KC in WWII: Defense Plants Come to the Heartland

Part 1 of 3

(originally published 6/11/20)

J.C. Nichols in his Washington office at the Advisory Committee for the National Council of Defense. Nichols headed the Miscellaneous Equipment Division.

In July 1940, J.C. Nichols, Kansas City’s nationally renowned real estate developer, arrived in Washington D.C., with World War II still just beyond the horizon. At the request of his government, Nichols had agreed to join the ranks of the “dollar-a-year” men – notable corporate and institutional leaders from a wide range of businesses all over the country. These were people whom Franklin Roosevelt had tapped to help organize and then implement the public-private work that would support the war effort. For though the US was not yet formally engaged in the war, the Roosevelt administration was anticipating the inevitability that became reality in 1941. First, the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 gave structure and sanction to America’s involvement in the War in Europe, and on December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor put the US at the center of the conflict.

The National Council of Defense was a collection of cabinet members from defense, interior, agriculture, commerce and labor, but the real work came under the council’s Advisory Commission, where the dollar-a-year men worked, distributed among various departments aligned with industrial production, transportation, labor, and agriculture. As the Commission’s own manual explained, its purpose was “to translate this national defense program from appropriations and blueprints into action. It is based on three fundamental questions: What do we need? Where is it? How do we get it?”

The morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds wait in line for the opportunity to join the workforce at the Fairfax B-25 bomber plant. Image courtesy Kansas State Historical Society

Nichols had been involved at the national level before, working on public infrastructure commissions under President Hoover. But that was different – volunteer committees, not working positions. And the air was more than a bit rarified in this assignment, for Nichols’ fellow conscripted CEOs were people of considerable reputation. William Knudsen, who had left his position as president of General Motors to head the Production Division, had been the one to suggest Nichols to Roosevelt. In that same division, holding similar positions to Nichols, were presidents and vice-presidents of companies including Proctor & Gamble, AT&T, Pontiac, McGraw-Hill Publishing, the Chicago Tribune, and the director of the Mellon Institute. Heading Nichols’ specific department was W. Averell Harriman, at the time Chairman of Union Pacific, but with a resume that would eventually include a long list of historically important positions, including Governor of New York and Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

According to Nichols’ unpublished memoir, he had only expected to be there for six months. But upon arriving, it seems he found there was more to do than he had expected. Nichols wrote, “As soon as I arrived in Washington I was astounded to find that the proposed program included no defense plants or air bases between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains except in the extreme south. I immediately contacted all the important officials in Washington, including President Roosevelt; Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox; Secretary of war [Harry] Stimson; Admiral [John] Towers, head of our corps, and many others…not once but many times. In fact, it might be said that I camped on their doorsteps! I rallied support from leading industrialists; business officials and heads of chambers of commerce throughout the middle west, getting larger delegations to come from certain states, and we finally changed the whole thinking in Washington and brought about establishment of a reasonable number of defense plants throughout the middle west. At that time there were more than 500 men a week being shipped out of Kansas City alone to defense plants on west and east coasts.”

Nichols wrote as much in a letter to the New York Times, which it published on August 18, 1940. In it, Nichols wrote, “It is essential not only for maximum production but for the creation and maintenance of a sound and balanced national economic machinery that every geographic section of the country take part in the industrial expansion contemplated.” Then, on August 30, the Midwest Defense Conference met in Kansas City. Its attendees included governors, senators, local politicians and businessmen from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. They adopted a resolution in support of the same concern, entitled “Decentralization of Defense Industries.” Both Nichols’ letter and the conference resolution were entered into the Congressional Record in October, by a sympathetic member of congress from Mississippi. And by December 1940, when the National Council on Defense formally defined its role in its official publications, the functions of the Procurement Division included the provision of “whole new factories” to be built, “some, such as those making munitions, in inland areas away from the unusually vulnerable industrial region.”

Front page of the Kansas City Star, December 29, 1941, announcing plans for local defense plants. Image courtesy newspapers.com

J.C. Nichols is most known as a real estate developer whose work impacted Kansas City in ways both intended and beneficial, and unintended and detrimental. But if there was anything Nichols loved more than his Country Club District, or was more adept at than the management of large-scale development projects, it was his love of the Kansas City area, and it was his talents as a salesman which here translated to converting his belief in Kansas City’s potential into tangible support for drawing defense dollars to his hometown.

That said, it’s not realistic to attribute Kansas City’s success only to Nichols’ talents and efforts. History, as they say, is written by the winners. So while the record supports J.C. Nichols as a leader in this national discussion, he himself attributes the importance of others in applying local leverage to the Washington fulcrum. And there is plenty of evidence that this idea of broadening the geography of the home front war effort among the branches of the military pre-dates the Advisory Committee. Indeed, the Committee’s Knudsen, having come from the auto industry was specifically charged with revamping aircraft production from the single-output model to the auto industry’s mass-produced assembly model. As it turned out, middle America was ideal as a location for the defense industry. There the government could find a surplus of housing and labor, two crucial requirements that were suddenly in short demand in locations where production was already concentrated.

If there were a lot of locations in the running for defense plants and contract work, there was more than enough to ensure the impact of that investment in the heart of America would be important. Years later, Nichols recalled, “I estimate that this change of policy… has resulted in the establishment of more than a hundred defense plants, air bases, etc., in the middle west, many of which have been converted to peace time usage, and are still functioning.” Indeed, that was the case in the Kansas City metropolitan area where we benefited from five different facilities, well scattered around the region, as well as several hundred existing businesses who retooled their operations and under contract produced goods and services for the military.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll look at six “mini-histories” of some of these facilities. Next week, we start with three of the largest and most familiar plants – North American Aviation’s B-25 bomber plant at Fairfax in Kansas City, Kansas, the Pratt & Whitney engine factory in south Kansas City, Missouri, and the Lake City Army Ammunition plant in eastern Independence.

The following week finishes up with the Sunflower Ordnance Plant in Desoto, Kansas, the Olathe Naval Air Base in Gardner, Kansas, and the Darby Corporation, a private contractor in Kansas City, KS. Each of the six profiles will share something of how the plants operated, how their contributions were significant to the war effort, and what fate has befallen them since the end of World War II.

(Feature Photo: One of a series of U.S. war effort posters that served as a constant reminder of the importance of industry’s role.)

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