Flint Through the Decades Part Four: Conflict and Recovery (1940-1949)

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The world was in turmoil. In the last months of 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The ensuing war would create far more death, destruction and atrocity than any sane human could imagine. The Nazis moved quick and in 1940, Hitler invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium. The French and British armies quickly fell before the Nazi Blitzkrieg and on June 14, Paris found itself in Nazi hands. Later that same year, both Italy and Japan joined Germany, forming the Axis powers. In those years, the United States was still climbing out of the depression and no one wanted to jeopardize the success of the New Deal. Americans watched in stony silence as Congress debated the merits of entering the fray. All of the debate was rendered obsolete when on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The time for isolationism had ended. America was at war, once again. World War II continued for the U.S. until August 15, 1945 when Japan Emperor Hirohito surrendered, unconditionally. The war had, gratefully, ended.

The latter half of the decade was approached with optimism. Soldiers returned with a new lease on life and the country boomed. Equality of opportunity was the new focus. Civil Rights were becoming the topic of the times when in 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black professional baseball player. In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which ended segregation in the U.S. military. The movement would officially gain steam in the next decade and beyond.

In Flint, the 1940s were the epitome of city spirit. The hardworking populace joined the war effort with gusto, producing whatever the soldiers needed for victory without complaint. The Flint war production was integral in ending the Nazi scourge, and the city once again proved its importance in the history of our nation.

1940-44: A City at War!

In 1940, workers in Flint were celebrating GM’s 25 millionth car as it rolled off of the assembly line. GM executives welcomed their old friend, Billy Durant, to the celebration. It’s hard to imagine what Billy Durant was thinking while watching Alfred P. Sloan and friends pat each other on the backs for the success that Durant began. At the time, he was just coming out of bankruptcy and working as a manager at North Flint Recreation, a bowling alley on N. Saginaw Street. Durant probably smiled because in his mind, he knew he wasn’t finished. He had big plans for his new industry. In fact, he started the city’s first drive-in restaurant called the Horseshoe Bar and was getting ready to go nationwide with a new chain of bowling alleys. The man never knew when to quit. He knew one direction – forward … and with speed. Unfortunately, his plans were sidelined by the World War and suspended indefinitely when in 1942, he suffered a massive stroke that affected his future physical and mental health.

As early as 1938, Flint plants were being identified as targets of war production by the U.S. military. In 1940, a deal had already been struck between the government and GM to create $61-million worth of machine guns at the AC DELCO plant. Sloan was apprehensive about the situation and especially frustrated when Roosevelt tapped top GM executive, William Knudson, to lead war production efforts. Sloan eventually relented and agreed to convert the plants when the time came. Flint was ready to go and after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all auto production was halted for the next three years, making way for Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Flint workers labored tirelessly for the war effort. Women took up the charge in the plants to ably fill the places of the men sent overseas. It was a true community effort. In February 1942, war production was officially in full swing. Fisher Body 1 began production of the M-4 “Sherman” Tank. Meanwhile, the government was building a new GM facility on re-allocated farmland in Grand Blanc. Once the facility was complete, tank production was moved. At the end of the war, Flint and Grand Blanc workers would produce 11,328 General Sherman Tanks, approximately 1,190 Pershing Tanks and 4,200 Patton M-48 Tanks. Fisher Body 1 took over production of tank parts, 155mm “Long Tom” guns, 120mm anti-aircraft guns and 38-caliber guns for battleships. Testing for tank maneuverability took place on the grounds near modern-day Southwestern High School.

Buick produced nearly 12.5 million shell casings and the plants were completely retooled to build B-24 Bomber engines. Buick set up its own aluminum foundry (which it leased to the government) to create cylinder heads – churning out 125,000 per month. During production, the Army asked GM to design a vehicle they called the “tank destroyer.” Buick acquiesced and produced the M-18 “Hellcat,” so named by Buick workers. Over 2,000 M-18s were built by war’s end.

Flint’s production efforts were hailed by Patton as one of the chief reasons the U.S. and Allies were victorious in the war. Sloan and GM were hailed as heroes of production. As mentioned earlier, Sloan was hesitant to enter the war effort; perhaps he agreed to the endeavor in order to make up for GM’s entanglement in war production overseas. In 1929, GM purchased Adam OPEL A.G., a German car and truck manufacturer. GM would make OPEL Germany’s top vehicle producer. In 1934, James D. Mooney, head of GM’s overseas division, met with Adolf Hitler in his Chancellery office. American news was already broadcasting Germany’s poor treatment of Jews and other minorities; still, GM struck a deal with the Fuhrer. OPEL will play a large part of Germany’s rearmament and would start by producing “Blitz” trucks – eventually used to invade France during Blitzkrieg. In 1935, GM moved the OPEL plant to Brandenburg, Germany in the case of war.

In terms of management, GM catered to the Nazi regime. OPEL openly embraced the German government’s anti-Jewish movement, endorsing the ban of Jews leading German business. In 1935, the company shared with Germany the secret of leaded gasoline, thus enabling the Nazi military vehicles to move ever faster. Mere months after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Mooney was awarded the German Eagle with Iron Cross for his help in rearmament. After Kristallnacht, a shareholder wrote Sloan about GM involvement. Sloan replied that in the interest of making a profit, GM shouldn’t intrude upon Nazi affairs, stating, “such matters should not be considered the business of the management of GM.” After Hitler invaded Poland, GM put OPEL in the hands of local, Carl Luer. Eventually, Germany would take control of the factory in 1941, keeping Luer as head of operations. In 1939, plant manager, Cyrus Osborn, saw the writing on the wall and began transferring American and Jewish workers out of the OPEL plant to auto plants in the Netherlands.

At home, the FBI began to take a serious look at GM’s overseas division. Mooney was recalled and charged with collusion with the enemy. Sloan was under investigation as well, but no direct evidence was found. After the war, GM regained control of the OPEL plant and in 1948, collected close to $33 million in “war reparations” because allies had bombed the German facility. GM held OPEL until 2017 when it was purchased by Groupe PSA in France for 2.2 billion euros.

As GM’s men and women manufactured war supplies and arms, another woman took a direct approach to war contribution. Flint native, Violet Wierzbicki joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. In the program, women were trained to fly military aircraft while male pilots were overseas. The program was grueling – of the 25,000 who applied, only 1,074 graduated. WASP pilots ferried planes from base to base, tested new planes, towed targets for artillery practice and trained male pilots. Wierzbicki spent her time as a ferry pilot stationed in Romulus, MI.

Women also contributed to the great American pastime. The IMA women’s baseball team played the field at Atwood while the boys were away. Flint’s own Sophie Kurys joined the Racine Belles of the famous All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943. Nicknamed the “Flint Flash,” she racked up more than 1,000 stolen bases in her career and she helped Racine win the championship over the Rockford Peaches by scoring the winning run. That year, Kurys set a record with 201 stolen bases in 203 attempts. She was inducted into the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.

Civil Rights in the city moved forward when in 1942, Lois E. VanZandt became the first black woman hired by the Flint School System and again in 1943, when Marian Coates was hired as the first black classroom teacher.

In 1944, Joseph T. Ryder moved from Toledo to Flint with the job of directing the Flint Youth Bureau, a new program developed by the Mott Foundation. The program’s focus was to provide mentorship to underprivileged boys. It would evolve into the Big Brother/Big Sister program of today.

1945-49: A Renewed Optimism

On August 14, 1945 the city erupted in celebration – the war was over! Residents danced in the streets until the wee hours of the night. Two days later, a crowd of 65,000 lined Saginaw Street for a massive victory parade. Optimism and hope for a better world reigned supreme. For Alfred P. Sloan, GM and its workers, car production resumed and sales skyrocketed.

The cars produced looked familiar to most; in order to compete with increased vehicle demand, GM started where they left off. Each new Chevy or Buick produced in ’46 and ’47 was a slightly re-tooled ’42 model. Car companies at the time had not had a chance to engineer any new designs. GM got a head start (probably due to Knudson being tapped by Roosevelt to lead war production efforts) and was able to get the first “new” vehicle to market – a 1947 Chevy Pickup truck. New cars from all companies flooded the market in 1949.

The city moved along until the Flint River jumped its banks in 1947, creating the worst flood in Flint history. Melting snow and intense spring storms caused the river to rise approximately five feet over flood stage. Downtown was effectively cut in half and the flood caused millions of dollars in damages. The flood directly resulted in the current look of Riverbank Park, as it was designed to help with water runoff.

The flood couldn’t stop the spectacle at Atwood Stadium when Flint’s Blonde Bomber, Jock Leslie, fought Willie Pep for the world featherweight boxing title. Atwood was absolutely packed with a boisterous crowd. The contender, Leslie, entered the fight with a record of 58-9-4. Hailing from Connecticut, his opponent had a record of 114-1-1. The Flint crowd backed their own and when the bell rung, the spectators cheered and encouraged Leslie. The fighters circled each other. It would be a battle of styles – the quick-footed Pep vs. the strength of Leslie. Leslie just needed one good shot, but the unorthodox style of Pep flummoxed him. Pep won every round and, under the watchful eye of referee Clarence Rosen, knocked Leslie out with a thunderous right hook 45 seconds into the round 12. Pep retained the belt. Jock Leslie continued to box professionally, but after his loss to Eddie Compo in 1948, he was never the same. Leslie finished his career with a record of 63-22-5. In 1990, he was inducted into the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman visited Flint during his re-election campaign. A crowd of 10,000 gathered for his parade and speech. Earlier that year, the Flint Arrows, a minor league Detroit Tiger affiliate, had won the Central Baseball League Championship. The Arrows were managed by professional Jack Tighe and produced MLB all-stars, Steve Gromek and Gene Woodling. Other Arrow major leaguers included Red Embree, Frank House, Cliff Mapes, Dick Marlowe and Bubba Phillips. The Arrows were shut down in 1951 after attendance fell to single digits. (It was once recorded that only two fans showed up at one game.)

For plucky Billy Durant, the last half of the 40s was bittersweet. In 1946, he was chosen one of the ten most influential persons in automobile history and named to the National Automobile hall of Fame. It was the final acknowledgement of his genius and fortitude that he would ever receive. In the early days of 1947, Durant passed away at his home in New York. The man who had put the pedal to the metal and drove Flint into glory, finally left the road behind.

As Flint finished the 1940s, the city saw only bright days ahead. The majority of the 50s would grow in culture and education, but something was lurking on the horizon. GM had already begun to slowly leave Flint for the suburbs, pulling much needed revenue from the city coffers and it would take a while for Flint to feel the effects. Most immediate in Flint’s future, a storm of another sort was approaching and Flint would reel from its impact.

Swept Away The Flood of 1947

From April 4-11 1947, a combination of melting snow, moderate-to-intense spring thunderstorms, and increased runoff resulted in Flint’s Saginaw Street being submerged under chilly spring water, splitting Downtown in half. The amount of rain that fell was an average of 2.3 inches, and although this doesn’t seem like much to contribute to the flood, the snowfall in March froze the soil, which limited moisture infiltration in some areas, causing increased runoff. The Flood of 1947 is second in level of damage ($4 million) to the Beecher Tornado of 1953, which necessitated $10 million in repairs, including construction of the Holloway Reservoir, designed to prevent future water disasters.

Other Notable Events Timeline

1942

  •  Floyd Bates, Sr. of Flint plays for the Harlem Globetrotters.

1943

  • The Flint Urban League was founded.

1945

  • The Mott Foundation moves into the unoccupied Industrial Bank Building.

1946

  • The Flint Spokesman began publication.
  • Flint singer Johnny Mungall won the Horace Heidt Talent Show

1947

  • The Flint Concert Band was established by Garrett E. Ebmeyer.

1948

  • The Hard Knocks Bridge Club was started.

1949

  • Temple Beth El was erected on Ballenger Hwy

 


References
Billstein, R., Fings, K., Kugler, A. & Levis, N. (2000). Working for the Enemy. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.
Black, E. (2007). Nazis rode to war on GM wheels. SFGate. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Nazis-rode-to-war-on-GM-wheels-2659006.php
Carroll, W. (2019). How Gm’s divisions tackled the war effort. Military.com. Retrieved from https://www.military.com/veteran-jobs/career-advice/military-transition/how-gm-divisions-tackled-war-effort.html
Gordon, J. (2013). Flint native Sophie Kurys remembered..Mlive.com. Retrieved from https://www.mlive.com/sports/flint/2013/02/flint_native_sophie_kurys_reme.html
Motavalli, J. (2015). Meet the man who founded general motors. MNN.com. Retrieved from https://www.mnn.com/green-tech/transportation/blogs/meet-the-man-who-founded-general-motors-and-wound-up-running-a
The Flint Club. (2006). Timeline of Flint. Flinthistory.com. Retrieved from: archive.li/jzTLw
Thorne, B. (2014). From horsepower to firepower. Mlive.com. Retrieved from https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2014/09/from_horsepower_to_firepower_h.html
Turner, H. A. (2005). General Motors and the Nazis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
US Army. (2019). Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Women in the Army. Retrieved from https://www.army.mil/women/history/pilots.html

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