One War Won

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Some people think the war is almost over. They have some reason to think so, no matter how unwilling they are to let themselves get complacent. When four once-bustling small arms & ammunition plants closed down a fortnight ago, many a patriot took note. Did that mean that the U.S. now has enough rifles, enough bullets already on hand with which to kill the last Nazi, the last Jap? What else could it mean?

Then the open-hearth furnaces in the great steel mills at Pittsburgh were banked. And rumors came that much more steel would go to civilian use, some time next year. Did this mean that the U.S., only a couple of years past the grim possibility of shortage, was now getting more than enough steel for the six-continent, three-ocean war?

Then last week the War Manpower Commission cut down the number of critical labor areas. If it were true that the manpower shortage, last and greatest of all war production problems, was also just about licked—then how help but wonder if these are not the closing months of the main civilian war effort?

There were smaller and subtler indications, bits of news grasped easily, eagerly by the people. To some 35,000 civilians went a handsomely illustrated catalogue of a sale of Air Forces materiel, from Engine parts to castor oil. Used jeeps had already made their appearance ascivilian vehicles inChicago; a dealer in Berkeley, Calif. advertised 16 used landing barges, cheap at $1,650 apiece. The U.S. people were driving more and faster: the accident death rate rose for the first time since Pearl Harbor.

But even the road to Rome was still long and muddy, with Berlin in sight only from bomb bays. The road to Tokyo is long and watery, and every island on the way might be a Tarawa. The short, rough water-miles between Dover and Calais looked long.

The Mountaintop. One simple fact caused this confusion : while the great war itself has not been won, the American production war has. The great bottlenecks of the past are now so many shards of glass. The arsenal of democracy has be come one long, clanging assembly line, throwing off the weapons of death in unbelievable quantities. This achievement, much doubted, often hobbled by incompetence and inefficiency, is now a great fact of history. Some of the figures:

>In November, every fiveminutes saw the birth of one new complete plane. The month’s total: 8,789 (including more than 1,000 heavy bombers). The war’s 150,000th plane rolled out this week.

>Shipyards are now equipped to turn out more than eight aircraft carriers a month.

>Destroyer escorts, the sub killers, slide down the ways so fast that the year’s high program (260) was completed a month ahead of time.

>Champagne splashed against the bows of 164 new merchant ships in November. Total merchant tonnage in 1941: 1,100,000. Total 1943tonnage to date:17,194,387

The mountaintop had been reached. This turning point would affect thelives of all Americans next year.

It had already affected the whole course of the war. An ultimate tribute came last week. Rising solemnly to his feet at a dinner in Teheran, Marshal Stalin raised his glass, solemnly said: “Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.”

The U.S. people, surveying the might they had summoned up, had already almost forgotten the confusion, the bewilderment of the days of NDAC, OPM, SPAB, the days when the solving of one shortage meant only another, greater shortage somewhere else. Crisis on crisis, scrap drive after scrap drive (while the people watched the mounds of scrap rust and decay in the city squares), through one anti-Washington joke after another, the U.S. people had listened to the quarrels in their war production agencies. Now WPB ran like an electric clock, materials came in a steady flow, manpower was channeled, the anti-Washington jokes were stale.

The faces had changed. NDAC’s Ed Stettinius had moved on to the rarefied atmosphere of the State Department. Knudsenhillman was broken up: Bill Knudsen, in a natty lieutenant general’s uniform, trekked from war plant to war plant; Sidney Hillman was back politicking in C.I.O. Donald Nelson, unable to rise above WPB quarrels, had faded into the background. The face of U.S. war production looked more & more like the square ruddy face of Charles Edward Wilson, WPB executive vice chairman and virtual boss of the U.S. arsenal.

The Algerian. Charlie Wilson is a big man, a strapping man, whose double-breasted suits always seem to cramp his broad shoulders. He looks like an outfielder in a hotel lobby, walks erect, with a springing gait. He is a Horatio Alger type, who climbed from office boy to the $175,000-a-year presidency of General Electric, rising through the ranks—shipping clerk, foreman, superintendent.

He likes to play with big toys: he has driven a 1,000-h.p. diesel electric locomotive, piloted a 20,000-ton steamer, flown an airplane. When he reminisces about his G.E. days, which is seldom, the phrase which crops up most frequently is: “I had a lot of fun with that.” His idea of fun was planning and equipping a factory the size of Willow Run, inventing a new way to wrap electric cable, or flying from city to city in the G.E. plane.

All of his days and most of his nights, ever since he was twelve years old, have been spent working. He accepts this as the American way. At 57, he has no paunch, and no fatigue lines in his face. Recently a reporter, gathering material for a biographical sketch, informed Charlie Wilson that he wanted to visit Mrs. Wilson. Said Husband Wilson: “No use talking to her, she only sees me one night a week.”

The Deacon. Charlie Wilson got tough and tireless in Manhattan’s rough, tough Hell’s Kitchen. (His boyhood home was torn down to make room for Pennsylvania Station.) When Charlie was three his father, a dreaming Irish bookbinder who longed to emigrate to Australia, died of injuries suffered when he was crushed in a mob on the brand-new Brooklyn bridge.

Charlie went to P.S. 32, where his eighth-grade teacher was one John F. Condon, who later won notoriety as the “Jafsie” of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Charlie quit school before he was graduated, took a job at a neighboring electric plant, which soon became a G.E. subsidiary. The pay: 5¢ an hour for 60 hours a week. He boosted his income by playing semi-pro basketball, changing shirts every night to play with a different team.

The day Charlie was raised to $8 a week, he told his widowed mother she would no longer have to work as a practical nurse. The day he became 21 years old, he married, on $20 a week. He likes to tell friends that the big influences in his life have been his mother, his wife and his first boss, a kindly, helpful man named William Ruete.

His mother prodded and encouraged his career all the way. If he was out late, Charlie never failed to go to her bedroom to kiss her goodnight.

His wife converted him to the Baptist Church. In the records of the Manhattan Central Baptist Church there is a notation for 1914: “Deacon Charles Wilson has done excellent service in managing the lantern for the lectures Sunday evenings. Our facilities are not of the best and it has taken much knowledge and patience, but the work has been well done.” Deacon Charles Wilson also started a Sunday School for Chinese children. Years later, in Bridgeport, Conn., he conducted a Baptist Young Men’s Forum. Even now, in Washington, WPB Vice Chairman Charles Wilson often stops in at church for a moment’s prayer on his way to the office.

Factory Boss Ruete told young Charlie Wilson to study engineering and accounting at night, and fired his protégé with a burning ambition: toown a diamond stickpin like the one which glittered from Bill Ruete’s tie. When Bill died, he willed Charlie his stickpin, but by that time stickpins had gone out of fashion.

The Cadillac. In 1922, General Electric elected Owen D. Young as board chairman and Gerard Swope as president. The first time young Charlie Wilson saw Gerard Swope was at G.E.’s plant at Maspeth, L.I., where Charlie was assistant superintendent. He led the inquisitive Mr. Swope through the entire plant, showed him the panelboards, the switches and the armored cables in the making. The next thing Charlie Wilson heard from Mr. Swope was that the Maspeth plant was being scrapped.

Charlie Wilson was transferred to Bridgeport. He rode into Bridgeport in 1923 in a green Standard sedan. He rode out, 14 years later, in a sleek 8-cylinder Cadillac. Between those two rides he made his reputation as a production man. When he arrived, a certain cable-wrapping operation took 24 hours. After he had tinkered with the process, it took exactly 58 seconds.

For such reasons new jobs were thrown Charlie Wilson’s way. G.E. expanded into the appliance business. Soon the engineering, production and salesmanship of ironers, washers, heaters, radios and every newfangled gadget was in the hands of Charlie Wilson. The Wilson home became a showplace of Bridgeport: it even boasted an electric garbage disposer.

The Vice President. By the time Charlie Wilson became G.E.’s executive vice president in 1937, he was automatically slated to succeed Gerard Swope, and did, three years later. Writing about him at the time, FORTUNE called him “the least known” executive of a large U.S. company, duly recorded that its files contained but a few clippings on him, which had duly been filed under the name of Charles Erwin Wilson, then executive vice president of General Motors.* Charlie Wilson was known toalmost no one except In his presidential office on the 45th floor of Manhattan’s G.E. building, he had a sunlamp which he turned on whenever he felt a sneeze coming on; a framed copy of Edgar A. Guest’s It Couldn’t Be Done (“and he did it”); a television set. He took a plaster bust of Lincoln with him to his Washington office.

Green Thumbs. This is the man, no intellectual, without a touch of the ideologue or politician—whose life as thus recorded is almost a parodist’s composite of the old-fashioned business-magazine success stories—who finally made the war-production machine in Washington work.

In Washington Charlie Wilson was literally surrounded with brainier men, men more cultured or more brilliant in most things than he. And, true, he came late enough to miss a great many of the terrible early defense-days problems that had strained and wrecked many a biggerreputation. Nevertheless, as some gardeners have “green thumbs,” he had the know-how, the touch. Things work for him. In Washington, in the very heart of snafu and intrigue, the whole show fell into one long production line, about the time he came, and soon thereafter the production war was substantially won. The battles were fought by many men in industry and government; Charlie Wilson happened to be the commanding general when victory was achieved.

The Work. Charlie Wilson’s big contributions to WPB have been his drive and his decision, his passion for order, his overwhelming desire to tackle production problems in specific terms and details. He has made some wrong guesses and poor decisions, but in the days when he first came to WPB not even many decisions, right or wrong, were being made.

His biggest mistake: opposition to the Controlled Materials Plan drawn up by WPB’s other vice chairman, Ferdinand Eberstadt, as the only sure way to keep production flowing on a smooth, sound basis. This brought on the newspaper-famed Wilson-Eberstadt fight (TIME, March 1). Two more dissimilar men than Charlie Wilson and Ferd Eberstadt could hardly have been brought face to face: Wilson, the ambitious doer, the man who came up from scratch; Eberstadt, the polished investment banker, Princeton-bred, Wall Street-trained, the man who did with pencil &paper what Charlie Wilson was used to doing with his hands.

But the fight cleared the air in WPB.

Eberstadt was fired, but his CMP stuck as basic WPB policy, and Charlie Wilson subsequently had the courage to praise its merits.

Notable among Wilson’s work at WPB have been his trips to aircraft plants to speed production, straighten out the man power mess. Typical Wilson appearances:

Portland. Flying into Portland with John C. Lee,West Coast manager of the Aircraft War Production Council, Wilson saw the neat rows of houses in Vanport City built for Kaiser workers. At the Kaiser yards, Wilson asked: “How did you line up all those houses?” Said Edgar Kaiser: “We bulled it through in Washington.”

Wilson turned to Lee: “You get a program andI’ll get you houses like that in Los Angeles.” Lee, it turned out, had just such a program in his pocket. Month later, it was under way.

Seattle. One Wilson telephone conversation back to Washington got Seattle a batch of new busses to transport workers to the Boeing plant. He upheld the Boeing workers’ demand for equal pay with shipyard workers, promised Boeing President Phil Johnson that he would smooth out the manpower crisis. Result: when Elder Statesman Bernard Baruch brought out his plan for freezing and channeling manpower, Wilson grabbed it, put it into instant effect, in all U.S. aircraft plants.

Dallas. At North American’s Dallas plant, Wilson was ruthless in demanding that hoarded manpower be released for use elsewhere, and won his point.

Detroit. After a trip through Willow Run, Wilson’s statement that he thought Willow Run would soon get over the hump was almost the first noncritical remark made of that plant. The mere statement so bucked up Willow Run morale that Ford’s Harry Bennett said: “If we loved Charlie Wilson any more than we do it might be disastrous.” Said a WPB economist, with more than a mite of truth: “The beauty of Charlie Wilson was that the magnitude of the overall problem didn’t stun him into in activity. He hacked away at it, piece by piece, was always getting something done, and the sum of those individualachievements possibly constitute the major share of WPB’s contribution to the war.” Charlie Wilson tackled the overall problem headon, by making a working organism of the Production Executive Committee. Here, every Wednesday, for grueling sessions lasting four to five hours, Charlie Wilson gathered around him top representatives of the Army, Navy, Air Forces, Maritime Commission and WMC. Each agency knew what it wanted, fought for it. Charlie Wilson divided the pie. Thus order finally came to production.

Month ago, Charlie Wilson, surveying production, thought it time he got back to G.E. WPBoss Donald Nelson agreed. But protesting wires flooded in.

Franklin Roosevelt and Assistant President James F. Byrnes refused to consider his leaving. Charlie Wilson has been asked to stay, to make a main attack on the important work of reconversion. Now being drawn up by Bernie Baruch and John Hancock are recommendations for contract cancellations. Said Baruch, significantly: “The agencies which wound up the U.S. economy for war should unwind it.”

The Key. U.S.war production has now reached such a mighty torrent that the only supervision required is to let it flow unchecked. And such are the country’s resources that the U.S. can now profitably turn its attention to shutting off the valves, to thoughts of using its colossal energies to produce peace goods.

This job lies in Charlie Wilson’s hairy, freckled hands. Last week, in addition to all other WPB duties, he took over the operations section, which gives him control of all industry committees, the key with which to unwind the war economy.

But the key must be used cautiously. In Charlie Wilson’s Washingtonoffice, with its broad windows lookingout over the Mall, new charts are tacked on the walls and strewn over chairs. The charts say: war production in 1944 must be upped a whopping 20%. But the biggest battle is over; the rest if mopping up —until reconversion really gets under way.

*The mixup between the Charles Wilsons at the top of U.S. industrial life is fantastic but understandable. G.E.’s Charles Edward Wilson and G.M.’s Charles Erwin Wilson, became, respectively, vice president, executive vice president and president of their respective companies at almost the same time. When Charles Edward Wilson moved into his present home at No. 7 Hampton Road, Scarsdale, N.Y., Charles Eben Wilson, vice president of Worthington Pump & Machinery Corp., had just moved out of his house at No. 7 Old Army Road, Scarsdale. To cap the climax: G.E. has another Charles Edward Wilson, who, apparently in the interest of non-confusion, spent several years as G.E. engineer in Russia.

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