Friday, September 6, 2013

The 'Ghost' Town

War and The Aircraft of Douglas Forever a Part of Tulsa

By Ken Neal
Tulsa World

            To those of us marked by World War II, the nearly mile-long building at the Tulsa airport was "the bomber plant," and the company that ran it was Douglas.
            Years after its heyday during the war, Douglas merged with McDonnell Aircraft to become McDonnell Douglas.
              Sandy McDonnell once testily corrected me when I referred to the plant as Douglas. But then he couldn't know how deeply intertwined the plant and Douglas were in the minds of my generation.
              Or what it was like to stand on a hill in Sand Springs and watch streams of big airplanes fly off to war. Or to hear almost every evening of the work adventures of thousands of men and women who ultimately built 5,929 warplanes and modified thousands more in a few short years.
              Or to know in detail the model numbers and designations of every fighter and bomber; to imagine that every time a B-24, a B-17 or an A-26 showed up in the movie news that it probably came from Tulsa and that maybe my dad had worked on it.
              My father, while holding down a full time job, attended Spartan Aviation School eight hours a day for eight weeks for the chance to go work for Douglas, which received 10,000 applications before the plant was opened in mid-1942. Ultimately 24,000 people, most of them from Tulsa and Northeastern Oklahoma, were busy putting together a variety of airplanes.
              To a 7-year-old boy, airplanes were a wondrous thing. The war was something bad, of course, but it provided the framework for the contest between the airplanes on both sides.
              At the start of the war, local officials arranged a big ceremony at the airport to give a sendoff to a lone 4-engined bomber and six P-40 fighters. The bomber probably was a B-24, although it might have been a B-17.
              The event drew a big crowd and after a proper amount of ceremony and oratory, the pilots ran to their planes and took off. The crowd watched the ships out of sight. The bomber was huge and after that I knew exactly what my dad was talking about when he was shifted to work on B-17s being modified at four hangars called the Modification Center.
              It was these four hangars that attracted American Airlines here in 1946. My dad joined American in 1947 and worked there until his retirement in 1976.
              There were almost daily stories of work, fun and tragedy at the bomber plant. I heard in detail how this or that project was coming along.

              I remember how upset my dad was the evening he told us of how an employee on a bicycle, out of the sight of a pilot in a tail-dragger airplane, was overtaken and decapitated.
              He talked of the Russian colonel who came to coordinate modification of some ships for the Red Air Force. The Red Star was painted on the ships and even though the Russians were our allies, the men didn't like the colonel. He kept bragging about Russian airplanes even while he was taking delivery of American planes.
              Once, the men were checking the intercoms in a B-17 and got a mock battle going. The tower at the airport called the Douglas plant to tell someone to "get those idiots off the air."
              Then there was the ill-fated plan to make a super, super fortress out of a B-17. Machine-gun positions were added all over the plane, quad-50s (50-caliber machine guns) mounted at every post and armor plating added everywhere.
              When the big day came for the super ship to fly, it did. But just barely, with its tail dragging. No one ever heard what happened to the project after that.
              In another case of tomfoolery, one of my dad's buddies hit the landing gear lever on a B-17 and the bomber started to slowly squat in the hangar. Hitting the lever again stopped the descent, but it took jacks and a few red faces to put the old girl back on her feet.
              I heard the first-hand accounts of the visit by President Franklin Roosevelt to the Douglas Plant. My dad was excited although he had to contain himself a bit, being a Wendell Wilkie Republican.
              Finally, toward the end of the war, when the early fears of sabotage or even enemy attacks had faded, Douglas staged a big open house for the employees and their families. I got to go through the airplanes to my heart's content. At war’s end, the government wasted no time shutting the plant down. The talk was that the wartime contracts were more or less cost-plus and that fanned stories of employees being told to get out of sight. Probably apocryphal, it was said that engineers sometimes feared for the structure of ships because there were so many employees hiding in them.
              Three days after the Japanese surrender, 7,500 employees got their notices. By September 1945, a Douglas official described the plant as a "ghost town." The plant was mothballed for a time, but revved up again when the Cold War heated up. In the years after the war, Douglas, McDonnell and Rockwell kept the plant operating in varying capacities.
              The war that brought the bomber plant into being only occupied about three years of the plant's 50-year operation, but to me -- and I suspect many others -- the plant was forever defined by those years.
              In a way, the "ghost town" description of 1946 never lifted. The plant was never again what it was during those scary, exciting and triumphal days of the war.
              Many, maybe most, of the men and women who worked there, including my dad, are gone now. So are nearly all the planes they built. And those planes were built in the bomber plant.
            And the company they worked for was Douglas.

No comments:

Post a Comment