City industry contributed to war effort

Rosie the Riveter
News-Sentinel file photo

Rosie the Riveter
A Fort Wayne woman, one of thousands of women nationwide who became "Rosie the Riveter" when they took factory jobs making components for the war effort, works on one of the superchargers that General Electric produced for military aircraft.
By Linda Lipp of The News-Sentinel

Whether it flew, floated, dived or drove, the military machinery that helped the United States and its allies win World War II had components built in Fort Wayne.

International Harvester made trucks for the Army. General Electric's Fort Wayne plants built electric motors for ships and submarines, weapons-control systems and refrigeration equipment, and motors and superchargers for aircraft, among other things. Magnavox made a wide range of radio equipment, bomb detectors, sonar and radar systems, and gun-firing solenoids.

Bombs were built at the Tokheim and Wayne Pump plants, wooden airplane propellers were constructed at Packard Piano Co., wire spools were produced by Rea Magnet Wire, and pistons were built by Zollner Machine Works.

The Fort Wayne Rolling Mill – now Slater Steel – shaped the uranium in the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan.

But the war actually began for many Fort Wayne workers long before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

As early as 1938, General Electric's Fort Wayne works was being asked to develop motors for military aircraft. In 1939, fearful that German bombing would destroy its English factory, Rolls Royce chose Fort Wayne to build starter motors for military aircraft, according to a history of GE's Fort Wayne operations written by retired GE electrical engineer Clovis Linkous.

But the biggest addition to GE's war efforts here came when the U.S. government chose Fort Wayne as the site for a new plant that would build the superchargers that gave wartime planes greater power, speed, height and distance. Ironically, the plans for the plant were announced just two days before the Pearl Harbor attack.

"From that moment on, no American was working for himself alone, but for the whole of our country, for the future of that country and for humanity," GE president Charles Wilson wrote shortly afterward in the company newsletter, known in Fort Wayne as The Works News.

"We know the job before us. We know that our cause is the greatest for which man has ever fought. Let us remember that our every thought and act is devoted to that cause. We are producing for victory," Wilson's message to workers continued.

The Works News was used to help whip up patriotic fervor among GE employees, whom it referred to as "industrial soldiers." It also contained gossip; letters from employees in the service; war bond promotions; information on gasoline rationing, ride-sharing programs and tax preparation; and, of course, as many details as security considerations allowed on the company's part in the war effort.

One of the most amazing stories covered by The Works News was the process of getting the Taylor Street supercharger plant into production by the summer of 1942.

"It was a monumental feat," Linkous said. "It shows you that the ability of our economy to move fast is not a new development."

For many years, GE had worked to cultivate a sense of community and a feeling of family among its workers, Linkous said. During the war, that family pulled together.

Employees worked seven-day weeks without holidays or vacations, and then spent 10 percent of their pay on war bonds. Many workers even contributed their family pets to a miliary K-9 program known as "Dogs for Defense."

In some respects, however, a job was still a job — even in wartime. Managers stressed cost reduction and increased worker productivity and efficiency, for example, yet wasted time and money in other areas, recalled Richard E. Seely, an electrical engineer who went to work at GE in 1942 and stayed 43 years.

Seely took a pay cut to move from a General Motors plant in Detroit back to his hometown of Fort Wayne. He'd tried to get a job at GE before the war, but said he didn't have the family connections that were needed then to get hired.

"After the war started, they weren't so fussy," Seely said.

Patriotic feelings contributed to the war effort at home, "but I didn't realize what the war really was about until I was in it," said Gene Warwick, a metallurgist who started at GE in 1942 and worked in the supercharger production plant at Taylor Street. Warwick initially got a deferment to perform defense industry work, but lost it and was drafted into the Navy in 1943.

"By that time, they had enough superchargers and what they really needed was warm bodies," he said.

Elmer Yordy, 91, went to work at GE's Broadway plant at age 17. He was drafted into the Army in 1942 and later participated in the Normandy invasion. He views his GE service and his war service in the same matter-of-fact way: "I'm a firm believer that life is what you make it, good or bad."

Yordy met his future wife, Frieda, at GE before the war and married her after returning to GE when the war ended.

Women were hired en masse by industries that were losing their male workers to the military. GE even developed a special job classification for them, Linkous noted. Workers were listed under three categories: women, men and women doing men's jobs.

One of those women was Harriett Facks, who went to work at GE in 1943 after graduating from high school. Facks' motives were personal as well as patriotic. Her father had died here on Pearl Harbor Day, and she was the oldest of six children still at home. "My mother didn't work, so we had to get out and help make a living."

Facks left GE in January 1946, when the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union went out on strike. With war production ended, and women being laid off to make way for the servicemen who were returning home to claim their jobs, "I had to pound the streets. Jobs were hard to find," she recalled.

Because she could type, however, Facks was hired by Magnavox as a clerk. She later had a chance to return to GE but chose to stay with Magnavox because by then she'd met the man there who she intended to marry.

Ed Facks, her future husband, had started at Magnavox in 1940. Magnavox radios were a prestige brand, and workers took great pride in building them, he said. That spirit carried over into their wartime production efforts.

Ed Facks was drafted into the Army in 1942 and became — what else? — a radio operator. Stationed at a headquarters company in San Diego, he experienced firsthand the vital nature of the communications equipment manufactured by his colleagues at Magnavox.

He received a call one night from an Air Force colonel, concerned because his own radio operators were unable to make contact with a fleet of bombers lost over the Pacific and running out of fuel. Facks, however, was able to reach the planes with his Army radio equipment, "and we brought them in."

"It was my privilege to be able to do that," he said.

One great landmark, symbolic of Fort Wayne's war effort, still shines today. The giant illuminated General Electric sign that beams out over the Broadway operation was turned off on the evening of the Pearl Harbor bombing. It remained dark until after the United States and its allies had won the war in Europe. Its relighting on June 15, 1945, symbolized not only the end of war, but a return to normalcy for Fort Wayne industry.

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