The American Aircraft Factory in World War II

(Zenith Press, St Paul, Minn., 2006, $40)

Bill Yenne keeps his reputation for consistent quality in his nostalgic book The American Aircraft Factory in World War II. He provides a context for his title by describing the American aviation industry from its earliest days, when there were few mass producers, and many shops were really just custom builders. He highlights the industry giants of the time, including Orville Wright, Glenn Curtiss, Glenn Martin, Donald Douglas, Bill Boeing and others. He also shows us the era’s factories, with their neat lines of wood and fabric airframes coming together under the mothers of future Rosie the Riveters.

As Yenne makes clear, the U.S. aviation industry in the pre–World War II years was tiny and Depression-bound. Fortunately for the free world, enough courageous entrepreneurs survived to maintain the nucleus of an industry. The looming threat of WWII and an infusion of funds from aircraft contracts for foreign governments kept hope alive. Yet it was still nothing short of a miracle that an industry that had labored hard to produce as few as 3,000 planes a year before 1939 could respond to wartime needs with a phenomenal growth that saw production of aircraft reach more than 96,000 annually in 1944.

The gigantic infusion of capital necessary to build the thousands of new plants, airports and infrastructure was matched by a huge number of people desperate for a decent wage. There were social implications as well, for the growth of new wartime industries and the need to raise large standing military forces meant that women and minorities were now welcomed into the workforce. The feature article beginning on P. 44 of this issue provides a glimpse of their world.

The result was an outpouring of joyous effort, sometimes around the clock, that saw tiny factories such as those of Grumman or Lockheed grow at a fantastic rate, to the point where they could produce thousands of aircraft per year.Aside from the explosive growth in factory size and workers,WWII also spurred rapid improvements in industrial production quality and techniques that permitted manufacturers to meet the new demands for higher speeds and far more advanced equipment.

Yenne supports his text with an amazing collection of photographs, a few familiar to aviation buffs but many others seen here for the first time. This compilation clearly represents an extensive research effort.All in all, The American Aircraft Factory in World War II tells the story of how the United States and its diverse population responded to a crisis in a positive manner, one that benefited the world in their day—and which may also serve to inspire new generations.

 

Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here