- SPECIAL REPORTS
- THE MAGAZINE
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1944A large hole had been blasted through a wall in the basement, or at least that was the gossip among the workers in the plant. And though the extent of the damage varied each time the story was retold, the shop workers all seemed to agree on one thing--someone was going to catch hell.
In response to that threat, 35-year-old Bud Aikman strode hurriedly along one of the aisles in the factory known as "AC." Preoccupied with his own thoughts, he barely noticed the din of the machinery on either side. He didn't notice at all the outer wall of the plant with its thousands of steel-framed windows. He was oblivious to the traffic on Dort Highway just beyond the glass.
It wasn't clear to him just what had gone wrong with the firing test. There were two possibilities, he reasoned; either the recovery structure had failed to stop the rounds or the weapon itself hadn't been securely fastened down.
Luckily, no one had been injured. Nonetheless, he knew an investigation was mandatory and that a lengthy report would be filed in triplicate with an assortment of government agencies, not the least of which was the War Production Board.
No doubt he would assist in writing this report. As one of the "product engineers" for the Browning M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, his job was to keep "Ma Deuce" rolling off the line with as few interruptions as possible.
And roll she did, he often thought with pride, the threat of catching hell notwithstanding.
The talk among his colleagues was that AC Spark Plug Division would be GM's biggest producer of the weapon; two million units were to be built by the war's end. Bud, however, preferred not to speculate. He knew for sure only the past and the present, and he reflected on both as he made his way through the factory toward the nearest basement stairwell.
The effects of the Depression had lingered on for a decade, but his layoff from Buick had proved to be a temporary setback only. After three years with the insurance division of GMAC he had advanced to the position of regional adjuster.
It was during this time that he met his future wife, Hazel Gould. Her father, Ora, was the former head of construction and maintenance for the Flint water department, and in 1916 he had started his own engineering practice. His timing was fortuitous and he prospered.
Bud had heard the stories of the old days many times over and knew them by heart. The post-World War I success of the automakers led to a housing boom that lasted more than a decade. New plats were being surveyed, mapped and recorded at an astonishing rate. During a four-month span in 1922, more than 3,000 residential lots had been platted in just one small part of the city alone. And there were similar developments in every corner of the city that held a factory.
To accommodate all this work, by 1929 there were nine separate engineering firms listed in Flint's business directories. His firm being one of the nine, Ora had an office downtown in the fashionable Dryden Building. Three of his peers were located in the same block; two others were within walking distance a few blocks away.
But in the aftermath of the collapse of Wall Street the list of practitioners began to thin itself through attrition. In the six years that followed the crash, seven of the nine closed their doors. In that same period Ora recorded only nine plats and was forced to move his practice back into his home.
Undaunted, his response was to acquire a son-in-law, a boarder and an employee. In 1936 Bud and Hazel were married, the newlyweds moved in with the bride's parents, and the groom went to work for his father-in-law.
Once again, Ora's timing was favorable; economic initiatives from the Roosevelt administration were just beginning to take effect. The previous year a broad program of public works spending had been enacted making loans available to improve local infrastructure and other public facilities. This work was administered by the Works Project Administration (WPA). Under WPA authority Ora's firm designed the first public water systems for the city of Grand Blanc, Burton Township and the Beecher Metropolitan District.
However, private sector work continued to languish. By 1939 Ora had recorded only one plat in the preceding three years. At the time, Bud now recalled, he wondered if his career change hadn't been a mistake. World events would soon remove these doubts and improve the nation's economy.
With the outbreak of war in Europe, American industrial effort shifted to the production of war materials and arms. Soon plant conversions were underway and early in 1940 Chevrolet received its first contract to manufacture armament - high explosive shells. Buick was slated to build aircraft engine parts and the Hellcat Tank Destroyer.
In other instances, the government had built entire factories from scratch. Late in 1941 Ora's firm had made surveys for one such plant for the Fisher Body Division of GM. In its first year of operation, the Grand Blanc Tank Plant turned out 1,500 big Sherman tanks.
In contrast, a large part of AC's contribution was its normal output of automotive products. This fact was underscored as Bud moved through the factory from one product area into another.
But AC also produced weaponry. This included "Ma Deuce" in its three major forms; the heavier naval version, the mid-weight infantry model, and the lightweight variant for use in aircraft.
Bud paused briefly at an intersecting aisle crowded with workers moving past. Each day there seemed to be more of them, he thought to himself as he darted through an opening and continued on his way. He was amazed that new workers could still be found after three years of war, especially men.
Peacetime conscription had begun in 1940 with men from eighteen to thirty-six at risk. Some, however, were exempt from the draft; farmers, men with family hardships, employees in essential industries, and key defense plant workers. The latter would serve on a different kind of front because even though World War II required the raising of an army, it was also a war of precision tools and manufacturing.
Key workers were needed to supervise production. The day to day experience gained on the battlefield dictated almost constant modification to all types of military equipment. As a result the production line was a somewhat chaotic arena in a perpetual state of flux.
Key workers were also needed in the area of design. Many of the machines necessary to make military parts had no peacetime counterpart. Engineers with the requisite design skills were in short supply, and those with prior manufacturing experience were an even rarer commodity.
So, in 1942 Bud joined the war effort. He would serve his country on the home front, building machine guns at AC.
At the same time he would have to help Ora with the engineering work. Their workload was diminished; since the start of the war they had recorded only ten plats. But the reduction in volume was countered by new difficulties in actually performing the work. Wartime surveying presented unique logistical problems.
The last day for peacetime production had been early in 1942 and soon after various consumer items were placed on the rationed list. Effective in mid-May, gasoline became one of those items with most drivers limited to a mere three gallons per week. Literally overnight it became impossible to make surveys in the out-county without conserving gasoline for weeks in advance.
Government decree had also halted the manufacture of virtually everything that contained metal, at least for civilian use. As a result, worn or lost metal items could not be replaced. This was evidenced by their set of eleven chaining pins, now reduced to eight, the missing ones having been lost on previous surveys. A brass plumb bob was also missing in action. As for steel tapes, they no longer possessed a single one that hadn't been patched several times with solder sleeves and rivets.
The actual setting of corners was also problematic. By 1944 it was nearly impossible to get iron pipe so their surveys of late were marked with simple wood hubs. These, of course, would rot and deteriorate and finally disappear within a few years due to contact with wet ground.
As a surveyor, this impermanence troubled him. He would be glad when the war was over so that the availability of metal would cease to be such a major civilian problem.
Until then he had military problems to deal with and the one at hand returned to the forefront of his thoughts as he reached the stairwell to the basement. In descending the steps the noise of the presses and drills and grinders subsided, and in the relative quiet that remained the faint smell of expended gunpowder hung in the air. Finally, in turning the corner of a narrow aisle he arrived at the firing range and quickly assessed the damage.
He had to agree with the workers on the line--someone was going to catch hell.
(Author's note: One of those workers was a young "war momma," Doris Richards, who built aircraft machine guns at AC while her husband served in the Army.)