Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How the New Deal Helped Win World War II (part 6 of 10): A New Deal Air Force

(WPA poster, by artist Blanche L. Anish, created in Ohio, 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Before and during World War II, New Deal policies & programs enhanced America's air power. These enhancements helped lead the nation to victory.


1. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA):

BPA, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, is a federal energy agency with strong New Deal & FDR roots (see "Bonneville Power Administration, History," Northwest Power and Conservation Council,

According to BPA, "BPA employees energized the Northwest industries making planes and ships to help the Allies win World War II. The recently completed Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams provided electrical power to support construction at wartime shipyards and at aluminum smelters making the raw material for Boeing’s B-17 and B-29 aircraft production...Federal power supplied by BPA was instrumental in the ramp up of the Northwest aluminum industry. BPA provided the energy for both aluminum smelters producing raw material as well as an aluminum rolling mill near Spokane that processed raw aluminum into the thin sheets used by aircraft factories...This aluminum was turned, by Boeing, into over 10,000 combat airplanes. The crews responsible for this massive production effort often personified the cultural icon of Rosie the Riveter ─ the American women who took the factory positions vacated by men serving in the military."

So significant was BPA's contribution to American victory that Harry Truman declared, "Without Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams it would have been almost impossible to win this war."

(For more information, see "BPA powered the industry that helped win World War II," Bonneville Power Administration,

(Logo courtesy of BPA.) 

2. Public Works Administration (PWA) Funding:

In the report, America Builds: The Record of PWA (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939), the agency described its airport work: "As the volume of traffic by air increases, the need for airports and safety devices becomes more imperative. Allotments have been made for 354 Federal projects costing $14,773,008 to improve landing fields, for route lighting, radio beams and mapping, and for developing new safety devices and new techniques...On the shore of the historic Potomac River, a few miles from the White House, Federal agencies have undertaken the construction of a 750-acre air terminal, which is designed not only to serve the Capital with aviation transportation facilities for land and sea planes, but also as a model for the rest of the country. This new airport provides four paved runways, 150 to 200 feet wide and at least 5,000 feet long, with unobstructed approaches in eight directions at flight angles as flat as  1-to-40, together with necessary drainage, lighting, fencing, and other facilities. The plans made also include a large terminal building and at least one hangar with auxiliary service buildings." (This description refers to Washington National Airport, which is now called Reagan National Airport.)

Many airports constructed or improved by New Deal programs (a) facilitated military transportation within the U.S., (b) provided training grounds for pilots and new aircraft, and (c) stood ready to defend against invasion or air attack. Fortunately, an invasion or (significant) air attack never came to the U.S. mainland. Perhaps this was so, in part, because of the air defense (and naval) improvements facilitated by the New Deal.

(The statue of limited government icon Ronald Reagan stands watch at a big government airport in Washington, DC. Indeed, "Reagan National Airport," which used to be called "Washington National Airport," received plenty of PWA funding, plenty of WPA labor, and plenty of arm-twisting by FDR to get the project underway. Photo by Brent McKee.) 

3. Airport Construction Activities of the Works Progress Administration (WPA):

From 1935-1943, WPA laborers engaged in over 900 landing field projects (new constructions, repairs, and improvements). They also created 900 miles (or 4,762,884 linear feet) of new runways. Further, they performed over 4,000 projects to build, repair, or improve airport buildings, and many of these projects were certified as national defense projects. (Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, pp. 84-85, 136, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946.) 

General Michael F. Davis, of the U.S. Army Air Corps (and then a commander in the U.S. Air Force) once said of the WPA's contribution to the war effort: "The WPA did not enlist for this battle today. They have been fighting the Battle for America for six years. Much more than one-half of America's airport construction has been the work of the WPA. Runways have been laid; buildings have been erected; utilities have been reconditioned; drainage systems have been installed. Nests for America's warbirds have taken shape out of raw fields and meadows. Hamilton Field, whose fighter-planes guard the vital San Francisco Bay area, has felt the drive of the WPA. Projects, costing nearly $500,000, are under way at this air base. When the job is done, Hamilton Field will be a better field--a more efficient air bulwark for Pacific defense. The WPA man behind the shovel, behind the pick, and behind the wheel barrow is doing a job, is also 'Keeping 'Em Flying.' Hamilton Field dips its wings in tribute to the WPA." (Radio transcription, 1941, National Archives, Record Group 69, Records of the Work Projects Administration.) 

(WPA workers helped construct Baltimore Municipal Airport, later called "Harbor Field." During its lifetime, the airport served both civilian and military needs. For example, during World War II it briefly served as the headquarters for the Air Force's 353rd Fighter Group and, after the war, it was the home of the Maryland Air National Guard. Today, the airport is gone, replaced by the Dundalk Marine Terminal. For more information, see article here. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

4. The Aviation Work of the National Youth Administration (NYA):

The NYA trained unemployed young men & women in the aircraft trades, e.g., sheet metal work, engine mechanics, radio repair. These young Americans then took their newly-acquired skills into the war industry (see yesterday's blog post "How the New Deal Helped Win World War II (part 5 of 10): The National Youth Administration Strengthened the Defense Industry").

The NYA also engaged in aircraft landing projects. For example, in 1939 "NYA youth started to build a transcontinental chain of seaplane bases extending from Maine to Key West, and along the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana. Other network of bases were established up the Pacific coast, in the Mississippi Valley, and in the Great Lakes region. These bases usually consisted of docks and pontoons." (Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, p. 139, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944.)

(The description for this photograph reads "Naval air base, Corpus Christi, Texas. Deep in the heart of Texas, young National Youth Administration (NYA) trainees for war jobs, watch the Navy planes they are learning to service. Wearing their regulation work clothes, these civil service apprentices of the naval air base in Corpus Christi, Texas, are in the vanguard of a large army of youths being trained as maintenance and repair workers at the military air station." Photo by Howard R. Hollem, from the Farm Security Administration--Office of War Information Photograph Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Some Americans thought that the New Deal would lead us to fascism, and socialism, and communism, oh my! On top of that, they thought that the New Deal work programs and infrastructure investments were unnecessary and "wasteful." But, after considering the New Deal's role in enhancing the nation's air power, and the role that air power played in our victory at World War II, it would seem that history has proven them fantastically wrong.

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