November 19, 2020
Women Helped Build Planes For Stinson.
When I sat down at my desk a few minutes ago – which appropriately enough for today’s monolog is a converted 1940’s vintage mahogany sewing table – I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was going to write about. But, owing to the prodigious amount of historical material that I’ve collected over the last two decades, I was sure there was something in my files pertinent to both the Stinson L-5 and todays date.
I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, there are four other interesting subjects I could have tackled, such as Wright Field responding to Stinson on this date in 1941 about the results of the accelerated service tests of the their Model 75 (designated YO-54 for evaluation purposes) that the 16th Observation Squadron had recently conducted at Fort Benning . Then there is the letter from Colonel Eckerts, Comptroller at Wright Field, dated 19 November, 1943 directing the Production Division to divert 48 Stinson OY-1 aircraft to the Navy – the first of 306 that would eventually be procured for the Marine Corps artillery observation squadrons.
Another appreciable event that also occurred 77 years ago today was the arrival of the 25th Liaison Squadron in Australia – something of particular interest to many L-5 enthusiasts. The “Guinea Short Lines” was the first such unit formed and trained in the United States that was deployed overseas, although it should be mentioned that the 71st Liaison Squadron was formed in India during July ’43 and was the first to fly any missions overseas.
I might have even “blogged” about the happenings on this date in 1929 at the Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition held on Long Island . That event was to have far-reaching consequences for Stinson and other aircraft makers, and it had a direct influence on the design of the L-5. A very worthy subject indeed that will be getting due coverage in the book I’m working on.
But something else in my files caught my eye. It is a cartoon drawn by William Crawford Galbraith, and it appeared in syndicated newspapers across the United States on this date in 1942. So, you’re writing about a cartoon, you ask? Well, why not? As I said, I have a prodigious amount of material to choose from and this newspaper clipping has just given me the inspiration for today’s impromptu history blog about an important topic that I haven’t covered before.
This amusing drawing of a husband holding a truculant baby touches upon an important and often overlooked facet of Stinson history. Women. As they had long done, a few women worked in the management and engineering offices as receptionists, file clerks and secretaries, but from 1940 through 1945 thousands were also employed as machinists, welders, assemblers, stamp press operators, dope & fabric specialists, woodworkers and quality control inspectors. Most of those jobs had never been available to women before, at least not in the aircraft industry.
In fact, before the end of WWII, women worked in just about every position there was on the Stinson factory floors and did so around the clock. By the end of 1944, two-thirds of the office and factory staff at the plants in Wayne, Michigan and Nashville, Tennessee were women. In December 1941 the female population at the Nashville factory was about one in seven workers – and that was still an extraordinarily high percentage compared other aircraft manufacturers. Stinson and their parent company Vultee were progressive firms well before the shortage of men became acute after war was declared, although that “progressiveness” had a lot to do with employing inexpensive laborers.
Of course, nearly everyone has heard of “Rosie the Riveter” who worked in the machine shop at Alameda Air Station in San Francisco, and it’s pretty well known that thousands worked in wartime aircraft production across the country (310,000 to put a number on it), but not many people realize that Stinson also had plenty of “Rosies” of their own, including the girls pictured below.
This publicity photo, given to me by the wife of Stinson employee Robert D. Whyte, beautifully illustrates the central importance of women in the wartime production line. These young ladies are assembling the cowling of an AT-19 destined for RAF service. Notice, if you will, the L-5 bottom cowls and O-435 engines in the background. Cool stuff, eh? I’ve been saving this one for my book but decided to display it here as a “teaser”. As far as i know, very few living people have seen this photo until now. The original scan I made of it is such high resolution that you can easily read the employee number on the lapel pin of the gal on the left. Unfortunately, I don’t know the names of either of these women.
Coincidentally, just yesterday, L-5 club member Matt Anderson posted a picture of an ornate signature discovered inside the wing that he is getting ready to recover – no doubt that of a woman. You can find that photo in the Maintenance & Restoration section of our L-5 forum. Below is another one showing names penciled inside an L-5 flap skin found by Duncan Cameron. The inscription reads Kellie + Florine + Barbara Aug 31, 43 No2 – probably indicating the three girls were working the second shift.
The wholesale employment of women by Stinson actually began at their plant in Nashville that opened in early 1940. The move to Tennessee was decided upon in 1939 with the release of their first small “sport” airplane, the HW-75, otherwise known as the Model 105. Stinson needed to grow if they were going to produce the number of planes projected by industry analysts and their Nashville plant became the very first aircraft manufacturing facility in the southeastern United States.
While Nashville didn’t have a large number of ready laborers with the specialized skills needed for the construction of airplanes, they did have a virtually limitless supply of young, under-employed men and women who didn’t care much for labor unions and they were eager to be trained. They were willing to work for a fraction of the pay demanded by unionized workers in the Detroit area but didn’t seem to care because they were decent wages for the Nashville area and most of the jobs didn’t involve back-breaking labor.
The city welcomed Stinson with open arms and offered a “sweetheart deal” of low property prices, low energy costs, and low taxes to entice them to build their new factory at the recently constructed Berry Field. It was a win-win situation for Nashville and Stinson. It was such a good deal, in fact, that Vultee soon took over Stinson so that they could use the new factory to build Vengeance dive bombers and other military aircraft instead of civilian planes. The Stinson O-49 (L-1) Vigilant was among them.
Before the Vultee merger occurred, one of the first things that Stinson did prior to breaking ground was to establish a tech school to train workers for the new plant. Once open for classes, young people applied in droves. While it can be argued that the students were in effect paying Stinson for the privilege of going to work, the lure of employment in the then very exciting and glamorous aircraft industry, along with the prospect of earning a steady year-round paycheck instead of a seasonal or part-time one, rendered that point a moot one. Prior to Stinson opening its doors, young women in the Nashville area had few employment choices, and most of those were as domestic help – cooks, maids, servants, waitresses and the like. As an added bonus, Stinson gave enrollees a free flight in one of their airplanes and that attracted hoards to their job fairs. They also set up a factory flight school where employees could learn to fly at discount prices. When Stinson advertised the planned hiring of 1,000 workers, they received 14,000 applications and their tech school was filled to capacity within a few weeks. A large number of them were young women aged 18 to 24.
According to a report published by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor in 1942 (* see note below), three of the seven largest aircraft factories in the United States employed no women in manufacturing in the spring of 1941. Of the other four, less than one percent of their combined work forces employed women in manufacturing jobs. At the beginning of December 1941, that number had grown to 4.2 percent nationally, but at the Stinson plant in Nashville (now owned by Vultee), 1 in 7 employees were women! Some of the foremen who had initially opposed the hiring of women, arguing that they would be inept and that they couldn’t work alongside men without friction, later were “among the most effusive in their praise of the quality and quantity of the work done by women under their supervision.”
One of the areas where women excelled was in operating drill presses, and this soon expanded into milling operations. Sheet metal fabrication, riveting and welding were other areas where there were often more women than men. Nashville welding foreman Harley Hendricks, whom I met in 2003, said that in one of his welding classes, all 14 of his students were women and they passed the rigorous tests with flying colors. That’s in stark contrast to the 1939 photo below where no women are in sight on the factory floor in Wayne. Times had changed.
(* Note: The Woman’s Bureau of the Department of Labor celebrated its 100th anniversary in May 2020.)
Most of the women at Stinson were scheduled to work an 8-hour day and 48-hour week, just as the men were. Wages were often not on par, however, particularly in Nashville where an entry-level worker might earn 20% less than her male counterpart. In Wayne, starting employees were compensated more equitably, but the pay for men usually rose more quickly as experience was gained. In some highly skilled areas such as welding, however, women usually earned equal wages and certified aircraft welders made the highest income among Stinson’s “blue collar” workers.
Women comprised about half the staff of inspectors from late 1943 onward. Checking incoming parts from vendors and sub-contractors was a common task, as was inspecting metal parts and castings for defects with Magnaflux equipment. Checking the hardness of metal using Rockwell testers required close attention to detail and constant repetitive work. Men were apt to become bored with this type of employment but women proved highly satisfactory for the inspection of all kinds of materials. The inspector stamps and part numbers you’ll find on many L-5 parts were most likely placed there by a women. And, as illustrated earlier, they were apt to sign their work or leave some indication that “Jillroy” was there.
So, hats off to the Stinson girls. Next time you’re poking around the innards of your L-5, keep your eyes peeled for evidence that the fairer sex had a hand in building it.