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BPA powered the industry that helped win World War II
10/31/2012 1:34 PM
An aircraft assembly crew at Boeing in Seattle. With many of the men who would normally staff manufacturing jobs serving in the armed forces, women played an important part in America’s wartime production effort.
BPA employees energized the Northwest industries making planes and ships to help the Allies win World War II. The recently completed Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams provided electrical power to support construction at wartime shipyards and at aluminum smelters making the raw material for Boeing’s B-17 and B-29 aircraft production.
The wartime production effort driven by BPA hydropower was truly impressive. By the war’s end, Northwest shipyards had contributed almost 750 large ships, about 27 percent of the American fleet. This construction program used more than two millions tons of steel and employed 100,000 workers. Thanks to powerful floodlights, the yards operated 24 hours per day, and electric welding speeded construction dramatically over riveting.
Federal power supplied by BPA was instrumental in the ramp up of the Northwest aluminum industry. BPA provided the energy for both aluminum smelters producing raw material as well as an aluminum rolling mill near Spokane that processed raw aluminum into the thin sheets used by aircraft factories. At its peak, Northwest production accounted for over 25 percent of the entire aluminum output of the United States.
This aluminum was turned, by Boeing, into over 10,000 combat airplanes. The crews responsible for this massive production effort often personified the cultural icon of Rosie the Riveter ─ the American women who took the factory positions vacated by men serving in the military.
After the war, President Harry Truman was enthusiastic about the role of the Northwest’s federal hydropower in the victory over the Axis powers. During a 1948 Pocatello, Idaho campaign stop, he remarked that, “Without Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams it would have been almost impossible to win this war.”
While Truman’s statement may have been colored by campaign rhetoric, there is no denying the significance of contributions made by BPA and the region during the war. Conversely, the war effort brought an influx of people and spurred the growth of industry in the Northwest while boosting the regional economy.
Initially, critics dubbed Bonneville Dam the “Dam of Doubt,” suggesting Columbia River hydroelectric dams were unnecessary and would generate far more energy than the region could use. But the war ultimately underscored the value of both the large dams the government had recently built on the Columbia River and of the agency it created to bring their power to the citizens of the Northwest.
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