WWII Kept Air Capital Hopping

This article originally appeared in the The Wichita Eagle on March 18, 1985.

By Jean Hays

The Wichita Eagle

George Biggs, 75, remembers the long hours he put in as the assistant chief

inspector at Cessna Aircraft Co. during the war. He worked 10 to 12 hours a

day, seven days a week. Twice he worked 18 months straight without a day off.

He worked hard. Then he worked at relaxing. As soon as the second shift

ended, Biggs and his friends would head west of Wichita to a cozy roadside inn

with a small dance floor. Or they’d stop at the sand pit southwest of the city

before going to a restaurant.

“We’d go out there for a walk, have a little bit to drink, then we’d all go

swimming,” Biggs recalled recently. “Then we’d all go someplace and everybody

would have a sandwich. We’d have a big time and go home at 4 or 5 in the


While many other communities slowed down during World War II, Wichita came

to life. People came from all over the United States to work in the aircraft

factories. By 1944, the city’s aviation industry employed 51,000 people.

The wages were good. Overtime made the pay even better. Many of Wichita’s

nightclubs, dance halls, movie theaters and restaurants stayed open 24 hours

to entertain the aircraft workers.

“Everyone had a lot of money, but you couldn’t buy much,” recalled Hollie

Brewer, who in 1940 made 50 cents an hour sandblasting metal aircraft parts at

the Stearman Aircraft Co. “Everything was so limited. They had to spend it

somewhere. It paid the bowling alleys and the restaurants, mostly hot dog

stands and hamburger joints, to stay open.”

During the war years, Sedgwick County’s population grew by nearly 67,000,

reaching 204,000 in 1944. Those people needed places to live, and the federal

government took care of many of them by underwriting the construction of

entire communities for the aircraft workers.

Hilltop Manor, 400 housing units, went up near Boeing between Lincoln and

Harry and Bluffview and Oliver. Beechwood, 500 units, was constructed near

Beech at Douglas and Webb. And the biggest of the defense villages was

Planeview, with 4,328 duplexes, triplexes and single-family homes, practically

next door to Boeing. Planeview extended from Pawnee on the north to 31st

Street South, and was bounded on the west by Hillside and on the east by


The average rent in Planeview was $32 a month, which included water,

electricity and coal.

Planeview, which opened Feb. 9, 1943, and was fully occupied by Jan. 16,

1944, became the state’s seventh-largest population center during the war

years. Newspaper and magazine articles nicknamed it Miracle City and called it

a melting pot. People from 42 states, representing 255 professions, lived in

the 500-acre settlement built by the government.

Work was the common thread uniting the 20,000 strangers there.

“They just melted right into it,” said Sid Moore, a Planeview resident

during the war. “It took a little while of course, because it was all strange

and everybody was busy.”

Planeview had its own combination junior high and high school, three

elementary schools, a 20-member police force, a 22-member fire department, a

shopping center and several grocery stores. To take care of it all, the

federal government employed a maintenance staff of 85.

Moore was the principal of Planeview’s combination school. The first day

of classes in 1943, he found himself in charge of 1,900 students, none of whom

knew each other.

Like their parents, the students made friends quickly.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Moore recalled. “The kids got along

well, their parents got along well – everybody was on the same level. Their

folks worked the same kind of jobs. They had fairly new houses to live in.”

Just like the plants, the school operated in shifts. Class was in session

eight hours a day with each student attending six hours a day.

The temporary school, financed by the federal government but under control

of the state, had every activity the Wichita schools offered. The Planeview

Gremlins suited up in black and white uniforms for basketball, baseball and

track. The school held carnivals to raise money for supervised playgrounds

where children could be watched while both parents worked in the aircraft

factories. There was little time for anything but work. But few complained.

“Morale was really good,” Brewer said. “Mostly I think it was because we

had quite a few women. There were 56 people in final assembly; 35 of them were

women. They had sons in the service. If they caught anybody loafing, they’d

tell them off.”

After work or on a rare day off, the plant workers were ready to relax.

Many headed downtown, where the stores were open evenings and the theaters and

restaurants stayed open 24 hours to accommodate them.

“Downtown Wichita was a beehive of activity,” said Bill Ellington, city

historian. “Never has there been so many people in the area at the one time.”

The old Swallow Airplane Co. complex at 2459 N. Hillside was turned into the

Shadowland Dance Club. Servicemen took their dates there for ballroom- dancing


Muscians who had struggled to find paying jobs during the 1930s were in

demand during the war. Dick King organized the Beech Employee’s Club Band, a

group of 18 musicians from Wichita University and some who had dropped out of

name bands to work in the aircraft factories. King’s band became the house

band at the Blue Moon, a dance hall on South Oliver.

The aircraft companies became the center of social life, and the company

newspapers served as social bulletin boards. Along with reminders to buy war

bonds and tips for women on how to look good in slacks, Boeing’s Plane Talk

was filled with notices of departmental parties.

Cessna’s Employee Club rented the former Elks Club downtown and charged

employees 50 cents a month for use of the pool tables, running track,

gymnasium, bowling alley, dance floor and pinball machines. The club also had

a snack bar and lounge, and it featured live entertainment by one of Cessna’s

orchestras. In 1945, when the war ended, it was widely thought that the

factory workers would return to their hometowns and that Planeview and its

schools would no longer be needed.

The enrollment did drop at Planeview’s junior and senior high school, but

not to the extent predicted. Enrollment went from a high of 1,988 to about

1,200 to 1,500 students in 1945, Moore said.

“It was so gradual that you didn’t notice it,” Moore recalled.

“Enrollment went down in the schools. A good many did go back home. But some

of them stayed – a lot of them are still here.”

Thanks to the federal government’s housing projects, Wichita had an

attraction for citizens like Woody King that few other cities could offer.

“The reason I came to Kansas is that it was the only place that offered a

place to live as well as a teaching position,” said King, who moved to Wichita

from Denver in 1945 to teach art in the Planeview schools. “Housing was in

very short supply after the war. You would go to the other communities and you

couldn’t find a suitable place to live, except in somebody’s basement


He rented a house in Planeview for $24 a month.

Some of Planeview’s two-story houses were demolished or moved away as the

federal government had promised. But some people wanted to buy their homes. It

was a welcome request: The federal government no longer needed Planeview, and

neither the city nor the state wanted the expense of managing federal housing


In the next few years, Boeing began gearing up for the Korean War, and

workers stayed on in Planeview. Just as aviation survived the end of World War

II, so did Planeview.