KC in WWII: The Sunflower Ordnance Plant, the Olathe Naval Air Base, and the Darby Shipyards

Part 3 of 3

(originally published 6/25/20)

Last week, we looked at three plants that dominated the Kansas City area’s defense plant industry. This week’s offerings are no less important to the war effort, but less familiary to many and in some ways, hidden in plain sight.

SUNFLOWER ORDNANCE WORKS – DeSoto, Kansas

Sunflower Ordnance Works under construction in May 26, 1945. Image courtesy: Kansas State Historical Society.

Location: What remains of the Sunflower Ordnance Works plant can be found in northeast Johnson County, KS just south of the Desoto exit on KS Highway 10 between Lawrence and Kansas City. Accounts of Sunflower’s size vary between 9,000 and almost 11,000 acres, making it the largest WWII defense facility built in the Kansas City area, about 2 ½ times the size of Lake City.

Workers at the Sunflower Plant take their war bond “drive” to the road.. Image courtesy Kansas State Historical Society

Significance to the War Effort: During WWII, Sunflower was the world’s largest “smokeless powder” plant. While it was neither a powder (instead granules) or smokeless (only in the sense that it created less smoke than black powder), it was a replacement for black powder, and was used as propellant for artillery shells, cannons and rockets. During World War II, the Sunflower Ordnance Works produced more than 200 million pounds of propellants.

Operations: Sunflower was another defense plant that was government-owned and contractor-operated. In this case the operator was the Hercules Powder Company, a part of DuPont Chemical. The plant was home to 4,500 buildings, 175 miles of roads, 70 miles of railroad track, and 12,000 employees.

Life after World War II: Sunflower operated for three years during WWII and immediately after. In 1947 when the Hercules Powder Company contract expired, the plant was secured and placed on standby. During the next five decades, the plant went through repeated periods of production and closure until the Army closed the plant in 1998, and finally designated it as surplus property.

In 1999, out-of-state developers tried to get Johnson County support for a “Wonderful World of Oz” theme park and resort. The initial proposal projected the park to cost $860 million, and extraordinary amount that didn’t seem to fully account for the expenses of environmental remediation. Even without that concern, the Johnson County Commission had concerns about both the developer and the project, and they rejected the Oz concept in 2001.In 2002 the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma tried to reclaim the Sunflower property, which was part of its reservation property in the late 1800s. The federal courts rejected that claim. In 2005, Johnson County had transferred development rights to a local developer. But development cannot be planned until the federal government completes the environmental remediation. The latest date for completing that is 2028.

OLATHE NAVAL AIR BASE – Gardner, Kansas

The original administration building at the Olathe Naval Air Base. Image courtesy Johnson County Museum

Operating today as the New Century AirCenter, the old Olathe Naval Air Base is one of only two of the original Kansas City area defense facilities still in operation, albeit for a very different purpose. The original base earned much distinction as a transport facility during the war, but over the years a far greater reputation as a training facility, where future astronaut John Glenn made his first military solo flight as a cadet in training.

Location: The Olathe Naval Air Base is actually located in Gardner, KS, just southwest of Olathe. It’s directly north of the 175th Street exit on I-35 heading southwest from Olathe. At the time the Navy purchased it, the property included the original Johnson County Airport.

A training flight begins, with the Olathe base’s operational buildings in the background, circa 1955.

Significance to the War Effort: When the Olathe Naval Air Base was built in 1942, its purpose was to relocate its training facilities in Fairfax, which had been crowded out by the new B-25 bomber plant. A 1938 Navy plan had already recommended modernizing and expanding the capacity of all its Navy bases, so the new facility was designed with those needs in mind.

The function of the Olathe air station changed completely in 1944, when its primary mission became that of training transport pilots and providing support facilities for Naval Air Transport Squadron (NATS) Three. The purpose of NATS was to transport personnel and cargo to both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war. The primary duty of Squadron Three was to operate hospital flights, so as to equalize patient load among all naval hospitals. The Olathe base became the largest of these transport facilities because its central geographic location made it a convenient mid-continent stop.

Operations: The base was officially commissioned on October 1, 1942, as the United States Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Olathe, Kansas, but its name was changed on January 1, 1943, to the United States Naval Air Station in order to give it comparable status with other air bases.

Construction began in January 1942. First phase projects included a hangar, an assembly and repair shop, personnel quarters, a ground-school building, and fuel storage facilities, as well as three 5,000 foot runways. Over time, additional property was acquired to expand. The initial purchase of what was then the Johnson County airport cost just over $72,000, while the construction of the new facilities cost about $12.2 million. When completed, the Navy estimated the base could accommodate 2,000 Navy personnel, but by the end of the war, that number was 6,400. Cadet instruction peaked between the spring and fall of 1943, when 1,100 prospective pilots were in training at one time.

Life after World War II: In July 1946, the Olathe Naval Air Base was one of 17 stations selected by the Navy to continue operations as a reserve training center, in addition to its service to both the Navy and the Marine Corps as a base for flight operations.

In 1951, early in the Korean War, the Air Force’s Air Defense Command selected the base to be one of 28 radar stations in the command’s radar surveillance network. For a two year period during the Korean War, the Naval Reserve Fighter Squadron 774, based in Olathe, was recalled to action, extending the base’s period of military service. That war also prompted runway extensions and new pilot training programs for use by both Air Force and Marine reserve units. The base was officially closed by the Navy in 1969, but continued to occupy some of the facilities and use some of the services for many years after the base was transferred to the Johnson County Airport Commission in 1973. The transfer stipulated that the property had to be used as an airport. The Airport Commission renamed the facility New Century AirCenter in 1994, and all military functions ceased at the airport in 1996.

THE DARBY SHIPYARDS – Kansas City, Kansas

Panorama of the Darby Corporation’s WWII shipyard operations at Kaw Point.

Unlike the other Kansas City defense facilities profiled here, the steel plate-manufacturing Darby Corporation was not government-owned. Darby was one of many existing area businesses that ceased normal operations to provide the US military with either services (mostly training) or goods needed for World War II. Much of what was produced locally had logical connections to Kansas City industries – meat packing, food processing, garment construction, chemistry and even steel. But the Darby Corporation built one of the most recognizable pieces of World War II equipment, in what seems like the least likely place in the country. Darby built boats.

Location: The Darby Corporation was located in the Kansas-side West Bottoms area, on property adjacent to what is known today as “Kaw Point,” the junction of the Kaw and the Missouri rivers.

A postcard of one of the Darby landing craft, as its launched and starts its journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Significance to the War Effort: During World War II, Darby operated the biggest shipyard in the region, manufacturing amphibious landing craft, including some of those that brought the troops to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Specifically, the craft were known as LCTs (Landing Craft, Tanks) and LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized). Darby delivered an average of a vessel a day for the US Navy, a total of about 2,000 ships. Located as it was on the river bank, the company could launch the completed boats on the 1,000 mile journey down the Missouri/Mississippi waterway to the Gulf of Mexico. From there they were deployed in both the European and Pacific theatres of war. The curiosity of the ships coming from the country’s deep, farm inland earned them the nickname, “prairie ships.” While the boats were Darby’s main product during the war, they also made locomotives and 1/2 ton bombs.

A Darby LCT in a testing operation, 1942.

Operation: The Darby Corporation had roots in Kansas City going back to the mid-1890s, and had considerably more after the acquisition of another steel company in Leavenworth, Kansas. Darby survived the Depression, and shortly thereafter, the death of founder Harry Darby. By the time WWII began, Darby was operating in the black under Harry Darby, Jr. the second generation of family management.

There is not a lot of ready information on the operations of the corporation, but there is one account of an event in its war-time history that has made it into some Kansas City history books. Early in 1944, Darby had 62 vessels that could not be sent down river owing to low water levels. The delay created a surprising sense of urgency within the Navy, which started throwing out several ill-conceived plans for healing this break in the production chain. An order to release reservoir water far upstream on the Missouri resulted in just a one-inch gain on the water level. A proposal for shipping the boats overland was nixed when Darby reminded the Navy their ships were too large for bridge clearances. The Navy’s response was a plan to remove the bridges and replace them with temporary structures, further evidence of the Navy’s sense of urgency, now nearing panic. The planned demolitions were set to begin, but the night before, storms blew in from the west and raised the river four feet. The boats were on their way. Only six months later did the world, and the Darby Corporation realize the Navy needed the boats fully deployed by June 6, 1944 – D-Day.

Life after World War II: After the war, the Darby Corporation continued to produce steel products, including railroad equipment and water towers. The company continued to diversify within the steel fabrication industry, and to acquire other steel companies. Harry Darby Jr. died in 1987. The company continued to operate for a couple of years after his death, but had been struggling for some time and finally just couldn’t continue. Without a buyer, the Darby Corporation closed in 1989, and its assets were sold at auction.

There is no doubt that the economic impact of all the facilities this series has covered – and all the other war-related business in the area – changed the city both during the war and afterward. That contribution continues to this day through both the operations long gone, and those like Lake City, Fairfax and Olathe that continue today, even where the history is buried beneath the current operation.

There is another legacy that continues today, one for which it may be impossible to ever calculate the importance. One that for me – and I’m sure many, many Kansas Citians – is very personal. Two generations of my family worked in some of those plants during WWII – my mother, my father (before he enlisted), my father’s dad and his older brother and an aunt and uncle, two each at Pratt & Whitney, Sunflower Ordnance and Lake City. It was part of their story, but not one they talked much about, as if these were typical experiences. I suspect they were, in that lots of people they knew shared them. But in retrospect, I see how important this war-time employment was at the family level. It kept food on the table and gas in the car in leaner times, and it kept them from having to leave everything and everyone they knew, to move to where the work was, an all-too-common experience during the war.

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