Posted on Tue, Jun. 25, 2002


A civilian role for former Warminster base
Retirement homes are coming to the old military site, home to shoddy WWII planes and high-tech space research.

Inquirer Staff Writer

WARMINSTER - A metal-clawed wrecking machine yesterday tore through 60 years of aviation history - both glorious and scandalous - at three hangars on the old Warminster navy base.

From 1944 to 1996, these battered, arch-roofed structures were an integral part of the Naval Air Development Center, a high-tech military research center. Astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions trained on the base, and locals are still proud of it.

But before that, the hangars housed the infamous Brewster Aeronautical Corp., a World War II defense contractor widely regarded as among the most inept, squandering millions of War Department dollars. Brewster was so inept, in fact, that it triggered three months of congressional hearings.

"It was a real pit," said Connie Detrich, 86, who worked at the plant as a real-life Rosie the Riveter.

Perhaps it was no surprise that no one showed up yesterday to mourn the hangars, which are being demolished this week to make way for a 100-apartment retirement community called Ann's Choice.

Closed in 1996, the broad, windy 750-acre former base is being redeveloped as a mix of single-family houses, offices and a 240-acre public park.

The Ann's Choice retirement complex that will rise on the hangar site will offer assisted living for adults 62 and older. Erickson Retirement Communities, the builder, expects to complete construction in July 2003. Ninety-three of the first 100 apartments are already sold, and the company expects to expand to as many as 1,000 units as demand dictates.

The old hangars shuddered as the demolition claw tore into them, their wooden siding crackling like a campfire as it was crushed between metal fingers and dropped 30 feet to the dusty tarmac.

It will take three or four weeks to dismantle the wood-and-brick hangars.

The Brewster Corp., based in Queens, N.Y., opened the plant in 1941 to build warplanes as part of the "Arsenal of Democracy." It employed 6,000 area residents.

Brewster's aircraft, however, were derided as death traps. Its New York-built "Buffalo" fighter plane was shot to pieces by agile Japanese Zeros. The model built at Warminster, a dive-bomber called the SB2A "Buccaneer," never even saw combat. Navy historians have since dubbed it "the most unsuccessful aircraft for combat built by the United States during World War II."

But the bigger debacle unfolded here inside these hangars and inside the main plant building, parts of which still survive on the other side of Jacksonville Road.

Detrich, an Elkins Park native, recalled those years at Brewster, which she joined at the age of 22 after deciding to work in war production, motivated by a patriotic desire to help build the weapons that would defeat fascism.

She said she was shocked to find her own union shop steward purposely slowing down production. Mechanics, she said, would walk right out of the plant after punching in, only to return that evening to punch out and collect their pay. Male workers were known to take advantage of their female underlings, so Detrich always carried with her a tool sharp enough to draw blood.

On Aug. 23, 1943, the United Auto Workers Local 365 launched a four-day strike, despite the no-strike pledge it took. The walkout cost 240,000 man-hours, about the time it would have taken to build 20 planes.

The reason? Guards had not been allowed to choose their posts - front gate or bathrooms - by seniority. The strike became a national scandal. Even a pro-Brewster newspaper dubbed it "the most disgusting strike in the history of this country."

The union local's flamboyant president, Thomas V. DeLorenzo, fanned the fire.

"If I had brothers at the front line who needed the 10 or 12 planes that were sacrificed [by the strike], I'd let them die, if necessary, to preserve our way of life or rights or whatever you want to call it," he told a Washington Post reporter.

Congressional investigators were not amused. During the three months of hearings in 1943, House lawmakers were astounded by tales of managerial incompetence:

When supervisors discovered tools left in finished planes, for instance, they ordered disbelieving engineers to build a giant device to flip planes upside down and shake out loose bolts and tools.

Apparent acts of sabotage caused loss of rudder control in some Buccaneers and engines that could not be turned off in others.

Workers spent hours loafing in the factory - known as the "Bucks County Playhouse." Rival shifts hid parts from each other, and each year $50,000 worth of tools and materials was stolen.

Even before the hearings ended, the Navy halted production of the Buccaneer, hauling more than 300 of the planes out of the plant as scrap. The plant was shut down in 1944 and taken over by the Navy.

Over the next half-century, technicians from Warminster and the surrounding area used the complex to develop top-secret technologies that still contribute to U.S. aerospace superiority.


Contact Matt Blanchard at 215-702-7814 or mblanchard@phillynews.com.




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