Natalie Pilgeram

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Natalie Pilgeram

In 1916, in Seattle, Washington, a pioneering entrepreneur named William Boeing entered the aircraft industry for the first time, founding the Pacific Aero Products Company. The small business employed sixteen workers and paid them fourteen to forty cents per hour. Sales to the Army and Navy during World War I drastically grew the business, now renamed as the Boeing Airplane Company, but when the war came to a close and the Great Depression set in, Boeing suffered financially with the rest of the nation. In 1934, total company employment plummeted from 1,700 in the beginning of the year to just 600 in August. By the end of 1934, Boeing was 266,000 dollars in debt. So it came as a godsend when war contracts began arriving from the U.S. Army Air Force. The entire nationwide aircraft industry was kicked into high gear in a cooperative, multi-company effort.

In a 1943 report, Washington's Secretary of State Belle Reeves declared, "No state has been more profoundly affected economically by the expansion of war industries than Washington." And no other Washington company was affected more profoundly than Boeing. In 1944, its sales totalled over 600 million dollars – approximately ten times the value of all manufacturing in Seattle five years earlier. Just in Boeing plants in the Seattle area, employment totaled in at 50,000 workers. Plant Two in Seattle was transformed into one of the nation's first modern assembly lines, having a massive floor space of 1.7 million square feet and turning out up to 362 planes a month. Security was deemed so vital that Hollywood art director John Detlie was called in to direct a project to camouflage the roof of the factory. Armed with plywood, fabric, and netting, Detlie artfully disguised nearly twenty-six acres of industrial zone to appear as an innocuous suburban housing development.

For the working people of the Pacific Northwest, the emergence of Boeing was life-changing. At one point, as many as half of the people laboring away under the camouflaged roof of Plant Two were female. These hardworking women, many of them with husbands off at war, epitomized the image of the strong, capable, independent "Rosie the Riveter." And to both genders, Boeing provided not just the employment so desperately sought after during the years of depression, but meaningful employment – meaningful for the transformation of the economy of a region known previously primarily for its lumber and fishing. As Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, has explained, "These [planes] were incredibly advanced pieces of engineering and they were being made by people who would spend those war years learning how to be essentially the high-tech workers of their day. So when we think of Seattle as a hotbed of high-tech innovation, it's not just from the recent years, it really can be traced very much to what happened in Plant Two."

While Boeing's influence was being felt at home both socially and economically, it was also being felt across the globe in the company's new heavy bombers, notably the B-17 "Flying Fortress" and the B-29 "Superfortress." One of the most significant technological achievements that came about as a result of the designing of such military planes was the development of cabin pressurization. In 1939, the B-17 served as a model for the company's Model 307 Stratoliner—the world's first high-altitude, pressurized aircraft. This innovation later proved key to the success of the B-29 in the Pacific theatre. The bombers had the ability to simply fly over the majority of the Japanese defenses. When the war ended, pressurization technology remained a crucial design element, but for the commercial market instead. The great growth in later years of Boeing – and of the American aircraft industry as a whole – could never have occurred without the development of pressurization in military planes during the war.

The history of Washington State during World War II is inseparably linked to the history of the Boeing Airline Company. In those pivotal war years, both grew industrially and economically. On massive airplane assembly lines, a generation of women gained a newfound confidence, just as a generation of workers gained the high tech skills needed to carry Washington into the future. Boeing has truly come far from its days as a small startup manufacturer with sixteen employees. So far, in fact, that Boeing is the reason Carl Spaatz, Commanding General of the United States Air Force, was able to declare in 1947, "To an airman the Pacific Northwest is the home of the long-range heavy bomber, which has changed the character of war and the meaning of peace."