Throughout rural America during World War II, factories sprang up. In Nebraska, there were ordnance plants building
bombs near Mead, Sidney, Hastings and Grand Island. Also, a huge aircraft assembly facility was built just south of Omaha at Fort Crook. The Martin Bomber plant built 1,500 B-26 Marauder medium bombers and more that 500 huge B-29 Superfortresses – including the “Enola Gay,” the plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.
Don Geery, for one, was amazed at how the nation’s industry answered the call. “The equipment we had on standby [before the war started] to fight a war was little, if anything,” he says. “It’s amazing to me … how [the country] jumped in there and built airplanes and tanks and everything.”
However, at least in the beginning, not everyone was put to work. Blues musician and activist Josh White wrote songs protesting segregation in the defense industry. “I’ll tell you brother,” he wrote, “Well, it sure don’t make no sense / When a Negro can’t work / In the national defense.”
These are three of the major plants in Nebraska:
Grand Island’s Cornhusker Ordnance Plant. During the war the Army alone built over 60 ammunition plants. The other branches of the service had theirs, as well. The Cornhusker plant was one of the last one built by the Army during World War II. Construction just west of Grand Island began in March 1942 and was completed in six months.
Building bombs and artillery shells – known as “ordnance” – was a good job. The plant paid 70- to 80-cents an hour, about the same as factory workers around the nation but well above what laborers on the farm and in small towns made. Merchants in Grand Island had been paying their workers around 30-cents an hour. At its peak, the plant employed 4,229 people. Many commuted from farms and rural towns up to 60 miles away. There were three shifts each weekday and shifts on the weekends. A normal workweek was 48 hours long, and many worked overtime.
The high wages and new jobs were both a boom and a strain on the local economy. More money in people’s pockets meant there was more to spend in town and at the markets, but it also meant that there were fewer people to work on the farms and behind the counters. Merchants had more money but were forced to pay more for their help and extend the hours they were open.
There were also dangers at the plant. TNT, the main explosive agent, was mixed in huge, hot vats and poured into the casings. The ingredients were toxic if workers were exposed to high levels. And obviously, when you’re building bombs, there’s the risk of explosions.
There was only one major accident at the Grand Island plant.
Mildred Hopkins worked at the plant and knew one of the nine people who were killed when an explosion leveled the main building of line four that poured TNT into shell casings. It happened on a Saturday in May 1945, and the official cause was never determined. Newspapers speculated that lightning from a passing thunderstorm might have set off the explosion.
With thousands of new workers, Grand Island experienced strains on their schools, housing, recreation facilities, police and other social services. When the war ended in August 1945, the entire work force at the plant was released in two weeks. The Army stripped the buildings, even selling the window glass and electrical wiring. The town of Grand Island made a relatively easy transition back to a peacetime economy.
Hastings was the site of the largest Naval ammunition plant in the country. At its peak in 1945, the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot (NAD) employed over 10,600 civilian and military personnel – twice as many as the Grand Island plant. Hastings began as a smaller community than Grand Island, only 25 miles to the north. So, the impact of the Naval Depot on Hastings was much more intense.
The first impact was on the land itself. The Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot eventually covered 75 square miles of what used to be farmland.
The next impact was economic. The new plant was announced on June 10, 1942, and the Navy estimated it would cost $45 million to build and run it. By the end of the year, deposits in Hastings banks had shot up almost three-fold, from $4.5 million to $12.8 million.
The impact on the community was immediate. Construction began within a month of the announcement, and the local newspaper reported the arrival of 55 new families in town during the first two weeks of July. By August, there were 300 new families. From 1940 to 1943, the population in Hastings soared over 40 percent, reaching over 22,000.
Classrooms in schools were quickly overcrowded. Some teachers remember teaching 20-25 kids before the war and 50-60 during it. Finding homes for all these new individuals and families was next to impossible.
On the other hand, workers at the depot were making a lot more money than workers in town or hired hands on the farm. By 1944, the base wage at the depot was 74-cents an hour with time-and-a-half for overtime and 54 to 64 hour workweeks. That compared to the going wage of 40- to 50-cents an hour in town and maybe a dollar-a-day as a hired man on the farm.
Farmers around Hastings, like farmers across the country with new war plants nearby, experienced a severe labor shortage. Their hired hands left in droves, not only because many enlisted or were drafted but also because they could make more at the war plants.
The end of World War II brought cutbacks to the Naval Ammunition Depot, but the plant remained open until 1966. At its peak during the war, Hastings had a population of 22,252 up from a 1940 population of just over 15,000. By 1950, the population was just over 20,000.
Omaha’s Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant was actually closer to the small rural community of Bellevue than Omaha. When the plant began construction in the spring of 1941 – well before Pearl Harbor – Bellevue had 1,184 residents occupying 306 buildings. The plant was going to bring in 3,000 new workers. Some would come from the adjoining towns of Omaha, Ralston and Council Bluffs, but the plant would forever change Bellevue from rural to urban.
Federal grants helped Bellevue with housing, schools, police and fire protection, but the town boomed and strained at the seams.
The first aircraft assembly building measured 600 by 900 feet with eight other major buildings supporting it. There was over 250 miles of electrical wiring, 47,000 cubic yards of concrete, five acres of glass and 10-million square feet of painted walls.
Through the war, the plant produced over 1,500 B-26 Marauder medium bombers and more than 500 B-29 Superfortresses – including the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, the “Enola Gay.”
At its peak in 1945, the plant employed over 13,000 workers. Over 40 percent of the workforce were women – 5,300 workers. Around 5 percent of the workforce was black despite a relatively large African-American population in Omaha.
With 10,000 to 13,000 workers, the Martin Plant was like a small city on the edge of rural Nebraska. The plant had its own telephone system, bank, post office, hotel, library, recreation, police, fire and sanitation systems. There was even a school on the grounds.
Dr. Charles Ashby was a young medical intern when Pearl Harbor was bombed and started his service providing first aid at the Martin Plant. He remembers being impressed with the sheer size of the operation. “It was amazing to see, for a young man who hadn’t been around very much,” he says.
Many of the workers migrated from farms to work at the Martin plant, and many never returned. When it closed in April 1946, it left a hole in the greater Omaha community. Then, in 1948, the plant became the nucleus of the new Strategic Air Command (SAC).