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Plowshares to Swords and Back PUBLIC ACCESS

The Military Buildup of World War II led to Victory and, by an Indirect Route, to a Richer World.

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Executive Editor

Mechanical Engineering 127(07), 34-36 (Jul 01, 2005) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2005-JUL-3

This article reviews the military buildup of World War II that led to victory and, by an indirect route, to a richer world. The creation of the US armaments industry is breathtaking for the speed with which it developed. After the surprise attack at the close of 1941, it did not take much time for the country to respond. Shocked by a sneak attack, Americans were able to put their love affair with the car on hold to make war machines. The entire US automotive industry converted its plants to the war effort, and much of that industrial might was devoted to building airplanes. Technologies developed for the war were quickly given civilian uses. After years of rationing and the Great Depression before that, there was plenty of demand stored up. GPS today keeps watch on truck fleets, tracks stolen cars, and serves a multitude of other civilian uses that save lives, property, and money. The Predator and other unpiloted aerial vehicles are believed to represent the future of commercial air transportation.

Days before he left the presidency, Dwight Eisenhower delivered a farewell address in which he talked about challenges facing the United States. It was a world that had changed in big ways during the previous 20 years, a period in which Eisenhower, as general and president, had played a prominent role. One challenge was a global conflict with a "hostile ideology"—cleary communism, although he didn't name it in the speech. After all, this was 1961. Fidel Castro's revolution had succeeded in Cuba two years earlier.

But the red menace wasn't the only hazard on the president's radar. There was another threat to liberty, and this one the United States had much less experience with than it had with communism. This was the speech that coined the term "military-industrial complex." Given the state of the world, it was a necessary development in American society and, at the same time. a dangerous one, Eisenhower said.

As ASME celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Mechanical Engineering is running articles each month highlighting key influences in the Society's development. This. the seventh in our series. looks at the U.S. war effort of the 1940s and its legacy..

"Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry," Eisenhower said. "American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions."

According to Allan Millett, a military historian at Ohio State University, Ike overstated the case a bit. The Navy had always been supported by a large industrial effort, Millett said, but it was new for the Army to have a dedicated industry standing behind it in peacetime.

The creation of the U.S. armaments industry is breathtaking for the speed with which it developed. After the surprise attack at the close of 1941, it didn't take much time for the country to respond. In months, American makers of plowshares, Fords, and Chevrolets had begun a production effort that would soon turn out more airplanes than the world had ever seen before. Others made tanks, jeeps, ships, uniforms, firearms-an astonishing inventory of goods that constitute the technological side of the war effort.

Before it was over, the grand push in technology that characterized the war effort would ultimately introduce the Atomic Age. And there is irony in the story, too. Much of the technology designed to destroy enemies was adapted for peace and prosperity.

Manpower, too, was called up on an unprecedented scale. In 1940, when ASME turned 60, the U.S. armed forces consisted of fewer than 500,000 enlisted men and officers. By 1945, the ranks peaked at more than 12 million At no other time have so many Americans been under arms. Today 1.4 million people are on active duty or in the reserves.

The country's combination of arms and men had the Axis Powers on the defensive in less than a year after the United States entered the war.

Years after the war ended, former Luftwaffe officers, who had become executives of international aircraft firms, would confide that they couldn't imagine where the Americans had gotten so many planes. They came from American factories, and no one outside the country expected those factories to produce so much.

Shocked Into Production

Shocked by a sneak attack, Americans were able to put their love affair with the car on hold to make war machines. The entire U.S. automotive industry converted its plants to the war effort, and much of th at industrial might was devoted to building airplanes. According to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission's history of the aeronautics industry, U.s. factories turned out almost 275,000 planes between Dec. 7,1941, and Aug. 14,1945, when the Japanese surrendered.

At one point, more than 80 factories in the United States turned out airframes and airplane components, from propellers to engines.

Automobile manufacturers modified their assemblyline methods to suit the greater precision and larger scale of building aircraft. According to the commission, the Ford Motor CO.'s Willow Run plant near Detroit produced B-24s, and the factory's output in 1944 equaled more than half the production for all of Germany. The irony is that Henry Ford, an outspoken anti-Semite, only six years earlier had accepted Nazi Germany's highest honor for a non-citizen, the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, along with a note of congratulations apparently from Hitler himself.

The B-29 Superfortress was one of the major technological developments of the war. More than 2,500 were built by Boeing, Martin, and Bell. Their 161/2-foot propellers were powered by four 2,200-hp Wright engines. The plane carried a radar bombing and navigation aid developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The plane was rated for a maximum continuous cruising speed of 342 mph at 30,000 feet. It could carry 5,000 pounds of bombs a distance of 1,600 miles.

According to Larry Lee, engineer historian for the National Parks Service's Historic American Engineering Record, and former chair of ASME's History- and Heritage Committee, developing the B-29 was one of the most expensive U.S. programs during World War 11. The others were the Manhattan Project and the mass production of penicillin.

First of a breed: The Vallecitos boiling water reactor in Pleasanton, Calif., became the first nuclear generating station to be privately owned.

Grahic Jump LocationFirst of a breed: The Vallecitos boiling water reactor in Pleasanton, Calif., became the first nuclear generating station to be privately owned.

The strength of American industry was apparent elsewhere besides the air. The country produced machines of all kinds-trucks, jeeps, tanks, and amphibious vehicles. Like the factories converted to wartime purpose, the amphibious vehicle originated as an instrument of peace instead of conflict.

The amphibian tractor, or Alligator as it was called, is an ASME Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. According to ASME's citation, Donald Roebling, a grandson of the Brooklyn Bridge's designer, Washington Roebling, devised it to rescue victims of Florida hurricanes. The aluminum vehicle was being marketed for use in oil exploration when the Marine Corps saw it as a means to carry men and supplies across the coral reefs of the Pacific. It used a paddle-tread propulsion system, patented in 1939, and its wartime power plant was a 95-hp Mercury engine. A prototype is on exhibit at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Museum in Quantico, Va.

Another landmark of industrial production is the cargo vessel known as the Liberty Ship.

Production of the ships, originally to send supplies to Britain before the United States entered the war, began in 1940 under a group headed by Henry Kaiser. By 1945, the United States would launch more than 2,700 Liberty Ships, the largest fleet of a single class ever built.

Kaiser's construction company had no experience in shipbuilding, and there was no time to train experts. His recourse was to break down the job so each worker needed to learn only a small part of it. He replaced rivets with welds to build ships quickly. The cost was a weaker hull, and many were defective and actually broke apart in service-but the reward was a lot more tonnage on the sea than anyone, including the U-boat fleets, could imagine.

Last of a breed: The Jeremiah O'Brien, built in 1943, is one of the few survivors from more than 2,700 Liberty Ships.

Grahic Jump LocationLast of a breed: The Jeremiah O'Brien, built in 1943, is one of the few survivors from more than 2,700 Liberty Ships.

One of the last surviving Liberty Ships, the Jeremiah O'Brien built in 1943, has been designated an ASME Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. According to ASME, significant features of the design are that it stressed minimum cost, rapid construction, and simple operation.

After the war came the economic miracle. Technologies developed for the war were quickly given civilian uses. After years of rationing and the Great Depression before that, there was plenty of demand stored up. Recession, which is expected to follow a war, was averted, although as Millett, the Ohio State historian, pointed out, the new concern was with inflation.

Over the years, kitchens filled with new appliances; air travel became increasingly accessible. Today, we take these things for granted along with computers and digital video discs. Many of these everyday products trace their roots to electronics, materials, or methods originally developed for war.

One of the most controversial technologies to follow this cycle of war to peace has been nuclear power.

What would become the Manhattan Project began in the late 1930s, when Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt. An army of physicists and engineers worked for years in secret around the country to turn the power in the atom into a nuclear weapon.

The Hanford B reactor in Richland, Wash., went online in 1944 under the supervision of Enrico Fermi. It produced the plutonium for the first test bomb and for the first atomic bomb used in war. It also produced the tritium for the first hydrogen bomb tested. When ASME designated the reactor as a landmark, the Society said of it: "The research work, engineering, and planning required to make the reactor operate is one of our most advanced achievements. Much of the reactor core, cooling system, shielding, and auxiliary systems were designed by mechanical engineers."

The Hanford B reactor was a graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor, designed to operate at 250 million watts. Besides turning out the fuel for some of the most devastating weapons ever built, the technology at Hanford also laid the groundwork for the later Atoms for Peace effort.

Nuclear reactors were developed for the propulsion systems of the Nautilus and other submarines that followed. The U.S. submarine fleet is entirely nuclear-fueled today.

The same technology was adapted to produce electricity. That endeavor, too, was landmarked by ASME. The Vallecitos boiling water reactor in Pleasanton, Calif., the first privately owned, nuclear-fueled generating station to contribute electricity to the grid, went online in 1957 and operated until 1963. In 1958, the Shippingport N uclear Power Station in Pennsylvania became, according to ASME, "the first commercial central electric-generating station in the United States to use nuclear energy."

Nuclear technology has been controversial from its start. Given recent ups and downs in the development of the Yucca Mountain repository for spent fuel, it would appear that the arguments for and against nuclear power won't be settled any time soon.

Mechanical engineers continue to contribute to defense. The Society has established a company, ASME Innovative Technologies Institute LLC, devoted to homeland and national security issues. The company has developed a framework called Risk Analysis and Management for Critical Asset Protection for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to compare risks across various economic sectors as an aid for making security decisions.

It is one of the jobs that have taken on increased urgency since the latest sneak attack on the United States, in September 2001.

Engineers work in various capacities with the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Energy. Some may be developing smarter bombs or ways to detect snipers. Others oversee the nation's conventional and nuclear arsenals. Far more do similar work in the private sector, which has designed such military assets as the Joint Strike Fighter, the Predator drone, and the Global Positioning System.

GPS today keeps watch on truck fleets, tracks stolen cars, and serves a multitude of other civilian uses that save lives, property, and money. The Predator and other unpiloted aerial vehicles are believed to represent the future of commercial air transportation.

Although few of us will ride in the Joint Strike Fighter, none of us knows what technology developed for that plane may eventually give us transport, light, or something completely new.

Copyright © 2005 by ASME
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