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America Overcomes Its Biggest Weakness

Published: March 12, 2015

"Big planes aren't stamped out like saucepans. Thousands of parts must be fabricated and fitted by hand. Here, a workman, crouched in the leading edge of a Boeing Clipper wing, drills drills one of several hundred thousand rivet holes."

“Big planes aren’t stamped out like saucepans. Thousands of parts must be fabricated and fitted by hand. Here, a workman, crouched in the leading edge of a Boeing Clipper wing, drills drills one of several hundred thousand rivet holes.”

America faced three enemies in 1941: Japan, Germany, and Italy. But it had already defeated one of its biggest enemies — a crippling weakness in its armament industry. Ten years of the Depression cut America’s manufacturing capabilities cut to a bare minimum. Factories were struggling to survive with minimal orders and reduced workforces.

Recognizing the situation spreading across Europe could eventually reach our shores, the U.S. began rebuilding its armies and its arsenal. The result was a startling comeback. In 1939, the U.S. military was rated 39th in the world. Six years later, it had pushed the Nazi army back across Europe and swept the Japanese army and navy from the Pacific.

But the resurrection of American manufacturing power was even more remarkable. Without it, the Army and Navy could not have achieved its fighting power so quickly.

Aircraft manufacturing is a good example of what the U.S. achieved in record time. To fully appreciate this accomplishment, you should read 1940’s “Bombers By the Pound” in The Saturday Evening Post by Hurd Barrett.

Barrett built his first plane in 1927, and started working in the aircraft industry back in 1933 when America’s airplane production was ranked 41st in the world. Over the next seven years, he worked in the engineering departments of several “genial madhouses,” as he called aircraft plants.

America was building “the finest aircraft in the world,” wrote Barrett. But, he added, “the manner of their building is, of necessity, strictly screwball.”

The problem was manufacturers were still unable to mass-produce military aircraft. It was impossible to build an assembly line because the generals kept changing the specifications for the planes. Furthermore, there was no time to create a mass-production assembly line; aircraft plants were already racing just to keep pace with wartime technology. Germany and Japan had been developing their warplanes for years. Unless America could speed up its aircraft development, its new planes would be obsolete before they ever hit the runway.

A single prototype required 500,000 design hours, and 30,000 production hours for each plane thereafter. But the Army gave manufacturers just a fraction of this time and a sharply limited budget for development.

The learning curve had been steep, Barrett wrote, but the progress was impressive. Design engineers were now able to estimate the manufacturing cost, per pound, for any airplane. Even more impressive, their per-pound estimates came within $1,000 of the final cost for a $600,000 aircraft. Keep in mind this was accomplished without any computers. These engineers had to work with reference books, pencils, slide rules, and mechanical adding machines. And before they could begin production, they had to make a full-scale model of the aircraft in wood.

The plants were becoming more efficient, Barrett added. They used “straight-line production, with Material at one end of the plant and Final Assembly at the other.” (Previously, production was distributed haphazardly throughout the plant.) Barrett explained how this would proceed in a typical assembly:

A. Raw stock from the Material department was placed on a material truck and carted through Final Assembly, and the Finishing, Heat-Treating, Testing and Wing Assembly departments to:

B. The Sheet-Metal Department. Here a part was fabricated, put on another truck and carted back the entire length of the plant to:

C. The Subassembly Department; where the part was put into a rib bulkhead, or what have you. The rib bulkhead was then put on a truck and toted –

A full description of the process, Barrett wrote, would go on like this for several pages. But even with this process, aircraft production was rising steadily. The process Barrett described turned out 2,141 airplanes in 1939. In 1940, that number jumped to 6,068.

Yet the frantic pace of aircraft innovation and renovation could be disorienting for the plant workers. For example, Barrett wrote about a morning when he left his desk for a half hour and returned to find a tool designer working at a drafting table where his desk has stood: Barrett asked the designer, “Where did they take me?”

The designer shrugged. “I’m darned if I can tell you.”

“Down at the south end?”

“Maybe. It’s where Instrument was.”

“You mean last week?”

“No. Not last week. Week before last.”

It took him an hour to find his desk.

Yet with all the chaos, American manufacturers achieved the unthinkable. That summer of 1941, with America still neutral in the war, the Ford Motor Company began construction of an immense factory to produce B-24 bombers. Ford’s 3.5 million-square-foot Willow Run plant began production just 15 months later. By 1944, it was producing 20 bombers every day.

Between 1940 and 1944, aircraft production really took off — the pun is unavoidable because no other term describes these soaring numbers.

Aircraft production, all types, by year:
1940:   6,086
1941:   19,433
1942:   47,836
1943:   85,898
1944:   96,318

In terms of historical significance, there is little to match the incredible victory that America’s armed forces achieved in World War II. But the swift resurrection of American industry comes close.

Step into 1940 with a peek at these pages from the February 24, 1940 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, 75 years ago:

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  • Joan Cornell

    I lived through those years so I remember how determined and industrious Americans were. We were all involved in helping. My concern now is that this is a very different country with different people and different ideas. Will we show the united effort we did then? Do most people love America as they did then?