by James Mays • Chapter 5 of A Car and a Refrigerator Go to War: Nash-Kelvinator in World War II
President Roosevelt stood before a joint session of Congress on January 6 for his State of the Union address. Praising the United States an “arsenal for democracy,” Roosevelt pointed out that war raged in Europe and Asia. “I ask this Congress for authority and for funds sufficient to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those nations which are now in actual war with aggressor nations.”1
His plan became known as Lend-Lease. Two days later, Roosevelt presented a budget for $17,485,049 of which $10,800,000 was earmarked for domestic defense. It was the largest budget in the nation’s history and, yet, did not include any aid for beleaguered Britain. The debate began.2
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There were prominent opponents to Lend-Lease. Senator Robert McNary of Oregon charged that the bill gave too much power to one man. Joseph Kennedy, US Ambassador to Britain, spoke out against the plan. Colonel Charles Lindbergh told crowds that, rather then help the British, the US should negotiate a peace with Hitler. 3
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lindbergh urged the government to quickly make peace with the Axis powers instead of helping Britain. A senator asked Lindbergh if he still had the Nazi Order of the German Eagle, conferred upon him personally by Reichsmarshall Goering. “It is in storage,” Lindbergh replied stiffly. (Kenosha Evening News, February 6, 1941).
Lend-Lease passed the House on Saturday the 8th by a vote of 260 to 165.
Still, for a while, it looked as if Lindbergh was right. The German Navy had 21 U-Boats prowling the Atlantic, sinking ships full of Canadian soldiers, fuel oil, and food were are all fair game. By month’s end, the U-Boats had sunk 76 Allied vessels, and another 67 Nazi subs were already in tests or actual training.4
Not all news was earth shattering that winter. A&P introduced a novel new idea on January 30. Its Marvel brand bread would carry a “freshness date” for customer satisfaction. Three 1.5-pound loaves of Marvel bread sold for 25 cents but one could buy a single loaf for nine cents. Folks were not so lucky in Japan, where the Imperial government began rationing rice to citizens on Feb 1.6
Most Americans now thought primarily about economy when purchasing a new car. The new Nash 600 was thrifty, and satisfied owners wrote to the company to say so. An Illinois businesswoman glowingly wrote that her Nash gave her more than 30 miles to the gallon. Another owner dropped a line to say that he averaged 24.6 mpg on a trip from Chicago to Los Angeles and he “didn’t spare the horses” either. A third testimonial from New York City revealed that the owner averaged 24 mpg in city traffic.7
Nash officials revealed to the press on February 14 that the company had picked up a $3 million national defense contract to build one-ton trailers for the army. The bulk of the 15,000 trailers were to be made in the idle press plant building in Racine, but a quarter were to be built in Kenosha. Works Manager Ray DeVlieg told the press that the trailer contract would be complete in 90 days.
Nash created a new entity called the Wisconsin National Defense Division to handle war related work. The company immediately set up an employment office in Racine. Hundreds of hopeful applicants lined up for jobs. Local 72 proposed that the new division first hire union members who were currently laid off. Nash balked. To back up their words, the union authorized the board to call a meeting for a strike vote.10
On the 18th, workers backed the union executive with an open-ended strike mandate by a margin of eight to one. They would strike if necessary.
On Sat. the 22nd, negotiators for Nash and Local 72 were joined by UAW International President R.J. Thomas and several union representatives. For the Nash team, W.F. Armstrong, the VP of Manufacturing, came in from Detroit. Both sides were keen to keep the talks alive and not disrupt the manufacturing schedules for delivery of cars to civilians and trailers to the military.11
On the 26th American Brass announced that had signed a $4.75 million contract from the War Department to construct a new plant and make upgrades to current ones in order to manufacture ammunition brass cups and ammunition.
While debate about Lend-Lease occupied senators, Nazi troops marched into Bulgaria. Hitler bragged to the world press that the Third Reich was the invited guest of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. Washington didn’t care who invited whom and promptly froze Bulgarian assets to keep them out of Berlin’s hands.12
Lend-Lease finally passed the Senate on March 8. The vote was 60 to 13. President Roosevelt then asked Congress for $7 billion to pay for the legislation. His wish was granted on March 27.13
The National Defense Council dispatched 150 workers from its Division of Homes Registration throughout the city of Kenosha on April 9, to determine how many rooms were for rent, how many could be rented in an emergency situation or if any new home construction was being planned in the coming months. The deadline for the highly confidential survey was April 14. What they uncovered was a vacancy rate of only 1.8%. The National Defense Council then declared that Kenosha had a critical housing shortage.14
A victory garden prototype was presented to the public on April 11. It included lettuce, radishes, onions, carrots, beets, turnips parsnips, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes, spinach, okra peppers, broccoli, kohlrabi, cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelon, eggplant, peas, string beans, lima beans corn, asparagus, squash and pumpkin.15
Nash-Kelvinator entered into ultra secret negotiations with the government to build Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines. Lawrence (Larry) Finkler was among those sent from the Engineering Department at Nash to Hartford, Connecticut to learn exactly what was entailed in retooling and manufacturing the engines.16 Billeted at the Bond Hotel, on March 6, 1941 he wrote home to his wife and daughters Florence (nicknamed Boots) and Fran. “We’re getting along a little better with our work now but there is so much to do that we could stay here for three months and not know half of what we should. There is as much difference in building an airplane motor of this size and making cars as there is between cars and Boots’ wagon.”17 Despite the on-site training, Nash did not immediately sign a contract to build the engine.
By mid-May, American dairy producers were marketing new types of cheese to replace those imported varieties no longer seen on store shelves as a result of the European war. Roquefort was the most popular of the new types being offered.18
Kenosha city officials attended an FBI National Defense Conference on May 22 to learn how to enforce wartime law and to how to expose anti-fifth columnists. An unnamed FBI source admitted that there had been “many serious problems” in southeastern Wisconsin since January.
The board of directors at Nash-Kelvinator were impressed enough with George Mason’s performance to sign a new contract with him that would end on September 30, 1947. His salary would remain the same throughout the life of the contract but he was now offered a pension upon retiring or one year’s salary in the event of death or termination of employment.19
With car production reduced to a trickle by government edict and no new war contracts being actively sought after by Nash Motors, the city fathers and Local 72 of the UAW did an end run to secure contracts for Nash and the workers of Kenosha. A large committee trekked to Washington and spent more than a week in the nation’s capital. Its delegates did an excellent job of putting Kenosha’s superior capabilities before officials at the Office Production Management and other officials.21
It was pointed out that the average age of a Nash employee was around 40 years old, and that the company had a stable work force: few would be drafted since 55% of the men were over 40 and nearly 40% were over the age of 50. Nash could be relied upon to fill military orders.
It was quickly determined that Nash could build small trucks, jeeps, ambulances, reconnaissance cars, metal stampings, and forgings, in addition to shells, torpedoes and bombs. Still, without any delegates from Nash itself to represent the company, the government offered no new contracts. The disappointed delegation came home empty handed.23
The war grew larger. Hitler’s armies boldly marched off to invade the Soviet Union after war was declared on June 22. Germany declared Finland and Rumania were its allies in this bid to stamp out Communism.
Day after day Americans were bombarded with news of Axis victories. In small ways, the nation geared up for war. Many commodities were in short supply since the Japanese controlled more and more of Asia and its natural resources. Scrap drives to recycle vital used materials into weapons were about to commence. Rubber, tin cans, old phonograph records, paper, and copper would all be collected.
Kenosha’s first scrap drive was for aluminum. The project got under way on July 25th. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, aided by other volunteers combed the entire city in fierce, 100-degree temperatures. They knocked on every door in town, asking for scrap aluminum. Help came from sound trucks that rolled up and down the streets, blaring the scrap drive message.
Citizens, suddenly aluminum conscious, handed the precious material over to the volunteers who placed it in one of the city’s trucks. It was hauled to the civic center to be sorted and packed for shipment. The precious aluminum would be smelted down and used to build airplanes.
The quiet evening was shattered as sirens blared incessantly on the first night of the aluminum drive. A huge searchlight atop the US National Bank building at 625 57th Street flooded the night sky, catching a formation of airplanes in its powerful beam. Bewildered and frightened residents came outdoors, fearful that the city was under attack by the enemy. They were relieved to find out that it was a staged event. The drama had its intended effect; the three-day drive for scrap aluminum was an overwhelming success.24
Nash might not be doing much in the way of car building, but its earnings for the second quarter hit $2,605,589, a jump of 61 cents a share. The company was pleased to report that while defense contracts contributed to the bottom line, the big money came from increased car and refrigerator sales.25
Charles Nash might be gone from Kenosha but he was not forgotten. The Boy Scouts now honored Nash for presenting the Kenosha Scout Council with a 70-acre campground at Dyer Lake in 1929. In 1940, Nash had further presented the council with a $100,000 trust fund. A plaque was unveiled. It read, “Erected in the lifetime of Charles W. Nash, who rose from a most humble beginning to achieve greatness and yet today remains humble; his life founded upon the principles and teaching of the Scout Oath and Law will ever serve as an inspiration to all Scouts and Scouters to follow his example.” Nash, who was ill and confined to his summer lodge in Manitowish, was described as a “living example of the application to every day life with outstanding success.”26
No one from Nash had gone to Washington, nor did they attend the meeting at City Hall. One frustrated council member remarked, “This proposition is right back in the lap of the Nash-Kelvinator management. We were able to get all this information, get it documented after numerous conferences with the highest government officials and come back to management only to find that they refuse to move. We can see only one step left-and this up to the government to act.” 28
To head off criticism, Nash officials had met with the committee on Wednesday afternoon and outlined its plans for the Kenosha plant to continue building automobiles. It would continue to concentrate defense work in the Racine and Milwaukee plants. Officials pointed out that the corporation was doing its part in procuring war contracts and reminded the group that it had already bought the old Reo plant and refurbished the 400,000-square foot factory in Lansing, Michigan. That operation would require 3,000 workers to build the Hamilton Standard propellers for the army and navy when it was ready.29
The group also learned that Army ordinance officials had rejected the Nash 600 engine for jeeps, because the motor was two inches too tall to fit in the engine bay. Nash had asked that the hood be redesigned to accept the engine; the army declined. No one at the meeting was impressed with Nash’s position. None of this activity brought jobs to Kenosha.30
City officials then attempted to secure a modification of the federal government order to curtail civilian production of automobiles at the Nash plant, but failed. Assistant director of the Office of Production Management Douglas Brown wrote, “It is up to the company (Nash) to tell OPM what it can do and OPM would see that it got defense orders quickly.”31
Nash management was stalling because more than $3 million had been spent to make the new 600, and it was unwilling to spend the money to retool the Kenosha plant. It maintained that it could serve the nation best in time of war by continuing to build cars. The new 600 was thrifty and to Nash’s way of thinking, the perfect product to offer, even on a limited basis, during a time of war.
Nash officials had also determined that its employees did not possess the technical skills required to take on delicate defense work. Additionally, they wrote, “in many cases the defense contracts are being performed in places at some distance from the point at which the curtailment in automobile production is felt. Many of the Nash workers could not relocate because of age or physical disability.” 32
Nash, along with Studebaker, Hudson, Packard, Willys-Overland and representatives of the UAW, presented a united front to the OPM on August 8 to press their position for the continuation of civilian manufacture. They were turned down.
Nash dealers gathered for their national convention in Hot Springs Virginia on Monday the 18th. The highlight of the event was the unveiling of the new 1942 automobile line. George Mason spoke enthusiastically to the dealer body. He told them that Nash held $85 million worth of defense contracts in Lansing, Racine and Milwaukee. He reiterated that the Kenosha plant was being reserved for the production of automobiles and automobiles alone. Dealers were pleased with Mason’s speech, they were sold out to the walls; few had any cars in stock whatsoever.
Mason told the men that it was their patriotic duty to improve their service facilities to cope with the impending war. He reminded dealers that Americans spend more than $500 million a year in maintaining their automobiles. “For our part, we plan to keep our service and dealer organization as intact as possible to service the cars of Nash owners.”
At the same time that the Nash dealers were wrapping their convention, on August 21st, the OPM announced that Nash-Kelvinator would have its production cut. It would now be restricted to manufacturing 80% of the cars it had built in 1941.
On the 26th, Nash released yet another statement defending its position to keep the Kenosha plant open for auto manufacturing. “To convert these plants to defense production plants would require a complete shut-down for a rearrangement program which would take several months and put thousands of men out of employment.” It reiterated its commitment to the defense program by detailing its contracts in other N-K plants.
Works Manager DeVlieg, who wrote the statement, said, “Where we might make work for 200 men on a defense contract which interrupts a production line, we might throw 2,000 men out of work, and there is no logic in this.”
The same problem existed at Kelvinator. Kelvinator had only one defense contract “involving only a few hundred men at the Detroit plant” and there was no war work in Grand Rapids. He pointed out that the toolmaking department in Kenosha was working overtime to supply the Lansing aircraft program. DeVlieg revealed that the trailer contract had been successfully completed but that the government did not order more as it felt it had sufficient supply.
The statement ended with this: “The Nash organization is one of the most unfortunate groups in the automobile industry because we were heading for big volume production due to the success of the new low-priced car, the Nash Ambassador 600, when the national emergency arose. This year probably would have been the greatest volume year in the history of the company, with plenty of work for all concerned had not curtailment been necessary to save materials for the national defense program.” 33
The OPM’s response was swift: it issued an edict that all American industries must accept all supply orders for domestic defense needs or those intended for anti-Axis nations, even if it meant suspension of production of civilian goods. Manufacturers who did not comply would be cut off from raw materials. Now, Nash management would have to take a different tack.34
Nash’s General Sales Manager sent letters to employees on September 2. After being reminded that they were “completing important defense contracts for our Government,” workers were invited to purchase new Nash Ambassador 600s before there were none available to buy.
Topel Nash threw open the doors of its dealership in an open house for Kenoshans on September 13, a full week in advance of the national unveiling dates. Folks were welcome to drop in and ogle all fifteen models in the Nash line, billed as the “million dollar beauty in the lowest price field” at the elaborate announcement party. Hundreds of visitors received souvenirs, enjoyed entertainment and music. The event at Topel’s coincided with a massive drive continent-wide drive away in which nearly 3,000 Nash dealers and salesmen took new cars home to their dealerships.
On October 15, Washington awarded Nash another small contract for one-ton trailers. This deal was worth $225,000 and would permit the plant in Racine to continue operating. The 1,028 trailers would take six days to produce. It was welcome news for the workers who were wrapping up the last of the 20,000 trailers ordered in the initial contract.
At the same time, OPM announced that for December, Nash could build only 55% of the cars it had built the previous December, and that January’s production was limited to 51% of the total built the previous January. Leon Henderson of the OPM warned that with the difficulties in obtaining steel, especially strip steel, actual auto production would fall below those guidelines throughout the industry.37
Oldsmobile and Pontiac advertised their war contracts, pointing out that they would have to build fewer cars. Plymouth, Mercury, and Nash made no mention of any defense contracts in their advertising. Nash emphasized how easy it was to buy, only one-third down (cash or trade in) and as little as $10.96 a week.
On the 14th of November, the OPM announced that Nash would have its quotas slashed for January production and warned that men would be thrown out of work. Five days later the OPM announced that deeper cuts would be made in production slated for February of 1942 because of the critical shortages of steel and other precious materials.
Kenosha City employees went on strike on November 26 in retaliation for the firing of six workers who had reached the age of 65. Workers threw up picket lines and demanded that City Manager LeRoy Wolfe be fired and that the Employees Union Local 71 be recognized as its official bargaining agency. It demanded seniority rights, reinstatement of dismissed employees, no loss of wages during the strike and adequate protection for security of employees.
Washington awarded Nash another order for 2,000 trailers on December 1. The new order was added to the backlog. The previous order of 1,083 trailers had yet to be produced because sufficient quantities of scarce materials had not yet been accumulated to commence manufacture. The latest contract was worth $453,360.41
City Manager LeRoy Wolfe called a public meeting at Bradford High School at 7:30 that Saturday night. As a teacher on leave from his job, a lawyer, and an “active participant in labor affairs,” he was prepared to present his side of the employees’ strike, to discuss the issues and answer questions about the situation.42
Saturday night, December 6 was the last night of peace that Kenosha, indeed all of America, would know for several years to come. The world as they knew it would change forever on Sunday morning, when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked US naval and air bases in Pearl Harbor. The slaughter began at 11:55 AM, Central Time.
On December 8 President Roosevelt electrified Congress with an unforgettable speech. December 7 was “A date that shall live in infamy,” he declared. He asked Congress to declare war on Japan and pledged, “We will triumph, so help us God.” Millions were glued to their radios; the president’s words were carried live on CBS, NBC and the Mutual Network. The Senate responded 82 to 0, just 21 minutes after the President’s request and the House of Representatives approved with a vote of 388 to 1. At 12:11 Central Time, The United States of America was at war with Imperial Japan. Three days later Congress declared war on the entire Axis.
The morning after the Pearl Harbor attack, 37 draftees boarded the 8:45 train on the North Shore Line. Although the draft had been in place for a year, these young men were the first Kenoshans to go to war. A crowd of well wishers gathered to see them off as they headed to Fort Sheridan.43 Many other patriotic Kenoshans answered the call to war that same day, as 49 young men promptly enlisted in the Marines and 23 in the Navy. More men signed up for other branches of the military. 44 They were the first of nearly 3,000 men and women from Kenosha County who would serve overseas.
With war declared, the city gave striking workers a week to return to work or face unspecified consequences.45 The strike seemed less important than war, and they returned to work in a few days. City Manager Wolfe proclaimed officially that Kenosha was on “an immediate war emergency footing. “May all citizens exert the greatest vigilance in maintaining the security of our vital areas of the city.”46
The school board had consistently refused to allow an ROTC unit to be established in the high school since 1938. They were of the long-standing opinion that teens in uniform smacked of Fascism. They applied for one now, but were told that Washington could spare no officers to run it. Citizens would make do. By the end of the week 125 teens had signed up to learn basic army drill and marching skills at the Armory.47
On December 10, 1941, Nash-Kelvinator acknowledged publicly in its Annual Report that it was preparing a large plant for the government that would manufacture essential components of Pratt & Whitney engines.
Washington announced that the sale of tires and tubes was prohibited to anyone not having an A-3 rating or better. The Japanese had overrun Malay and the Dutch East Indies, giving them control of 75% of the world’s rubber.
On December 17, Nash announced the closing of the Kenosha plant because of a scarcity of materials. The news was grim: the total of laid-off workers was 1,850 men and another 600 positions were eliminated permanently. Those who were laid off would be called back to work on January 5. At the body division in Milwaukee, 1,100 positions were cut forever and another 1,250 would return to work on January 5th.
Men working on defense contracts, maintenance men, and office employees would continue to work throughout the holiday shut down. The statement also noted that in Racine, workers were ready to fulfill two trailer orders for the military but had received no materials with which to build the units.
Nash was not hopeful for change, noting that the January construction quotas had been cut by an additional 50% and that the February quota was entirely in doubt. The labor situation was critical enough that Governor Heil came to the city along with Senator Wiley on December 22 to do what they could to assist the workers who had been thrown out their jobs at Nash.
The executive council of Local 72 was exasperated with Nash. Upon receipt of the plant closing statement, a carefully worded but pointed letter was fired off to President Roosevelt. A large, important and skilled work force was about to be lost, “if Nash does not drop their business as usual posture and pursue defense work.”49
Nash would hold out. It had spent millions refurbishing the Kenosha plant specifically to manufacture the new 600 line. It was not about to rip out the new machines if Washington should change its mind about permitting the company to build automobiles.
On December 29, Don T. Allen was named as Wisconsin’s tire rationing administrator. A day later it was announced that Wisconsin would be limited to 23,500 tires a month but only owners of “eligible vehicles” would be able to purchase them.
Rumors ran rampant that gasoline would be rationed soon. The scarce commodity already was rationed in New England and the northeastern States. None of this was good news for the owners of the 953,680 registered vehicles in the Badger State.52
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