How Georgia armed the nation

By Jamil Zainaldin

A B-29 flies over the Marietta Bell Bomber plant. Kennesaw Mountain is visible in the background.

When we think of Cobb County today, a variety of impressions come to mind. Historically, its development is inseparable from the state’s as a whole. Yet we may not, however, associate Cobb County with a leading role in nuclear weapons delivery and cold war.

This story begins with the B-29 Superfortress.

Even before the United States declared war on Japan in 1941, and entered World War II, the Boeing Aircraft Company had begun designing a bomber that could meet the challenging requirements of a Pacific war. The Army Air Forces needed a plane that could fly fast at high altitudes and long distances and deliver a large payload. The extraordinary Boeing B-29 provided the solution.

In 1941 the Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, won a War Department contract to build the new Boeing bomber. Under Washington’s direction, the plane was to be built at the site of Rickenbacker Field in Marietta, Georgia, which had already been laid out as a commercial airport as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s war-preparedness program. The army built a massive assembly hangar on the site, changing the name of the airstrip to Marietta Army Air Field (today known as Dobbins Air Reserve Base).

The main “Bell Bomber” assembly plant (as it was called by locals) covered 3.2 million feet of workspace, and at its wartime peak employed more than 28,000 men and women. About 8 percent of the employees were African Americans who worked in segregated facilities.

“Bell’s record was no worse than other southern industries of that era,” wrote historian and New Georgia Encyclopedia author Thomas A. Scott, “and its pay scale was substantially higher.”

History remembers two 1945 B-29 missions above all others, Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, each of which dropped an atomic bomb. Amid the devastation and nuclear fallout, the A-bomb brought the war against Japan to rapid conclusion, marking the dawn of a new era in human history as well as locally at the Marietta plant. Operations at the plant ceased.

The Boeing B-29 “Superfortress,” first test-flown in 1943, was the most advanced heavy bomber of World War II.

As one war ended, the military steeled itself for the next, this one containing a “nuclear option.” With East-West tensions worsening, the war of ideologies expanded to include an arms race, one with its own unique (and at times, bizarre) strategies. The most notorious was that of “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD. Deterrence was only possible, so the logic went, where there was a commitment to a firm and speedy nuclear response to an opponent’s doomsday strike. Foreign policy went by the new name of “brinkmanship.”

In 1951 the Defense Department called the Marietta plant back into service, this time contracting with Lockheed-Georgia,  the local manifestation of the Lockheed Corporation of Burbank, California, to build another Boeing product, the B-47. This new design, known as the “Stratojet,” was another aeronautical and engineering wonder: the world’s first swept-wing, all-weather jet bomber that could outrun and out climb all hostile combatants.

The U.S. Air Force’s newly created Strategic Air Command (SAC) became the front line of the nation’s defense. Its primary weapon was the B-47, whose sole purpose was its ability to penetrate Soviet Union airspace and deliver the A-bomb.

The B-47’s ability to fulfill that mission was unquestioned. The plane, along with its crew, became a symbol of the nation’s “cold war warriors” who manned lonely outposts in the skies. Flying the B-47 was no piece of cake either: crashes were one of the risks of flying this temperamental racehorse.

Lockheed’s Marietta plant delivered more than  386 new B-47s to the Air Force—and they did keep the skies friendly while they served.

Pilot with B-47

Pilot with B-47

Georgia’s affair with the B-47 did not end there. In 1950 the Defense Department  recommissioned Hunter Army Airfield, not far from Savannah, as a military installation where two SAC bombardment wings operated new B-47’s. Georgia made some unwanted “nuclear news” in 1958, when a B-47 jettisoned its atomic weapon near Tybee Island following a midair collision. The air force deemed the bomb of no risk, declaring that it was unarmed. Searchers never located the device.

The long history of Cobb County’s Marietta plant has left an imprint on the city, the state, and the world. Lockheed continues to operate the plant today, building transports and next-generation fighters for the air force.

But it has something else to its credit not connected to the skies. Long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally required it to do so, Lockheed’s Marietta plant began taking steps to hire, train, and integrate its workforce. New Georgia Encyclopedia author Tom Scott believes this action was “significant in breaking down the Jim Crow culture of the southern workplace.” President John F. Kennedy called it “a milestone in the history of civil rights.”

A confession: my father was a cold war warrior who served in the air force as an intelligence specialist for thirty-three years. In 1961-64 the air force assigned him to a B-47 wing in Idaho, whose planes perhaps the Marietta plant built. He never talked with anyone about what he did, security after all being his business. As a World War II vet who “stayed on,” serving his country was an act of gratitude and pride.

We live in a different world today. It is no less dangerous. It is far removed from the Georgia of World War II and from the fallout shelters and under-the-school-desk drills that kids growing up in the 1950s may recall. If you know a World War II vet or cold warrior, or anyone associated with one of the Marietta plant buildings, extend a hand, and give thanks for their service. We owe them.

Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

2 replies
  1. LauraThomsonMcCarty says:

    Thanks for this story. It would be interesting to track the employees of Bell to Lockheed in terms of whether they were Georgians or immigrants from other parts of the US.  I have read some things about immigrant northerners and Midwesterners in terms of the rise of the Republican Party in SC and FL–but maybe that’s a sunbelt phenomenon rather than a WWII one.Report

    Reply

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