JCHA NEWSLETTER –APRIL 2012

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Remembering Bechtel-McCone World War II in Birmingham

—By Thomas M. West, Jr.


Bechtel-McCone plant

The huge Bechtel-McCone plant in Birmingham became famous for fitting out B-24s, B-29s, P-38s, and A-20s and
refurbishing army jeeps. It was a high security military facility during World War II (Birmingham History Center photo).


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f there are any ghosts from World War II lurking around Birmingham, they must be at the vast industrial complex remaining until this day at Birmingham’s airport. At its zenith, 14,000 men and women worked there. Today this fabled place is all but vacant.

During World War II, American aircraft plants turned out airplanes of cookie cutter configuration and to change each one to a specific need, they were flown to places like Birmingham where they were modified to the particular use needed.

Ground was broken January 15, 1943 and J. Perry Yates was general manager. The official name was the "Birmingham Modification Center" or "Bechtel-McCone-Parsons" but locals just called it "Bechtel-McCone."

What Bechtel-McCone did was modify B-24 Liberators, B-29 Super Fortresses, P-38 Lightnings and A-20 Havocs. A little known effort was the 600 people with “only moderate levels of skill” who restored battle-fatigued jeeps.

The first modified airplane was a huge 4-engine B-24 heavy bomber, christened "Vulcan of Birmingham", on March 18, 1943.

Bing Crosby came to Birmingham and visited the Bechtel-McCone plant on June 1, 1943. On hand that day were company owners Ralph M. Parsons and John A. McCone as well as Lewis F. Jeffers, who was chairman of the Jefferson County War Bond Drive and also Bechtel-McCone’s manager of public relations.

On August 1, 1944, the world’s most modern "super fortress" first arrived to be modified. By the war’s end, Birmingham had proudly modified 49% of all Boeing B-29s in production. The two B-29s that dropped "Little Man" and "Fat Boy"(atomic bombs) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the "Enola Gay" and "Bock’s Car" were not modified here.

Bechtel McCone’s house organ was entitled "Wings of Birmingham" and many copies are still on hand at the Southern History Department of the Birmingham Public Library. In the September 1, 1944 issue is a story about one of Bechtel-McCone’s top engineers, a man by the name of E. M. Rase. Besides his engineering skills, Rase was the father of Betty Jane Rose, Miss Alabama for 1944 who became the second wife (after Ava Gardner) of Mickey Rooney.

As mentioned in an earlier story, Mickey and Betty Jane’s two children, Timmy and Mickey, Jr., were both born right here in Birmingham where their wedding had also taken place. Betty Jane worked in the summer of 1943 in Bechtel-McCone’s Blueprint Control Department.

Among the 14,000 employees, 40% were women, often referred to as "Rosie the Riveters". Rumor has it that little people (midgets) were hired for their special ability to crawl into tight spaces. One condition of working at Bechtel was that the man became draft exempt. Almost everyone probably knew someone working there. There were two on my short street.

Eyewitnesses that I have interviewed told of a Birmingham sky constantly filled with the war planes being flown in, often by female ferry pilots, being test flown after modification and then flown off to war. What a unique sight the skies of our city must have been!

After the war, Lewis Jeffers took over the plant as Hayes Aircraft. After a change in ownership it became known as Pemco Aeroplex and finally Alabama Aircraft Industries, currently in Chapter 11 reorganization.

Rosie Riveter girls

Manpower was so scarce during World War II that women
stepped into even the grittier jobs, such as welding.

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2012 JCHA MEMBERSHIP / RENEWAL FORMCLICK TO OPEN FORM


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Jefferson County Historical Association Books



historic birmingham & jefferson county

Historic Birmingham
and Jefferson County
By James R. Bennett
$45 (member discount)

Elyton Land Company Minute Books

Elyton Land Company
Minute Books, 1871-1895
Edited by Thomas M. West, Jr.
$35

History of Jefferson County Before 1850

History of Jefferson County
Before 1850
By Will F. Franke
$33

 


About JCHA Publications

The Jefferson County Historical Association offers several books that offer a fresh insight into the rich history of Birmingham and Jefferson County Alabama. They tell the fascinating story of the people and industries that made Jefferson County and Alabama the industrial center of the South.

From first-hand accounts to thoroughly researched narratives, The JCHA publishes books that bring forth rich episodes of Jefferson Counties history in a readable style that engages both scholarly and general audiences.

Ordering JCHA Books

These JCHA books can be purchased at meetings of the Jefferson County Historical Association or ordered by mail.

Click the link below to print or save a book order form. PDF format.

Book Order Form

You may also order by sending your check or money order to the following address along with $5.00 for shipping and taxes (please add $2.00 for each additional book):

The Jefferson County Historical Association
PO Box 130285
Birmingham, AL 35213-0285

Please indicate book title and quantity when ordering.

 

Other Source Publications co-sponsored by the JCHA:

  • Tannehill and the Growth of the Alabama Iron Industry — James R. Bennett, Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, 1999, available at www.tannehill.org, $45.
  • The Valley and the Hills, an Illustrated History of Birmingham and Jefferson County — Leah Rawls Atkins, Windsor Publications, 1981, available at the Birmingham Public Library Southern History Department, http://www.birminghamarchives.org/ArchivesStore.htm, $30
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