World War II-era defense plants in Missouri still rev up economy

Friday, December 10, 2010 | 1:27 p.m. CST

INDEPENDENCE — Nearly 70 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor jolted the United States into war, thousands of Kansas City workers still report for duty at two defense plants built for World War II.

In some ways, things haven't changed much at the sprawling Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, off Missouri 7 in rural Independence, since the U.S. Pacific fleet was caught off guard on Dec. 7, 1941. About 2,800 employees, some still using original 1940s machinery, continue to crank out small-caliber ammunition for the military.

On the other hand, looks are deceptive at the massive plant built in 1943 on Bannister Road for Pratt & Whitney warplane engines.

The buildings are much the same on the outside, but the Bannister complex has evolved to become the place where 85 percent of the non-nuclear parts in America's nuclear arsenal are produced by 2,100 Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies workers.

The postwar transformation was so secretive during the early years that most Kansas Citians believed washing machines were made there, thanks to a government-imposed cover story for the plant.

Together with two other local World War II defense plants now gone — the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in rural Johnson County and the North American Aviation B-25 bomber plant in the Fairfax district of Kansas City, Kan. — the facilities employed 78,500 people at their wartime peak.

The strategic decisions to build those major defense plants in Kansas City, a move pushed hard in Washington by local civic leaders during the run-up to war, revolutionized the area economy, according to local historian Bill Worley.

"One of the things that are important to realize is the extent World War II just transformed Kansas City's industrial output," he said. "It was planned by city leaders when it became clear in 1939 there was going to be a war and we were going to be in it."

Developer J.C. Nichols along with Robert Mehornay, a furniture company owner, and Louis Holland, an aviation advocate, traveled frequently to Washington as part of a Chamber of Commerce effort to recruit defense plants to the heartland, far from potential enemy attack.

Their effort struck paydirt when the federal government decided to build the Lake City plant in rural eastern Jackson County. Then-senator Harry Truman participated in the December 1940 groundbreaking, and the first of what now totals billions of rounds of ammunition began flowing the following October.

"Bullets Are Sprouting on Lake City Farm Lands," touted an Oct. 5, 1941, headline in The Kansas City Star.

It was followed by the Fairfax plant, which rolled out what was to be the first of 6,600 B-25 Mitchell bombers less than three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.

In early 1943, the Sunflower plant began supplying the burgeoning Allied war effort with explosive propellants for artillery shells. Later that year, Pratt & Whitney began manufacturing R-2800 engines for fighters and bombers.

Maurice Smith, a retired nuclear weapons engineer, remembers growing up in his hilltop house overlooking the 3 million-square-foot Pratt & Whitney plant as it was being built on a former car racing track.

As a boy, he toured the defense plant at an open house event during the war. As an adult, he worked there from 1962 to 2005.

"What was most remarkable to me when I toured the place was it was like an enormous warehouse," he said. "These enormous airplane engines were on trolleys being pushed on tracks, and the workers would put in the 18 cylinders, one at a time."

As each cylinder was bolted into place on the 2,000-horsepower engines, the workers would raise their hands and a manager observing from a platform 30 feet above the shop floor would check off his list, Smith recalled. The engine would then be shoved 20 feet to the next work station.

The plant produced 8,000 engines for warplanes that helped win World War II, including the Navy Corsair and the Army Thunderbolt. But the work ended abruptly after the Japanese surrender, and the plant closed in September 1945.

For several years, Smith said, much of the Bannister facility was used to store surplus goods. The Internal Revenue Service moved into part of the complex in 1947.

Then in 1949, the Bannister plant was leased to a division of Westinghouse Electric Corp. and the old warhorse returned to military duty. Westinghouse used it to produce jet engines for fighter aircraft and subleased part of it to Bendix Aviation Corp.

Bendix began the work that continues to this day, the manufacture of parts for nuclear weapons. It was, and remains, a high-security and secretive operation.

"At the time, Bendix told everybody they were making washing machines there," Smith said. "I believed that's what they made until I applied there."

In 1962, freshly graduated from the University of Chicago with a chemistry degree, Smith applied for a job at the plant. When the interviewer learned he was familiar with radioactive materials, he was a shoo-in.

It was only after he went through an extensive background check by the FBI and was hired that Smith learned the real mission of the Bannister plant.

"Finally they told us what we were doing and we were all surprised," he said. "We were pleased and proud to be here. At the time, nuclear weapons were an honorable business.

"There were a lot of people there who were Korean and World War II veterans. As far as those guys were concerned, they were warriors just as they were before."

In its heyday, the Bannister plant felt like being in a small town, Smith said, with the same kind of gossip, rivalries and friendships.

"We were all isolated there because we couldn't talk with anyone about what we did outside the plant for the first five or 10 years I was there," he said.

Employment peaked around 8,000 workers in the 1980s, and currently there are 2,500 workers there. The plant is currently operated by Honeywell, a descendant of Bendix, for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Despite the dwindling employment, the Honeywell plant remains the area's third-largest industrial employer, after the Ford Claycomo and General Motors Fairfax automobile plants. And its $211 million annual payroll is a hefty contribution to the local economy.

The Bannister plant is slated to be replaced in 2014. A new 1.5 million-square-foot campus is under construction about eight miles south of the current plant at Missouri 150 and Botts Road. Work began in September on the billion-dollar replacement project, and construction is expected to be complete in November 2012.

It will take an additional 18 months to complete the move. Then it will be up to the federal government to find a new use for the Bannister facility.

No such change is in the works for the Lake City plant, a collection of 400 brick buildings, many of them now vacant, scattered over 4,000 acres of pastureland.

Most of the manufacturing activity is concentrated in a 400,000-square-foot building that, except for some updated equipment, looks much the same as it did in 1941. Now the Army's only plant for small-caliber ammo — 5.56 mm, 7.62 mm and .50-caliber — the Lake City plant, working three shifts, produces 4 million to 5 million cartridges daily.

It's operated under a contract with the Army by Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis. The plant has a total annual payroll of $137.5 million.

"This plant does have a lot of history, and we're still functioning and we still have a mission," said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Keough, the plant commander.

The plant has experienced a significant spike in production since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Keough said the same kind of national emergency that propelled Lake City's importance 70 years ago has been behind its recent resurgence.

"I equate Pearl Harbor to 9/11," she said. "The day of infamy was the same feeling we had on 9/11. Our work force is one of the most patriotic in the country, and the role of supporting the warrior is key. I don't see that going away."

Mark Hissong, a vice president at ATK Small Caliber Systems, the Alliant subsidiary in charge, is the general manager of Lake City. Despite its quick construction — the entire complex went up in nine months — the buildings of brick, concrete and steel have held up well over time, he said.

"There's no doubt it gives off the appearance of a building that's been around for 70 years," he said. "I don't know if we'll ever lose the 1940 look, even with the state-of-the-art new equipment we're installing."

Bill Melton, a consultant who has worked at the plant since 1975, said going through parts of it is like "walking back in time."

"I have to credit the construction craftsmen and contractors of that era," he said. "They did a good job."

Working conditions also haven't changed much. The noise from some of the machinery requires most workers to wear earplugs or headphones. And because of its huge size, it would be extraordinarily expensive to keep the plant cool during the summertime.

The only ventilation on the upper floor, where the furnaces used to soften brass are situated, is limited to open windows and fans, and temperatures can reach 140 degrees.

"The Army vice chief of staff toured last summer during one of the hottest and most humid days, and we're looking at what we can do to improve the employment work environment," Melton said.

Despite those conditions, the plant still attracts workers.

"People here are patriotic," Melton said, "and there also aren't the good factory jobs out there anymore. I guess people will endure uncomfortable conditions more."

The U.S. Department of Defense does periodic reviews of the facility. Except for some smaller upgrades such as a planned new emergency services center, the Pentagon doesn't see any need to replace the major buildings.

"The fact the government has put nearly $300 million in new equipment in the facility and continuing upgrades says they feel the investment will be sound for many years," Hissong said.

"It's the only small-caliber facility in the U.S. arsenal. Unless we start shooting lasers tomorrow, we'll need small-caliber ammunition for the future."

Worley said the longevity of the two Kansas City defense plants reflects how World War II changed America's role in global affairs.

"What it boils down to is the reality that since World War II, the U.S. has been engaged in the rest of the world, and that includes military needs for these products," he said.

"These two facilities have lasted longer than anyone thought they would, especially those people who got them built here in the first place."

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