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Schenectady County, New York Contributions in World War II

[This page has been extracted from pp. 358-365 of The Empire State at War: World War II, compiled and written for the New York State War Council by Kurt Drew Hartzell, Ph.D. (State of New York, 1949) Its call number at the Schenectady County Public Library is R 974.7 H33.]

(Material for this section on Schenectady has been very kindly furnished by Thomas E. Hanigan, Esq., with the assistance of the American Locomotive Company and the General Electric Company.)

Sixteen miles northwest of Albany lies Schenectady, one of the principal divisions of the Albany labor market and war production area, which included Albany, Troy, Rensselaer, and Schenectady. During the war, this area with 4 per cent of the State's population was the chief up-State center of electrical machinery construction including radar and radio equipment, a field in which the General Electric Company held a virtual monopoly. The manufacture of ordnance (cannon), transportation equipment (locomotives and tanks), and textiles and government warehousing and distributing were also important war and war-supporting industries. At Schenectady the four main employers of labor in September, 1942, were the General Electric Company with 39,000 employees, the American Locomotive Company with 9000, the United States Army Depot with 3500, and the United States Navy Depot with 2500.

Although the area as a whole was classified by the War Manpower Commission in Group II, and the supply of women was always theoretically sufficient to meet war demands, the recruiting of an adequate labor force especially in Schenectady encountered a number of difficulties. The need for experienced manual laborers was greater than the available supply. It was likewise a difficult problem to get women to work. Although wages were high in Schenectady and the patriotic appeal counted heavily with women, it was not always possible to place them in suitable jobs. By 1944, however, approximately 34 per cent of the total number of employees in the area were women.

A further difficulty arose from the very fact of an influx of such a large number of war workers as to cause a shortage of housing. This became particularly acute in Schenectady. To meet that need the local Office of Civilian Mobilization operated an exceptionally fine Rooms Registration Bureau, whose services were in continual demand well into the period of reconversion. The transportation problem likewise was a hindrance to recruiting workers from any distance. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, individuals were able to find rides for themselves, and workers were drawn from a radius of fifty miles. At one time, 3200 workers on the maximum shift at General Electric lived outside of Schenectady. These used mass transportation where possible, or joined a car pool. Some came from as far away as Rutland, Vermont.

In view of the essential character of the war work being turned out, employment ceilings and priority referral programs applied in the area to both men and women, and with but few exceptions employers required the direct consent of the United States Employment Service to take on additional labor. Occasionally, loans or transfers of various types of workers urgently needed for specific tasks were arranged by the War Manpower Commission. Supplementary labor was likewise brought in from Jamaica for work in the foundries and forges and from Mexico for work on the railroads.

In Schenectady, as elsewhere in the State, it was apparent to many far-seeing men long before Pearl Harbor that America could not escape being drawn into the fast-developing world conflict. As early as the spring of 1940, many residents envisioned their city as a vital war production center and commenced discussion of plans for defense against possible aerial attack and sabotage. With Europe aflame in the summer of 1940, Schenectady took its first official action toward a forward-looking program of civilian defense - a program that was destined to develop into widespread home-front activities in support of the war effort, and one which was to enlist the active volunteer participation of some 20,000 men, women, and young folk of the community. It was in July, 1940, that Mayor Mills Ten Eyck started forming a local Citizens Committee on National Defense, making Schenectady one of the first cities in the State to organize a local defense council. From this early start in organizing for defense, the city continued to pioneer in many of the subsequent wartime activities that were set up as a part of the State program. In several instances, its wartime agencies were used as models in the development of Statewide programs, especially in the Division of Civilian Mobilization and Civilian War Services. Such widespread attention was attracted to Schenectady's Civilian Protection organization that the State frequently used Schenectady as the meeting place for schools of instruction and demonstration.

The Schenectady County Consolidated War Council planned and encouraged such a comprehensive program of homefront war activities in active support of State and Federal programs that the major portion of the population was drawn into some form of active participation. Union College, under the celebrated Dixon Ryan Fox, sponsored a series of informative weekly radio broadcasts under the heading, "The Empire Town Meeting of the Air." He also headed a group of distinguished educators and businessmen known collectively as the Conference on Democratic Processes, from whose activities emerged the Section on Citizen Morale of the State Office of Civilian Mobilization. With such a heavy demand in the city for women workers in industry, the child care program developed rapidly into one of the major upstate projects. The city also had an active Civic Youth Council.

With this background of widespread community activity, it was natural that Schenectady should become a center for the development of methods to handle the special problems concerned with winning the war. As the home of the General Electric Company and the American Locomotive Company, the city became one of the nation's vital war production centers in which were developed some of the secret weapons that turned the tide of battle. In many ways the stories of the contributions of these two companies are indirectly descriptive of the efforts and hopes of the citizens of the Schenectady area during the war. For this reason, and because it seemed wise at some point in this volume to give a few typical examples of American industrial enterprise as applied to war, the achievements of these two companies have been given somewhat fuller treatment than that accorded similar concerns in other cities, whose contributions to the war effort might have been cited with equal justification.

During World War II, the General Electric Company, whose general offices and largest manufacturing plant are located in Schenectady, was called upon to produce a greater variety of complex war equipment and to solve a greater diversity of difficult technical problems than any other manufacturing concern in the country. This was a natural result of the employment of electricity by the combatant forces on a much greater scale than in any previous war. When the National Defense Program was first announced in 1940, the company volunteered to do its share. Then little by little, and more and more, it was drafted for war work. What began as a part-time job turned into a full-time job with overtime. Twelve years' production was crowded into four. In the aggregate, the company turned out 4 billion dollars of war equipment, ranging from giant turbines for battleships to delicate instruments for airplanes and mass spectrometers for the atomic bomb project.

A large part of the complex war equipment produced by General Electric was made at the Schenectady works - the largest electrical workshop in the world. In these buildings many of the difficult technical problems of the war were handled by the company's research and engineering laboratories. The expansion of these unique activities distinguished Schenectady from other cities in its contribution to ultimate victory and influenced to a marked extent the whole trend of community life throughout the period of the war.

Biggest of the General Electric Company's wartime job was building the propulsion machinery to drive more than 1700 of the United States Navy's fighting ships and the vessels of the greatly expanded Merchant Marine. Altogether, three-quarters of the Navy's total propulsion and auxiliary turbine horsepower built during the war period was produced directly by General Electric, or built by others to its design. The company had been building propulsion equipment for the Navy for many years, but never on a scale remotely approaching that demanded by World War II. Under the pressure of the nation's greatly expanded naval construction program, the company supplied turbines for 6 of the 10 new battleships, 37 of the 48 new cruisers, 10 of the 27 new aircraft carriers, and 200 of the 364 new destroyers. In addition, General Electric provided turbine-electric drive machinery for 255 destroyer escorts, as well as turbine equipment for some 300 naval auxiliary vessels and more than 800 ships of the Merchant Marine. The company was entrusted with the production of 60 per cent of the electric drive machinery for the wartime submarine fleet.

General Electric plants in a number of cities participated in the manufacture of ship propulsion equipment, with Schenectady playing a major part. All of the propulsion turbines for battleships were built at Schenectady, as were nearly all of those for aircraft carriers. About half of the cruiser turbines were also built there, as well as some for destroyers and naval auxiliary vessels. Construction building of the electric-drive machinery for submarines was also a Schenectady project.

Another of the wartime activities in which the Schenectady works had a major part was the production of radar and radio communication equipment. Radar, the art of radio detection and ranging, probably contributed more to the success of the United Nations than any other single device. Since the 1920's engineers of the General Electric Company had been experimenting with radio as a means of detecting the presence of aircraft and surface objects. When the tremendous expansion of American defense activities in 1940 demanded large-scale production of radar equipment, General Electric decided to freeze all its existing commercial radio types and concentrate the work of its engineers on radar. The company was the first to go into quantity manufacture of radar for the Navy. As the war progressed, the use of radar was extended from being simply a warning service to being a means of actually aiming antiaircraft and ships' guns quickly and accurately at distant, fast-moving targets. This was the key to the Allies' success in beating Germans' much-talked-of secret weapon, the V-1, or "buzz bomb." It was also the key to the Navy's extraordinarily effective gunfire in many engagements with the Japanese. Huge quantities of both search radar and fire-control radar were produced by General Electric. Before the war was over, the company had participated in the design and manufacture of more than fifty different kinds of radar sets for the armed services. This was a tremendous assignment, amounting in terms of money to about a million dollars a day.

Less spectacular, but not less important, was General Electric's production of radio communication equipment. To assure unity of action among the diverse and fastmoving elements of the fighting forces, many new types of radio equipment were needed, particularly those designed for voice operation. Working in conjunction with the Signal Corps, the Army Air Forces, and the Navy, the company participated in the design and manufacture of a prodigious amount of this equipment.

Closely associated with the development of radar was the development of the Navy's gun directors. When, in the 1920's, electricity came to play an important part in naval fire-control, the General Electric Company became the first commercial manufacturer to build the highly complex equipment required. During the war, the company produced thousands of gun directors for the main batteries on cruisers and the five-inch guns on battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. The complexity of this apparatus is indicated by the fact that in the manufacture of a single gun director there are more than eleven thousand mistakes that could be made in the wiring.

General Electric also built the hydraulic power drives for the sixteen-inch main batteries on battleships and developed an hydraulic drive system for the Navy's dual-purpose five-inch guns. The reliability and accuracy of this drive was so outstanding that the company was required to produce these units in large quantity, even though it was necessary to put up and equip a huge new building for the purpose.

Shortly before Pearl Harbor, the Army Air Forces asked the General Electric Company to design a remotely controlled gun turret for its big new bomber, the B-29 Super-fortress. Similarly, Schenectady participated in the development of the radically new jet engine for airplanes and the "prop jet," a combination of jet engine and a turbine-driven propeller.

Besides these special jobs, the Schenectady works produced enormous quantities of other war equipment, especially large motors, generators, and other apparatus. A number of floating power plants were built for service in Europe and the islands of the Pacific. Generating equipment for power-driven trains was built for the Navy and for the Russian government. The steadily growing volume of war work meant ever-increasing demands for plant facilities. Prior to the war, the Schenectady works had about 6 million square feet of floor space. Every bit of it was already crowded to capacity before Pearl Harbor. To meet the enormously increased demands placed upon the company after the United States became an active participant in the war, the capacity of the Schenectady works was expanded by nearly a third. Huge new buildings were constructed for the manufacture of radio tubes, gun controls, and turbines, bringing the total plant floor area up to about 8 million square feet.

In the years immediately before the war, about 24,000 persons were employed at the Schenectady works and in the company's general offices. At the height of the war activity, the number was approximately 47,000. But that does not tell the whole story. At the same time that the company was increasing its Schenectady force by some 23,000, it had to find replacements for about 10,000 who entered the armed forces, and many hundreds of others whose services were lost through death, retirement, or other causes.

The tremendous increase in the number of employees at the Schenectady works placed a heavy burden on the city's transportation facilities. The situation was helped somewhat by the fact that many of the company's manufacturing operations were on a twenty-fourhour basis with three shifts, thus spreading the transportation requirements over several different periods of the day. Hours of the general office workers were altered so that their transportation requirements came at times different from those of the shop workers.

Some of the new employees were part-time workers. Men and women who were employed in the company's offices during the daytime went into the shops and put in a short shift of extra work in the evening. Lawyers, real-estate agents, insurance salesmen, clerks in stores, and many others did factory work after hours. When the afternoon dismissal bell rang in Schenectady schools, many teachers and students hurried down to punch the time clock at the General Electric works. One minister of a nearby church worked the night shift at the plant, taking Saturday as his night off each week so that he would be fresh to preach to his congregation on Sunday.

As the war continued, women were put to work in increasing numbers, not only in the offices but in the shops as well. Former music teachers, ex-newspaper writers, a retired headwaitress, numerous grandmothers, and hundreds of housewives helped turn out war equipment at the Schenectady works. In 1940, women comprised about 20 per cent of the company's employees. In 1944, they constituted 40 per cent.

The great increase in the number of General Electric workers was a major factor in creating a labor scarcity in the Schenectady area. This was felt with respect to all types of labor, but it was most acute with respect to experienced mechanical and electrical workers needed for the many war production jobs requiring a high degree of skill. It was acute also with respect to draftsmen and engineers needed for design work. This is shown by the fact that the number of workers in the General Electric's Engineering Laboratory increased from 812 before the war to 850 at the peak of the war effort. In the company's Research Laboratory the increase was from 322 to a maximum of 680. Training the company's new wartime employees was a tremendous undertaking. Months are required to make a passable soldier, but it takes even longer to make a good mechanic. To train its new workers and retrain its older employees, the General Electric Company set up a program of instruction in which the workers were taught quickly to perform certain specific jobs. While this type of training did not produce all-around mechanics, it proved to be an excellent solution of the war emergency problem. Somewhat similar training courses were conducted for women. As most of them worked on light assembly lines, however, it was usually possible to make these courses shorter than those for machine operators.

Altogether, the war production job of General Electric's Schenectady works was one of huge proportions. It was not alone a job of numbers of workers or quantities of equipment. It was also a job of constantly seeking and finding ways to improve that equipment. The company's successful accomplishment of these difficult tasks was a preeminent feature of Schenectady's contribution to the war effort.

Equally busy and successful in inventing and developing weapons of victory was the Schenectady plant of the American Locomotive Company. It too contributed secret weapons that helped change the course of history. When, in the summer of 1942, Nazi armored columns in North Africa had smashed great gaps in Allied defenses and were rolling eastward to threaten Egypt, Field Marshal Rommel's panzer divisions, supported by the Germans' powerful 88 millimeter self-propelled gun, seemed like an unbeatable military machine. Suddenly an Allied army, reinforced with new weapons and equipment, struck. Rommel's forces reeled back, to be decisively defeated on November 2 at El Alamein in a bloody battle that historians have described as the turning point of the African war.

Months before, on the drawing boards and in the shops of the American Locomotive Company, one of the new weapons which helped turn the tide of battle was taking shape. It was the M-7 "tank killer," a swift, hard-hitting 105-millimeter howitzer, mounted on a medium tank chassis. The M-7 poured deadly accurate fire into the surprised Nazi column, destroying German armor and proving more than a match for the enemy's feared 88-millimeter gun. While production of the M-7 was probably the Schenectady plant's most spectacular contribution to the Allied war effort, a year earlier the same plant had turned out the first accepted medium tank ever built by private industry. It was the M-3, popularly known as the General Grant, which was built in April, 1941. A twenty-eight tonner, the General Grant mounted 75-millimeter and 37-millimeter guns, four machine guns, and had 14,000 separate parts. As tank design improved with battle experience, ALCO went into production of the M-4 or General Sherman medium tank. Still later came the production of heavy tanks and the M-36 tank killer, an improved version of the original model, which mounted a 90-millimeter gun and full armored hull.

The total output for the Schenectady plant during the war period was 7211 vehicles, of which 6301 were new and 910 reconditioned. This was the war record of 10,000 ALCO "soldiers of production," who toiled long hours to meet requirements of the fighting forces and who carefully guarded the secret of the M-7 and other allied weapons until a surprised enemy met them on the battlefield.

The story of the M-7 began in the spring of 1942 when American Locomotive officials met with high Army officers in Washington. So urgent was the Army's need for more powerful weapons to combat the Nazis that work on the tank killer started on the following day. Shop workers stayed at their benches and remained on the erecting floor for long hours. The first M-7 came off the line in nineteen days. Two days later it was given exhaustive tests at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and from that point on production was rushed for the surprise assault at El Alamein. In April, 1943, on the anniversary of the first M-7, high-ranking representatives of the British and American armies visited Schenectady to pay tribute to the workmen who built the tank killer and carefully guarded its secret.

However, everywhere in the plant's busy shops locomotive production went right along with tank production. One of the big locomotive jobs completed during the war was the manufacture of many "Big Boy" locomotives which were to play such a conspicuous part in the railway war job for the Union Pacific. The largest ever built anywhere, these locomotive giants were 132 feet long and weighed 596 tons.

As the flow of Lend-Lease goods and later war materials grew to a huge volume, the Schenectady plant put forth the greatest effort in its near 100-year history to supply power plants for the nation's vast railroad network. From a depression low, locomotive production was up to 42 units a year in 1934, and by 1941 it had increased to 236. This figure jumped to 520 locomotives in 1942, jumped again to 986 in 1948, and by 1944 production reached an all-time company high of 1414 locomotives.

In late 1942, the plant converted 57 Diesel-electric locomotives to haul essential war goods over the Trans-Iranian line to Russia. To keep these locomotives going, the American Locomotive Company sponsored and helped organize an Army battalion, including many of its own shop employees and workers from other railroad equipment plants. The unit became the 762d Railway Shop Battalion and went overseas thirty days after it was organized.

While Schenectady's inventive genius and skilled workers were presenting to the Army, Navy, and Air Forces many of the tools of victory, certain civilian problems unique to this city were pressing for solution. The influx of thousands of workers to the war plants created critical housing and transportation problems. Conversion of one- and two-family dwellings into multiple dwelling units was backed by the Federal Housing Administration, while the State of New York supported the construction of Lincoln Heights and Steinmetz Homes - developments designed primarily for rental to war workers. A campaign to open private homes to war plant employees was launched. All these plans aided, but the housing shortage continued acute throughout the war period.

This pressure for living space brought in its wake a new problem - rent control. The Federal Office of Price Administration on March 2, 1942, declared Schenectady a defense rental area and three months later moved in to open a rent division office. This Schenectady office was the first Federal Rent Control Office to open physically in the United States. Thus, this city became the focal point of national interest in the highly controversial debates over rent control. As other rent control offices were to be opened in various rent control areas of the country, Federal fieldmen and directors were sent here for a course of training, since the setup and operation of the local office had become the early model of this new experiment.

Other unique problems growing out of wartime stress involved the "staggering of hours of employment around the clock" at the war plants. The resultant changes in bus and trolley transportation schedules made it necessary to restrict shopping hours in the stores, as well as to change public school schedules so that school travel would not interfere with industrial travel. Furthermore, it was urged by the State Public Service Commission that all bus riding "by persons not directly involved in the war effort" be eliminated during certain specified "rush" hours. A "share the ride" automobile plan was developed to help move war workers in and out of the city. Thousands joined this movement, not only locally, but throughout a fifty-mile radius of Schenectady. It proved a real aid when transportation difficulties were further aggravated through automobile, gasoline, and tire rationing.

Because an industrial city like Schenectady suddenly became an almost 100 per cent war work community, it was faced with problems unique in its civic, economic, and social life. To the credit of its citizens be it said that they accepted conditions the way they found them as a price that had to be paid by any community that unreservedly went to war.

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