A Call to Arms : War: After Dec. 7, 1941, the defense industry changed the economy of San Diego, as jobs for tens of thousands of workers were created.
Overnight, it seemed, the attack on Pearl Harbor established San Diego as a vital cog in the nation’s burgeoning weapons industry, a change that shaped the area’s economy for decades to come.
Tens of thousands of workers poured into town from around the country to manufacture B-24 “Liberator” bombers and PBY “Catalina” flying boats at Consolidated Aircraft Corp.'s plants.
As the war effort grew, Consolidated fed its voracious appetite for parts by contracting work out to San Diego’s small machine shops, creating the city’s first generation of defense industry subcontractors.
In the months after the Pearl Harbor attack, three national-circulation magazines ran articles on San Diego’s stunning transformation from Navy town and tourist destination to a war-time industrial hub. “San Diego Can’t Believe It,” trumpeted the headline on a January, 1942, National Geographic article.
“We used to go to bed by 10, or anyway by 11,” one San Diegan told the magazine. “Now some theaters and cafes never close. I remember it was like that in the Klondike. Now, when boatloads of sailors hurry ashore, and all these soldiers from Fort Rosecrans and Camp Callen swarm in on payday, this town goes crazy.”
Five decades later, the war’s economic legacy remains:
San Diego County now leads the nation in Defense Department wages, including active military and defense contracting salaries. In 1990, the county ranked seventh among counties nationwide in total defense procurement contracts.
Consolidated in 1954 became the Convair Division of General Dynamics, which is now the county’s largest civilian employer, with more than 16,000 employees.
As important, the war introduced hundreds of thousands of military and aircraft industry personnel to San Diego. Many of them opted to return after the war ended.
The heady economic times before and during the war led local boosters to view their hometown as no less than “America’s Miracle City.” The number of wage earners rose to a peak of 74,000 in 1943, up from an estimated 4,000 in 1935, according to Chamber of Commerce figures. The industrial payroll skyrocketed to $195 million in 1943, up from $30 million in 1940.
In July, 1941, the Chamber of Commerce predicted that the county would welcome 45,000 new arrivals during the coming year--in addition to 16,000 military personnel who would live in barracks.
The chamber estimated that the county would need 15,000 new housing units for that wave of immigrants. For many defense workers, home in San Diego meant a tent in then-rural Mission Valley.
One of those immigrants was Big Bear grocery store chain founder John Mabee, who moved to San Diego from economically depressed Iowa in 1941. Mabee and his wife, Betty, founded the family’s first grocery store in the depths of World War II, in what is now Southeast San Diego.
“San Diego was booming, compared to what we’d gone through,” said Mabee, who initially worked in construction upon arriving in San Diego. “It was a shock to me . . . to find plenty of work and plenty of places to go to work.”
San Diego’s economy benefited greatly from its increasingly important role as the Navy’s largest port. Local contractors received some of the estimated $90 million that the Navy spent to bolster its shore defenses and military installations.
The surprising engine that drove San Diego’s economy was airplane manufacturing--surprising because, until 1935, there simply was no local aviation industry.
That year, aircraft manufacturing burst on the local scene when civic and business leaders persuaded Reuben H. Fleet to relocate his Consolidated Aircraft Company and its 300 employees from Buffalo, N.Y.
Consolidated grew rapidly in San Diego as it shared in the bounty created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1939 pledge to have the United States become the arsenal of the world’s democracies. By Dec. 7, the domestic weapons industry was almost as productive as the combined weapons industries of Japan and Germany.
By 1940, Consolidated had 13,000 employees producing warplanes in its plants near Lindbergh Field. During 1941, the company was searching for an additional 18,000 men and women to mass-produce PBYs and B-24s, which became the most produced bomber in history.
More than half of the applicants for those jobs were married men, and 80% were from out of town, further fueling San Diego’s need for more housing.
Consolidated’s second plant near Lindbergh Field opened on Oct. 20, 1941. With war just months away, the company’s payroll had rocketed to 30,000 people.
Employment at Consolidated’s San Diego plants, which eventually covered more than 3.1 million square feet, peaked at about 45,000 in 1942 and remained at that level through the spring of 1943.
The nation’s decision to spend freely on weapons also prompted dramatic growth at San Diego’s other aircraft manufacturers.
Ryan Aeronautical Co., which had about 500 employees in 1940, reached a war-time high of 8,500, according to Ray Wagner, archivist of the San Diego Aerospace Museum. Two smaller companies, Solar Airplane Co. and Chula Vista-based Rohr, which opened its doors in late 1940, also benefited from the demand for aircraft parts, Wagner said.
The local manufacturing plants--most notably, Consolidated--proved to be a potent wartime force.
In five years, Consolidated’s San Diego plants produced 6,724 Liberator bombers and 2,937 PBY flying boats. Peak output in San Diego hit 253 bombers and 74 flying boats during January, 1944.
By 1942, Consolidated had cut the time it took to manufacture a B-24 by half. Consolidated Chairman Tom Girdler credited the reduction to “introduction of a straight-line production system, of pushing more and more of the final assembly back into the subassemblies, of patient worker education, of introducing incentive bonuses, and of delegating authority.”
Consolidated, which in 1954 became the Convair Division of General Dynamics, paid its largely union-represented work force a minimum of 60 cents per hour when the war began.
San Diego’s rapid war-related growth spurt also prompted dramatic societal changes.
As white, male factory workers were marched off to war, they increasingly were replaced on the factory floor by women, minorities and disabled workers.
Consolidated responded to the influx of female plant workers with “Women in Men’s Clothing,” a well-intentioned 63-page document that was described as a “practical interpretation of wimmin problems for supervisors.”
One section advised against allowing pregnant female workers to ride bicycles. Another suggested that women were more likely than men to be absent from work because “it’s tough to run a home and devote a full day to work in the factory at the same time.” One chapter included a drawing of two women under a magnifying glass with the caption: “Are women really strange creatures?”
In 1942, a San Diego newspaper reported that “one year ago today, 40 San Diego women made labor history.” In the same account, however, a Consolidated manager acknowledged that “when (women) came to us no one took them seriously.”
One new worker took it all in stride. “I worked as an inspector of shrapnel shells during the last war,” the woman told a reporter.
Consolidated also learned that job applicants who were “once regarded as unemployable” because of physical disabilities were capable of working “eight hours a day, six days a week.”
The war also brought together for the first time many different racial and ethnic groups.
“I can remember one day when (supervisors) were called into the office and told we were going to get bunch of black people in, and a bunch of Hispanic people,” said Joe Miler, a longtime employee at Consolidated. “Of course, me, coming from a ranch in Colorado, had never seen a black person.”
“You have to remember that many of these (societal) changes never would have occurred if not for the war,” Wagner said. “Luckily, the unions, management and the government all said, ‘Look, this is the way it’s going to be’ . . . (so) in San Diego we all mixed in, integrated in, well.”
“The facts of the (wartime) workplace made all prejudices irrelevant,” Wagner said.
Even as San Diegans struggled to deal with the wave of change that war brought, local civic and business leaders had begun planning for the inevitable day when war--and the resulting economic boom--would end.
Early in 1942, the local Chamber of Commerce directed its staff to “devote a considerable portion of its time and effort . . . in an attempt to solve the post-war problem in this community.”
The staff effort was driven by a fear that war’s end would turn San Diego into “a ghost town with idle plants, empty stores, hotels and houses, unemployment and stagnation of business.”
Total Planes Built in 1943, wartime production peak.
Company: Planes Convair: 10,496 North American: 9,106 Curtiss: 6,611
1941-45: total airplanes built nationwide by top five manufacturers Company: Planes North American: 40,644 Convair: 30,687 Douglas: 30,433 Curtiss: 25,373 Boeing: 17,949 Source: General Dynamics Convair Division.
Wage Earners in San Diego County
Year Total Payroll Product Value 1927 4,596 $5.8 million $34.9 million 1929 3,836 $7.0 million $34.0 million 1935 4,000 $5.0 million $30.0 million 1940 24,500 $44.5 million $90.0 million 1941 47,000 $73.9 million $160.0 million 1942 70,000 $175.0 million $800.0 million 1943 74,000 $192.0 million $1 billion* 1944 55,000 $137.5 million $1 billion* 1945 32,000 $80.0 million $500 million*
Source: Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce
Sectors of San Diego’s Economy
Navy Industrial Year Tourism Agriculture Payroll Payroll Total (millions) (millions) (millions) (millions) (millions) 1940 $20 $20 $30 $30 $100 1943 NA $40 $150 $195 $385 1946 $30 $55 $90 $50 $225 1947 $40 $57 $80 $55 $232 1948 $45 $57 $97 $66 $265
Source: Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce