During World War II, the prairie city became a major contributor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” that helped to crush the Axis powers into submission.
By 1939, the United States was slowly emerging from the Great Depression that had decimated the national economy for nearly 10 years. Job growth was increasing each month as thousands of people abandoned the soup lines for work in America’s industrial complex. In the words of a popular song of the time, “Happy days are here again.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, however, Europe was plunging into another major war with Germany as Great Britain and France pledged to come to the aid of a besieged Poland. A majority of Americans paid little attention to the daily headlines about “Europe’s new war” while staunchly supporting the Roosevelt Administration’s isolationist policy. Despite his constant assurances that the cream of America’s youth would not be sent to fight Europe’s war, in 1940 the president had accepted the fact that unless the British and French defeated Germany quickly, the day would come when the United States would be forced to take up arms against Adolf Hitler. To make matters worse, the militarists in Tokyo had cast their lot with Berlin along with Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini, creating the Tri-Partite Pact.
During the closing months of 1939 in Wichita, Kansas, the boss of Boeing Airplane Company’s Stearman Division, Julius Earl Schaefer, was not concerned about the war in Europe as much as he was about finding more floor space to build airplanes. Three weeks before Germany struck Poland, the United States War Department had awarded contracts worth $688,888 for Stearman primary training aircraft, with an option for more that could drive the total value to nearly $2 million. The local press summed up the good news: “There was no disguising the pleasure felt at the plant over the order, the largest ever placed here, and the anticipation of the stimulation in activity it cannot fail to bring at the Stearman factory.”1
Demand for the Model 73, Model 75 and the export Model 76 left the 1930 factory swamped with business. Late in September Schaefer was informed that the War Department was ordering another $3 million-worth of PT-13 trainers, requiring the hiring of another few hundred workers, bringing total employment to nearly 1,000 people. When the word got out, the factory was flooded with applications. The qualifications were stiff and the competition for jobs was almost ruthless, but Schaefer made it clear that “Only American citizens of undoubted loyalty will be carried on the payroll.”2
The surge in orders for new airplanes experienced by the Stearman Division was only one example of the tremendous boom in Wichita’s airframe manufacturing industry. Journalists began to wonder if 1940 would be the year that the Stearman, Beech, Cessna and Swallow companies would break their record, set in 1928, of building 1,000 aircraft. That year the four manufacturers produced 25 percent of the total number of new airplanes built in America. The Wichita Eagle newspaper asked, “Can this figure be claimed today and can it be truthfully said that the aviation industry here is at an all-time high in productivity? The answer for 1940 will be ‘yes’.” The reporter went on to say that ferry flights of Stearman trainers were increasing each month, and Walter Beech was delivering new single- and twin-engine ships “almost daily.” Swallow was thriving and Cessna was completing “several planes each week” and plans called for increasing production space to accommodate increasing demand for the twin-engine T-50.
The fall of France in May 1940 left Great Britain to stand alone against the might of Hitler’s Third Reich. Back in Washington, D.C., President Roosevelt knew he had to find a way to help America’s greatest ally in its struggle against the Nazi regime. His Lend-Lease program, hotly debated in Congress, was intended to do exactly that – assist the British people without dragging the United States into the war. To make Lend-Lease work, every facet of America’s industrial powerhouse would be brought to bear. The results were impressive. In 1941, aircraft production tripled and orders from England for everything from textiles to tanks poured in to American factories. Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” was flexing its muscle.3
The president, however, did not stop there. His massive defense program, funded at an unprecedented $5 billion, coupled with implementation of Lend-Lease, led financial experts to declare that the sudden expansion was but a foretaste of what was coming in the near future. Their sentiments were echoed by Waldo G. Bowman, editor of the Engineering News-Record. He estimated that Roosevelt’s defense plans alone would require a minimum of $500 million to construct new military facilities. In addition, during the first five months of 1940, the aircraft, tool and chemical industries led the way in construction projects by spending $171 million compared with only $73 million in 1939.4
The steel industry was shifting into high gear, too, as orders for structural steel increased significantly in 1940 compared to the previous year, and a part of that production would soon be headed for Wichita. Newspapers were quick to report that, “A boom in steel making, fed by a wave of buying to acquire inventories before the U.S. defense program gets into full stride, marked the transition to a war economy.” Sources close to the industry predicted that the rate of steel production in America, which had increased to more than 80 percent from 65 percent during May 1940, would soon exceed 85 percent.5
The strong growth in demand for military equipment and facilities was a major factor in the emerging economic recovery of 1939-1940. After years of absence, prosperity was making a comeback. Meanwhile, workers at the Stearman Division were completing as many as five new primary trainers each day – a phenomenal feat, even by Wichita standards. Such a high rate of production had not been seen since the summer of 1929 when the Travel Air Company achieved that level for a short period of time.
What happened next stunned the people of Wichita and served to raise the nation’s awareness of the City on the Plains. In August, the War Department announced that $3 million would be spent to greatly expand the size of the Stearman factory complex. The money was part of a $10.5 million package allotted to Boeing for enlargement of its facilities in Wichita and Seattle, Washington. When asked about Wichita’s role in the plan, Julius Schaefer’s lips were sealed. The plot really thickened when two VIPs arrived in the city – William S. Knudson, chief of the national defense commission, and General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps.
The two men kept a low profile during their brief visit, which centered on inspection of land south of the Stearman factory. As quietly as they had come, they departed without any comment to the press. Wichitans were scratching their heads trying to guess the purpose of the trip to Kansas. They could not have known that the visit eventually would have a profound, long-term effect not only on the city, but the war effort and human history itself. Behind the scenes, the War Department was planning to construct a factory whose proposed dimensions would boggle the imagination. It would exist solely for the purpose of building the super-secret Boeing B-29 heavy bomber, then in development (the story of Wichita and the B-29 program will be addressed in an upcoming article).
In September 1940 the War Department dropped another “bomb” on Wichita when it handed out a $6.9-million contract to Stearman for hundreds of PT-13 and PT-17 primary trainers that were sorely needed by the Army Air Corps. Hot on the heels of that award came a large contract from the RCAF to manufacture 180 Crane I – a military version of the commercial, twin-engine Cessna T-50. The United States War Department also ordered 33 multi-engine trainer versions of the T-50 designated AT-8. The company was scheduled to fly the first production Crane I by Christmas and deliver the first AT-8 to the Army Air Corps before the end of the year.
In addition, Beech Aircraft Corporation had received contracts worth $9.3 million for C/UC-43 military versions of the Beechcraft Model D17S, as well as AT-11 and C/UC-45 versions of the prewar Model C18S. In total, the three major airframe manufacturers in Wichita were scrambling to build $40 million-worth of aircraft, and America was not at war! By the end of 1940, these three companies employed 3,800 workers. Walter Beech, Julius Schaefer and Dwane Wallace later estimated that by January 1941, that number would increase to about 8,700 and production floor space would surge to more than 1.5-million square feet.6
By December 1941 even the most pessimistic, isolationist American began to realize that the escalating war in Europe, coupled with Japan’s increasing aggression against China and its military buildup in the Western Pacific Ocean was threatening to entangle America in another world war. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy’s surprise attack on the United States Pacific fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, erased any hope of peace and galvanized America’s will to fight.
Although America’s capacity to manufacture the weapons of war had expanded by 400 percent during 1939-1941, the nation’s industrial might would experience explosive growth after December 7. The Stearman factory had already delivered 2,000 PT-13/PT-17 primary trainers to the Army Air Corps and the United States Navy, but the pressing pace of the war effort left no time for celebration. During the months ahead the 3,000th, 4,000th, 5,000th and 6,000th biplane rolled off the assembly lines in rapid succession, followed by the 7,000th in April 1943.7
Despite the enormous challenge and seemingly insurmountable ob-stacles, the thousands of Stearman trainers taught many more thousands of fledglings how to fly before they were shipped out to fight a global war on two fronts. According to official records, between July 1939 and August 1945, the Army Air Forces and the Navy trained 768,991 pilots, including women aviators, Americans enrolled in British flight schools based in the United States, instructors and other individuals. Of these, 233,198 successfully completed their primary flight training, and a majority of those pilots earned their wings in a PT-13 or PT-17. Another 202,986 graduated from basic flight training and 193,440 finished advanced training, with 102,907 assigned to fly single-engine fighters and 90,533 were assigned to multi-engine transports and bombers. Unfortunately, about 40 percent of cadets “washed out” of flight training and were assigned to other aircrew positions such as navigator and bombardier.7
From 1927 to 1962, the Stearman Aircraft Company and the Boeing Airplane Company’s Stearman Division built more than 14,500 aircraft. Boeing records indicate that of these, 247 were original Stearman biplanes, 10,346 primary trainers (including equivalent spares), airframe assemblies for 750 Waco CG-4 troop-carrying gliders, 1,769 Boeing B-29 heavy bombers (including equivalent spares), 12 single-engine L-15 liaison aircraft, 1,390 Boeing B-47 Stratojet bombers, and 467 Boeing B-52-series Stratofortress bombers.8
Across town the Cessna Aircraft Company was bustling with activity following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even as the fires still raged along the harbor’s “Battleship Row” at Ford Island, Dwane Wallace and his management team began to receive large orders for AT-17 advanced trainers as well as more orders (550 airplanes) from the RCAF for the improved Crane Ia (production of the commercial T-50 was terminated in June 1942 after 25 airplanes had been delivered). To meet demand, the factory was again expanded. In 1941 production floor space grew by 358 percent and by May 1942, new buildings were cranking out increasing numbers of AT-17 trainers by operating on a 24-hour basis. By the end of the year Cessna workers had produced 190 Crane 1a, 450 AT-17, 33 AT-17A, 466 AT-17B and 60 AT-17C ships for the Army Air Forces, Navy and Marine Corps. The RCAF received only 182 of the Crane Ia order before the Army took over the remainder as AT-17 trainers and UC-78 transports.
The C/UC-78 was intended to serve as a lightweight, multi-engine aircraft for flying personnel and small cargo, occasionally including senior officers who used the airplanes for VIP flights. By war’s end, 937 C/UC-78 monoplanes served with the Army Air Forces, while another 67 were operated by the Navy and Marine Corps as the JRC-1. When production ended in 1944, the factory had built 1,052 AT-8 and AT-17-series, 3,160 C/UC-78/JRC-1 airplanes, and all 40 commercial T-50 ships were impressed into military service for the duration of the conflict.
It is interesting to note that in addition to major orders for airplanes, the Stearman Division, Cessna Aircraft and Beech Aircraft also were under contract for subassemblies that were crucial to the war effort. During 1941-1942 the Stearman Division built flight control surfaces for the Boeing B-17 before shifting all of its assets to building the mighty B-29 beginning in 1943. Boeing needed help and the Cessna factory responded by manufacturing 1,400 vertical stabilizers, 1,894 rudders, 1,658 heat exchangers, 1,619 pilot and co-pilot instrument panels, 1,536 dorsal fairings, 1,567 elevators, 1,343 wing leading edges and 1,583 sets of rudder pedals for America’s super bomber. Meanwhile, Beech Aircraft and Cessna workers were busy building assemblies for the Douglas A-26 Invader. The Beechcraft factory completed 1,635 wing assemblies and the Cessna company contributed 6,500 engine cowlings and 2, 046 landing gear sets for the speedy attack bomber.
Despite increasingly high workload demands, in June 1942 the three major airframe manufacturers were tapped by the War department to give top priority to manufacture of subassemblies for the Waco CG-4A troop-carrying assault glider that was destined to play a pivotal role in the D-Day invasion of June 1944. A total of 1,500 of the powerless gliders were to be built and delivered by October 1942 – a near impossible task. Beech was assigned to construct the inner wing panels, empennage surfaces and all forgings and castings. Cessna workers built the outer wing panels. When the two companies completed their work, the assemblies were shipped to the sprawling Boeing, Wichita Division factory where the gliders were assembled and delivered to the Army.9
As with the Stearman Division and the Cessna Aircraft Company, the Beech Aircraft Corporation began building “warbirds” well before America was suddenly thrust into the conflict. The first Beechcraft to wear military colors was a sole C17R built in 1936 for the United States Navy as the JB-1. In June 1939, the Army Air Corps received the first of three commercial D17S cabin biplanes designated YC-43 that were assigned to American embassies in England, France and Italy. That year the Navy ordered seven D17S models for service as GB-1 personnel transports and to perform general liaison duties.
After Pearl Harbor, Walter and Olive Ann Beech received huge orders for military versions of the Model D17S and the twin-engine C18S. These included 105 C/UC-43 biplanes for the Army Air Forces, of which Great Britain received 30 UC-43s that were operated by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy as the Traveler Mk. 1. The factory also built 310 GB-2 models for the United States Navy, but 75 were transferred under Lend-Lease to Great Britain and another 14 were shipped to Brazil.
It was, however, the versatility of the Model C18S that garnered a majority of orders from the Army Air Forces and the Navy. Although the smaller, twin-engine Cessna AT-17 and Beechcraft AT-10 were ideally suited for teaching pilots how to fly and manage systems in multi-engine airplanes, it fell to the larger Beechcraft to teach airmen the darker arts of war such as bombing targets. The first military Beechcraft Model 18 (18D) was sold to the Philippine Army Air Corps in March 1939. Soon after orders were received from the United States Army Air Corps late in 1939 for 14 ships designated F-2/F-2B for instruction in high altitude photography. Eventually, the Army bought 56 F-2A/F-2B.
In 1940 the Navy ordered five C18Ss that were specially modified versions of the commercial C18S. These ships featured a cupola above the cockpit that housed an operator who “flew” a target drone via remote control. The Swedish Royal Air Force bought a Model 18R late in 1939 that was specially equipped as an aerial ambulance, and in 1940 China ordered another Model 18R in a similar configuration.
The brood of all-metal, twin-engine Beechcrafts built during the war centered on the AT-7, AT-11, C/UC-45, SNB-1 and SNB-2. The first batch of more than 1,400 C/UC-45s built during the war years was delivered in 1940. As the war progressed, Great Britain received the C-45 version under Lend-Lease, but was operated by the Royal Air Force as the Expeditor II. In 1941, “Beechcrafters” began manufacturing the SNB-1 and a year later the SNB-2 for the United States Navy. Essentially identical to the Army Air Force’s AT-11, the SNB-1 was intended to train aerial gunners and bombardiers. A total of 321 airplanes had been delivered when production ended in 1944. A more utilitarian version, the SNB-2, was operated as navigation trainer as well as a VIP and general purpose transport. Deliveries began in 1942 with 44 airplanes, reached a peak of 286 in 1943, with another 276 rolling off the production lines in 1944.
By far the most prolific Beechcraft produced during the war was the AT-11, with 1,560 delivered from 1941-1944. Known unofficially as the Kansan, the AT-11 series answered the military’s crucial need for a modern, reasonably fast twin-engine trainer equipped to teach bombardiers the deadly trade of unleashing thousands of tons of high explosives on Germany and Japan. The AT-11 was configured with internal racks that held 10, 100-pound practice bombs, and the ultra-secret Norden bombsight was installed in the Plexiglas nose section.
The crew normally included pilot and co-pilot plus three students. The would-be bombardiers took turns using the bombsight, which resided in a large, Plexiglas nose dome, to drop the dummy bombs. Training squadrons were usually based in the sunny southwestern United States where favorable flying weather prevailed year round. At the beginning of the war, training pilots, gunners and particularly bombardiers and navigators was a high priority in order to take the war to the Axis as soon as possible. After the war many AT-11s were converted to C-45G/C-45H configuration and soldiered on until the early 1960s before being retired from service.
Working together with the AT-11 was the AT-7, whose chief mission was to train navigators. Known unofficially as the Navigator, the AT-7’s cabin was equipped with a small, rotating Plexiglas dome aft of the cockpit for celestial navigation, drift meters, work tables and various types of compasses. An auxiliary instrument panel that replicated those in the cockpit was installed to provide students with essential airspeed and altitude information necessary for making calculations.
Many thousands of navigators graduated from the AT-7 to the nose of Boeing B-17, Consolidated B-24, North American B-25 and other bombers during the war. A small number of AT-7s were modified into the AT-7A equipped with floats or snow skis. Initial deliveries of the AT-7 began in 1941 when 187 were produced. Production peaked at 361 in 1943 and was terminated in 1944 after a total of 884 airplanes had been built. Beech Aircraft began its existence in 1932 with fewer than 10 employees. By 1937 that number had grown to 220. In the spring of 1940, employment had increased to 780 and then soared to 2,354 in April 1941. During the war the number of Beechcrafters peaked at 14,110 in February 1945.10
Wichita made a major contribution to the Allied victory in World War II. By 1941 the city on the Plains of Kansas had the right factories, the right people and the right airplanes to equip America’s Arsenal of Democracy.
- Phillips, Edward H.: “Stearman Aircraft – A Detailed History;” Specialty Press, North Branch, Minnesota; 2006.
- Wichita “Eagle,” June 27, 1940, Page 5.
- The latest contract for the Stearman Division added to an order backlog worth $11 million. It is also important to note that during the autumn of 1940, the Culver Aircraft Company in Columbus, Ohio, was in the process of relocating its manufacturing operations to the old Bridgeport plant used by the Stearman Aircraft Company during 1927-1930. Culver held orders for airplanes worth more than $1 Million.
- Phillips, Edward H.: “Stearman Aircraft – A Detailed History;” Specialty Press, North Branch, Minnesota; 2006.
- Phillips, Edward H.: “Cessna – A Master’s Expression;” Flying Books, Publishers & Wholesalers, Eagan, Minnesota, 1985.
- Phillips, Edward H.: “Beechcraft – Pursuit of Perfection;” Flying Books, Eagan, Minnesota; 1992.