|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
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,
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
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.