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Reading 2: The Janes Who Built the Planes
If enough fighters and torpedo bombers are to reach our boys in the Pacific and European fronts, their wives and mothers, sisters and sweethearts, are going to have to help build them.¹
-- Port Jefferson Times, May 28, 1943
One of the aircraft production plants situated close to Naval Air Station New York (Floyd Bennett Field) was Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation Plant No. 1 located on Long Island in Bethpage, New York. Founded in 1930, Grumman produced around 40 planes annually until 1940. As the United States began its conversion to the “Arsenal of Democracy,” Grumman’s production rose to 40 planes a month. However, with the U.S. entry into World War II late in 1941, millions of men joined the United States armed forces and Grumman, like all companies, faced labor shortages. Beginning in March 1942, Grumman hired women to work in aircraft production. In less than two years, the number of female employees of Grumman’s War Productions Corps would rise from the initial six women aircrafters to 8,000, just under a third of Grumman’s wartime work force. During the course of the war, Grumman workers assembled 17,000 airplanes for the U.S. Navy (including a record 664 in the month of March 1945), while military personnel from Floyd Bennett Field processed finished Grumman aircraft – Avengers, Hellcats, and Wildcats – into service. This achievement would not have been possible without the contributions of the civilian women workers of the home front who were immortalized in popular songs of the era including “We’re the Janes Who Make the Planes,” “The Lady from Lockheed,” and the most famous, “Rosie the Riveter.”
Because women had been considered unsuited for aviation production work prior to World War II, they lacked basic skills necessary to aircraft construction. Grumman instituted 10 week aviation construction training courses that introduced newly hired women to reading blue-prints, riveting and assembly skills. Once they were on the job, Grumman learned that the women’s typical smaller size and dexterity had advantages. In a 1943 edition of Grumman’s in-house employee newspaper, Plane News, the head of the Electrical Department, John Porter, helped to explain why 52 of his 54 employees were women, stating that “the girls learn quickly and in many instances are much more capable than men in assembling delicate parts.”
Grumman employed women in other capacities besides the assembly line. It was the first company to hire women test pilots. Elizabeth Hooker, Barbara Jayne, and “Teddy” Kenyon tested military aircraft for reliability and safety, although they were barred from testing experimental aircraft or planes suspected of having serious defects. College graduates could work as apprentice engineers, following intense preparation in calculus, drafting, aerodynamics and mechanics. They assisted male engineers in designing aircraft.
Grumman attracted women workers ranging from recent high school graduates to women in their sixties. The average age of women working at Grumman was 36; for the first time many women workers were married with children. (Also, for the first time, Grumman hired African-American men and women, approximately 800.) Women were attracted to Grumman out of patriotic duty and also because unskilled women workers earned only .25 cents an hour while Grumman’s semi-skilled workers earned $1.00 an hour. Grumman gave preference to hiring workers who lived locally, so women did not have to relocate in an already tight, price-controlled housing market to work at the company. Working in their home community of Bethpage also helped women to live within their gasoline rations and allowed them to turn to relatives and neighbors for child care and other support. Grumman management instituted a number of innovations to fight absenteeism and turnover of its women employees including job counselors, cafeterias, exercise breaks, recreational sports and social programs, an annual Christmas turkey and sponsorship of three “war-time nurseries” for children between the ages of two and five.
By the end of 1945, peace arrived and signaled the end of the “glory days” of the woman aircraft workers, Floyd Bennett Field, and ultimately Grumman itself. The day after V-J (Victory in Japan) Day in 1945, facing the loss of its government contracts, Grumman laid off all of its employees. It rehired on the basis of seniority and proficiency; in 1947 only three women of the thousands who had worked on Grumman’s production line during the war remained. Naval Air Station New York continued to play an important military role after the war. It served 30 Navy and Marine squadrons and became one of the nation’s largest air reserve training bases through the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. However, ferry command was transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1946. In 1971, the base was deactivated, and Floyd Bennett Field was incorporated into the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area the following year. Grumman’s Navy contracts, notably for the F-14, and work on the Apollo Lunar module sustained the company through the Cold War. In 1994, due to the fall of the Soviet Union and cutbacks in defense spending, Northrop Corporation of Los Angeles, California acquired Grumman and significantly reduced operations on Long Island.
The events that occurred at Naval Air Station New York and Bethpage from 1941 to 1945 contributed significantly to Allied victory in World War II. Joshua Stoff, the first curator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York, summed up the importance of aircraft production saying, “One of the greatest industrial feats of all time was the massive production of aircraft by American industrial manufacturers during World War II. In many ways, the Allied victory hinged on this huge American industrial contribution. This achievement also resulted in several new developments in American industry: (1) The true mass production of military aircraft, a phenomenon never seen before or since. (2) The unprecedented introduction of women and minorities into the skilled workforce. (3) The greatest period of camaraderie and high morale among workers ever.” ²
Questions for Reading 2
1. Why did Grumman begin to hire women aircraft workers in 1942? What types of jobs did they perform for the company?
2.What characteristics helped change the perception that females were unsuited for aviation production work?
3.What benefits did Grumman offer to attract women workers?
4. How did peace impact Naval Air Station New York (Floyd Bennett Field), the women workers of Grumman and Grumman Corporation itself?
5. How did American industry help facilitate the Allied victory in WWII? What new developments in American industry resulted from its participation in the war effort?
Reading 2 was compiled from the National Park Service's brochure Floyd Bennett Field: WWII 1941-1945; Christine Kleinegger, The Janes Who Made the Planes: Grumman in World War II. The Long Island Historical Journal (Fall 1999, Vol. 12:1); Frank N. Schubert, Mobilization (U.S. Army Center for Military History, 1995, CMH Pub 72-32); Joshua Stoff, Picture History of World War II American Aircraft Production (New York: Dover Publications, 1993); and materials in the collection of the Floyd Bennett Field Task Force.
¹Grumman Plant is Seeking Workers. Port Jefferson Times. May 28, 1943.