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My Grandfather And The Plane That Changed Seattle

There’s an old photograph in my father’s office that I’ve always wondered about. In it my grandfather and nine other young airmen stand in front of their B-17 plane, shoulders squared, staring proudly at the camera. They were probably in England at the time, getting ready to fly bombing raids over Germany in 1943.

The plane sits elegantly on the tarmac behind them. On its nose are seven swastikas, neatly painted in red. One for each Nazi plane they shot down.

KUOW listeners and staff share their family stories from WWII.

My grandfather told a story about finding a handwritten note in the plane when his bombardment group boarded for their flight to Europe. It said, “God bless you. Good luck.” It was written by one of the women, or “Rosie the Riveters,” who helped build the plane at Boeing’s Plant 2 facility in Seattle.

I doubt my grandfather or anyone on his crew knew that the woman who wrote the note may have been black. In fact, Boeing’s hunger for workers during the war contributed to the largest uptick in the black population in the region’s history.

The B-17 has been called the plane that won World War II. Thousands of these “flying fortresses” blackened European skies during the war. And thousands of young men risked their lives in these planes, dropping bombs that obliterated whole towns in Nazi-controlled Europe.

But the story of the B-17 has its roots here in the Northwest. Mass-producing the B-17 changed the city’s economy, racial makeup and its environment. The repercussions of that airplane boom can still be felt today.

My grandfather didn’t talk much about the war, but he did talk about his plane, Ready Teddy, the way old cowboys talk about well-loved horses: their voices suddenly tender, almost reverent.

“Getting on that plane, every day had to have been…” my father, Joe Ahearn Jr. paused, remembering his father, my grandfather. “He said it was eight hours of boredom, interrupted by 10 minutes of terror. That was when they would hit the Belgian coast and the [German] fighters would try to knock them out of the sky before they could get to their targets.”

Of the 210 men in my grandfather’s bombardment group, only 15 survived their tour of duty.

Roughly one third of the nearly 13,000 B-17s that were built for World War II were lost in combat. When my grandfather got home to Boston after a few too many close calls during the war, he vowed never to set foot on an airplane again. But he never stopped loving B-17s.

My dad said he only saw his father cry once. It was years after the war and a family friend had shot some film of a B-17 as it came in for a landing at a museum air show.

“He brought it to the house with his projector and he played it, and I could see my father tearing up, watching this plane. It’s a beautiful plane. Just sits so elegantly,” my father said, his own eyes misting up. “I loved that plane. I must have made 25 to 30 B-17 models.”

I can see my dad as a little boy, playing on the living room floor with my grandfather looking on, as so many children of World War II veterans must have done.

“I’d buy the same ones, different ones, if I saw a new model, I had to have it. I’d hang ’em in my room from fishing line. He [Gramps] told me, ‘That plane saved my life.’”

Gramps kept in touch with some of his crew members over the years, but after the war my dad said his father never saw Ready Teddy again.

“I don’t know what happened to his plane, whether it was mothballed or eventually crashed, he lost touch with it,” my dad said.

I went to the Museum of Flight in Seattle to visit John Little, a historian there, hoping to track down Ready Teddy. Little pulled down a big book filled with columns of B-17 airplanes – their names and identification numbers in neat rows like in a phone book.

“Here we go ... Ready Teddy... there it is.” He said, his finger pausing on its way down one of the long columns.

“That would have been built right here at Plant 2, just up the street. That confirms it,” Little said. And I smile at the gift this man has given me, finding a piece of my grandfather so many miles away from Boston, here in the city where I live now.

“They were based at Alconbury, England, arriving on the 25th of April 1943,” Little read.

And then what happened? I asked.

Little paused.

“The aircraft went missing in action over Ludwigshafen, Germany on the 30th of January 1944 … mid-air collision,” he said.

The hairs on my neck rose. That was just one month after Gramps came home.

“The aircraft crashed near Braunschweig, Germany with six killed in action, four prisoners of war,” Little continued. Then he closed the book.

Ready Teddy was one of almost 7,000 B-17s that were built during the war years at Boeing’s Plant 2 on the Duwamish River. It was an incredible facility – four assembly lines going at once, 30,000 workers churning out up to 15 B-17s per day. Acres of thrumming machinery, crowds of workers and smokestacks lining the river bank.

World War II triggered an industrial boom in the city. Companies sprouted up to supply parts and services to aid in mass airplane construction. In fact, Little said, the economic health of the region was measured in the number of smokestacks on the Duwamish River.

“It was the annual smokestack census. The more smokestacks the healthier the region was. That was something trumpeted with great pride, 'We’ve added 15 new smokestacks since last year!'” Little said laughing.

Before World War II, The Boeing Company was barely surviving. The first large government contract to build 500 B-17s brought Boeing back from the brink of bankruptcy.

“The B-17 was really important for Boeing,” said Mike Lombardi, Boeing’s corporate historian. “It made Boeing a household name.”

Seattle’s economy was driven mostly by salmon and timber until the war, Lombardi told me. “With Boeing, there was that beginning of entrepreneurship, that first inkling that maybe there’s something in the water here that encourages and nurtures entrepreneurship.

“I kind of think of Seattle and Boeing growing up together.”

After the government contracts started rolling in, Boeing realized it needed more people to build the planes, as most of the able-bodied men were at war. So Boeing started recruiting people from around the country – and they expanded their hiring criteria to include women.

Seattle’s version of the iconic Rosie the Riveter was born as more than 12,000 women moved here to work for Boeing building B-17s. Women made up nearly half the workforce, and many of them were black.

“These are the Rosie the Riveters that we don’t really talk very much about,” said Professor Quintard Taylor, a leading expert on African-American history in the West. “These are the women, and women like them, who helped to win the war.”

In the early 1940s, African-Americans from the South came West to work in shipyards in California, Washington and Oregon – and to build planes on the banks of the Duwamish River in Seattle.

During that period, the black population in Seattle grew to four times what it was before World War II. Portland saw an even bigger boom.

For black women, a job at Boeing provided access to a new world, Taylor said. Before the war, 85 percent of African-American women who did not labor in the fields were domestic workers. High-paying industrial jobs were not open to them.

“All of a sudden to be crucial war workers, I think that’s an amazing psychological transformation -- along with the good pay,” Taylor said.

Josie Dunn was one of those Rosie the Riveters.

When she was 18, she left her mother and six brothers and sisters in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and got on a train to Washington. She planned on working in the Todd Shipyard in Bremerton, but when she got there, the water terrified her. She asked to be transferred to work on airplanes.

She started at Boeing in 1943, making 62 cents an hour – one of the highest wages in the industrial world at the time – but she wasn’t invited to join the local union because of the color of her skin.

Every morning she and other workers would wait in line to pick up their tools and report to their work stations before the whistle blew. Dunn, now 97, remembers that one white male worker, responsible for doling out the tools, had it in for the black workers. He would make them wait to get their tools until after the whistle blew so they would get to their workstations late.

“He was trying to get us all fired,” Dunn remembered, her voice wavering with age. “I finally started holding my tool out overnight, which you wasn’t supposed to do, but by the morning when I got to work, I knew my tool was safe because I put it in my toolbox.”

Dunn worked for Boeing for almost 40 years, retiring in 1981. She said she experienced prejudice – not from Boeing but from white male union workers.

“The white women in the shop would look out for you because they knew the white men, regardless of color, they didn’t want the women there,” Dunn said. During lunch breaks the women would crochet together. One white woman gave her a pair of gold earrings.

“They were always giving me something. I guess they felt sorry because I was a different color, but they treated me wonderful.”

Dunn saved up enough money to bring her mother, who picked cotton and raised chickens, to Seattle. Before her mother passed away, Dunn said she told her, “I don’t want you to cry because you done the best you could.” Dunn paused to dab at her eyes with a napkin. “So I’m completely happy. I’m just glad the Lord saved me to get here.”

Seventy years after World War II, the B-17 remains a powerful symbol of Seattle’s contribution to the war.

But there was a cost that no one could have foreseen.

Today the Duwamish River is so polluted that the resident fish are too contaminated to eat. The river was sacrificed for the growth of Seattle, the advancement of women of all colors in the industrial workforce and victory in World War II. It’s a complicated history that we still grapple with today.

Shawn Blocker stands on the banks of the Duwamish River, looking across the water at the site where Boeing Plant 2 once stood. The plant was demolished in 2010.

Newly-planted shrubs and grasses dot the waterfront, making it hard to picture a massive airplane production facility here. But Blocker, who leads the Environmental Protection Agency’s superfund clean-up efforts at this site, said the evidence was in the layers of muck at the bottom of the river.

“This stretch is the most contaminated stretch of the Duwamish,” Blocker said. He pulled out an image that shows the layers of sediment, going down 24 feet, each layer offering a snapshot in time of the levels of toxic chemicals known as PCBs as they accumulated in the river over the years, not unlike the way tree rings chart annual growth.

“That’s actually every two feet as you go down in the mud,” Blocker said.

As his hand traced down the layers, his finger paused to hover over red hot spots of contamination. “There was a storm drain there, a storm drain there, a storm drain there,” he said, sliding his finger along the bank of the river in the image, each red spot lining up with the former site of an outfall from the plant. “You can literally see where this stuff comes out and where it was going.”

As workers made the metal airplane parts, Blocker explained, the pieces would get dirty, covered in lubricants and greases. When they finished, the parts had to be dipped in swimming-pool sized concrete tanks of solvents, called dip tanks, to clean each part before assembly. Over the years the tanks leaked metals, PCBs and solvents into the river.

“You probably saw this discharge occurring from the ‘40s to the ‘90s,” Blocker said.

PCBs were also heavily used as coolants in transformers and as plasticizers in the caulk at the facility. The caulk eventually dried out and flaked off into the river. One former Boeing worker told me that when they made mistakes machining parts, some people would throw them out the window to hide them from their supervisors. You could see the malformed pieces of metal at low tide.

At the time, The Boeing Company wasn’t breaking any laws. It would be 30 years before the Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act were created. Top priority during the war years was beating the Nazis and other Axis powers.

“You had a choice,” Blocker said. “You could worry about being environmentally friendly, which didn’t exist then, because that’s what everybody did. Or am I going to build a bomber to help win a war?”

The plant is gone now and over the past few years Boeing has removed more than 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated material from the site, replacing it with clean soil and new trees and shrubs. The PCB hot spots Blocker pointed out have now been removed and Boeing’s work at the site is almost finished.

Boeing has been criticized by tribes, public health experts and environmentalists for pressuring the state to maintain less stringent water-quality standards, but on this specific clean up, Blocker said the company has worked hard to restore the polluted area.

“From my perspective, they’ve done a very good job on that,” he said. “For this little, small bit of the Boeing picture, they’ve done a good job.”

Blocker’s grandfather also flew in a B-17. His grandpa was a tailgunner, mine was a radioman. Blocker said he’s proud of his grandfather’s service and doesn’t mind cleaning up the mess our grandfathers’ generation left behind in the rush to win the war.

“It felt good to clean this facility up because it was crucial to World War II, crucial to my grandfather, because that’s what he did,” Blocker said. “I get the other end of it. I get to clean up what got started during his era.”

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