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.
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