War created whirlwind in Wichita

This article originally appeared in the The Wichita Eagle on March 4, 1985.

By Joe Earle

The Wichita Eagle

One magazine at the time likened it to a storm sweeping across the Kansas

Plains and into Wichita – “a $62 million tornado in a town of 120,000.”

But Kansas tornadoes usually destroy. In Wichita, this storm created. It

made roads and buildings and jobs. It made the seventh-largest city in Kansas

out of fields south of Wichita. And it made airplanes.

The storm was World War II, the war that started with air attacks in

Poland and on Pearl Harbor and ended with an air attack on Japan and in

between made extensive use of airborne fighting machines.

As the storm ravaged cities in Europe and the Far East, it built them on

the Kansas prairie, far from the coasts where factories would be exposed to

attack from the enemy.

George Trombold, who was personnel director at Boeing during the war, said

the best word to describe the early years may be “convulsive.”

“Just adjusting to this required a tremendous cooperative effort of

everybody and all elements of the community, the city government, the service

industries,” Trombold said.

“But this was a wartime effort, and people are accustomed to doing things

in crises like that. They really stepped up. . . . It was certainly a

communitywide, pooled effort to get the whole thing done. It impacted

everything – the churches, the schools, social institutions.”

The expansion started in a small way even before the United States was

officially at war. As tensions increased in Europe in the late 1930s, the

military and airplane companies began to gradually increase activity. In 1939,

President Franklin Roosevelt described U.S. military airpower as “utterly

inadequate” and asked Congress to spend $300 million on aircraft for the Army.

Eight months later, Germany invaded Poland, and Europe was officially at war.

But the Depression-ravaged aviation industry – which had “dwindled to

virtually nothing in the early ’30s,” one observer wrote – wasn’t prepared for

the scale of the expansion that was to come.

On May 16, 1940, Roosevelt ordered 50,000 airplanes for the Army and Navy.

The aviation industry gulped at the size of the order.

By June 1941, though, construction was under way on the government-owned

Plant Two at Boeing Co.’s Wichita plant, which that would produce the B-29

Superfortress, a long-range bomber that would be one of America’s most

important warplanes.

Wichita’s expansion during the war years was staggering.

Sedgwick County’s population, which had declined by a percentage point

during the 1930s, increased by 76 percent between 1940 and 1950. During the

war years, the county’s population increased from 136,526 in 1940 to 226,724

in 1944, then declined in 1945 to 203,398.

The reason for the expansion was simple: airplanes. Total aviation

employment in Sedgwick County was at 697 in January 1939. By January 1944, the

peak, it was 51,248 – still record for the city.

Boeing, building B-29s and trainers, grew to be the largest, with a peak

of about 30,000 workers. At one point, Boeing hired 4,000 people in a month,

Trombold said.

But the other companies exploded as well. Beech Aircraft Corp. employed

more than 14,000 by the war’s end. Cessna employed more than 6,000. Other

companies started, moved to Wichita or expanded to provide subcontract work on

the planes.

As the war continued, the makeup of the city’s work force changed. Women

began replacing men as the builders of planes.

“Early on, we had 95 percent men,” said Frank Hedrick, retired vice

chairman of Beech. “At the peak of World War II, we had 60-40, women to men. .

. . Not because we sought them out, but because that was what was available.

It was not an easy thing for a young man to get relief from the draft.”

AS THE number of people building airplanes increased, so did the size of


And those buildings were under construction at the same time workers were

building planes inside, Hedrick said.

The same was true in other plants.

“This thing was just going so fast, it was just exhausting all the efforts

of the Wichita construction fraternity,” said Walt Keeler, a former Wichita

mayor who headed a concrete company that worked on the construction at Boeing.

And the new airplane workers changed the face of Wichita. They swept into

the city from across the country. They came from Kansas farms and towns, from

Oklahoma, from Texas and Missouri and Arkansas and dozens of other states.

The federal government helped provide homes for the new employees through

three big housing projects. Hilltop Manor, near Boeing, contained about 400

housing units. Beechwood, near Beech, contained another 500 units. But the

largest, by far, was Planeview, an “instant city” built just outside Wichita

and north of Boeing, that contained 4,382 units.

At one point, Planeview had a population close to 20,000 and was Kansas’

seventh-largest city. Planeview had its own school system. It had its own

business district and grocery stores and post office. It had its own fire

deparment and police force.

People in Planeview came from all over the country, said Sid Moore,

principal of Planeview High School during the war.

On the first day of school, Moore was looking for a particular student and

walked into the class where he was assigned. Moore said he called out the

student’s name, but no one answered. Then he asked whether anyone in class

knew the student. No one did. Then Moore realized that none of the students

knew each other.

“All of those kids had been in a different high school the year before,”

he said. “We had kids from 42 different states and two or three foreign

countries that first year. When their folks got jobs in one of the airplane

factories, they were in that high school.”

Not all of the new workers lived in Wichita, however. Trombold said

surveys showed that up to 15 percent of Boeing’s employees commuted from

nearby cities and towns, such as Arkansas City or El Dorado or Newton or towns

in Oklahoma. The storm passed almost as quickly as it had begun. With V-E

Day and V-J Day, airplane building stopped, and the airplane companies were

left scrambling for work to keep their assembly lines running as the country

shifted into post-war life.

Aviation employment in Sedgwick County dropped from 51,000 in 1944 to

41,000 in 1945 to 7,500 in 1946. By 1948, employment had dropped to 5,000.

Boeing’s employment, for instance, fell by about 15,000 in one month in 1945.

Some people simply packed up and left Wichita and went home. Their work in

aviation had been part of the nation’s war effort, and once the war was won,

they went back to their pre-war jobs and hometowns.

But many of the wartime workers stayed on. Planeview, which was built to

be torn down after the war, wasn’t. Houses were sold to private owners, and

the area eventually was taken into the city of Wichita.

In the years after the war, the neighborhood began deteriorating. About

half the government-built houses remain today.

Although the county’s population dropped from 227,000 in 1944 to 203,000

in 1945 to 191,000 in 1946, it then started climbing and had passed the

wartime peak by 1949.

The storm changed both Wichita and the airplane industry. In 1940,

aircraft-related employment in south central Kansas accounted for 10 percent

of the area’s manufacturing jobs, according to a University of Kansas study in

the mid-1950s. By 1953, the study said, aviation accounted for 65 percent of

the manufacturing jobs.

Airplane-building had become big business.