by James Mays • Chapter 6 of A Car and a Refrigerator Go to War: Nash-Kelvinator in World War II
At the dawn of 1942, America had just become involved in the global conflict. On January 1, sales of new cars were suspended
pending a rationing program; Congress also impounded all 520,793 new automobiles waiting for
delivery,2 and declared that new automobiles could no longer be built
with any chrome garnish, save the bumpers. Chrome came from Rhodesia, and ships were needed for troop
movement and supplies for Britain. Traditionally chromed parts were to be painted, instead. These vehicles
quickly earned the name “blackout trim” models.
On January 11, Massey-Harris signed
a contract with the government to begin building M25 and M5 tanks.
The tractor maker needed a factory and quickly made a deal to
purchase the Nash-Kelvinator plant in Racine. Workers at
Nash-Kelvinator’s Wisconsin Defense Division were building
one-and-a-half ton trailers for the army in the Racine factory, and completed the order as quickly as they could. The building was
emptied out and its contents shipped to the Seaman’s Body complex
in Milwaukee that May.3
Washington lowered automobile
production quotas weekly. Nash cars only trickled off the lines, now.
More and more workers were laid off. One last, nationwide shot at
publicizing the revolutionary Nash Ambassador 600 was taken on
January 31 in large-circulation magazines such as the Saturday
to deliver 25 to 30 miles on each gallon of gasoline, the big Nash
still “scampers through traffic like an All-American
half-back…Rides the curves like a locomotive…Streaks over winter
ruts as serenely as a gull clipping the waves.”
folks that only one-third down payment was required and that the
balance could be paid off over eighteen months, advertising was to
the point. “Built to serve you and save you money throughout the
coming years as only a Nash can do. Because of rising costs and
uncertainty about the future, choosing the right new car is mighty
important. Make it a good one. Make it a Nash, the best investment on
publicity to feature a new Nash automobile would not appear until the
Allied forces had brought its enemies to their knees in surrender.
Victory would be forty-two months away, down a long road stained with
the blood of soldiers. Nash-Kelvinator employees might never wear a
uniform but they would wage war against Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo
just the same, by building weapons for the boys on the front
lines. Ordinary people rose up to defend their country, wielding
lunch boxes as the weapon of choice.
Whether or not the groundhog saw his
shadow was a moot point in 1942. Phil, the sleepy rodent, was out of
groundhog bed an hour earlier than usual because Kenosha, like
Pauxatawny, Pennsylvania and the rest of the United States, went on
Daylight Savings Time. The measure added an extra hour of daylight,
saving tremendous amounts of fuel. Farmers hated “war time”
and cows certainly never caught on, but “advanced time” would stay
until September 30, 1945.
Workers at Nash Motors had set their
clocks ahead an hour, like everybody else. On February 3, the final
1942 Nash rolled off the line, wearing its chromeless “blackout”
trim. There would be no more Nash cars until peace was declared. With
no war contract in hand for the Kenosha plant, employees were laid
Every other factory in town was
engaged in war work. Workers at American Brass built shell casings,
MacWhytes manufactured aircraft control cables. Simmons’ plant in
Kenosha turned out ammunition boxes, Arctic tents, cots, incendiary
bomb tubing, rocket containers, parachutes, rocket containers and
submarine bunks. Arneson Foundry produced castings for ships,
manufactured dynometers and aeronautic parts. Some 700 employees at
Frost made cartridges, grenades and Bofors gun mounts (for Chrysler).
Eaton-Dynamatic built an 18,000-horsepower wind tunnel drive for
Boeing. Coopers switched from making underwear to parachutes.4
commenced on March 2. Regulations were stringent, and very few citizens
were entitled to a new vehicle. Those who wished to purchase one had
to prove that their need was essential to winning the war. The list
was short, but included farmers.
was quick to take out advertisements in publications directed to men
of the soil. “America’s Wartime Economy Car” was the news.
“Here’s the perfect car for the modern farmer-business man.”
Billing its dealers as the “New Car Rationing Headquarters” the
advertising was to the point. “Farmers who need new cars…now are
eligible under U.S. Rationing Plan.” Ad copy read that Nash was
“hard to hurt, costs less to run and keeps running longer.”
Promising that its built-in toughness, a result of a one-piece,
welded steel body, allowed it to go anywhere with the greatest of
ease, Nash was at home on “rutted roads, plowed fields or smooth
concrete.” It was the “ideal car for the farm-takes them all in
eager was Nash to sell cars that officials had gathered up all the
information necessary for the permit and passed it along to dealers.
They in turn, assisted the farmer in filling out his application for
the auto purchase permit from Washington. The small mountain of
paperwork was daunting.
further discourage new car purchases, Congress cut the length of time
payments on automobiles to fifteen months on March 10. That meant a
much larger down payment for those who could prove they needed new
long last, Nash-Kelvinator announced on March 17 that it had secured
a major war contract, to build huge
Vought-Sikorsky amphibian planes for the Navy. The fast air freighter
could cross the ocean in a matter of hours. Its wingspan was large
enough that twenty Nash cars could be parked along its length.5
an open warning to Hitler, Nash advertising boasted that production
of the cargo carriers was underway. Great fleets of the giant flying
boats were about to fly off Nash-Kelvinator lines to form a
torpedo-proof air bridge across the Atlantic, making a Nazi nightmare
the same press conference, Nash officials revealed that it was
offering loans to its dealer body to keep them in business since they
had no cars they could sell.6
rationing of food was announced on March 29. Meat, butter and cheese
were the first items to be restricted. Every man, woman and child was
to be issued two ration booklets a month, one for two pounds of vegetables and canned fruit, one for
28 ounces of fresh meat and four
ounces of cheddar cheese each month.
had to go to the courthouse to register for the ration booklets. The
lines to the third floor office were long but fortunately, almost
everyone was good-natured about the interminable wait. Clerks were
moving as quickly as they could, processing 16,000 applicants in the
first two weeks. War Ration Book One arrived in the mail on May 1.
By the end
of the April, there was a run on sugar, making it a scarce commodity
from Maine to California. Grocery prices shot sky high until the
Price Control Act was put into place on April 28 to freeze the prices
of foodstuffs. That still didn’t stop people from hoarding sugar.
Rationing of the sweet stuff began on May 15. The maximum amount of
sugar one could buy was half a pound per month.
items began to disappear from store shelves. Nylon stockings were
among the first to go. Fortunately, the Numode ladies at 58th
Street and 7th
Avenue would repair end runs for a small fee. Tired of endless meals
of Spam, folks would line up when they heard that a shipment of meat
was expected at grocery stores.7
of the Nash plant in Kenosha began in earnest on April 9. It was
going to be extensive; the company was now preparing to manufacture
state-of-the-art Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines. Foot-thick,
forty-foot concrete test cells went up on the corner of 30th
Avenue and 52nd
Street, the site of the old Nash baseball diamond.
headaches galore in building a factory during a war. Shortages of all
kinds abounded. There was no black iron to be had, demand was so
heavy that there was anywhere from a nine month to a two-year wait.
Peter Ploskee, a subcontractor, innovated by ordering galvanized iron
instead. When it arrived on-site, a government inspector threatened
him with a $100,000 fine or 100 years in prison if he used it.
Ploskee exploded. “ I do not have $100,000 and will not live 100
years. I work for the US, and you people (government inspectors) work
for Hitler. If I have to wait eighteen months for black iron, Hitler
will come in and take the country. I do right for the country.”
The chastened inspector turned a blind eye and the building went up.8
days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, General Jimmy Doolittle led
fifteen bombers on a daring raid over Tokyo on April 18. The incendiary bombs dropped on
Tokyo had been built by workers at Nash-Kelvinator’s Electromaster
subsidiary. Nash had cameras installed on board the planes to record
the event, which became important for boosting morale on the home
front during the dark days of the war.9
Actual footage from the raid was used in the Hollywood movie Thirty
Seconds Over Tokyo. Nash-Kelvinator was half
owner of the Oscar winning film, released in 1945.10
gardens were planted in virtually every nook and cranny of Kenosha
and throughout the county, too. The 25 acres of Nash land that had
fed so many throughout the Dirty Thirties were now dedicated to
feeding people in time of war. This year Kenoshans would lean on
those gardens heavily. Homegrown food would account for 40% of
all the food consumed by Americans in 1943.11
During May, iron, steel and zinc were put on the critical metals
list. Production of more than a hundred civilian goods was banned
including toasters, vacuum sweepers, and refrigerators. In Grand
Rapids, the last civilian Kelvinator, a top-of-the-line, $750
Moist-Master, rolled off the line. There would not be another electric
icebox until victory came.
the Citizens Defense Corps was established. Air Raid Wardens were
assigned to specific territories. They had the right to enter homes
and inspect them for infractions of the rules. Hoarding had become
the newest dirty word in the English language and Air Raid Wardens
had a duty to keep citizens honest.
Men were going off to
fight in a war that still had no name. On April 28, after an
extensive Gallup Poll was conducted, the global conflict was finally
christened. It would be called World War Two.
German U-Boats sinking freighters in the Atlantic almost as fast as
the tubes could be loaded with torpedoes, gasoline was very hard to
find, especially along the eastern seaboard. Washington ordered
temporary gas rationing on May 15, a limit of two-and-a-half gallons
a week in 17 eastern States and the District of Columbia. At
the time, the average motorist used 12 gallons a week and traveled
9,000 miles a year. People joked that there wasn’t much more they
could do with that little gasoline but drive to church and pray for
more. Washington and Oregon were added to the rationed states on June
as ration stickers were affixed to windshields. The
temporary measure became permanent on June 22.12
Texaco took out full-page
color advertisements in magazines depicting USAF bombers flying
across the Atlantic at sunset. “One round trip to Berlin…1100
Gallons!” it cried. “A thousand heavy bombers need a million
gallons of aviation gasoline to raid Frankfurt,” Americans were
told. Consumers were informed that the Texas Company had already
delivered hundreds of millions of 100-octane aviation gasoline to the
front, every gallon for victory.
Japanese forces landed on
the Aleutian Islands, part of the American Territory of Alaska, on
June 6, 1942. They vowed to fight to the death and the few that were
not killed finally surrendered on May 30, 1943.
The news from the front
lines was not good for the Allies during much of 1942. Japan and
Germany seemed to be invincible with victory after victory. Maps of
the world were hung in many American homes, often next to the radio.
Battles were followed with keen interest, the advances and retreats
carefully noted. Kenosha’s
city fathers cancelled the Independence Day celebrations. It was felt
that the traditional festivities marking the holiday were
inappropriate when so many boys were overseas fighting for freedom.13
There was enough
protest that the holiday plans were reinstated but on a much more
brought more cutbacks and restrictions. The OPA announced that home
delivery of packages would be discontinued. Milk, bread and ice still
came to homes but many companies brought back horse-drawn wagons to
do the job. Making beer cans, caskets, toys and other items
that required metal was banned. Still, production of weapons tumbled by 40% in August as
steel became impossible to source. Americans would tighten the belt
would start on September 7. The
Kenosha Evening News
made the announcement on August 25; the opening was on time “despite
handicaps in filling all positions for teachers and the uncertain
status of boys and girls who are now working local war factories with
special permits ... To ease the teacher
shortage, six women who were former teachers and left their jobs when
they were married are returning to take classes again.”
brought pennies, nickels and dimes to school to buy Victory Stamps.
Faithfully, they kept the stamps in a little booklet and turned it in
for a bond when the pages were full. Kids learned to make butter at
tide began to turn in favor of the Allied Forces as General Rommell’s
Afrika Korps was defeated by Montgomery’s “Desert Rats.” The
good news spurred folks on the home front to give more blood, save
all the scrap they could, accept rationing as cheerfully as possible
and work like the dickens.
September 10, a national speed limit came into effect. The maximum
allowed was 35 miles per hour. The measure would go a long way to
conserve rubber as well as gasoline.
sale of used tires and inner tubes was forbidden on September 30. The
Office of Price Administration would ration them, too.
Fair Employment Commission released a report revealing that
discriminating employers kept half of all defense jobs away from
Negroes. That was not the case at Nash, where black workers had been
hired for some time, but only to work in the foundry. Nash might hire
Negroes but none could find housing in Kenosha Country, so they lived
in Racine or even Milwaukee and rode the train to work.
September, the Army-Navy “E” award was given to Electromaster,
Inc. in Detroit. Nash-Kelvinator owned more than 50% of the
firm that produced incendiary bombs and worked closely with the
Chemical Warfare Department in developing Top Secret experimental
When declassified years later, those weapons would turn out to be the
casings for a million anthrax bombs.17
were no new automobiles to unveil to the public in the fall of 1942.
Nash dealers handed out a morale boosting brochure, “The 1943
Nash—Cars for Hitler.” The pamphlet showcased the wide range of
weapons that the company’s workers were building for the war
Roosevelt took to the airwaves on October 20 to ask the American
public not to eat any meat on Tuesdays. While the measure was
voluntary, eateries throughout the land took the request in stride,
making it a patriotic gesture to replace T-bone steaks with baked
beans and macaroni with cheese. Millions of citizens did likewise in
men were needed to fight. Congress lowered the draft age to 18 on
October 25. That edict put an enormous strain on the work pool. By
the end of the year, 1,814 Child Labor Permits had been issued to
Kenosha students who were excused from school. The school board
promptly organized night school classes so that these new workers not
“sacrifice completion of …education for war wages.” 18 With
men being drafted at eighteen, it was virtually impossible for
employers to find workers of any kind for any job. On November 25,
The War Labor Board announced that employers could raise women’s
wages by 20 cents an hour in order to entice them into the work
force. Though they still earned less then men, it was good enough for
many women who yearned for a world beyond their kitchens.
month of November started on a sad note at Nash-Kelvinator. On the
Earl McCarty, the former president of Nash Motors, died in Florida.
He was only 58.
qualified for B” stickers and ration books after proving they had
to travel to work. They were given exactly enough extra coupons to
allow them to get to and from work. “C” stickers were limited to
seventeen essential war effort occupations, including government
officials, US Mail, wholesale newspaper deliverymen, medical
professionals, clergy, scrap dealers and embalmers were among those
entitled.20 The maximum
distance permitted was now 450 miles a month. Pleasure driving and
nighttime travel were banned. Exceeding the maximum was not only
unpatriotic; it could result in confiscation of the automobile.
Distances were recorded in the Mileage Rationing Record Book and
shown to inspectors at regular intervals when tires were inspected.
was quick to set up a counseling service to keep its workers from
being drafted. After all, they were as vital to the war effort on the
home front as any soldier in a foxhole. The company excelled at
keeping workers in the factories. It did such a good job that other
companies copied the Kenosha manufacturer’s lead, to
retain their own skilled essential home front workers.21
“Bill” Waterman heard about Nash’s success. He took a job at
the Nash aircraft engine plant in Kenosha to keep from being drafted.
The well-known actor had starred in such popular radio soap operas
and dramas as the Guiding Light, Helen
Trent, Jack Armstrong, Little Orphan Annie
and Tom Mix
throughout the 1930s. He would become
most famous after his 1941 debut as the Great Gildersleeve on the
Fibber McGee and Molly Show.22
Nash-Kelvinator was initially the sole licensee to build the Pratt
and Whitney engines, it quickly became obvious that no single
manufacturer could ever handle the magnitude of orders that poured in
day after day. Ford had begun building the mighty
mills in September 1942 and GM would begin
production in January of 1943.
were conducted at Pratt & Whitney with random R-2800 parts from
Nash, Chevrolet and Ford and their components suppliers to ensure
that they were identical. Engineers at the aircraft firm built
engines from bins of mixed up parts. Every one of them ran
months of trials, the first Pratt & Whitney engine rolled off the
line in Kenosha on December 6. Nash-Kelvinator officials announced
that the company was ready to begin mass production.
first six Pratt & Whitney engines were shipped from Kenosha on
Christmas Day, 1942 only seven months after the contract had been
signed.21 The most powerful engine on earth, the
18-cylinder mill was capable of moving a plane at speeds of more than
450 miles per hour and could carry an aircraft up to seven miles
above the earth’s surface.
mighty aircraft engines were exactly the kind of Christmas gift the
free world needed if the Allies were to be successful in their fight
for freedom. Already thirteen soldiers from Kenosha had laid down
their lives.22 Workers at
Nash-Kelvinator were Santa’s little wartime helpers, indeed.
Newsletter. Preservation Racine, Inc.: Winter 1994
Yearbook, 1943, p. 55
Top Sergeant of Industry: 1957 pp.54, 55
Giles, Diane, Old
Kenosha, Kenosha Bulletin. December 10, 1985
Automotive Yearbook, 1943, p. 55.
UAW Local 72
Retirees’ Group. Personal Interview. April 24, 2004
Ploskee, Alice. The
Life Story of Peter Ploskee,: 1975 p.18)
Annual Report to Stockholders, p. 17
Mays, James. From
Kenosha to the World: The Rambler, Jeffery and Nash Truck Story:
2003, p. 80
Op. cit., p. 76
Flammang, James. A.
When Rationing Came,
November 1979, pp. 51-57)
A., Editor. Kenosha in the 20th Century: 1976. p. 111
John J. Life is a Classroom
unpublished manuscript, p. 669
Finkler, Francis and
Florence. Personal Interview. April 24, 2004
Nash-Kelvinator Annual Report to Stockholders, p. 17
Nash-Kelvinator Annual Report to Stockholders and
John J. Life is a Classroom
unpublished manuscript, p. 668
Flammang, James A.
op. cit. pp. 51—57
Read All About It.
Kenosha News: 1994. p. 19
Giles, Diane. Old
Kenosha. Kenosha Bulletin, August 8, 2002
R-2800 Pratt & Whitney’s Dependable Masterpiece: 2001. p.
Also see: Series Contents, Nash Motors, Nash engines, Nash Metropolitan, Jeffery, AMC, the Nash Car Club of America
Pre-war growth in Canada
Making engines in Windsor (1970s)
All Mopar Car and Truck News
Chrysler 300 Letter Cars
The Engine Cleanup Committee