Studebaker and the War Effort

In August 1996 the Chautauqua County Airport in Jamestown New York had a special visitor, a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress. The B-17 was the United States best known and respected heavy bomber during the World War II.

Studebaker in doing their part for the war effort built engines for the B-17 on their assembly lines along with the well known army trucks and the M-29 Weasel. The Weasel was conceived, designed and built entirely by Studebaker. There is an example of a cyclone engine in the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.  

Here's the technical info… Each B-17 plane used four Wright Cyclone nine cylinder radial engines weighing 1315 pounds each and developing 1200 horsepower. Measuring about five feet across these engines were made up of almost 8000 highly finished parts. Studebaker built 63,789 of the Cyclone engines with some being used for replacements and some put in other types of aircraft.  

Seven models of the Flying Fortress were built (Y1B-17 to B-17G) during the war with a total production of 12,731. Today there are approximately 12 of the B-17s still flying and 47 known hulls in existence. The plane weighed over 34,000 pounds empty with an "all up" gross weight of 60,000 pounds, though this figure was often exceeded  during the war, sometimes into the 70,000 pound range. It's top speed was 302 MPH with a cruising speed of 160 knots and a combat range of 2000 miles. The maximum ceiling was 35,600 feet though a B-17 in service with the Royal Air Force was at 42,000 feet and climbing when it was forced to a lower altitude due to freezing equipment and crew.

The B-17 has a capacity of 2780 gallons of fuel and uses that at a rate of 225 gallons per hour. The Studebaker built Cyclone engines use 60 weight oil at a rate of almost 1 gallon per hour per engine. Each engine has an 37 gallon oil tank.

Early B-17s had up to twelve guns and the later had thirteen 50 caliber machine guns and used the Nordin bomb sight. A bomb load of 6000 pounds was typical for long missions but it could carry up to 17,600 pounds of bombs for short missions.

The B-17 had a crew of ten with crews flying anywhere form 25 to 50 missions depending on the status of the war. The crew consisted of the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, tail gunner, ball turret gunner, radio operator, bombardier, flight engineer, waist gunner and top turret gunner. The tail gunner and ball turret gunner were strapped into the waist of the plane till they were air born. The tail gunner had to crawl through the tail section of the plane to take his position.

Even though the planes measure 74 feet long, 19 feet high and have a wingspan of 103 feet the best way to describe being inside one is cramped. I had a chance to go on a tour through the B-17G that was at the airport and it's hard to imagine how tight the quarters are till you go inside. As I entered the plane through a hatch on the left side toward the bottom just in front of the wing I could see right away that claustrophobics need not apply for duty. To the immediate left upon entering which is the front of the plane is the nose-gunners position, a plexiglas nose cone in which you sit hunched over, however you certainly do get a great view of anything that's coming at you. To get to the rest of the aircraft you go up through an opening to the cockpit and bomb bay. The bomb bay consists of two large doors that open in the bottom of the plane and a narrow 8 inch wide catwalk over top. Next is the waist of the plane where you'll find the navigator and radio operator. In the middle of the floor is a small hatch for the ball turret. The gunner is sealed inside a tiny capsule that hangs below the plane and spins around in all directions, with two machine guns. The cramped surroundings lead me to believe they must have searched out the smallest, and of course bravest, men for the crews of the Flying Fortress.

In 1941 Studebaker signed contracts with the US government whereby the government would finance the building of three plants and lease them to Studebaker for aircraft engine production. The plants were built in Chicago, Fort Wayne and South Bend and Studebaker would employ over 9000 extra people to work in them. Studebaker's Los Angeles plant also produced the Wright Cyclone engines as well as Pratt and Whitney's radial air cooled 2000 horsepower R-2800 engines. These were use to power the twin-engine Lockheed PV-1 Ventura Navy Bomber.

The B-17 that visited Jamestown was owned and operated by the Confederate Air Force from Midland, Texas. This particular B-17 never saw combat because it took off from New Jersey, headed for the Western Pacific to be the lead aircraft in an invasion of Japan on August 15, 1945, the day hostilities ended. The Texas Raiders, as this plane is named, travels the country from May to October each year visiting airports and air shows to give people a chance to relive memories and learn something about history. A crew of 6 to 10 travels with it volunteering their time. Crews are changed on a regular basis to allow everyone a rest.

I learned a lot during my visit through the plane and talking with the crew. I talked with one crew member about the Studebaker built engines, of which this plane still had three of the four engines that bore the Studebaker identification plates. When I mentioned I owned Studebakers and had driven my Avanti that day he suggested I bring it to the runway and park it by the B-17 to get some photos. It's not often you get to see two such diverse pieces of history from one company in one place.

War will always be ugly, but after all these years the horror of the war has diminished and we can look back with pride on the effort this country put forth. From industry switching to war production, young men of all walks of life volunteering for duty, rationing and recycling, everyone played an important part. The American spirit shone brightly. We saw a bit of that come back after the 9 11 terrorist attacks but it seemed to fade quickly as we all returned to our everyday lives.  It would be nice if we could all keep this feeling in our lives on a regular basis.

Patriotism should be an everyday occurrence, not a special event brought about by tragedy.

TW 1-97

My 1963 Avanti as it appeared on the front of Turning Wheels magazine, the official publication of the Studebaker Drivers Club in January 1997. This is one of the photos I took at the airport with the Texas Raiders, a 1945 B-17G Flying Fortress. 

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