Georgia's remarkable economic progress in the late twentieth century started with the influx of federal dollars for welfare and defense in the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential era (1933-45). Marietta from the small seat of rural Cobb County to one of the main industrial centers of the Sunbelt. After assembly lines began functioning in the spring of 1943, Bell employees supplied the U.S. Army Air Forces with 663 Boeing-designed B-29s, the first of which were delivered before the end of the year. The government-owned plant closed immediately after the end of World War II (1941-45) and sat idle until 1951, when it became home to Lockheed-Georgia (later Lockheed Martin). The Bell-trained managers and laborers proved that southerners were capable of sophisticated and meticulous industrial work. With their recently developed skills, they had little trouble finding postwar employment, and they epitomized the New Southerners who brought Georgia into the national mainstream in the mid-twentieth century.
The decision to place Bell Bomber in Marietta was the result of fortuitous circumstances and a generation of dynamic local leaders determined to bring their community out of the Great Depression. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Roosevelt airport (Candler Field), Atlanta seemed a likely spot for defense industries. Less than twenty miles from downtown Atlanta, Marietta was connected by streetcar, by the Dixie Highway, and by the state's first four-lane highway, U.S. 41, then under construction. Moreover, Cobb County in 1941 was building a modern airport, Rickenbacker Field (later Marietta Army Air Field), named for World War I (1917-18) flying ace and Eastern Air Lines president Eddie Rickenbacker, who agreed to route some Eastern flights into Marietta. Thus the north Georgia city seemed well positioned to play a vital role in the nation's expanding military-industrial complex.
Based in Buffalo, New York, the Bell Aircraft Corporation had only about 1,000 employees when the United States entered World War II. Founded by Lawrence D. Bell in 1935, the company had recently won a military contract for the single-engine P-39 Airacobra pursuit plane. About two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Bell
Local boosters and a native general played key roles in persuading the U.S. Army to choose Cobb County over other potential sites in the Atlanta area. General Lucius D. Clay was the son of Alexander Stephens Clay of Marietta, a U.S. senator from 1897 to 1910. In September 1940 President Roosevelt tapped General Clay to head an emergency airport-construction program, under the Civil Aeronautics Administration, to prepare the country for war. Over the next fifteen months Clay helped initiate the construction of some 450 airstrips, including Rickenbacker Field in Marietta.
Envisioned locally as a commercial airport, Rickenbacker Field clearly had military potential. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Cobb County officials began lobbying for the Bell plant. By that time Clay had become the director of materiel for the U.S. War Department, with considerable influence over military contracts. His recommendation of Marietta helped clinch the deal, and on February 19, 1942, the War Department announced that Marietta had been selected.
By the war's end, the War Department had put $73 million into the plant, which was originally estimated as a $15 million project. In May 1943 the Army Air Corps accepted title to Rickenbacker Field and converted it into an installation that would be named Dobbins Air Force Base (later Dobbins Air Reserve Base) in 1950 to honor Captain Charles M. Dobbins, a Mariettan whose plane was shot down near Sicily during the war. Atlanta-based Robert and Company designed and managed the construction of the aircraft plant. The main B-1 assembly building covered more than 3.2 million square feet and took thirteen months to finish. Including the B-2 administration building and various other structures, the total project encompassed almost 4.2 million square feet, making it the largest business facility ever constructed in the Deep South.
In its brief history the plant had four general managers. The first three, Captain Harry E. Collins, Omer Woodson, and Carl Cover, James V. Carmichael, a lawyer and politician with no background in airplane manufacturing, served as the company attorney and became general manager in late 1944, after his predecessor was killed in a plane crash. Despite his lack of an engineering background, Carmichael mastered technical language and details quickly. By surrounding himself with competent assistants, he managed to keep the assembly lines producing on schedule and with no crashes in testing or delivering planes to the military.
Bell Bomber reached its peak employment of 28,158 workers in February 1945. About nine in ten employees were southerners, segregated. Yet Bell's record was no worse than other southern industries of that era, and its pay scale was substantially higher.
By mid-1945 the plant began scaling back production and workers in preparation for the end of the war. Shortly after the Japanese surrendered, the government canceled the B-29 contract. By the end of September the Georgia Division was down to a few thousand workers.
The local economy slowed slightly after the plant closed, but Marietta avoided serious unemployment, and the percentage of occupied houses and apartments remained high. The government used the massive B-1 building to store abandoned machine tools,
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