HISTORY OF NADC, 1941-1980


The following historical narrative summarizes nearly forty years of the activities of a large and complex research and development facility. We have emphasized long-run trends and general patterns at the expense of close analysis of individual events. To provide the reader with a short introduction to the history of NADC, we have developed several specific themes. Our major theme is the relationship between the Center's technical effort and its organization. A second, and related, theme is the changing relationship of the Center and its technical projects to the sponsors and patrons in the Navy. Throughout NADC's history, the Center's laboratories have tended to develop an independence, which some NADC personnel have perceived as hindering the Center's technical efficiency. This survey describes the organizational responses to the development of the "autono- mous laboratory," to changes in the Navy, and to the emergence of the "systems" approach. More extensive treatment is given to the early years of the Center than to its most recent past for two reasons. First, the history of NADC began when the Navy took over a privately-owned aircraft factory, an event surrounded by controversy. Second, there is little information on the early period, including the 1950's, that is commonly available or common knowledge. The survey is based on material available at NADC, and therefore is limited to the perspective of NADC personnel.


The residents of Johnsville, Pennsylvania, enthusiastically greeted the announcement on January 23, 1941, of plans for the local construction of a multi-million-dollar aircraft factory. The Brewster Aeronautical Corporation had already purchased 400 acres of farmland at a cost of $2 million, and quickly began a crash program to complete construction of the new facility by July. Little existed near the site except the Friends' Meeting House on Street Road, and so the plan promised to bring "the largest industrial boom in the history of Bucks County." (1) Brewster designed the new Johnsville plant to complement and extend the capabilities of its two other factories, and it shipped plane parts produced at its plants in Long Island City, N.Y., and Newark, N.J., to Johnsville for final assembly. The newly-created Defense Plant Corporation sub- sidized the $8 million cost of the new facility and leased the factory to Brewster for $1 per year. With contracts approaching $110 million from the U.S. Navy, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, Brewster's future looked bright.

A carriage manufacturer of long standing, Brewster began expanding rapidly in the late 1930's by moving into aircraft engineering and production just as war-time demands took off. Employing only 40 people in 1932, Brewster expanded its payroll to 20,000 by 1943. In the 1930's Brewster made parts for Grumman Aircraft Engineering, but built no planes of its own until 1938 when it developed two planes for the Navy: the F1A-1, a carrier-based fighter, and the SBA-1, a two-seat dive bomber. An improved version of the fighter, the F2A-2, was sold to England, and nicknamed the "Buffalo" by the R.A.F. (2)

The plane's nickname described it well. A small number of Buffalos were first sent to Britain in the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain, but the British soon discovered to their dismay that with armor and ammunition the Buffalo could manage only 270 mph at 6,000 feet. This per- formance sharply contrasted with the projected figure of 313 mph at 13,000 feet. When the British Admiral Cunningham was offered Buffalos in early 1941 for Mediterranean service, he chose instead to use World-War-I-vintage Gladiator biplanes. Nor did the Buffalos serve the American Navy well. In the Battle of Midway the Buffalos were slaughtered: during the initial Amertcan attack thirteen of the twenty Brewster planes were shot down, and only two of the planes ever flew again. (3)

In early 1942 Brewster ran into difficulty. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Brewster had announced the "Buccaneer," a new dive bomber to be built wholly at Johnsville. The-first Buccaneers were to roll off the assembly line by mid-February 1942, but production difficulties plagued the firm. When Brewster failed to deliver a single new dive bomber, President Roosevelt directed the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, to take immediate control of the firm. Captain George C. Westervelt assumed command of the Brewster complex on April 21 and reported that "dissatisfaction with management" had caused the takeover. (4)

Explanations for the production failures varied greatly. Senator Harry F. Byrd asserted that the Long Island City plant was operating at 40 percent of capacity, and he charged that labor slow- downs had caused Brewster's ills. R. J. Thomas, a member of the War Labor 8Oard and President of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), alleged that "aliens" were managing the firm, and requested an F.B.I. investigation. The plant officials at Johnsville blamed their delays on subcon- tractors who failed to deliver critical parts and on the Navy's many design changes. The Hatboro Spirit editorialized: "For months people of the community . . . have been asking each other the question--'What's the matter with Brewster; why are they not producing?' " (5)

The events soon took an unexpected turn when the Philadelphia Record exposed a compli- cated profit-skimming scheme that it asserted had crippled Brewster. The "mysterious Miranda brothers," Alfred and Ignateo, along with their associate F. William Zelcher, had set up three shadow corporations that controlled not only the sale of parts to Brewster, but also the firm's lucrative exports. From November 1939 to June 1941 the three men had siphoned off an alleged $5.5 million from the firm. During the same period stockholders had received only $290,000 in dividends and had filed a suit against Brewster's board chairman, James Work, for redress. Most damning to the firm was that the Mirandas had spent twelve months of the twenty-month period either in Federal jail or on parole for smuggling arms to Bolivia in 1939, in violation of the Neutral- ity Act. (6)

The Navy reinstated private management to Brewster one month after the Navy takeover. The company's officials had resigned, and the Navy installed a new board of directors, headed by veteran aircraft engineer C. A. Van Dusen. In early 1943, a three-man panel headed by Van Dusen took control of the Brewster stock held by Work, Zelcher, and the Mirandas (amounting to 27 per- cent of the total-stock). Still failing to produce planes on schedule, on May 17, 1943, Brewster again received a new set of directors, headed by Henry J. Kaiser, "the West coast shipbuilding genius." Ex-Westinghouse executive Frederick Riebel, who had been acting as production trouble-shooter for the Navy at Brewster, was elevated to president. Although Kaiser immediately launched a campaign to improve the firm's performance, Brewster remained behind its production schedule.l7)

In addition to suffering under ineffectual management, Brewster was mired in labor difficulties. The War Labor Board reported in late 1942 that a work "slowdown" was impeding Brewster's production. On August 24, 1943 a four-day strike began after a month of controversy over the classrfication of employees assigned to guard the plant. The guards, members of both the UAW and the Coast Guard Reserve, had conflicting loyalties; when four guards were arrested for disregarding Coast Guard orders the rest of the employees walked out. After a total of 39 people were arrested, the UAW demanded withdrawal of the 200 regular Coast Guardsmen that had been moved in. The striking workers, and particularly the local's contentious head, Thomas de Lorenzo, drew public wrath for betraying the war effort. A letter to the editor of the Doylestown Intelliqencer exhorted: "Citizensl Awake! dare to demand that these strikers choose betvveen the United States flag and their gangster leaders. Demand that our government clamp down on these saboteurs and traitors . . ." The War Labor Board demanded the workers return to work "unconditionally," and production soon began again. (8)

Shortage of materials also ailed Brewster. Hangars were built with wooden beams due to war- time shortages of steel. Senator Harry S. Truman investigated the firm in September 1943 and found conditions "extremely bad." Two hundred mechanics had petitioned to be released to find work elsewhere, but had been refused; 24 plane motors had sat unused for a month because the necessary mounting bolts were not available. To compound matters, an allegation of sabotage sur- faced in October when it became known that seven employees had been fired at the Navy's behest in the spring of 1942 on charges of subversive activity. (9)

In November 1943 the questionable past of the testy union leader Lorenzo was uncovered dur- ing his testimony before a Congressional committee. He had employed a half dozen aliases, "when they came in handy," and had falsified several official documents, including his 1940 tax return. Reelected for his fourth term as president of Local 365 in February 1944, Lorenzo nevertheless faced serious problems. In March he was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for doctoring his appli- cation to the War Labor Board, and in August he was fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in Federal jail. (10)

By early 1944 Brewster's prospects were grim. The Doylestown Intelligencer reported that Kaiser's reforms had boosted production by 350 percent, cut man hours per plane from 32,000 to 13,000, and decreased the payroll by one-third. (11) Nevertheless, on May 19, four days after Kaiser left Brewster, the Navy cancelled the remaining half of Brewster's contract for the manu- facture of Vought Corsairs--virtually the firrn's entire business. Navy officials announced three rea- sons for the decision, and admitted that the firm was bearing the brunt of a $181 million cutback in the purchase of fighters. With 12,000 employees, Brewster held the smallest of the three major Corsair contracts. The two largest contractors, United Aircraft and Goodyear Aircraft, retained their orders. Second, Brewster had no other Navy contracts, and "no other work of importance to the war effort." Finally, Brewster's unit production costs exceeded those of United and Goodyear, despite Kaiser's improvements. (11)

To protest the Navy's decision, the Johnsville workers began a "stay in" on May 31 that lasted two days. The workers continued plane assembly and set a production record of eight planes in one day. Upset over the loss of jobs, and what was feared to be a prelude to the national chaos that would occur with demobilization, the union called for the establishment of an Office of War Demobilization and Post-War Adjustment. (12)

While Brewster moved into the manufacture of pots, pans, and suitcases, the Navy took full control of the Johnsville plant. Initially, Captain S. J. Zeigler coordinated the conversion of the factory into an aircraft engineering and modification center under the direction of the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Naval Air Material Center


The establishment in 1943 of the Naval Air Modification Unit (NAMU) at the Philadelphia Naval Yard reflected a decision by the War Department to separate aircraft production from modi- fication. To speed delivery to the armed services, planes were mass produced and then, at a separate facility, design modifications were added to produce the "latest" model for war duty. (14) The Modification Branch of the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF), Philadelphia, modified the Factory's assembled planes, but the two functions of production ar!d modification turned out to fit poorly in the same organization. Hence when the NAF was expanded into the Naval Air Material Center (NAMC) on July 20,1943, the Modification Branch was reconstituted separately as the Naval Air Modification Unit. (15)

During its first year of operation NAMU moved between different buildings in the NAMC com- plex while its personnel wrestled with an influx of projects. The availability of the million square foot Brewster plant, twenty miles north of Philadelphia, promised relief from crowded facilities, and shortly after it took possession of the Johnsville facility in July 1944, the Navy transferred NAMU there under the command of Captain Ralph S. Barnaby.

The move to Johnsville coincided with an expanded mission for NAMU. Its new tasks were to develop special weapons, to do prototype modifications for aircraft, and to perform quantity con- version of war planes. NAMU became a leader in adapting radar to Navy planes, including the TBF/ TBN, PV, PBY, F4U, PB4Y, and SB2C. Some modification work concerned the installation of improved armaments and communications equipment, (16) or involved prototyping, but most resulted from requests by the Bureau of Aeronautics to make changes based on Fleet performance. Since many of NAMU's employees had little experience with prototyping work, having been pro- duction workers at Brewster, a retraining program was conducted by the Training Division of NAMC. In the fourteen months between its move to Johnsville and the surrender of Japan, NAMU modified, repaired or experimented with over 1,370 service aircraft. Under a tight veil of secrecy, NAMU also conducted special weapons work, with such colorful project names as Pelican, Little Joe, Gargoyle, Glomb, and Glimp. NAMU engineers coordinated their activities with the National Defense Research Committee and the Special Weapons Experimental Tactical Test Unit, and com- bined many elements of modern war technology to develop new guided missiles and drone targets. Experimental glider work was also important, due to Captain Barnaby's experience and interest in the field of gliders. (17)

NADC History 1947-1959

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