Before Hartsfield-Jackson, building bombers transformed the metro area’s economy
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
By Jamil Zainaldin
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, thereby entering 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.
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.
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 33 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.
An earlier version of this column appeared previously under “Jamil’s Georgia.”
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.