Did you know the CAF has a resident historical expert who is nothing short of a gold mine of WWII aviation history and knowledge? Keegan Chetwynd, CAF Education Coordinator and Curator, recently shared a wealth of information about the birthplace of our P-51 Mustang Tuskegee Airmen, and it is FASCINATING.
Following a CAF headquarters event in Dallas, Chetwynd led a tour to the famed North American Aviation plant, the iconic aerospace manufacturer responsible for the mass production of aircraft from WWII. Their facility in Dallas was opened as the country prepared for war, and their presence helped the local economy rise from the ruins of the depression that were still felt in the hard-hit state of Texas.
The plant is actually located adjacent to Grand Prairie, just west of the city of Dallas. As a special benefit to CAF members, Chetwynd led a foot tour of the area surrounding the facility for those interested in learning more about this often forgotten, but important piece of Dallas history. It was a rare treat for CAF members to catch a glimpse of what was an iconic factory supporting our troops in WWII.
Bill Shepard, CAF Red Tail Squadron Leader and CAF Vice President of Education, attended the event. Visiting the site where our P-51C Mustang Tuskegee Airmen rolled off the production line, built by the hands of what were very much artisans, was in his words, a very awe-inspiring moment.
“I don’t think people realize the impact that North American Aviation had on not just the socio-economic front, but how the work they provided the community helped to bridge some very large social gaps,” recalls Shepard. “People of many different backgrounds worked together washing the slate not clean, but cleaner. These folks worked together side by side, regardless of race, for a common goal. That was practically unheard of at the time.”
The effects of the wartime employment North American offered the Dallas area was felt for a long time. “The work being done on their shop floors at that point of time was very innovative for our society and helped to break down barriers. These opportunities brought people out of the fields and gave them the opportunity to earn a living wage and increase their station in life and that of their families. People in these communities today are the fruits of their parents’ labor. Its impact has been felt for generations.”
North American Aviation’s plant in Dallas was a place where tens of thousands of people were gainfully employed in a time of economic hardship, giving each person a chance to use their hands and intellect to help end the war. Up to 40,000 people were employed at the plant at its peak. They hired “outside the box,” employing men that were younger and older than the draft age, women, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. And each employee at North American was encouraged to share their ideas for innovation, the implementation of which lead to safer practices and significant cost savings. This 24-hour-a-day operation was a focal point of manufacturing at that time in the U.S., and their contributions to the processes of manufacturing resonated across the industry.
Shepard lived near the facility in his youth. “My dad was stationed across the runway from here. As a kid I had no idea I was in close proximity to such important history,” Shepard remembers. “Looking at the shell of a building that was once there, Keegan colorized in our minds people in mass transitions, herds of people coming through to work. They worked to improve their lives and help end the war. It must have been an amazing sight.”
No books have been published to capture the story of North American’s important historical presence in Dallas. This was the largest aircraft production factory in WWII by volume, and it’s the only facility of its scale still standing today. There are many impressive statistics, including:
- The plant was built in 120 days
- They often produced aircraft faster than they could be picked up
- 83% of all AT-6 Texan aircraft were produced at this plant
- At it’s peak, 250 Mustangs per month came off the production line
- Every C model Mustang ever built came from this plant
- The site spans 272 acres and contains 2.9 million square feet in 85 buildings
- The Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), the all-female pilot group that served the country stateside, picked up many of the planes and ferried them to their forward deployment locations
- An entire community known as Avion Village was built in record time to accommodate the workers, and people still live there today
To learn more, watch the CAF’s webinar, “The Forgotten History of North American Aviation in Dallas.” See historic photos, learn about the people who made their mark on our country’s airpower in WWII, and get a deeper look into a forgotten piece of American history.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.