At the outset of World War II, Evansville was at a tipping point. As the country’s manufacturers transitioned to supporting the war effort, the city mobilized industry in an unprecedented way, becoming a nationwide leader in the production of landing ship tanks (LSTs), P-47 aircraft, and ammunition.
“There was a very deliberate and targeted campaign by city, business, political, and union leaders to make sure the city of Evansville didn’t get left behind when the war orders started rolling in,” says Dr. James MacLeod, University of Evansville history department chair and author of Evansville in World War II.
The city’s inland location and easy access to rail and river transportation routes made it an ideal hub for manufacturing. Thousands moved to the city, swelling the industrial pre-war workforce from 18,000 to over 80,000 by 1944.
While multiple Evansville factories did their part, the city’s 45-acre shipyard was its biggest employer, primarily building LSTs, amphibious vessels that transported troops and equipment to beaches for invasion. At its peak in 1944, the shipyard produced roughly one ship every four days, completing 167 LSTs by the war’s end. Today, only a crane and a marker remain to note the shipyard’s location. However, the restored LST 325, used in the D-Day invasion, is moored on the nearby Ohio River as a floating museum representing the kind of ships built in Evansville.
In 1942, demand for fighter airplanes prompted construction of Republic Aviation on U.S. 41 North near the local airport. Distinguished by rows of blue glass windows, the factory featured an open interior with long bays for assembly-line operations, and two hangers where workers modified and finished airplanes. The plant emerged as a leader in creating P-47 Thunderbolts, assembling 6,670 aircraft, half of the country’s Thunderbolts. It became one of the nation’s largest wartime airplane manufacturing facilities, prompting a visit from President Roosevelt in 1943. The plant was repurposed after the war, building refrigerators for International Harvester and Whirlpool until 2010. Today a portion of the historic factory houses multiple small businesses.
In under five months in 1942, Evansville’s Chrysler plant went from making Plymouth cars to making bullets as the Evansville Ordnance Plant. Over the next two years, the site produced about 96 percent of all .45-caliber ammunition made in the U.S. Portions of the building with its sawtooth roofline remain today, now housing a sporting goods manufacturer and distributor.
Ammunition produced at the ordnance plant was transported to a 30-acre site near the Chicago & Eastern Illinois railroad line in northern Vanderburgh County, complete with warehouses, administration buildings, watch towers, and bunkers for the explosives. Today, a collection of concrete structures on the site of the present-day Vanderburgh County Fairgrounds are all that remain of the munitions depot. The military constructed three such facilities during WWII; the remnants of Evansville’s complex are believed to be the only ones still standing.
“The exact combination of factors that happened in Evansville was certainly unique, leading to the rapid transition from civilian to military manufacturing. Nowhere else in the world was building both P-47s and LSTs,” notes MacLeod. “What could have been a ghost town became a boom town.”
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