FRONT PAGE Sunday, July 15, 2001
End nears for a plant that made flying junk
By Matthew P. Blanchard
INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
When crews demolish three World War II-era airplane hangars in Warminster later this year, they will obliterate a piece of history that the Greatest Generation probably would rather forget.
"Itís a damned shame they have to rip it all down,Ē John Varallo says of the hangars, all thatís left of a somewhat ignominious chapter in the history of local participation in World War II. (Scott S. Hamrick / Inquirer)
The hangars once housed the Brewster Aeronautical Corp., which built warplanes in that rural reach of Bucks County from 1941 to '44. The operation was supposed to be part of the "Arsenal of Democracy" proudly arming the Allies.
But it didn't work out quite that way.
Brewster planes were the bane of the U.S. Navy, scoffed at as jokes, or worse. One model came to be known as a deathtrap a sluggish, unreliable fighter easily picked off by Japan's agile Zeroes.
The company's biggest troubles, though, were much closer to home. Its Warminster plant one of three that Brewster ran was among the most chaotic arms factories of the war, manufacturing scandals that put the torch to star-spangled images of Americans working as one to defeat fascism.
Brewster laborers staged a seemingly capricious strike that astonished the nation and provoked a congressional investigation. They allegedly loafed in washrooms, stole parts, and had sex in half-built fuselages. All at a time when GI corpses were piling up overseas.
Today, the hangars huddle on a windswept airfield, where retirement housing soon will rise.
Their passing will be mourned, not by many, but surely by a few a small, and shrinking, band of old men in Warminster. For 18 years, they worked to restore a Brewster bomber, and dreamed of building a museum around it.
But dreams, like planes, don't always get off the ground.
When Europe erupted in war in 1939, one of the hottest new fighters was the Brewster Buffalo. Stocky like its namesake, it was armed with four .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the wings and fuselage.
Brewster, once a maker of horse carriages in Queens, N.Y., took hundreds of orders from Britain, Finland and Poland.
The plane's first combat experiences in Europe indicated shortcomings. But the U.S. Navy, which had bought more than 100 Buffaloes, learned the extent of the problems the hard way - over the Pacific.
Early on June 4, 1942, radar picked up Japanese planes closing on Midway Island. Capt. Philip Renee White, one of 21 Buffalo pilots stationed there, scrambled into his fighter and met the enemy at 12,000 feet.
The Battle of Midway was a stunning victory for the United States. But White's Buffalo squadron was slaughtered: 13 pilots died in minutes. Five other planes were wrecked.
White filed a damning report:
"Any commander that orders pilots out for combat in a [Buffalo] should consider those pilots lost before leaving the ground."
By then, however, Brewster had moved on to another model.
The Buccaneer was a dive-bomber, designed to plunge straight at enemy ships and release 1,000-pound bombs at the last moment, before arching back to the sky to attack again.
Even before the first Buccaneer flew, orders flooded in from the U.S. Navy (for 140), the British (750), and the Dutch (162). To fill them, Brewster needed a new factory, farther inland than its Queens and Newark plants and out of range of enemy naval bombardment.
Warminster was. In 1941, on 72 acres, Brewster built a plant called "Johnsville," after a nearby village, and brought 6,000 workers aboard.
By early that December, the United States was at war and counting on Brewster.
Yet in its first year, the Johnsville plant did not deliver a single Buccaneer to the Navy.
The company had put its commitment to the United States on a back burner, Navy brass charged, and instead built planes for European nations that paid more.
On April 20, 1942, the Navy suddenly seized control of Brewster from its chairman, James Work, a Philadelphia-born blimp designer, and recruited shipping magnate Henry Kaiser to fix what ailed the company.
But the trouble at Brewster had barely begun.
On Aug. 23, 1943, despite having taken a wartime "no-strike pledge," United Auto Workers Local 365 struck the plant for four days, at a cost of 240,000 man-hours the time it would have taken to build 20 planes.
Worse, the Johnsville action seemed trivial: Guards had not been allowed to choose their posts - front gate or bathrooms - by seniority. 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 [in 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.
To readers - including many in Congress - the Brewster plant was a portrait of trade-unionism gone insane.
For three months in 1943, the House held hearings, and what lawmakers learned about the factory astounded them:
Apparent sabotage by workers led to Buccaneers that would lose rudder control, or with engines that could not be turned off.
Workers spent hours loafing in the factory known as the "Bucks County Playhouse" and some allegedly had sex in the planes. Rival shifts hid parts from each other.
Each year, $50,000 worth of tools and materials were stolen.
But the chaos was not limited to the workforce. Strange tales of inept management abounded.
When supervisors discovered tools left in finished planes, for instance, they ordered disbelieving engineers to build a giant device to flip planes and shake out loose bolts and tools.
Before the hearings even ended, the Navy canned the Buccaneer, hauling more than 300 of them out of the plant as scrap.
By then, the Buccaneer already was a joke among U.S. pilots. Though some of the bombers were in Navy combat units, not one saw battle. Most were used for training; others were launched into the sea to test catapults on aircraft carriers.
Production at Johnsville switched to the Corsair fighter, designed by Vaught. But by early 1944, the Navy canceled that contract, too, and closed the plant. In protest, workers staged a "stay-in," producing a record eight planes in one day.
The Navy ignored them.
Most Brewster workers have since moved away or died. The few who remain still question history's censorious view of what went on at the plant.
"They were not radicals. They were good, hardworking people," said David Epstein, 82, once in charge of inventory control. "We had some labor problems. But we did a good job."
In 1978, a single Buccaneer was returned to Warminster.
The wrecked shell had been pulled from a Tennessee field, and 15 local men set up a workshop in one Brewster hangar.
The men, many of them veterans, labored evenings and weekends for 18 years to restore the bomber, fabricating parts from scratch. Unable to reconstruct its glass canopy, they found that English gardeners were using the canopies as greenhouses. Everyone chipped in $200 to have one shipped to the U.S.
The Buccaneer was 85 percent complete when, one day in 1996, the Navy loaded it on a truck and took it away. The Naval Air Development Center, which had grown around the Johnsville plant, was closing.
Today, the plane sits in boxes in a warehouse at the Navy's aviation museum in Pensacola, Fla. Of the 15 men, only two or three are still alive.
One, John Varallo, had lobbied to get the Buccaneer back as the centerpiece of a Johnsville museum that he and some some friends were assembling in the Brewster hangars.
But soon the hangars will be gone, too.
"It's a damned shame they have to rip it all down," Varallo said bitterly. "They already took our Buccaneer."
Then, with a sudden spark of optimism, he added: "But once we get a permanent home, we'd really like it back."
Matt Blanchard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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