Featured image: Library of Congress P&P, LC-USW36-24
The United States Office of War Information (OWI) was essentially a propaganda agency, promulgated by Franklin D Roosevelt on June 13th, 1942 as a unification of several domestic information agencies.
Many Americans were bewildered by their rapid progression from Great Depression, to Arsenal of Democracy, to co-belligerent in a global conflict. So Roosevelt charged the OWI with using press, radio, movies and other media to inform the domestic population about the war effort and what they were fighting for.
The aesthetics of aircraft construction
Among the OWI’s incredibly talented staff were its official photographer, Alfred T Palmer (1906 – 1993) and one of his staff, Howard R Hollem. And they quickly got to work.
Through the second half of 1942 and into 1943, these two photographers visited aircraft factories, training facilities and air stations all over the country, recording the effort and energy of the aviation industry.
Under Palmer’s leadership, a strong documentary style emerged, using strong contrast and bold colours to represent the determination and drive of America’s war work. Best of all, a huge body of this work is now kept in the US National Archives and Library of Congress. (You’ll find LoC call numbers for the photos in their descriptions below.)
While their work also covered the production of ships, tanks, guns, food and infrastructure, Palmer and Hollem clearly had an eye for the aesthetics of aircraft construction.
Selecting a mere handful for a gallery like this is an almost impossible task. Every photo is an absolute work of art, but there’s incredibly artistry in the subject matter as well. So these are images which emphasise that special elegance of forms, structures and engineering solutions that helps to make aircraft so beautiful.
However, there’s more to them than that.
Beyond art-filled images
Under the threatening skies of 1942, The USA needed armies of women and African-Americans to fill many essential roles. Their patriotic and capable response helped change events overseas and attitudes at home. American production, more than anything, would win the war – and the OWI would lead the salute to these heroes of the home front.
So, beyond being art-filled images of aircraft creation, these are photos of the dignity of work, of making rather than consuming, and of uniting for a common good.
While history and journalism focused on the fighting (and still do), Alfred T Palmer recorded the battle front that no-one should forget. This was America’s finest hour.
Click each image for a (much) larger version. And use the link at the end to see our gallery of equally stunning monochrome photos from the OWI collection.
Working in cramped conditions that would become just as familiar to combat crews, a team of five Consolidated Aircraft staff crowd into the fuselage of a B-24 Liberator on the company’s brand new assembly line outside Fort Worth, Texas. The mile-long plant had rolled out its first B-24D on April 18th, 1942, using components form the company’s San Diego factory. This aircraft is most likely one of the 305 D models built at Forth Worth.
Photo by Howard R Hollem, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-24]
A row of bomb-bay ferry tanks for B-25 Mitchells are stored in the California sunshine until they’re needed on North American Aviation’s assembly line at Inglewood (on the present-day site of the LAX cargo facilities). When this photo was taken, the Inglewood factory was busy producing B-25Cs (with the plant designation ‘-NA’) although the first B-25G, converted from a C, would be test-flown on October 22nd.
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-493]
A Douglas worker demonstrates how she drills wing skins for the centre section of an A-20 Havoc attack bomber at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory. It’s not definite which Havoc variant this wing would end up flying; Douglas produced almost 1,000 A-20Cs from 1941, but was delivering A-20Gs with a solid nose, 4 x 20mm Hispano cannons and 2 x .50 M2 Brownings by February 1943. The wing was the same for both models.
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-124]
Mustang! Showing off the most poetic shape ever formed around a V-12, a gleaming P-51 rolls down North American Aviation’s Inglewood factory line. The large fairings for a pair of 20mm Hispano cannons indicate that this is most likely one of the USAAC’s order for 150 P-51s, intended to keep production going when the RAF’s Mustang Ia contract ended. Note the pilot’s seat waiting installation in front of the aircraft.
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, October 1942(?). [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-491]
High tension leads spider out to the 28 spark plugs of a Wright R-2600 Twin-Cyclone, as new workers learn the art of installing these big double-row motors onto A-20 Havocs at the Douglas, Long Beach factory.
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-60]
‘The girl in a glass house’ – arguably all the beauty and dedication Palmer set out to capture, in a single photograph. A young Douglas Aircraft Company worker adds the finishing touches to nose glazing for a B-17F at Long Beach. Douglas workers built 605 F-model Flying Fortresses at Long Beach (designated B-17F-DL) from May 1942, followed by another 2,395 B-17G-DL models from the second half of 1943.
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-212]
The finished inner wing sections of Douglas C-47s tower over a pair of quality inspectors, outside the Douglas Long Beach Plant in October 1942. The serried rows of rivets on the DC-3/C-47 family are simply beautiful, and highlight those elegant art-deco curves. However this photo also highlights just how many rivets must have been driven into the 10,000+ Skytrains that Douglas built between its Long Beach, Santa Monica and Oklahoma City factories.
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-299]
A worker leans through the centre of a B-25 cowling to install the cowl flap actuators, before the motors are fitted further down North American’s Inglewood production line. In all, NAA would produce 9,816 B-25s over the course of the war, including 3,208 at Inglewood and an incredible 6,608 at its Kansas City factory.
Alfred T Palmer, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-298]
In a cathedral arch of fuselage frames, stringers, and anodised aluminium skin, a former housewife named as Mrs Cabbie Coleman, installs oxygen racks for the flight deck of a B-24 (or C-87) in Consolidated Aircraft’s Fort Worth, Texas, factory.
Photo by Howard R. Hollem, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-290]
One of Vultee’s female employees makes some final adjustments inside the wheel well of an A-31 Vengeance dive bomber at Nashville, Tennessee, before final fitting of the main gear. Vultee was the first aircraft producer to employ women in production line positions, giving them a key role in an exploding industry. The business was merged with the Consolidated Aircraft behemoth on March 17th, 1943, just weeks after this photo was taken, to form the Convair company.
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, February 1943.[LoC P&P, LC-USW36-137]
The massive central wing structure of a B-24 is jacked up to be mated with it’s fuselage at the Consolidated factory at Fort Worth, Texas. Think about the amount of metal being installed here, the next time you see that clichéd footage of B-24M “Brief” (44-42058) having its wing folded in two by AAA during a bomb run…
Photo by Howard R. Hollem, October 1942. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-44]
Installing a motor onto a B-24 at Ford’s purpose-built Willow Run plant, between Ypsilanti and Belleville, Michigan. At first, the gigantic line would only produce knock-down parts that were shipped to plants in the Southwest for assembly, until problems with the production processes were ironed out. But by war’s end, this one factory would produce more aircraft than the entire nation of Italy – some 8,865 B-24s, peaking at one four-engined bomber every 63 minutes, 24/7. Although the official caption for this photo refers to transport planes, WiIllow Run built only B-24E, H, J, L and (single-tailed) M bombers.
Photo by Howard R Hollem, undated. [LoC P&P, LC-USW36-472]
Don’t miss the sequel to this article: ‘Works of Art, too’