proposals to place educational orders with automotive firms, and until 1940 the War Department respected the industry’s wishes.4 Prior to that year the Air Corps received no funds for educational orders, and of the $14.5 million ultimately allotted to it, $11 million came only in 1941 for educational orders with Ford, Chrysler, and Hudson in connection with plans for their conversion to heavy bomber production.5
By all odds the most important single stimulus to the early expansion of the American aircraft industry was the demand for its products growing out of the desperate attempt by England and France to offset the great superiority of the German Luftwaffe. Indeed, it is perhaps not too much to say that the expansion financed by British and French funds in 1939 and 1940 advanced by as much as a year the time within which American aircraft production would reach its peak.
The Air Corps long had favored export of military aircraft to foreign countries as a means of maintaining and possibly increasing the productive capacity of the American aircraft industry, and during the 1930’s, partly in response to pressure from the industry, it progressively
had liberalized its policy of releasing Air Corps production models for export to selected countries, although the latest models were withheld. This policy ran counter to public sentiment against “munitions traffic,” and the Anglo-French allies in placing their orders were forced to accept the special hazard imposed by the neutrality legislation of the mid-1930’s, which placed an embargo upon the shipment of arms and munitions to belligerents. Nevertheless, between the spring of 1938 and September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, the two countries placed orders in the United States for more than 1,500 planes – most of them training types or obsolescent Air Corps models like the P-36A, B-10B, and P-35.6
The invocation of the Neutrality Act at the outbreak of war served to penalize the victims of aggression rather than the aggressor, as Roosevelt had previously warned. Although his earlier efforts to secure repeal of the arms embargo had been unsuccessful, Roosevelt persisted, and after a bitter debate Congress lifted the arms embargo on 4 November 1939, placing munitions sales to belligerents on a “cash and carry” basis. Use of American vessels for delivery of munitions was still barred, but British and French ships could now pick up aircraft and other munitions in American ports. During the last months of 1939 the Anglo-French Purchasing Commission placed additional orders which brought the number of planes undelivered to approximately 2,500. The Air Corps agreed to the release of later-model planes, including the B-18A, the A-20A, and the P-40. In January 1940 the two countries began negotiations for the purchase of 8,200 combat planes and 20,000 engines of the same types and models as they had been purchasing, delivery to be made by September 1941. But the futility of buying obsolescent planes for use against the Luftwaffe soon impressed itself on the French and British, and on 14 March 1940 they asked for permission to negotiate with the aircraft companies for later combat models, expressing a willingness to accept deliveries into 1942.7
This request posed a major problem for the Air Corps because it would require deferment of Air Corps deliveries in favor of the RAF and the French Air Force. After a careful analysis, however, Arnold and his staff concluded that the benefits to the United States would outweigh the disadvantages. Although deliveries to the Air Corps undoubtedly would be delayed, the increase in productive capacity and the consequent aid to the acquisition of still later models than those
being released appeared to compensate for the risk. In return for releasing late models for export, the government could require the manufacturers to make extensive improvements in production and development models at no cost or at an adjusted cost to the U.S. government. In addition, the British and French governments had agreed to furnish the Air Corps with combat performance data on the aircraft to be released, data which promised no all advantage. The President approved the new foreign sales policy on 25 March 1940, with the Air Corps agreeing to the release of a large number of its latest models, among them the P-38, B-17, B-24, B-25, and B-26.8
The adoption of the new release policy preceded the German invasion of Norway by fifteen days and the invasion of France and the Low Countries by less than two months. During April and May the Anglo-French Purchasing Commission ordered approximately 6,000 combat planes from North American, Curtiss, Lockheed, Boeing, Douglas, Martin, Bell, and Consolidated. After the fall of France in June, the British took over all French orders in the United States. As of 23 July, Great Britain had 8,275 planes and 21,485 engines on order and undelivered. The United States agreed to permit the British to place orders for 6,118 more planes to be delivered by 1 April 1942 and to exercise options for 21,000 additional engines by 31 December 1942.9 During August and September 1940 the British placed orders for the additional 6,000 planes authorized in July, bringing to more than 14,000 the total of their planned purchases. Engine orders totaled 25,000 with options for 28,000 more. The value of these contracts, about $1.5 billion, represented half of the dollar-volume of all British munitions contracts in the United States at the time.10
By the close of 1940 the British were nearing the end of their capacity to pay for munitions in the United States, and because of the Johnson Act of 1934, which forbade credits of any kind to nations that had defaulted on World War I obligations to the United States, there was no way for them to secure the needed credit. But the President at this critical point called upon the United States to become the “arsenal of democracy,” with the ultimate result that the Lend-Lease Act of 11 March 1941 authorized the transfer of weapons and equipment to countries whose defense was considered vital to the defense of the United States. Existing British contracts remained in force, and deliveries on them were made into 1944.11
All of the larger, and some of the smaller, aircraft companies participated
in the expansion, which began to assume boom proportions in the spring of 1940. Boeing, Lockheed, Douglas, Martin, Consolidated, North American, and Curtiss – the larger airframe manufacturers – greatly expanded their capacity during this period. Lockheed, an early recipient of large British orders, more than doubled its manufacturing floor space. Smaller firms like Bell, Vultee, Fairchild, and Brewster also added new space. Both Wright Aeronautical and Pratt & Whitney enlarged their engine plants, the latter quadrupling its capacity between May 1938 and May 1940. Hamilton Standard Propellers tripled its capacity between 1938 and 1940.12 According to the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce, the industry spent more than $52 million for plant expansion and installations of new equipment between 8 September 1939 and 10 July 1940. Of this amount, more than $34 million went into engine and propeller plants and $13 million into airframe plants, while the remainder was for accessories and instruments plants.13 The floor space in airframe, engine, and propeller plants increased as follows:14
|1 Jan. 1939||7,479||1,726||250||9,455|
|1 Jan. 1940||9,606||3,018||492||13,116|
|1 Jan. 1941||17,943||6,463||1,050||25,456|
* In thousands of square feet
In February 1941 Secretary Stimson declared that but “for the early British orders, and the French orders which were subsequently taken over by the British, we would have at this time only a small fraction of the existing aircraft plants and productive facilities.” Information supplied by the Air Corps indicated that up to 30 June 1940 the French and British had entered into commitments for aircraft plant extension and production acceleration charges totaling $72,153,000. Similar commitments by the British after 30 June 1940 totaled an additional $51,231,000, making a grand total of $123,384,000 down to February 1941. Anglo-French orders had increased the aircraft engine capacity of the country approximately four times over the previous existing capacity – an increase accomplished for the most part in advance of the enlarged U.S. defense program in June 1940. For the seven principal airframe and three engine manufacturers capital investments derived from the same sources had provided 6,294,000 square feet of additional floor area.15
The Problem of Plant Expansion
Meantime, the War Department had been shaping policies for a government-sponsored expansion of aircraft production that would dwarf anything theretofore envisioned. The President’s move to stimulate aircraft production in the fall of 1938 had prompted close study of the problem both in the Air Corps and at higher echelons. First thought suggested that the immediate need was to create a stand-by capacity for the production of 10,000 planes per year. Discussions between Assistant Secretary of War Louis Johnson and General Arnold included the possibility of building government-owned factories for the purpose.16 That funds could be provided to underwrite such a policy seemed doubtful, and during 1939 attention tended to focus on three courses of action: expansion of plant by the manufacturers themselves, encouragement of more subcontracting, and conversion of facilities outside the industry, particularly those of the automotive industry. Of the three possibilities, the larger aircraft manufacturers, fearful lest any other solution create new competition for them, preferred the first, and they looked with special disfavor on any proposal for construction of standby government factories.17
When after the beginning of the war in Europe the Air Corps raised its estimates of required wartime production to 40,000 planes per year, this goal was 25,000 above the estimated potential capacity of the existing industrial plant.* In order to meet the deficit, Arnold recommended construction by the government of 20 factories, at an estimated cost of $7 million each, with an annual capacity of 1,200 planes each. To meet requirements for more than 82,000 engines, existing plants would be enlarged, new factories would be built, or part of the automobile industry would be converted to manufacture of aircraft engines. He suggested specific locations for the new plants and advised that corresponding increases in productive capacity for a host of additional items would be required.18 But, for the most part, these proposals were not put into effect. Such expansion of productive capacity as took place was underwritten by private capital on the prospect of continuing foreign and U.S. orders. In this expansion the
* Since most aircraft plants were operating on little more than a one-shift basis, it is obvious that their potential capacity with existing plant was considerably greater than their actual production of less than 4,000 civilian and military planes in 1938. But since military planes are usually much heavier than civilian planes, it is likely that the estimated capacity of 15,000 military planes was overoptimistic.
Air Corps lent its encouragement especially to the development of an additional capacity for the production of engines, already a critical problem for the Air Corps.19
Even before the President’s call in May 1940 for 50,000 planes, the Air Corps had begun to think in terms of an annual productive capacity reaching that total.20 On 20 May, four days after the President’s historic demand, General Brett urged some 125 representatives of the aircraft industry meeting in Washington to speed up their current deliveries pending adoption of specific government programs. He posed for them the alternatives of government or private construction of additional facilities and emphasized the critical importance of the engine industry, which threatened to provide the chief bottleneck. A day later, Brett recommended to the Secretary of the Treasury that the government build new engine plants to be operated by the more important engine manufacturers. Strangely enough, even in early June, when the outlines of the long-range programs were already beginning to emerge, Brett believed that the airframe companies should not expand their plants until they were all working at their maximum existing capacity. But as the pressure for accelerated production mounted during June, it became clear that airframe as well as engine capacity would have to be greatly increased.21 The armed services and the NDAC quickly agreed that the government would have to build much of the additional plant but that every encouragement should be given to the augmentation of privately owned facilities and that government-owned plants should be privately operated.22
But agreement with industry on the terms for its expansion proved to be unexpectedly difficult. Under the provisions of the Vinson-Trammell Act of 1934 as amended in 1939, profits were to be limited on government contracts for aircraft to 12 per cent of cost, and for naval vessels to 10 per cent, limitations which also applied to sub-contractors. The initial expansion of aircraft production had taken place under the provisions of this act, but when Congress, on 28 June 1940, lowered the limit on aircraft contracts from 12 to 8 per cent, the manufacturers promptly refused to sign the proffered contracts. Arguing that prospective rises in the cost of labor and materials made it impossible to estimate costs accurately, the leaders of the industry also emphasized the many other uncertainties which must attend the transition to mass production of new types and models.23 It was still a young industry with a relatively small capital base and no real experience
with large-scale production. After years of hand-to-mouth existence in which only the strongest had managed to survive, the industry demanded additional guarantees against the risks it was called upon to assume. The manufacturers were especially emphatic in their insistence upon relief by tax amortization of the proposed new construction. Under existing law, they maintained, it would take them sixteen to twenty years to amortize the cost of proposed construction against taxes. If the emergency lasted only a short time (and it must be remembered that the country was not yet at war), they would be left with surplus facilities built at great cost. They asked, accordingly, for legislation permitting the amortization of new facilities against taxes over a period of five years or the duration of the emergency, which might be less than five years. This would permit them to write off the cost of the new plant facilities at a rate of at least 20 per cent per year instead of 5 per cent. The President and the military services agreed that the proposal was reasonable and urged Congress to act.24
During the summer of 1940, while Congress debated the subjects of profit limitation and tax amortization, aircraft procurement came virtually to a complete halt. In August, seven weeks after Congress had appropriated $400 million for the purchase of 4,000 planes, the War Department had succeeded in signing contracts for only 33 planes, although General Brett and Colonel Volandt had been ready to negotiate the contracts as early as 15 June. By 20 August contracts for only 343 combat aircraft had been let in the preceding 100 days. It looked to many people as if the aircraft industry were on strike against the government, placing its profits ahead of patriotism and retarding industrial expansion and production to a dangerous extent. But the military services and the NDAC to a considerable extent sympathized with the manufacturers’ difficult position. Consequently, the administration played an important part in persuading Congress to substitute a tax on excess profits for a fixed limitation of profits and to permit tax amortization of emergency facilities over a period of five years. The desired legislation was passed early in October, but some manufacturers, loaded down with lucrative British orders, were still not anxious for government contracts.25
Although contracts for aircraft and for the expansion of facilities had been delayed through the whole summer, negotiations with industry continued. At the end of July the major manufacturers agreed to begin expanding facilities to meet the requirements of the Air
Corps’ 18,000-plane program. Without exception they preferred enlarging existing plants to building new ones, but the War Department and the NDAC believed that it would also be necessary to construct new plants in the interior of the country. In order to get the expansion under way pending the signing of contracts, the Assistant Secretary of War on 15 August authorized purchases by the manufacturers of the jigs, dies, tools, fixtures, materials, and other equipment which would be needed for production – items adding up to costs greater than that for the new plant construction itself.26
The War Department and the NDAC had hoped that private capital might finance much of the new construction, but as the increasing scope of the expansion became apparent, the hope was quickly dispelled. Many companies and banks were unwilling to take even the limited risks which remained after the enactment into law of the new tax-amortization plan. Accordingly, the government devised several methods for financing or guaranteeing the financing of new construction. Where the manufacturer desired to own the plant outright, he could borrow the necessary funds from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. A second procedure permitted the manufacturer to borrow either from banks or the Defense Plant Corporation, a subsidiary of the RFC, under the terms of an emergency-plants-facility contract which guaranteed that the government would pay the full cost of the facility in not more than five annual installments; when payment had been completed, the government would assume title to the property unless the manufacturer desired to purchase it. More commonly, the government simply built the plant at its own cost, usually acting through the Defense Plant Corporation, and then leased it to a private concern for operation. The property reverted to government control at the end of the lease, unless other disposition was directed. By February 1941 federal financing of new plant facilities had reached a figure almost ten times the sum invested by private agencies.27
The initial goal in this expansion of plant facilities was the creation of a capacity for production of 35,000 to 40,000 planes per year by 1942; the ultimate goal was a capacity of 50,000 planes to be reached at a yet undetermined date. In the summer of 1940 the industry’s maximum existing capacity was 15,000 planes per year. William S. Knudsen of the NDAC, assisted by Dr. George J. Mead and Theodore P. Wright of its Aeronautical Section, played an especially important part in putting the expansion program into effect. Under
Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson acted as the key War Department official, as he did in so many other areas of the munitions program. The Air Corps officers in Washington and at Wright Field most immediately concerned were General Echols, Brig. Gen. Kenneth B. Wolfe, Brig. Gen. Frederick M. Hopkins, Jr., Col. Philip Schneeberger, Col. Edwin W. Rawlings, and Col. J. C. Vaughan.28
In spite of the concern over engine production as the most likely bottleneck, plans for expansion of airframe capacity matured more rapidly and were put into effect more quickly. These plans provided for expansion of the floor space of the assembly plants by about 200 per cent, some 225 per cent for the larger companies and 60 per cent for the smaller ones. This concentration on the larger companies was logical from a production standpoint, although many observers objected. The seven major airframe manufacturers undertook to increase their floor space from approximately eight million to more than eighteen million square feet at an estimated cost of $83,082,000. Curtiss-Wright initiated the largest expansion – more than three million square feet. In addition to the enlargement of its Buffalo plant, two new factories – at Columbus, Ohio, and at St. Louis – were planned. Consolidated, Boeing, Douglas, Martin, Lockheed, and North American each planned expansions ranging from 700,000 to 2,000,000 square feet. The lesser airframe manufacturers – Bell, Republic, Vultee, Ryan, Fairchild, and Beech – launched smaller programs.29 Most of the companies produced planes for both services, but since the Air Corps had the larger organization and the greater interest, it took cognizance, by agreement with the Navy, over most of the plants.*
Two companies, Wright and Pratt & Whitney, dominated aircraft engine production. By the end of 1940 both of them had agreed to undertake a large expansion of their facilities, with Wright building a new plant at Lockland, Ohio, near Cincinnati. Even so, there seemed to be no prospect of meeting the full need without using the resources of the automobile industry, and it was for engine manufacture that this industry was first drawn into aircraft production. When the British made their Rolls-Royce Merlin (V-1650) engine available for production in the United States in June 1940, Knudsen made a vigorous effort to persuade the Ford Motor Company to produce it,
*Among the seven major companies, only Consolidated fell to Navy cognizance.
but Henry Ford adamantly refused to accept the condition that he produce partly for the British. Knudsen then turned to the Packard Motor Car Company, which agreed to accept a contract for a large number of the engines. In September NDAC persuaded Ford to build a new plant at Dearborn, Michigan, for manufacture of engines as a licensee of Pratt & Whitney. During the fall the Allison Division of General Motors at its own expense began a large expansion of its Indianapolis plant.30
Next after airframes and engines came provision for a greatly expanded production of propellers, landing gear, gun turrets, oleo struts,* and a host of other parts and accessories, all of them necessary to the completed aircraft and most of them produced by separate companies which specialized in the provision of particular items. Some of the companies enjoyed a virtual monopoly in their fields, and like the airframe manufacturers, they preferred enlarging their own plants to subcontracting or licensing other firms to make their products. Hamilton Standard Propellers, for instance, was quite frank in telling an Air Corps representative early in 1940 that it wished to retain its monopoly on hydraulic propellers and therefore was not interested in subcontracting or in having other companies enter the field. Cleveland Pneumatic Tool Company and Bendix Aviation, Limited, made practically all of the oleo struts and held all of the patents. Such companies as Hamilton Standard, Wright Propeller, Sperry Gyroscope, Bendix, Cleveland Pneumatic Tool, and other long-time suppliers to the Air Corps expanded their facilities many times over between 1940 and 1945, but it was still necessary to convert a large number of additional firms to production of the same items. Frequently OPM and the Air Corps had to exert strong pressure to overcome the initial resistance to bringing new suppliers into production. Ford, the Delco Products Division of General Motors, the Hughes Tool Company, the Menasco Manufacturing Company of Burbank, California, and the A. O. Smith Corporation of Milwaukee were added to the suppliers of oleo struts, a particularly crucial item in the early years. Eventually, Emerson Electric of St. Louis, Steel Products Engineering Company of Springfield, Ohio, the Briggs Manufacturing Company of Detroit, and General Electric joined Sperry Gyroscope, the original supplier, in the production of gun turrets.31
* Shock absorbers on landing gear.
The Bomber Program
The expansion of aircraft production facilities had barely got under way in the fall of 1940 when the demand for more bombers provoked a second wave of expansion. Anticipating the future need for more heavy bombers, Arnold early in September recommended to Patterson that the government build two plants for bomber and one for fighter production. Shortly after, Knudsen proposed that the government build two bomber plants with a monthly capacity of 6 planes each,* and the President approved the plan on 16 November.32
The War Department had decided that new defense plants should be built in the interior of the country at least 200 miles from the borders, and the Air Corps selected Omaha and Tulsa as the sites for the two new plants. But the hard facts of the nation’s economic structure made the policy difficult to follow. The greater part of American industry was concentrated along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts or in the Great Lakes region. Manufacturers in general resisted proposals for a transfer of their operations to areas remotely situated from established centers of labor and technical skills, and not without reason. As Knudsen once explained to General Marshall; “We can’t move Detroit.”33 The industrialists’ reluctance to invest in dispersed plant facilities was at odds with the government’s hope that private capital could finance new inland construction; hence, the War Department could carry out its policy only to the extent that the government was willing to put up the money.34
The original plan for increased bomber construction called for assembly of 200 medium bombers per month at Omaha and coo heavy bombers per month at Tulsa. Further study in December 1940 revealed that it would be impossible to reach this level of production in the two plants, even if subcontractors were used on a large scale, as was planned. The solution was to build four plants instead of two and to bring automotive firms increasingly into the picture as manufacturers of subassemblies. At Omaha, Martin would make 100 B-26’s per month from parts and assemblies to be built by the Hudson Motor Car Company, the Chrysler Corporation, and the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation, all of which were to expand their facilities. North American Aviation undertook to assemble 100 B-25’s per month
* In October 1940 the NDAC estimated that the prospective monthly productive capacity of the industry was 96 heavy bombers and 305 medium bombers as of 1 January 1942 and 102 heavies and 320 mediums as of 1 June 1942.
at Kansas City, using both its own subassemblies and those supplied by the Fisher Body Division of General Motors and other subcontractors. The production of heavy bombers on the scale planned was too large an undertaking for the original producers to handle alone, and the Air Corps decided to form a pool of manufacturers to produce the B-24, its most immediate concern in the fall of 1940. Douglas and Ford were selected to join with Consolidated, the creator of the plane, in producing the 100 B-24’s required above the production planned at Consolidated’s San Diego home plant. At a gigantic new plant to be built at Willow Run near Ypsilanti, Michigan, Ford would make 100 “knock-down” sets of B-24’s per month. Using these and other components, Consolidated was to assemble 50 B-24’s per month at a new plant at Fort Worth, and Douglas, though initially reluctant to participate in the pool, would assemble an equal number at the new plant in Tulsa.35 Contracts for construction by the four new assembly plants were not signed until February and March 1941. The two medium bomber plants were to be built on a scale large enough to permit ready adaptation to heavy bomber production.
Greater numbers of two- and four-engine planes required a huge increase in engine production. Knudsen, wanting to get new capacity as quickly as possible, turned again to automobile companies for manufacture of engines under license from the established concerns. The Buick Division of General Motors and the Studebaker Corporation agreed to produce engines for the bombers under license from Pratt & Whitney and promptly undertook major expansions of existing plants or construction of new ones. Wright Aeronautical preferred to expand its own plants or to build branch factories rather than license other companies for production of its engines. The patterns established at this time, with Pratt & Whitney licensing other companies and Wright seeking to retain control of final assembly of its engines, persisted throughout the war.36
The British in October 1940 had urged consideration of additional construction to increase capacity to a maximum delivery rate of 4,250 planes per month by early 1942. At the time, Arnold opposed any further increase on the ground that it would “overtax the aircraft industry to a point where the efficiency of the industry may be seriously jeopardized.”37 But requirements, both British and American, continued to grow, and at the end of the year Robert A. Lovett, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of War, suggested that monthly
productive capacity be increased to 5,000 planes.38 In February 1941 Lovett again recommended to Stimson that additional plant be provided, and OPM made similar recommendations, pointing out that the President’s goal of an annual production of 50,000 planes could not be met with existing and projected facilities.39 The adoption of lend-lease in March and the President’s acceptance in May of a program for the production of 500 four-engine bombers per month removed the question of a further expansion of plant from the area of debate. Four-engine planes required far more floor space for assembly than did the smaller single-engine planes, and they required far more materials, parts, and labor. More than that, as noted in earlier pages,* the whole trend of aircraft development during World War II was toward an increase of the size and weight of virtually every Air Corps model, and this trend, already apparent in 1941, would repeatedly require upward adjustment of estimates on needed plant capacity.
Fortunately, from the standpoint of construction if not of production, most of the new facilities already contracted for had not been completed and some had not even been begun. Much of the new expansion, therefore, could be secured by mere revision of previous plans so as to provide for larger facilities. To meet the augmented requirement for B-17’s, the Air Corps and OPM organized a pool similar to that established for the manufacture of B-24’s. Douglas and Vega agreed to produce B-17’s under license from Boeing, and the three companies formed one of the most effective production teams of the war. Boeing agreed to enlarge its B-17 plant at Seattle and to build a new one at Wichita for B-29 production. Douglas contracted for a new B-17 plant at Long Beach, California, and Vega greatly expanded its plant at Burbank. In order to meet higher requirements for B-24’s, the assembly plants at Tulsa and Fort Worth were to be expanded to permit assembly of 75 planes each per month instead of 50. Ford’s Willow Run plant was to be enlarged by about 200 per cent for production of 150 “knock-down” assemblies and 200 complete “fly-away” planes per month.40
Greater engine capacity was to be secured by expanding the planned Ford and Buick output by more than 100 per cent. The Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors agreed to construct two new plants for the manufacture of Pratt & Whitney engines, and the Jacobs Aircraft Engine Company undertook to enlarge its plant at
* See above, Chapter 6, passim.
Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in order to help meet requirements for training-plane engines.41
Hardly had these plans for upward adjustments become firm before the Victory Program of September 1941 raised the sights for aircraft production far beyond anything yet scheduled. Once more the new program gave heavier emphasis to the big bombers, and by November Echols and Knudsen (at that time Director General of OPM) were discussing expansion of heavy bomber production to a monthly rate of 1,000 by 30 June 1944.42 Just after Pearl Harbor, Lovett made an official recommendation that this be the goal.*
On 7 December 1941, “not one of the new plants authorized after June 1940 and designed to build combat planes had yet produced a single plane; and none of them was destined to get into full production before 1943.”43 But much of the proposed expansion of existing plants had been completed, and these plants were ready to carry the burden of production through the first year of the war. As yet the vast automotive industry had been utilized for aircraft production to but a fraction of its potential capacity, partly because of its reluctance to convert, partly because of the resistance of aircraft manufacturers to proposals for such a conversion, and partly because it had not been economically expedient to divert the industry precipitately from car and truck production.44
As former barriers to an all-out production effort disappeared, the government turned on full pressure. The AAF ordered construction of facilities to be placed on a 24-hour schedule and assumed the increased cost involved.45 Once more the upward revision of aircraft requirements forced reconsideration of a program of plant expansion to which the government already had committed above a billion dollars. On 16 December 1941 Lovett recommended that “steps be taken at once to develop a program for conversion of existing plants engaged in other types of manufacture, for construction of new plants and facilities, particularly for aircraft engines, for all Government furnished equipment,” and for all other items connected with aircraft. He now proposed that heavy bomber production be increased to 1,500 per month and that other combat types be increased 25 to 35 per cent above their scheduled maximum. On 7 January 1942
* See above, p. 277.
Stimson further increased the heavy bomber goal, notifying Knudsen that provision should be made for the production of 2,000 heavy bombers per month at the earliest date.46 Production planning anticipated to a very large extent the new goals announced by the President on 6 January.
To provide additional airframe capacity the government contracted for six huge new assembly plants. Bell, at Marietta, Georgia, and the Fisher Body Division of General Motors, at Cleveland, would build B-29’s,* while North American would produce B-24’s at a new plant in Dallas. The need for increased production of transport aircraft would be met by plants at Oklahoma City and Chicago, to be operated by Douglas, and by a plant at Kenmore, New York, to be operated by Curtiss-Wright. Republic Aviation, whose new P-47 looked like the answer to the AAF’s need for an outstanding fighter plane, would build and operate a new plant at Evansville, Indiana, and enlarge its home plant at Farmingdale, Long Island. The smaller companies – Aeronca, Bellanca, Fairchild, Beech, Northrop, Howard, McDonnell, Globe – which had been expanded very little before Pearl Harbor, were provided with funds for new plants or extensions to existing ones. The vastly increased demand for trainers and light transports, which these companies were equipped to build, brought them into the class of major contractors for the first time. Previously, the AAF had regarded them chiefly as subcontractors for the larger companies.47
Allison, Buick, Chevrolet, Ford, Studebaker, and Wright Aeronautical all enlarged their existing facilities for engine production, while the Dodge Division of the Chrysler Corporation undertook construction in Chicago of what eventually became the largest plant sponsored by the AAF. Larger than the more publicized Ford plant at Willow Run, it eventually cost $173 million, including tools and equipment, and had a floor area of 6,430,000 square feet – an area equal to the entire floor space of the aircraft engine industry on 1 January 1941. The Continental Aviation and Engineering Corporation built a new plant at Muskegon, Michigan, and Wright later built a large plant at Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, in addition to expanding its Lockland plant. Production facilities for generators, superchargers, magnetos, piston rings, and other components underwent a comparable expansion.48
* Fisher Body never assembled B-29’s but built parts and subassemblies.
By the end of 1942 it was apparent that the industry would eventually have the plant capacity, if not the materials and tools, with which to meet the set production goals. Sums authorized after that year for new construction represented little more than 20 per cent of the total expended between 1940 and 1945. Some construction that might have been necessary later in the war was avoided by release of existing plants by other branches of the service, and particularly by the Ordnance Department.49
After 1942 a number of new plants were built to manufacture propeller blades, wings, turrets, and superchargers for B-29’s. New plants for the production of cargo planes were built by Higgins Aircraft, Inc., at New Orleans and by Fairchild at Hagerstown, Maryland. The Higgins venture was one of the AAF’s more expensive failures, for the New Orleans plant, at a cost of more than $23 million, produced only two C-46’s before the end of the war. The AAF got better returns from its sponsorship of the construction of nineteen modification centers at a cost of more than $75 million during late 1942 and 1943. During 1944 the AAF authorized large expenditures for construction of two engine plants to relieve a shortage of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines – one $40 million plant for the Continental Aviation and Engineering Corporation at Muskegon, Michigan, and a much smaller one for Packard at Toledo, Ohio. It was accepted that these plants could not get into full production before sometime in 1945. In July 1944 General Electric was authorized $25 million for conversion of a turbine plant at Syracuse, New York, to build I-40 jet engines. Other expenditures for facilities during the last eighteen months of the war were chiefly for retooling and for small extensions to existing plants. Expenditures for retooling were large, costs for individual plants ranging up to more than $18 million.50
In 1942 there were indications that the country had an excess of facilities for munitions production, and by the end of 1943 there could be little doubt of it. Surpluses of machine tools, noted in 1942, became substantial by the middle of 1943. Utilization of plants and tools was considerably less than planned, with few companies actually operating at full capacity. In May 1942, for instance, a number of major contractors, including Lockheed, Boeing, and North American, were working only five-day weeks, three shifts per day, at some of their plants. In December 1942 Arnold told his staff that the plants at Tulsa, Fort Worth, Kansas City, and Omaha were operating at 20
per cent of capacity or less. But these were all new plants which were just getting into production and would not reach full operation until late in 1943. Another factor which helped create an excess of facilities was the improvement of production techniques which resulted in much higher productivity per square foot of floor area than had been anticipated. Although deliveries were usually behind schedule, this was not caused by lack of facilities but by a failure to get them into full production on schedule. And the reasons for this were to be found in poor management, shortages of materials and labor, and other difficulties. It seems clear that during 1944 the country had the facilities to produce more munitions than it actually did, but the requirements did not exist. Indeed, aircraft programs were actually cut back during the year, and the number of employees in aircraft plants under AAF cognizance declined by more than 20 per cent.51
Why then, if there were excess facilities in existence, did the AAF authorize expenditure of more than $600 million in government funds for facilities during 1943–44? For the most part, these expenditures appear to have been necessary. A large portion went for expensive retooling of plants, including those of subcontractors, for production of later models of planes, engines, and other equipment; such retooling usually did not require new construction. Some of the funds were used for research and development facilities. Production of new types of planes, like the A-26 and the C-82, and new types of engines, especially jets, required new or additional facilities, because the companies which undertook to produce them had no others available. Although from time to time some plants were declared surplus, these were not always capable of adaptation to production of the desired planes or engines.52
The government provided 89 per cent of the $3,840,000,000 invested in aircraft plants between 1940 and 1945, most of it through the Defense Plant Corporation. This was almost one-sixth of the $25 billion invested in American manufacturing facilities, including plants, tools, and conversions, during the same period. The AAF sponsored direct government financing of more than $3 billion in aeronautical facilities, and the government financed indirectly, chiefly through accelerated tax amortization, the remaining amount. The largest share of the money expended under AAF cognizance, about 61 per cent, went for machinery and equipment. Only 35 per cent was for construction and alteration of buildings and 4 per cent for land, land improvements,
and miscellaneous items. Machine tools were the most important single item. At the end of 1944, according to one estimate, the government owned approximately 55 per cent of the facilities producing AAF materiel.53
The AAF sponsored the expansion of 57 airframe, glider, and sub-assembly plants; 18 modification plants; 8 engine plants; and 107 parts and accessories plants. Of the total of 290 government-sponsored plants (100 of them for the Navy), 61 cost more than $5 million each and represented three-fourths of the total government investment of $1,401,000,000 in land and buildings and 54 per cent of the $2,303,000,000 investment in machinery and equipment.54
Other measures of the increase in capacity are more revealing than the moneys expended or the number of plants involved. The expansion of floor space was as follows, in thousands of square feet:–
In terms of pounds of military airframes accepted, excluding spares, the increase in production was more than 4,000 per cent between 1940 and 1944. Production of combat-engine horsepower, including spares, increased more than 2,800 per cent between 1940 and 1944.55
Most of this enormous increase came from plants or plant extensions built after 1939. The new assembly plants, located chiefly in the Middle West, produced better than 35 per cent of the total airframe poundage between 1940 and 1944. Most of the engines manufactured during the war came also from new plants. Although a number of companies outside the industry engaged in manufacture of aircraft and engines, the established major aircraft companies continued to dominate production. Outside the established airframe industry, only Ford and the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors assembled aircraft on a large scale. Ford’s Willow Run plant ranked fourth among all plants in pounds of airframes accepted for the period 1940–44 and stood first in 1944. Twelve major prewar plants,* greatly enlarged
* Bell at Buffalo; Chance Vought at Stratford, Conn.; Curtiss-Wright at Buffalo; Grumman at Bethpage, N.Y.; Martin at Baltimore; Republic at Farmingdale, N.Y.; Boeing at Seattle; Consolidated at San Diego; Douglas at Santa Monica, Calif.; Douglas at El Segundo, Calif.; Lockheed “B” at Burbank, Calif.; and North American at Inglewood, Calif. All of these plants except Chance Vought, Grumman, and Consolidated Vultee were under AAF cognizance during the war.
by extensions, produced more than half of the airframe poundage (excluding spares) accepted between 1940 and 1944. The engine industry, to a much greater extent than the airframe industry, had to depend on licensees, almost all of them with the automotive industry. Automobile firms assembling engines as licensees produced more than half of all the engine horsepower delivered between 1940 and 1945.56
The majority of the new plants producing for the AAF got into full operation in 1943, the lag between initiation of construction and full operation ranging up to three and one-half years. The average elapsed time for an assembly plant was thirty-one months, of which eighteen months were required to bring out the first acceptable model. Fighter plants got into production more quickly than did the bomber plants. To expand a plant already in production and to bring it up to a revised schedule required about twenty-one months on the average. To change an operating plant from production of one type of plane to another type and to get it into full production required an average of twenty-eight months. This lag was less serious than it seems, for production of the first type was usually being tapered off while preparations were being made for the second, and the actual loss of time was therefore much less than twenty-eight months. To the surprise of the experts, who had expected assembly plants to get into production more quickly than engine plants, it took only twenty-three months to build a new engine plant and to get it into full operation. It took about the same length of time to convert an automotive engine factory to full production of aircraft engines. This was because the construction of the special machinery took about as long as the construction of a new plant. All in all, it usually required less time to convert a facility than to build a new one.57
Conversion of the Automotive Industry
The aircraft industry alone could not have achieved the remarkable production record of the years 1940–45. Its resources in 1940 were too limited to have permitted an expansion on the scale required. The additional resources of managerial and engineering talent and, to a lesser extent, of machinery and facilities, came chiefly from the giant automotive industry which, to most Americans, was the embodiment of the principle of mass production.
At first the aircraft manufacturers had consistently opposed the use of the automotive industry for the production of aircraft. The Air Corps, though giving early thought to the need for a different policy, agreed that automotive firms would not be treated as prime contractors for airplane production but only as subcontractors to the aeronautical firms, who should be left free to subcontract to companies of their own choice. The automotive industry, on its part, did not look on aircraft production as a fertile field, preferring not to venture into an industry which apparently offered greater problems and smaller returns than did the manufacture of cars and trucks.58
After the President’s announcement in May 1940 of an annual aircraft production goal of 50,000 planes, there was much speculation in the press as to the part that would be played by the automotive industry. This speculation received encouragement from Henry Ford’s announcement that he could produce 1,000 airplanes of standard design per day, and even Knudsen, who was in better position to understand the realities of aircraft production, was quoted as mentioning the “possibility that General Motors could produce 1,000 war planes a month.” But aircraft manufacturers, even during the summer and fall of 1940, continued to look with disfavor on proposals to use the automobile companies, and the latter, well embarked on their most prosperous period since 1929, showed even less inclination than before to devote any large part of their plant to aircraft production. Packard and General Motors, whose Allison Division became the third-ranking producer of combat aircraft engines in the country in 1940, helped in the solution of special problems, but the Air Corps still had no plans for the wholesale conversion of automotive facilities to aircraft production. Knudsen, himself one of the titans of the automobile world, announced in August 1940 that aircraft orders were not being placed with automobile companies because War Department plans called for their conversion only in the event of war. Until then, the NDAC did not propose to disrupt the peacetime schedules of the automobile companies.59
Since the differences between the production of automobile and aircraft engines were considerably less than those involved in the manufacture of automobile bodies and airframes, it was a natural development that brought the automobile industry into the aircraft program first for the production of engines.* The next step resulted
* It should be noted that neither the Ford contract nor the earlier Packard contract involved the conversion of automobile plants then in operation. Packard converted an unused Detroit plant and Ford engaged to build a new plant adjacent to its River Rouge plant at Dearborn at a cost of more than $20 million.
from the growing concern for augmentation of the bomber program. At a meeting in New York on 15 October 1940 with leaders of the industry, Knudsen presented an appeal for help in producing medium and heavy bombers, and this conference was followed ten days later by one in Detroit that included representatives of both the aircraft and automotive industries.60 Knudsen asked the automobile manufacturers to produce parts and subassemblies for 4,000 heavy bombers and 8,000 two-engine bombers, and urged them to conduct an over-all study, in conjunction with the aircraft manufacturers, of the production problems involved. Each company was to use its existing facilities and tools, plus such tools as its own tool and die makers could provide. There was no discussion of new plants, and it was clear that the automobile people would be subcontractors to the aircraft manufacturers who would assemble the planes in the new plants to be built by the government. Knudsen’s objective at this time was a limited one, and there was no suggestion of conversion of the industry on a large scale.61
At the government’s request, the industry subsequently established in Detroit an Automotive Committee for Air Defense and began surveys of available plant in order to determine what it could contribute to the program. The Air Corps stationed Maj. James H. Doolittle in Detroit as its liaison officer to assist the industry in its planning. As the bomber program took shape during the following winter and it was decided to construct four bomber assembly plants for operation by aircraft companies, Chrysler, Ford, Hudson, and the Fisher Body Division of General Motors became subcontractors for the manufacture of parts and sub-assemblies.62 But the government found it necessary to provide far more funds for plants and machine tools than had been anticipated. According to General Echols, the original plan “called for the maximum use of all existing facilities and ... no new facilities were to be financed by the government or the automobile industry for the specific purpose of building these airplane parts unless it was absolutely necessary.” Echols was disturbed at the failure of the “haves” in the automobile industry – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – to use, via subcontracting, the idle facilities and machines of the “have nots” – Willys-Overland, Graham-Paige, and others – and at their insistence on new facilities and tools.63 After OPM
had decided in January 1941 that there should be no curtailment of automobile production during the first half of 1941, the larger companies succeeded in obtaining government authorization for new plants and machine tools on the ground that they were necessary to the fulfillment of commitments to the aircraft program. Ford’s new plant at Willow Run was financed by the government, and Chrysler, Hudson, and Fisher Body all secured aid in the rehabilitation of existing plants. New plant added by Chrysler, as previously noted, was privately financed.64
The role of the automobile industry in the expanding preparedness program had become a topic of nation-wide discussion and controversy as a result of the publication in December 1940 of the so-called Reuther Plan. Late in the month and with the support of Philip Murray, president of the CIO, Walter P. Reuther, head of the United Automobile Workers, presented to a group of government officials a plan for the production of 500 fighter planes a day by the automotive industry without reduction of its normal operations. The proposal rested upon the argument that 50 per cent of the existing capacity of the industry was unused, that automobile engine plants could be readily converted to production of aircraft engines, and that the industry had both the tools and skilled labor necessary for the manufacture of wings and fuselages. He recommended that machine tools be pooled and that an aviation production board, including representatives of labor, organize and supervise the program.65 The proposal captured the imaginations of some government officials and much of the public. But neither the aircraft nor the automobile manufacturers could see much merit in the plan. The Wall Street journal reported that holders of “aircraft shares are not particularly pleased at the prospect that the automobile industry may use some of its facilities for mass production of planes.”66 Leaders of the aircraft industry were skeptical or scoffed at the idea of mass production of planes in a fashion comparable to that of automobiles. The automotive industry considered the plan technically unsound, and looked with distaste and even alarm on the suggestion that labor participate in the management of the proposed program.
The real question was the extent to which automobile plants and tools could be converted to the production of aircraft. In October 1940 the Air Corps had felt that automobile factories could not be used for airplane assembly plants without extensive alterations because
they lacked sufficient space and clearances for large-scale aircraft assembly. And since it might take as much as twenty months to build new assembly plants, there appeared to be no reason for great haste in converting the automobile plants to the manufacture of parts and sub-assemblies, a conversion that would require much less than twenty months.67 During the course of the debate over the Reuther Plan, estimates of the degree to which automobile plants could be converted to munitions production ranged from 10 to 50 or 60 per cent. The automobile companies maintained that only 10 or 15 per cent of their machine tools could be converted to the manufacture of munitions; the machine-tools industry and labor leaders placed the figure at 50 per cent. In the light of later developments, which in June 1942 saw a 66 per cent conversion of machine tools in the automotive industry, it seems that the automobile companies, granting their sincerity, were nevertheless inclined to minimize the possibilities for conversion.68 On the other hand, it may be questioned whether Reuther was right in his assumption that so large an aircraft program could have been undertaken without reducing the production of automobiles. It was his contention that idle facilities could be used with a resulting increase of employment and without cutback of normal production.
The Reuther Plan received a hearing from Knudsen, but its proponents could not develop a comprehensive program without the active cooperation of the automotive industry, and this was not forthcoming. Accordingly, by the end of January 1941 the plan was dismissed from further serious consideration by the government, and public discussion of it soon declined.69 From the point of view of defense needs, the chief weakness in the Reuther Plan was that it proposed to produce a weapon in much greater number than the Air Corps and the RAF needed.* Bombers, not fighters, had become the chief production problem by the fall of 1940, and a sufficient productive capacity for fighters already existed or could be readily provided. Making a standardized fighter plane in enormous quantities would not only have completely unbalanced the American and British air forces, but it would have consumed resources needed for production of other types of planes, especially bombers. The proposal apparently
* Although Reuther maintained that his plan could be adapted to production of bombers also, in smaller numbers than fighters, this aspect of his plan received little attention because of the spectacular effect of his mention of 500 fighters per day.
depended too much also on a false assumption as to the readiness with which Air Corps models could be frozen for purposes of mass production. Experience between 1940 and 1945 repeatedly demonstrated that the swift pace of aeronautical and tactical development denied the opportunity to freeze a given model for more than a very short time. Had existing models of 1940 been frozen for production on the scale proposed by Reuther, the results might have been disastrous.
Meanwhile, more automobile companies had agreed to join the ranks of those producing aircraft engines. In December 1940, the Studebaker Corporation received a contract for production of Wright R-2600 engines, and in January 1941 Buick Division of General Motors accepted a contract for Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engines. Both companies were to build new plants instead of using their existing ones. By this time it was clear to both the Air Corps and the OPM that no one of the automobile companies would sacrifice its competitive position in the industry by converting its own existing facilities unless all of its competitors did likewise. The only alternative was to provide them with new facilities and tools, and this the government felt obliged to do.70
The mounting pressure for aircraft production during 1941 continued to focus attention on the automotive industry even after the Reuther Plan was dismissed from consideration. Lovett, obviously aiming his remarks at the automotive industry, had suggested at the very end of 1940 that “certain existing facilities should be promptly diverted to war plane and engine production.” He thought that the time had come “to compel, if necessary, the big aircraft companies to sub-contract their work where this can be done without jeopardizing quality.”71 But there was another aspect to the problem in addition to that of providing more facilities for manufacturing airplanes. The rapid and continuous increase in automobile production was consuming large quantities of metals and other materials needed for the production of aircraft and munitions.* The economic power of the automobile industry permitted it to compete successfully with defense production for these materials and for equipment and services vital to both. Here was a more compelling reason for converting the automotive
* The automobile industry estimated that in 1939 it used 18 per cent of all the steel used in the United States, 34 per cent of the lead, 50 per cent of the rubber, 23 per cent of the plate glass, 13.7 per cent of the copper, 11.4 per cent of the tin, and 9.7 per cent of the aluminum.
industry to aircraft production than was the need for more facilities. The necessity to choose between “guns and butter,” or at least to readjust the existing balance between the two, became too pressing to be avoided, and on 3 May 1941 OPM issued an order curtailing automobile production by 20 per cent for the model year beginning
August 1941. The automobile industry used the intervening period to stockpile materials, especially steel, and to drive production of can and trucks to new heights since the reduction after 1 August would be based on the rate of production for the previous twelve months.72
The curtailment of civilian production in the durable goods industries, of which the automotive was the largest, promised no quick solution to the problem of munitions production. Knudsen hesitated to cut civilian production drastically because the defense orders already placed were not sufficient to make use of the industrial capacity and manpower which would be released; the resulting unemployment and dissolution of pools of skilled labor could have serious economic consequences. On the other hand, shortages of tools and materials were delaying munitions production, and the lack of productive capacity had deterred the armed services from placing the heavy load on industry which the OPM believed should be placed on it. The massive nature of the arms programs made it impossible to achieve a quick and smooth transition, but action had to be taken to meet military requirements. On 9 July 1941 the President expressed his belief that the durable goods industries must be used for defense production, even though the conversion period might be costly to the government. By 21 August, the government and the automotive industry had agreed on a gradual reduction of passenger-car production totaling 43.4 per cent during the year beginning 1 August 1941. It is clear that the prime motivation for curtailment was conservation of critical materials rather than release of productive capacity. Consequently, it was not until after Pearl Harbor that the conversion of automobile plants to munitions production began in earnest.73
As aircraft requirements, particularly for bombers, mounted sharply during 1941, the government directed the automobile firms already participating in the aircraft program to revise their plans for new factories to include large expansions of capacity. In addition, Chevrolet Division of General Motors became an aircraft engine manufacturer and began construction of two new plants with government financing. As of 15 October 1941, the automotive industry held $914 million in
aircraft contracts from the government, approximately 48 per cent of the total defense contracts held by the industry. Most of these contracts were for aircraft engines, the chief exceptions being bomber contracts with Ford and propeller contracts with Nash-Kelvinator.74
The contribution of the automotive industry to munitions production, and especially to aircraft production, was small prior to 1942. During 1940 it delivered war products valued at $141,575,000, approximately 4.7 per cent of the $3,016,223,064 valuation of its automobile and truck production. Aircraft engines and parts were valued at $22,237,000, approximately 15 per cent of the total munitions production of the industry and the equivalent of 17 per cent of car and truck production. Most of the aircraft production for 1940 came from the Allison Division of General Motors. In 1941, the automotive industry produced munitions valued at $933,154,000, or 25 per cent of the value of the car and truck production, which amounted to $3,702,623,023. Aircraft engines and parts amounting to $178,333,000 made up less than 20 per cent of the total munitions production of the industry and amounted to only 4.8 per cent of the value of car and truck production. During 1940 more than 70 per cent of the industry’s munitions production consisted of motor vehicles and parts, and during 1941 this category constituted more than 56 per cent of its munitions production. This type of production required little if any conversion of facilities.75
Pearl Harbor helped greatly to resolve the uncertainties and doubts which had characterized the industrial mobilization of the preceding eighteen months. There was less tendency thereafter to question the need for full mobilization of both industrial resources and manpower. Accordingly, the government undertook to convert as speedily as possible the durable goods industries to production of war munitions. If the conversion took longer than the exigencies of the times appeared to demand, it must be remembered that it was an extraordinarily complex operation which affected almost every facet of American life.
The automotive industry, already embarked on a munitions program which amounted to $4 billion at the time of Pearl Harbor, was the prime target for total conversion to war production. The War Production Board cleared the way for conversion by halting all passenger-car and light-truck production after 31 January 1942. The armed forces promptly began a race for the services of the industry,
letting contracts for huge amounts and authorizing conversion of its vast facilities. The industry organized the Automotive Council for War Production to expedite the effort and to deal with government agencies on industry-wide matters.76
The conversion of the industry, particularly to aircraft production, proceeded rapidly once it was undertaken. The increased aircraft goals announced by the President at the beginning of 1942 were accepted as a command by the AAF, which was spurred to almost frenzied activity in letting contracts and authorizing conversions of facilities. By 15 January 1942 the AAF had compiled a list of automobile manufacturers to whom it proposed to let contracts, totaling more than a billion dollars, for engines, superchargers, propellers, and governors. Contracts for airframes involved additional billions. The load on the industry mounted steadily, reaching a cumulative total of $15 billion for all munitions in June 1942, of which more than a third was for aircraft items.77
Also in June 1942 the industry finished the major part of its conversion to war production. About 66 per cent of the industry’s machine tools were being used for war work, and much of the construction, involving extensions and new plants, had been completed or was well under way. Management and engineering staffs had studied aircraft production methods and received technical assistance from the aircraft companies. Training programs had prepared workers for doing new kinds of work. The economic effects of the changeover were less stringent than had been feared, and unemployment never reached the peaks anticipated, partly because of the speed of conversion.78
The expansion of automotive facilities undertaken after Pearl Harbor outdid anything that had been planned before. The government authorized expenditures for this purpose which far exceeded those made theretofore on behalf of the aircraft manufacturers. The six corporations receiving the greatest amounts of government funds for expansion in connection with aircraft production between 1940 and 1945 included General Motors, Curtiss-Wright, Ford, Chrysler, United Aircraft, and Douglas, in that order. The three automobile companies received more than $922 million as compared with $828 million for the three aircraft companies. General Motors, with $501 million, and Curtiss-Wright, with $425 million, received by far the largest amounts.79
The automotive industry built well over half of all the aircraft engines produced between July 1940 and August 1945, and probably two-thirds of the combat aircraft engines. In the peak month of engine production, August 1944, the automobile companies produced more than two-thirds of the total engine output and three-fourths of the combat engine output. Allison, the only one of these plants with prewar experience, produced its own V-1710 engine, while Packard made the V-1650 engine as a licensee of the British Rolls-Royce company. Dodge and Studebaker turned out Wright engines under license, while Buick, Chevrolet, Ford, and Nash-Kelvinator manufactured engines under license from Pratt & Whitney.80
Only Ford and the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors participated on a large scale in the assembly of complete aircraft as licensees of aircraft companies. Ford made a major contribution to the production of B-24’s, while Eastern Aircraft at its two plants at Linden and Trenton, New Jersey, turned out a large number of Navy planes. Chrysler, Ford, Fisher Body, Hudson, and Nash-Kelvinator were the principal suppliers of airframe parts and subassemblies. Frigidaire Division of General Motors and Nash-Kelvinator produced propellers. It has been estimated that about 30 per cent of the total pounds of airframe weight produced was by subcontractors and almost to per cent by licensees. Almost all of the total in each category came from the automotive manufacturers.81
Relations between the aircraft and automotive industries were necessarily close, if not always cordial, during the war years. During 1940–41 the aircraft manufacturers had turned out practically all of the planes and engines produced in the country, while the automobile firms were still building the engine and airframe plants which made such a fine record in 1943–45. Much of the fear of competition which had always haunted the aircraft companies persisted after the war began and was reflected in their criticisms of the efforts of the automobile manufacturers.82 In May 1942 James H. Kindleberger, president of North American, asserted that the automobile industry was a “bottleneck” in the production of parts and subassemblies for airframes.83 Frederick B. Rentschler, chairman of the board of United Aircraft, was proud of his company’s role in bringing the automobile industry into the production of aircraft engines even if that industry “should turn out to be a Frankenstein’s
Monster and try to ‘swallow up’ the aviation industry after the war.”84
As the automotive industry made a growing contribution to airplane production and the aircraft companies reached the limits of their expansion capabilities, criticism of the former diminished. But fear of competition continued to show itself in suggestions by the aircraft manufacturers in 1944 that subcontracting work being done by automobile companies should be transferred to their aircraft plants as facilities became available. This would permit the automobile manufacturers to reconvert their plants to automobile production. The automobile companies, which apparently had been looking ahead to postwar production as early as 1943, could not have been displeased by these suggestions. The end of the war found the automobile companies quickly reconverting to car and truck production and the original aircraft firms once again in control of their industry.85
The question of whether the automotive industry could be converted to production of aircraft was settled beyond debate during the war. The success of the engine plants left no room for argument, and the record in fabrication of airframe parts and subassemblies, after a slow start, was a good one. The experience in assembly of aircraft was on a smaller scale and less conclusive. The Ford venture at Willow Run was unique in its application of automotive mass production methods of aircraft assembly on a scale far beyond anything yet attempted. For a variety of reasons, many of them beyond its control, the company encountered great difficulties in adapting the B-24 to mass production, and perhaps the strongest criticism of its effort is the length of time it required to reach mass production. At one time, in September 1943, the Materiel Command despaired of the company’s ability to meet delivery schedules and seriously suggested that the government take over management of the plant. Although this was found to be inadvisable, the War Department applied strong pressures which apparently had salutary results.86
Ford made a notable contribution to aircraft production, delivering a total of 6,791 B-24’s between September 1942 and June 1945, 5,476 of them in 1944–45. It also delivered 1,893 “knock-down” units which were assembled by Consolidated Vultee* and Douglas. Ford reached a peak production of 428 B-24’s in August 1944, and produced
* Consolidated and Vultee merged in 1943, becoming Consolidated Vultee.
92,568,000 pounds of airframes in 1944, the largest total produced by any single plant in the country. Willow Run’s peak monthly output in airframe poundage was half the peak monthly output of the whole German airframe industry.87 Although some aircraft manufacturers questioned whether the same results could not have been accomplished in less time and at smaller cost, it seems clear that the Ford experiment was ultimately successful. Given the limited capacity of the aircraft industry and the enormous pressure for plants after May 1940, it is fair to conclude that the AAF was justified in underwriting the Ford experiment.