The Plane That Won A War And Polluted A River

Sep 28, 2015

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.

People around the Northwest contributed to the war effort - thousands of them by building planes in Seattle.

But there was one type of plane in particular. The B17 has been called the plane that won World War II.

Thousands of these planes blackened the skies over Germany and France during the war. And thousands of young men risked their lives in these planes, to drop bombs that obliterated whole towns in Nazi-controlled Europe.

The B17 changed history - but it also changed Seattle. Ashley Ahearn has our story.

Almost 7,000 B17s were made at the Boeing Plant 2 facility on the banks of the Duwamish River. More than were made anywhere else in the country.

In huge Boeing plants out of tough metal they forge America’s fighting bomber.

Prefabrication on a massive scale, complete the parts as separate units then bring them together. The system turned out more production per square foot than any other aircraft factory.

Looking East from around 1500 feet at the production plant. A B-29 is on the tarmac, one on the runway a B-17 on the other side of the field.
Credit www.taphilo.com

The Duwamish River - which runs through the heart of Seattle - became a hive of industry. 30,000 people worked at Boeing’s plant 2 facility, churning out up to 15 B17s per day.

John Little: "During WWII you would have just seen lines of aircraft in various stages of assembly."

John Little is a historian at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

John Little: You would have heard the constant chatter of rivet guns, drills. It would have been a very noisy place.

Before WWII, Seattle wasn’t known as an industrial hub. It was a timber and salmon port, the days of the gold rush were long gone.

John Little: "Seattle was kind of out of sight, out of mind, and it was WWII that put Seattle on the map both politically and economically."

The government contract to build the first 500 B17s in Seattle brought the Boeing company back from the edge of bankruptcy. Mike Lombardi is the Boeing Corporate Historian.

Mike Lombardi: "The B17 was really important for Boeing. It made Boeing a household name."

Lombardi says the company brought a spirit of entrepreneurship to the city.

Mike Lombardi: "But really the Boeing company was the pioneer for that and set that stage of, I kind of think of Seattle and Boeing growing up together."

You might also think of the city’s industrial history as growing up along the Duwamish River. The Boeing plant 2 facility used to stand on the eastern bank, near the South Park bridge.

In a way, the river was sacrificed for the war effort. Smokestacks sprouted up all along this urban waterway. It’s a superfund site now and will undergo a major cleanup. Boeing’s plane construction contributed to the pollution in this river.

Shawn Blocker is the guy overseeing the cleanup for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Shawn Blocker: "This stretch is the most contaminated stretch of the Duwamish. Boeing Plant 2 historically had a lot of contamination that originated from the manufacturing process up there."

When workers finished machining parts for the Boeing planes they’d be covered in gunk and grease so they’d dip the pieces of metal in swimming-pool sized concrete tanks of solvents to clean them off.

Over the years the tanks leaked metals and PCBs - the kind of contaminants that stick around for a really long time and get into the food chain so fish aren’t safe for people to eat.

Shawn Blocker: So it’s almost like a timeline going back in history showing more and more and more and more PCBs coming out of Plant 2.

Today, things along this stretch of river look a lot better. The shoreline behind Blocker is dotted with newly-planted shrubs and grasses. Boeing has removed more than 200,000 cubic yards of polluted muck from the site, though there’s still work to be done.

The Boeing Company has been criticized by environmentalists and tribes for attempting to weaken state water quality standards, but Blocker says on this particular cleanup, the company has done a good job.

Shawn Blocker has a personal connection to the Boeing cleanup.

Shawn Blocker: "My grandfather was a tailgunner on B17s. He flew in the 15th airforce and joined in early 42 and was in campaigns through N. Africa and Italy with the 15th air force."

Ahearn on tape: "Does that change the way you see the pollution that came from this place?"

"Not even a little bit. Um. I think it connected me a little bit for the fact that it felt good to clean this facility up because it was crucial to WWII, crucial to my grandfather, cuz that’s what he did, so I get the other end of it. I get to clean up what got started during his era."

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