The Arsenal of Democracy - Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

3 The Arsenal of Democracy


When World War II broke out, demands for military airplanes led to an unprecedented ramp-up in production for all American aviation companies.

By 1940, Germany had established a massive military operation in Europe. A prominent component of its armed forces was the Luftwaffe. This modern air force, composed of some of the most advanced aircraft ever manufactured, was dedicated primarily to tactical bombing in support of the German army’s blitzkrieg operations. Its directives were to bomb enemy bases, strike enemy ground troops, and destroy roads, bridges, tunnels, and railways.

One by one, the countries of the Continent fell to the Third Reich—Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. If Great Britain were conquered, Adolf Hitler could take control of its Royal Navy. Were this to happen, many U.S. government officials feared, Hitler could easily land his army divisions on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

The American public remained steadfast that they did not want the country to engage in another war. But with Britain threatened, on December 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an urgent address to American industry and the public at large. “Our national policy is not directed toward war [but] it is the purpose of the nation to build now with all possible speed every machine, every arsenal, every factory that we need to manufacture our defense material,” Roosevelt stated. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

The president appealed to all U.S. manufacturers to unite their industries toward arming the Allies in Europe and the military forces at home. The government would immediately fund these efforts, with the largest portion of the spending (32 percent) earmarked for the manufacture of aircraft. Although an attack by sea was considered a higher risk, Roosevelt was concerned that Luftwaffe aircraft traveling 300 miles per hour could potentially traverse the ocean to bomb U.S. targets. At the time, the U.S. Army Air Corps had a mere 1,200 planes. The president proposed to Congress that the country develop “the ability to turn out at least 50,000 planes a year.”

The president was essentially asking Boeing and its rivals to cooperate with each other by sharing their technology and building each other’s planes. They obliged, breaking down competitive barriers and joining forces on the mass production of military aircraft. As the major aircraft manufacturers retooled their production capabilities on behalf of the country, profound technological advancements resulted from their teamwork.

Government orders were brisk and shockingly large—more than 12,000 B-17 Flying Fortresses were ultimately purchased. “The B-17 was a miracle plane as far as the Air Force was concerned,” said World War II historian Donald Miller. “It was faster. It was sturdier. And it had more firepower than anything that the Air Force had envisioned.”

The bomber’s design provided substantial bomb load capacity, as much as 8,000 pounds, although the average was 4,000 to 5,000 pounds per trip. The plane featured as many as 13 machine guns, depending on the model; .50-caliber waist and tail guns; one gun turret under the fuselage and another on top of the plane behind the cockpit; and advanced protective armor, including self-sealing fuel tanks. With a speed surpassing 300 miles per hour and a range of 2,000 miles, the B-17 could deeply penetrate enemy territory and accurately attack enemy military and industrial targets. It was made to take a beating in the skies and make it back home safely. To the U.S. military, it was perceived as indispensable.


Above and next: The B-17 Flying Fortress was legendary for its toughness and stability.



A B-29 factory production layout (above) and view of the factory floor (next) show just how efficient and fast-paced production of the B-17 and B-29 was. More than 10,000 B-17s were built by Boeing and its partners over the course of the war.


But building thousands of planes in just months? To succeed, Boeing and its competitors—Douglas, North American Aviation, McDonnell, Hughes, Lockheed, and others—became a single unit, a powerhouse of manufacturing expertise, resources, and output. Planes were no longer made one at a time. Modern factories sprang from the ground across the country, their assembly lines rolling out sophisticated aircraft at unprecedented rates.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, many young Americans were either soldiers or factory workers. Around-the-clock production was in force with 24-hour days and three shifts of workers. Some workers slept at the factory between shifts. With so many men fighting the war, women were recruited to work at the factories. While their husbands and fathers were overseas, these women—collectively nicknamed “Rosie the Riveter”—pulled double shifts, working at the plant building airplanes and then doing domestic chores at home. To assist them, Boeing created a transportation department that organized ride sharing and busing, helped working mothers obtain day care for their children, and provided flexible work shifts so mothers could work at night and be home during the day with their kids. By war’s end, one out of three factory workers in America was a woman.

With the war in full swing, the entire aviation industry went to work. Boeing built the B-17 Flying Fortress at Plant 2 in Seattle. Douglas and Lockheed also built the vital bomber. Due to the extraordinary importance of warplane manufacture, conditions in Seattle were akin to martial law. The government imposed periodic blackouts, and after sunset, drivers to and from the Boeing plant could use only their parking lights, no headlights. The rooftop of the facility was camouflaged with burlap and chicken wire to look from the sky like a residential neighborhood.


With so many men away fighting in the war, women, known collectively as Rosie the Riveter, replaced them in the aviation factories. By the end of the war, more than 40 percent of Boeing’s workforce was female.


During the war, key manufacturing plants were camouflaged to prevent them from being targeted by enemy airplanes. From the air, Boeing Plant 2 looked like a suburban neighborhood.

Wartime demands changed Seattle from a remote outpost in the Pacific Northwest into a sprawling hub of activity. Boeing and the city’s shipyards hired tens of thousands of employees, and housing developments popped up like mushrooms to lodge them. Employment at the company climbed sharply from about 9,920 workers in 1940 to some 78,400 in 1943.

In addition to building the Flying Fortress, the company started churning out B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers. The four-engine Superfortress was the most complex airplane to be built until that time, a triumph in both design and performance. Nearly 100 feet long, the Superfortress weighed more than 105,000 pounds, making it the heaviest production aircraft in the world. Its innovations included a formidable armament with remote-controlled gun turrets. It was the first strategic bomber equipped with a pressurized cabin, which enabled pilots and crew to fly long distances—a necessity in the vast Pacific theater.

The Superfortress was the largest single airplane production program during the war, an industrial project of a size and scale that American industry had never before experienced. It encompassed a nationwide network of manufacturing plants as well as hundreds of subcontractors. General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, wanted the B-29 ready by March 1944—an extremely ambitious objective for engineers and production personnel. To help achieve it, Boeing’s plant in Wichita—formerly a Stearman Aircraft facility that was also busy producing Kaydet primary trainers—waged the “Battle of Kansas.” Area farmhands, housewives, and shopkeepers worked grueling 10-hour shifts in the bitter cold, day and night, to manufacture the first 175 “Superforts,” as they called them.

The hard work paid off: because of its long range, the B-29 became the primary bomber used against Japan. In Europe, meanwhile, thousands of B-17s attacked land-based targets from the sky, dropping more than 640,000 tons of bombs in all, more than any other military plane.

While Boeing worked primarily on the B-17 and B-29, each aviation company did its part, drawing from its particular expertise to produce military planes in concert with other manufacturers.

Dutch Kindelberger’s North American Aviation was a powerhouse of production, building 41,000 planes for the war effort. During peak production, an airplane rolled off its assembly lines every 15 minutes.

Among the planes manufactured by North American was the AT-6 trainer, which was invaluable given the immediate need to instruct thousands of new pilots. The trainers were manufactured at its sprawling plant in Dallas—hence the plane’s name, the Texan, although it was called the Harvard outside the United States.

North American Aviation also made the B-25 Mitchell twin-engine medium bomber named for General Billy Mitchell, an airpower pioneer. The B-25B was the first bomber deployed in all World War II combat theaters and the first American bomber to sink Axis submarines. Most famously, the B-25 was involved in the sneak air attack on Japan known as the Doolittle Raid. In April 1942, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, 16 Mitchell medium bombers, each crewed by five men, took off without fighter escort from the deck of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, which was stationed in the western Pacific Ocean. The plan called for the planes to bomb multiple military targets in Japan and then continue westward to land in China. Despite flying a longer distance than anticipated and with less fuel than was thought needed to make it to the prearranged landing fields in China, the B-25s nonetheless made their strikes, dropping bombs “as easily as a political speech to a Congressman,” the Seattle Times reported in 1942.


The B-29 is widely considered the most technologically advanced bomber mass-produced during World War II. It first flew September 21, 1942.


Crews conduct an engine test on a B-25 Mitchell bomber (far left). North American Aviation built almost 10,000 of the planes during World War II. The military derivative of the DC-3 was known as the C-47 Skytrain (left). It was used to transport troops and cargo throughout the war.

Fifteen of the aircraft got as far as China; the other one landed in Vladivostok, Russia. Although the raid did little to damage Japan’s military clout, the country was forced to keep back large numbers of fighter aircraft to defend itself, leaving fewer available to fight U.S. forces above the Pacific islands. More important, the attack on Japan’s home territory was a psychological blow. At the same time, it boosted U.S. confidence and morale, accelerating the commitment to win the war through American ingenuity.

Of all its warplanes, North American’s P-51 Mustang fighter stands out. Unlike other military aircraft such as bombers and attack planes, fighters are designed primarily for air-to-air combat. The sleek, long-range, single-seat P-51 fighter boasted exceptional maneuverability and speed. It also was highly reliable and had the range to escort the heavy bombers all the way to their targets, defending them from airborne attack. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the Mustang was faster and more dangerous than the Luftwaffe’s prized Messerschmitt fighters. When reports about the superior plane reached Nazi Air Minister Hermann Goering, he is reported to have said, “We have lost the war.”

Douglas Aircraft also stepped up its game. Donald Douglas had vowed “to build the largest number possible of the best airplanes in the shortest possible time.” Workers made good on his pledge, producing 29,385 warplanes from 1941 to 1944, roughly 16 percent of all the U.S. warplanes manufactured during the war.

Douglas Aircraft’s most important wartime plane was the C-47, developed from the DC-3 airliner. More than 10,000 C-47s were built. Douglas had to build new factories to accommodate the robust production, including a 1.4-million-square-foot plant in Long Beach, California, camouflaged with trees and shrubs. At its peak, the massive plant rolled out one airplane each hour.

Hughes Aircraft Co. and McDonnell Aircraft served during the war primarily as subcontractors. Hughes Aircraft’s diverse contracts ran the gamut from wings to rear fuselage sections. Other Hughes companies manufactured large quantities of aircraft ammunition belts during the war.

McDonnell manufactured aircraft parts such as tails and engine cowlings for both Boeing bombers and Douglas transports—seven million pounds of aircraft parts in all. Its single contract with the U.S. Army Air Forces was for an experimental prototype, the XP-67, a novel twin-engine, long-range fighter with a pressurized cockpit. The company also was awarded a contract to build the first jet-propelled Navy fighter, the XFD-1, but the war ended before it could go into production.

In succeeding years, this plane would evolve into the historic FH-1 Phantom fighter, the first American jet that could operate from an aircraft carrier. The FH-1, which had a top speed of 500 miles per hour, was an audacious achievement given the thrust needed by such a heavy aircraft to take off from a flight deck and the seeming impossibility of landing on the same stunted airstrip.

The Phantom made its first carrier takeoff and landing in July 1945. “I remember seeing films of the first takeoff from the carrier and the first landing,” said John McDonnell, the founder’s son. “Everybody was pretty tense”—no one more than the pilot, he added. “In terms of heart rate, I’ve heard [it’s] higher than it is in combat.” Although only 62 FH-1 Phantoms were built, the jet was the beginning of a long line of McDonnell jet fighters whose success would define the company in the second half of the 20th century.

While U.S. and European aircraft manufacturers collaborated in the production of warplanes, one company took the lead in organizing the industry and its army of subcontractors in the unmatched production effort: Boeing. Phil Johnson, the company’s president (Egtvedt remained chairman), was in charge of the industry’s warplane manufacture—a Herculean task. The vast number of warplanes wanted by the government required an unheard-of level of coordination within the aviation industry to manufacture the required components—from airframes to engines, control systems, and varying armaments—in specific and short time frames.

The merciless pace of wartime production likely contributed to the stroke that led to Johnson’s death in 1944, an event mourned by factory workers, generals, and presidents. By then, he had built the foundation underpinning President Roosevelt’s objective of producing 50,000 warplanes a year, a volume initially believed impossible. The industry went further, manufacturing a staggering 96,000 warplanes a year. Gradually, the Axis war industry was hobbled, thanks in no small part to the B-17 and the B-29. “In combat, Boeing’s two Fortresses were unexcelled,” Time magazine stated in 1954.

The planes also lived up to their reputation for being able to take a beating and return home safely. One legendary story involved a midair collision between a B-17, the All American, and a German fighter above Tunisia in 1943. The fighter came apart, its pieces piercing the B-17. The four-engine bomber’s left horizontal stabilizer and left elevator were torn off in the collision. The two right engines were knocked out of commission, one of the left engines leaked oil, the vertical fin and the rudder were badly damaged, and the torn fuselage was held together at only two small junctures. Despite a cavernous 16-foot-long hole in the fuselage and damage to the plane’s radios and electrical and oxygen systems, the Flying Fortress landed safely two and a half hours after the collision. The entire crew survived.

As the war in Europe drew to a close following the surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945, battles still continued in the Pacific theater. Boeing’s long-range B-29 Superfortress was called upon for one last task: dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Colonel Paul Tibbetts released the atomic bomb on Hiroshima from a plane named the Enola Gay. Three days later, a second B-29, the Bockscar, dropped a bomb on Nagasaki, the last nuclear attack in history. The Second World War ended on August 14, 1945, and air power had determined its outcome.

Boeing, Douglas, McDonnell, North American, and Hughes—the companies that constitute the modern Boeing—had helped achieve victory for Allied forces while serving as a powerful symbol of American ingenuity, productivity, and might. Their willingness to share secret technologies, the cross-cultivation of their skill sets, and Boeing’s ability to act as the master contractor overseeing a colossal production effort set the stage for more complex and innovative aircraft. Each company emerged from the war with defined talents, which would foster industry specialization in the years ahead. The war won and their years of collaboration now concluded, the major builders of the arsenal of democracy returned to the free market.


North American Aviation built more than 15,000 P-51 Mustang fighters. The P-51D Mustang was arguably the best fighter plane of the Second World War.


A B-29 Superfortress was named for Ernie Pyle shortly following the death of the beloved war correspondent.


Military aviation has changed dramatically since World War II, but research and development are still key to success. A model of the B-17 is tested in Boeing’s war-era wind tunnel (above); more than 65 years later, a Phantom Ray unmanned vehicle prototype, developed by Boeing Phantom Works, receives a preflight inspection.