Saturday, October 26, 2013

When We Want To— We Can Do It

Before the actual beginning of World War II, the United States began preparing for a war that many thought was inevitable.  We enlarged the army and began stockpiling the supplies that we thought would be necessary to fight the war.  Despite good intentions, these preparation were almost laughable.

When the war started, the army had 37 divisions—about 12% of the size of the eventual army—and we had enough supplies stockpiled for only one division to fight.  This was woefully inadequate, but the government quickly turned to mobilizing our industries to produce the supplies necessary to prosecute the war.

During the next three and a half years, wartime production was astounding.  Do you have any idea what a 1942 Chevrolet looked like?  It looked exactly like a 1942 Ford.  It had treads and a 75mm cannon.  Singer sewing machines came in .45 caliber.  Typewriter companies--many of which had gotten their start producing firearms during the Civil War--returned to their historic roots by making pistols and carbines.  Most existing industries shifted over to producing the materiel the military desperately needed.

The production numbers were staggering.  During the war, this country produced 86,000 tanks and we  built 297,000 airplanes and trained a vast army of young men to fly them.  (To put that number in perspective, that's about 50 times the size of the present US Air Force).  We also built machine guns for those planes and tanks (One estimate puts the total number of machine guns built at 4 million.)  This is in addition to the 15 million rifles we manufactured during the war years.

Besides tanks, we built 2 million army trucks and 640,000 jeeps—about a third of which were donated to our allies.  And of course, we made the tires and parts to maintain those jeeps, too.  To keep up with production, at one point we shipped an entire Ford production plant to Russia, set it up, and began manufacturing vehicles there.

And ships!--did we ever make ships!  During just the war years, we made 64,000 landing craft and 6,500 ships.  We built sixteen aircraft carriers and 288 submarines during the war.  And one man, Henry Kaiser, astounded the world by producing 747 large cargo ships.  Despite the fact that Kaiser knew so little about ship design that even by the end of the war he was still referring to the “left” and “right” sides of a ship, he certainly understood construction and mass production!

Building new shipyards and using innovative methods, he shortened production time to unbelievable levels.  The keel for the USS Robert E. Peary (DE-132, a 306-ft destroyer escort), was laid on Sunday, November 8, 1942 and the ship was launched 4 days, 15 hours later.  This cut almost six days off the previous record, also set by Henry Kaiser.

Those new dockyards attracted workers by the thousands, and health care for these workers also had to be provided.  Here, too, Kaiser was innovative.  He started the first HMO to care for his employees.  Seventy years later, the country’s largest HMO is still Kaiser Permanente.

Clothing companies made uniforms, shoe companies made boots, publishing companies made military manuals—and all of this production was numbered in the tens of millions.  There is simply no way to estimate the number of military bases, camps, and government buildings constructed during the war.  We can note, however, that the Pentagon was started in 1941 and finished in 1942 (no mean task for a building of 3.7 million square feet!).

During those three and a half years, the country created 7 million new jobs and trained the men--and women, whose presence in the work force doubled during the same time—to handle these jobs. (This is in addition to the 16 million men in uniform.)

It is important to remember that all of this production was of very high quality and subject to constant innovation and improvement.  Take the example of aviation:  at the beginning of the war, many military planes were still biplanes and Orville Wright was still alive.  By the end of the war, pilots were flying both jet and rocket planes.  Wright made his last flight during the war--in a Lockheed Constellation--piloted by Howard Hughes.  No one knows if Wright got to take the controls at all, but we do know that he made the observation that the Constellation's wingspan was longer than his first flight had been just 41 years earlier.

But, that was 70 years ago.  What happened?  Today, in slightly more time than the duration of World War II, our government seems to have hit its operational limit at producing a web page which--as I write this--still cannot verify my existence, despite my having paid income taxes for half a century.  I'm not convinced that our nation needs a national health care system, but if we must have one, let's do it superbly.

Where is Henry Kaiser when we need him?


  1. Wow, does that ever put things in perspective. Another side of the coin: after 9/11 the usual suspects emerged from the woodwork, spouting their incessant drone about conspiracy theories involving the war hawks in Washington creating a crisis in order to justify their existence. For a brief moment, I gave their idiocy a little thought, ruminating about the convenience of having an enemy again after the Cold War had ended; an enemy whose presence initiated the need for a war machine, if for no other reason than to revitalize the economy as well as the Pentagon's raison d'être. Then I snapped out of it. There is no way under the sun that that action was anything more than it seemed: a strategic strike by the enemies of America against a symbol of U.S. prosperity. Still though, one has to acknowledge that it certainly seems an unhappy coincidence: WWII did provide a Vitamin B shot in the arm of the American economy, didn't it?

  2. Without a doubt. Unemployment essentially vanished, per capita income doubled, and our industries were at peak production. The vast majority of govt. issued contracts went to under 100 companies, essentially building the larg