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The War: Akron Factories at Full Production Force

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 7:27 AM

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As headquarters for 4 of the world's biggest rubber companies, Akron played a crucial part in providing supplies for the war effort. From synthetic rubber to self-sealing gas tanks, area factories were running 24-hours-a-day. ideastream's David C. Barnett has some stories from wartime Akron. Photo courtesy of Goodyear

Historian George Knepper doesn’t have much patience for the Akronites who pine for the “good old days”.  The Akron of his youth wasn’t a very pleasant place.

George Knepper: My mother wiped off the windowsills every day, to get rid of the constant soot in the air.  In the wintertime, after a nice white snow, within a day it was a gray slush.

That gray slush was a by-product of a bustling rubber industry.  When Dr. Benjamin Franklin Goodrich started his rubber company in 1870, the product line featured such specialty items as hoses and water-proof overshoes.  But, then came the bicycle craze of the late 1800s… followed by the mass marketing of the automobile, a few years later.  And then came World War II.

George Knepper: The story of how American industry converted in almost a flash, from peacetime to wartime production, is just really impressive.

As a union meeting breaks up at United Rubber Workers Local 2, retiree Ulysses Parker recalls there was an intensive worker recruiting campaign during the 1940s.  Goodrich hired him out of high school.

Ulysses Parker: It was mass hiring.  People were coming up here from the South to the rubber shops.  A lot of people came up here after Pearl Harbor.

By this time, the consolidation of many smaller companies had led to the creation of Goodyear… Firestone… and General.  These factories were turning out plenty of tires for jeeps and trucks, but they developed all sorts of other war products… like the self-sealing gas tank, demonstrated in this promotional film produced by Firestone.

SOUND: I’ll warrant that you never saw a gas tank treated like this before.  {gunshot} No, he didn’t miss.  The bullets went straight through it.  The bullets tear right through, but the holes seal right up!

The famous Goodyear blimps that today give us aerial shots of sporting events, were used during the war for coastal submarine surveillance.  Historian George Knepper says Goodyear also produced a popular fighter plane called the Corsair.

George Knepper: Within 18 months, they built the plants, found and hired and trained 33,000 people—who had never seen an aircraft built in their lives—and they turned out over 4,000 Corsair fighter planes for the Navy and the Marines.

But, of all the wartime products that came out of Akron, one was perhaps most significant.  As supplies of natural rubber rapidly dwindled, local researchers were under extreme pressure to perfect the synthetic substitute.  Sitting outside a restaurant in suburban Stow, retired chemist Ben Kastein recalls they got their marching orders from the White House.

Ben Kastein: The rubber program was so critical, they had top priority over aviation… gasoline… the atomic bomb program.  If there was any question, it went right to FDR.

But then, it all came to an end.

The gravy train of federal research money, along with massive government equipment contracts dried up at the end of the war.  But, Ben Kastein says there was a new, lucrative market just starting to open up.

Ben Kastein: You had a pent-up demand for things.  For a long time, you couldn’t buy a car.  So, all the sudden you could buy cars again.  There was a tremendous building boom.  Street after street was lined with new homes; the GI Joes moved in there with their families.

In one of the great ironies of the war, a German company would end up buying General Tire, and Firestone was bought by a Japanese firm.  It causes the old-timers like Ulysses Parker to shake their heads.  But, it doesn’t shake his wonder at the memory of a wartime factory town, pumping out its product.

Ulysses Parker: You never seen nothing like it in your life. Everything going full blast 24-hours-a-day.

David C. Barnett, 90.3.

All pictures courtesy of Goodyear.

Reconnaissance blimps were built in the Goodyear Air Dock. At the time of it’s christening in 1931, this structure was the largest building in the world without interior supports.


Blimp’s-eye view of the Goodyear Air Dock.


Corsair assembly line.


Teen employees at Goodyear building Corsairs.


One of the first Goodyear-built Corsair fighter planes.


Comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen prepare for a blimp ride.

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