Building American Air Power

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Building American Air Power

The building of American air power, foreshadowed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the dismal end of the Czech crisis of 1938, involved several kinds of vigorous and sustained efforts. Aircraft had to be manufactured in massive numbers, designs improved, and new models developed as necessary. The Army Air Forces had to set up a worldwide logistics network to supply, maintain, and repair the vast aerial armada thus created. The service had to recruit and train manpower-a term that by the end of the war included women-and then had to take care of those who had been recruited, sustaining their morale and providing for their health and welfare.

The manufacture of airplanes, rather than the training of men and women, set the pace for the creation of American air power to fight World War II. Simply put, the air arm could neither train, nor deploy, nor fight without aircraft, and the inventory seemed unlikely to grow rapidly because of the sluggish rate of the nation’s aircraft production. In 1939, when fighting broke out in Europe, firms in the United States produced just 2,195 airplanes of all types, about half of Japan’s output, one-fourth of Germany’s, two-thirds of France’s, and one-third of Great Britain’s. An obviously feeble American industry faced the challenge of providing not only the aircraft for American forces but also those needed by the nations arrayed against the Axis. Following the passage of lend-lease legislation in March 1941, aircraft production became even more important as the United States, following the President’s vow of December 1940, turned itself into the great arsenal of democracy, sustaining the war against the Axis powers while at the same time rearming.

Of all the combatants in World War II, only the United States succeeded in building the numbers and kinds of aircraft necessary to wage every form of aerial warfare-whether strategic, tactical, land- or carrier-based-and to supply the air services of its allies as well as those of its own armed forces. The Soviet Union, for example, had a labor force, raw materials, and plant capacity rivaling that of the United States; but the German invasion forced the displacement of factories out of the war zone, and Soviet authorities chose to concentrate on tactical aviation for support of the Red Army. America’s other major ally, the United Kingdom, lacked the resources in workers, materials, and machines to produce an adequate number of aircraft for every purpose. Once the Battle of Britain had been won, the British increased the emphasis on bombers, enlisting science to help them find and destroy German targets. Among the Axis powers, Italy was handicapped by shortages of raw materials for the construction and operation of aircraft. Similarly, Japan failed to benefit from its early conquests; American submarine warfare and an unexpectedly rapid Allied counteroffensive overtook Japanese the war industry. Although not fully mobilized until February 1944, German industry demonstrated greater ingenuity, despite mounting Allied pressure, but could not overtake the United States except in such narrow specialties as jet and rocket propulsion and synthetic fuel. After overrunning western Europe and large tracts of the Soviet Union, Germany failed to integrate the resources of these regions, except for labor drafts either forced or voluntary, into the production effort. Hitler believed his people could have both guns and butter and refused to countenance multiple shifts or the presence of women workers in Germany’s aviation industry. Late in the war a first-class organizer, Albert Speer, began to realize the potential of Germany’s factories, but defeat overtook his efforts. President Roosevelt by contrast forced American firms to extend themselves, in part by establishing production goals that seemed unattainable even to him. In 1939 he had spoken boldly of turning out 10,000 aircraft per year, although he had to settle at the time for a third that amount in new construction; and in May of 1940 he announced a goal of 50,000 planes. In response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the declarations of war by Germany and Italy, he demanded that the American aircraft industry build 60,000 airplanes in 1942 and 125,000 during 1943. The new Assistant Secretary of War for Air, Robert A. Lovett, could not believe that turning out 125,000 aircraft in a single year was a realistic objective. He compared this to “asking a hen to lay an ostrich egg.” It was “unlikely you will get the egg, and the hen will never look the same,” he said. Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, as chief of the Army Air Forces, decided to accept the wear and tear on the hen. Roosevelt often settled for less than he demanded, but American industry during the war eventually came within 30,000 aircraft of meeting his most ambitious goal, attaining a peak output of 96,000 aircraft in 1944.

Although he dealt with possibilities rather than realities in announcing his production goals, the President kept in close touch with the views of the military concerning their actual aircraft requirements. In the summer of 1941, this contact had resulted in AWPD/1-Air War Plans Division plan number one-which proposed that the Army Air Forces expand in the event of war to 60,000 planes and 2,100,000 men. In August 1942, Roosevelt asked for a new estimate that reflected more accurately the needs of a coalition war against Germany, Japan, and Italy. Specifically, he wanted an estimate of “the number of combat aircraft by types that should be produced for the Army and our Allies. in 1943 in order to have complete air ascendancy over the enemy.” As in the case of the previous year’s presidential request for production requirements, the Air War Plans Division of the Air Staff undertook a response. Although wartime reassignments had broken up the team that had turned out AWPD/1, Arnold summoned one of its members, Haywood Hansell, now a brigadier general, from England to take charge of the new study, called AWPD/42. In answering the President’s question, General Hansen’s group called for the production of some 75,000 airplanes and 8,000 gliders, intended for an Army Air Forces numbering 2,700,000 men, along with 8,000 aircraft for America’s allies. Omitted from the list of aircraft was the intercontinental bomber proposed in AWPD/1; instead of investing in the B-36, the Army Air Forces would use the B-17 and B-24 to carry the war to Hitler’s Germany, with the B-29 or B-32 appearing in time to batter Japan from bases in China or on the islands of the far Pacific.

Besides answering the basic question, Arnold’s Air Staff planners, as with AWPD/1, used a presidential request for projections of aircraft production as the occasion for a statement of aerial strategy. For the most part, AWPD/42 reaffirmed the earlier views on bombing Germany into submission. The list of critical targets increased by twenty-three to 177, an expansion that reflected the addition of three war industries-submarine construction, aluminum production, and the manufacture of synthetic rubber-to the “target systems” contained in AWPD/1: electric power; transportation; oil; and the Luftwaffe, including fighters, bases, and aircraft factories. With the Battle of the Atlantic far from won, submarine construction ranked second in importance only to the neutralization of the Luftwaffe. If American airmen destroyed all 177 targets, Hansen’s group insisted, “the effect would be decisive and Germany would be unable to continue her war effort.” Enemy morale received scant mention, possibly because Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command had laid claim to city busting, which combined the physical destruction of cities with the demoralization of their inhabitants.

In drafting AWPD/42, General Arnold’s planners included an estimate of 33,000 aircraft manufactured for the Navy, a figure based on official projections rather than specific interservice coordination. Even more rashly, the Army airmen proposed a coastal command of their own, numbering 640 heavy and medium bombers, that would patrol the waters off North and South America, Iceland, and the Azores in search of submarines. Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations, found the idea of an Army Air Forces hemispheric patrol especially annoying, for he had just wrested from a reluctant Arnold a share of bomber production so that Navy airmen could fly long-range antisubmarine missions. Always sensitive to the fact that Arnold was not a true service chief like General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, and himself, King raised strong objections to the Air Forces’ meddling in Navy matters and prevented the Joint Chiefs from formally adopting the plan, which nevertheless served as a statement of what the Army Air Forces saw as its needs and its strategy against Germany.

As befit an industrial giant whose strength lay in the mass production of durable goods, the United States was blessed with managers who could apply assembly-line techniques to huge bombers (though with mixed results) and even to ships. The automobile industry had its Henry Ford, his son Edsel, and William S. Knudsen, the General Motors executive who helped advise the President on issues of production and later became a lieutenant general in charge of materiel for the Air Forces. Men like J. H. “Dutch” Kindleberger of North American Aviation and Henry J. Kaiser in shipbuilding knew how to bring workers, raw materials, and finished components together in the proper place and sequence.

The civilian within the War Department who bore the greatest responsibility for aircraft purchases and production, Assistant Secretary Lovett, was a lawyer, however, rather than a manager. His legal work for the aviation industry gave him a familiarity with production methods, costs, and profits. His experience enabled him to judge the feasibility of production goals and harmonize the plans of the air arm with those being shaped for the entire Army by General Marshall and Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson, who did for the Army Ground Forces and Service Forces what Lovett did for the Air Forces.

The impressive production effort began in chaos. Scarcely had the fighting broken out in Europe when the Army air arm found itself competing with the British and French for new aircraft. The collapse of France in 1940 did not ease the situation, for Roosevelt subsequently agreed to assist China and the Soviet Union. General Arnold objected from the outset to sharing America’s slender aerial resources, voicing his complaint so strenuously that President Roosevelt, according to Arnold’s recollection, reminded the airman that “there were places to which officers who did not play ball could be sent, such as Guam.” In a sense, the Air Corps profited from agreeing, however reluctantly, to the release of aircraft, for Britain and France provided data on combat performance that led to such improvements as increased firepower and armor. Nor did the diversion weaken the American air forces as much as Arnold had feared, for the best aircraft of 1940 or even 1941 were not necessarily the best in 1943 or 1944.

The President’s desire to aid foreign nations had the greatest impact on the availability of fighters. The United States transferred more than 17,000 of these aircraft during the course of the war. The types diverted in the greatest numbers to the various Allies were P-39s and P-40s, adequate fighters when designed before the war but soon outperformed by more modern types. Similarly, General Arnold sacrificed some 7,000 light bombers or attack aircraft, half either A-20s intended for the Air Forces or versions of that successful airplane designated specifically for export. Included in the shipments to America’s allies, however, were almost 3,000 aircraft for which the Army Air Forces had no plans: Lockheed’s A-29 Hudson, Martin’s A-30 Baltimore, and Vultee’s A-31 Vengeance dive bomber (manufactured as the A-35). Thanks to mass production, these transfers, along with the shipment of some 2,000 B-24s and 3,000 C-47s, had little long-term effect, although early in the conflict, before huge numbers of aircraft began emerging from the assembly lines, the absence of the A-20s, P-39s, and P-40s may well have hampered the Air Forces in the early months of the war. On balance, however, American manufacturers met the needs of both lend-lease and the armed forces of the United States.

Although Roosevelt announced unrealistic goals for aircraft production, he took concrete action to increase productive capacity so that they might ultimately be reached. Beginning in 1940, his administration provided incentives for aircraft builders, minimizing the financial risk to the manufacturer. Since American firms had struggled for survival during the depression of the previous decade, they proved reluctant to invest in additional plant capacity that might not be needed if Great Britain collapsed or the United States avoided involvement in the conflict. Roosevelt’s answer was to build the factories at government expense and allow private corporations to operate them; by the end of the war, the Air Forces had used War Department funds appropriated for the purpose to contract for 34 major plants. Although nine contracts were either canceled or amended to incorporate other financing, the total investment by the government approached $1.5 billion, some 20 times the amount spent on the entire Air Corps in 1939. Additional money, perhaps another $1 billion, was spent on lesser facilities, tools and other equipment, and the expansion of existing plants. Thanks in large measure to federal expenditures, the amount of floor space devoted to the manufacture of airframes, engines, and propellers increased more than 13-fold from some 13 million square feet in 1940 to a maximum of about 175 million square feet in December 1943.

Besides building factories and leasing them to aircraft manufacturers, the Roosevelt administration persuaded Congress to ease restrictions on excess profits, to grant tax advantages to airplane builders, and to lift the ban on negotiated contracts that had caused Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois such embarrassment when he was Chief of the Air Corps in the 1930s. Congress enacted the reforms piecemeal during the wartime years. The substitution of negotiation for time-consuming competition and the awarding of tax breaks were obvious measures for meeting the demand for increased production. The subject of excess profits proved far more complex. Although profit was perhaps the strongest of incentives, some restrictions had to prevail, for war profiteering posed a real threat to the nation’s sense of purpose and to its economy. A later congressional investigation revealed that one company, which owed its very existence to government loans and its success to military contracts, more than doubled the price to the Army and the Navy for an aircraft engine starter. The excess profits in this case found their way into bonuses for executives and welfare or morale programs for the workers. Abuses like this caused the government to insist on renegotiating contracts if profits seemed outrageous, but establishing a margin of profit applicable throughout the aircraft industry proved impossible. Such factors as the volume of manufacture, the availability of labor and material, the urgency with which a product was needed, and the extent of the government’s investment in tools and buildings had to be considered before making accusations of profiteering. Thus it happened that Douglas Aircraft, when it first began operating plants owned by the government, could legally realize a profit in excess of 50 percent on its corporate investment, seven times the average by firms using company-owned plants and machinery.

The American government also harnessed the American automobile industry to aircraft production. It too expanded into new factories built by the government for the manufacture of aircraft or converting existing ones to take advantage of the techniques of mass production perfected by the auto builders. These practices proved more adaptable to the making of all-metal airplanes than they had to the handcrafting of the wood-and-linen products of an earlier generation. As an airplane manufacturer, the automobile industry concentrated on fabricating wings or other structural components for aircraft assembled by others. Only Ford and the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors participated on any large scale in the final assembly of airplanes, with Ford building Consolidated B-24s for the Army Air Forces and General Motors making Grumman aircraft for the Navy.

Ford’s government-built plant at Willow Run, Michigan, applied the methods of mass production to building the entire airframe of the B-24 and installing the bomber’s four engines. Ford production engineers planned to use dies to shape bomber parts from aluminum, just as automobile components were shaped from steel. Unfortunately, aluminum, unlike steel, tends to reassume its original shape after being stamped in a die and requires repeated stampings and more time to achieve a desired shape. Major components of the B-24, such as the vertical stabilizer, were changed to reflect experience in combat, and radical changes required the construction of new dies. Parts for an automobile’s chassis and sheet metal skin might require only simple cosmetic adjustments during a production run of two or more years. The Willow Run plant became highly efficient measured by weight produced per worker, but actual numbers of finished aircraft remained disappointing. By March 1944, monthly production barely exceeded 400 bombers, roughly two-thirds capacity, but given the success at other factories and the progress on the battlefield, the projected manufacture of 600 bombers per month at Willow Run proved unnecessary.

The nation’s auto builders had marked success in converting to the production of aircraft engines. Packard, which built Liberty engines in World War I, now manufactured under license the British Rolls Royce Merlin that powered the P-51 escort fighter. General Motors, Ford, and Nash built Pratt and Whitney products, while Dodge and Studebaker were licensed by Wright Aeronautical. Automobile firms turned out more than 40 percent of the engines built for American aircraft between July 1940 and August 1945.

The provision of labor for the industry was the last great area of aviation mobilization in the war. As the aircraft industry grew larger, the nature of its work force changed. From 200,000 in 1940, most skilled craftsmen, the number of workers soared beyond 2,000,000 in 1944, declining the following year below 1,500,000 as a result of cutbacks in production that began even before the war ended. Most of the new workers were unskilled, though thoroughly trained in the repetitive work that contributed to the fabrication of an airplane, and many were women. The preponderance of unskilled (or at most semiskilled) labor reflected the triumph of the assembly line, on which much of the construction of the airplanes became a succession of simple procedures that required attention to detail rather than competence at metal working or some other craft. Although most of the workers had limited skills, workers with industrial experience were necessary to keep the production line moving. The Selective Service System sought to keep skilled aircraft technicians in the factories, and prevented their departure for the armed services. Persons holding essential jobs remained exempt from military service, and federal authorities urged workers about to enter the armed forces to remain at the plant for as long as possible. Since the work force had to be kept intact, the Army Air Forces saw to it that a new project was waiting when an existing contract ended. Industrial planners tried to avoid periods of idleness, even when a factory retooled for a different product. This policy sustained morale in the work force by providing continuity and reduced the tendency of employees to move from one firm to another and force the old employer to hire and train new workers before resuming production.

In an aircraft industry whose greatest strength (aside, perhaps, from its very size) was a unique capacity for mass production, the issue of quantity versus quality arose early in the war. Should the Army Air Forces settle for good or insist on the best? Was it better to turn out large numbers of adequate aircraft immediately or to accept the unavoidable delay in attaining the maximum volume of production in order to obtain a superior airplane? The Director of Requirements on the Air Staff, Maj. Gen. Davenport “Johnny” Johnson, commander of a pursuit group during World War I, endorsed quality: “Fifty 100 percent aircraft are of more value than a hundred 50 percent aircraft in actual combat.” His words went unheeded, for in 1943 the Air Forces delayed the appearance of the Douglas A-26 light bomber to continue volume production of three similar, adequate, but less effective aircraft- the North American B-25, Martin B-26, and Douglas A-20. Similarly, Vultee’s A-35 Vengeance dive bomber remained in production even though neither the Army Air Forces nor the Navy had any plans for them; however, America’s allies received the Vengeance through lend-lease, and it saw action with the British in Burma.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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