Nash 1942: The last new cars, the first aircraft engines
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 Evening Post. Promising 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.”
Reminding 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 the road.”
The next 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 off.
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
Car rationing 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. Nash 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 stride.”
So 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.
To 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 wheels.
At 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
In 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 come true. At 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
Nationwide 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. Kenoshans 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.
Consumer 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
Expansion 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.
There were 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
Only 131 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
Victory 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.
In April, 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.
With 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 1st, 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 somber note.
July 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 even more.
School 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.”
Students 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 school, too.15
The 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.
On 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. The sale of used tires and inner tubes was forbidden on September 30. The Office of Price Administration would ration them, too.
The 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.
In 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 weapons.16 When declassified years later, those weapons would turn out to be the casings for a million anthrax bombs.17
There 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 effort.
President 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 their homes.
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.
The month of November started on a sad note at Nash-Kelvinator. On the 1st, Earl McCarty, the former president of Nash Motors, died in Florida. He was only 58.
Some 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.
Nash 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
Willard “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
Although 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. Tests 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 perfectly.20
After 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. The 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.
The 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.
Chapter Six End Notes
Rintz, Don. Newsletter. Preservation Racine, Inc.: Winter 1994
Wards Automotive Yearbook, 1943, p. 55
Heinrich, Arthur. Top Sergeant of Industry: 1957 pp.54, 55
Giles, Diane, Old Kenosha, Kenosha Bulletin. December 10, 1985
Ward’s 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)
1943 Nash-Kelvinator 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, Car Exchange: November 1979, pp. 51-57)
Neuenschwander, John A., Editor. Kenosha in the 20th Century: 1976. p. 111
Hosmanek, John J. Life is a Classroom unpublished manuscript, p. 669
Finkler, Francis and Florence. Personal Interview. April 24, 2004
1943 Nash-Kelvinator Annual Report to Stockholders, p. 17
1944 Nash-Kelvinator Annual Report to Stockholders and www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=25220
Hosmanek, 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
White, Graham. R-2800 Pratt & Whitney’s Dependable Masterpiece: 2001. p. 116