The Plane That Won A War And Polluted A River
This is a condensed version of a story originally published Sept. 29, 2015. Read the complete story here.
There's an old photograph in my father’s office that I’ve always wondered about. In it my grandfather and nine other young airmen stand in front of their B-17 plane, shoulders squared, smiling for the camera. They were probably in England at the time, getting ready to fly bombing raids over Germany in 1943.
The plane sits elegantly on the tarmac behind them. On its nose are seven swastikas, neatly painted in red. One for each Nazi plane they shot down.
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The B-17 has been called the plane that won World War II. Thousands of these “flying fortresses” blackened European skies during the war. And thousands of young men risked their lives in these planes, dropping bombs that obliterated whole towns in Nazi-controlled Europe.
The story of the B-17 has its roots here in the Northwest. Mass-producing the B-17 changed the city’s economy, racial makeup and its environment. The repercussions of that airplane boom can still be felt today.
My grandfather didn’t talk much about the war, but he did talk about his plane, Ready Teddy. Of the 210 men in my grandfather’s bombardment group, only 15 survived their tour of duty.
Roughly one third of the nearly 13,000 B-17s that were built for World War II were lost in combat.
My dad said he only saw his father cry once. It was years after the war and a family friend had come over with a projector and some film he’d shot of a B-17 as it came in for a landing at a museum air show.
“I could see my father tearing up, watching this plane. It’s a beautiful plane,” my father said.
Gramps kept in touch with some of his crew members over the years, but after the war my dad said his father never saw Ready Teddy again.
“I don’t know what happened to his plane, whether it was mothballed or eventually crashed, he lost touch with it,” my dad said.
I went to the Museum of Flight in Seattle to visit John Little, a historian there, hoping to track down Ready Teddy. Little pulled down a big book filled with columns of B-17 airplanes – their names and identification numbers in neat rows like in a phone book.
“They were based at Alconbury, England, arriving on the 25th of April 1943,” Little read.
And then what happened? I asked.
“The aircraft went missing in action over Ludwigshafen, Germany, on the 30th of January, 1944 … mid-air collision,” he said.
The hairs on my neck rose. That was just one month after gramps came home.
“The aircraft crashed near Braunschweig, Germany, with six killed in action, four prisoners of war,” Little continued. Then he closed the book.
Ready Teddy was one of almost 7,000 B-17s that were built during the war years at Boeing’s Plant 2 on the Duwamish River. It was an incredible facility – four assembly lines going at once churning out up to 15 B-17s per day. Acres of thrumming machinery, crowds of workers and smokestacks lining the river bank.
Seattle’s economy was driven mostly by salmon and timber until the war, which triggered an industrial boom in the city. Companies sprouted up to supply parts and services to aid in mass airplane construction. In fact, Little said, the economic health of the region was measured in the number of smokestacks on the Duwamish River.
“It was the annual smokestack census. The more smokestacks the healthier the region was,” Little said.
And of course, census-takers of the day took note of the number of workers bringing home paychecks while producing all those B-17s. Boeing’s Plant 2 employed 30,000 people. Nearly half were women, and many were black.
“These are the Rosie the Riveters that we don’t really talk very much about,” said University of Washington professor Quintard Taylor, a leading expert on African-American history in the West. “These are the women, and women like them, who helped to win the war.”
Seventy-five years after America’s entrance into World War II, the B-17 remains a powerful symbol of Seattle’s contribution to the war and its transformation as a city.
But there was a cost that no one could have foreseen.
Today the Duwamish River is so polluted that the resident fish are too contaminated to eat. The river was sacrificed for the growth of Seattle.
Shawn Blocker stands on the banks of the Duwamish River, looking across the water at the site where Boeing Plant 2 once stood. The plant was demolished in 2010.
Newly-planted shrubs and grasses dot the waterfront, making it hard to picture a massive airplane production facility here. But Blocker, who leads the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund clean-up efforts at this site, said the evidence was in the layers of muck at the bottom of the river.
“This stretch is the most contaminated stretch of the Duwamish,” Blocker said. He pulled out an image that shows the layers of sediment, going down 24 feet, each layer offering a snapshot in time of the levels of toxic chemicals known as PCBs as they accumulated in the river over the years, not unlike the way tree rings chart annual growth.
“That’s actually every two feet as you go down in the mud,” Blocker said.
As his hand traced down the layers, his finger paused to hover over red hot spots of contamination. “There was a storm drain there, a storm drain there, a storm drain there,” he said, sliding his finger along the bank of the river in the image, each red spot lining up with the former site of an outfall from the plant.
“You can literally see where this stuff comes out and where it was going.”
As workers made the metal airplane parts, Blocker explained, the pieces would get dirty, covered in lubricants and greases. When they finished, the parts had to be dipped in swimming-pool sized concrete tanks of solvents, called dip tanks, to clean each part before assembly. Over the years the tanks leaked metals, PCBs and solvents into the river.
“You probably saw this discharge occurring from the ‘40s to the ‘90s,” Blocker said.
PCBs were also heavily used as coolants in transformers and as plasticizers in the caulk at the facility. The caulk eventually dried out and flaked off into the river. One former Boeing worker told me that when they made mistakes machining parts, some people would throw them out the window to hide them from their supervisors. You could see the malformed pieces of metal at low tide.
At the time, The Boeing Company wasn’t breaking any laws. It would be 30 years before the Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act were created. Top priority during the war years was beating the Nazis and other Axis powers.
“You had a choice,” Blocker said. “You could worry about being environmentally friendly, which didn’t exist then, because that’s what everybody did. Or am I going to build a bomber to help win a war?”
The plant is gone now and over the past few years Boeing has removed more than 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated material from the site, replacing it with clean soil and new trees and shrubs. The PCB hot spots Blocker pointed out have now been removed and Boeing’s work at the site is almost finished.
Boeing has been criticized by tribes, public health experts and environmentalists for pressuring the state to maintain less stringent water-quality standards, but on this specific clean up, Blocker said the company has worked hard to restore the polluted area.
“From my perspective, they’ve done a very good job on that,” he said. “For this little, small bit of the Boeing picture, they’ve done a good job.”
Blocker’s grandfather also flew in a B-17. His grandpa was a tailgunner, mine was a radioman. Blocker said he’s proud of his grandfather’s service and doesn’t mind cleaning up the mess our grandfathers’ generation left behind in the rush to win the war.
“It felt good to clean this facility up because it was crucial to World War II, crucial to my grandfather, because that’s what he did,” Blocker said. “I get the other end of it. I get to clean up what got started during his era.”
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