February, 2002

 

 

 

 

Wartime in the Woods

There are good times and bad times - and then there's wartime. Priorities shift, the rules change, and all bets are off. Americans have recently witnessed this phenomena for the first time in many years. Individuals and companies have rallied. Unlike many of its predecessors, however, this "modern war" hasn't required much wood. The forest products industry played a larger role in previous conflicts over the last hundred years.

The fight for enough wood 
Even before the U.S. Congress formally signed on for World War I in 1917, for instance, the National Lumber Manufacturers Association and American Lumberman magazine had pledged the industry's support, noting that, "every member of the industry must be prepared to do his part." Mill owners joined a Lumber Committee Council for the National Defense, and the West Coast Lumberman's Association formed a "fir emergency" committee, later known as the Fir Production Board, to allocate government orders among the mills. Together, they geared up to produce softwood lumber for wood crates and for cantonments and arsenals, including facilities in Washington as well as in the Midwest. Even more important was the Northwest's production of wood ships and planes. Wooden fighting vessels seem quaint today. But in 1917 the aerospace industry was in its infancy, and wood was a crucial material for both air and sea battles. Loggers could not get it out of the woods fast enough. "Birds are still nesting in the trees of which wooden ships are to be built," noted Major General George Goethals, head of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, in 1917.

The army enters the forest 
Logs went on allocation, and only mills producing wood for the government could operate. Western white pine from Idaho and Eastern Oregon became stock for wing beams, while sawmills in Everett, Wash., jointly shipped 25 million feet of fir for planes used in the campaigns against Austria. Then plane makers discovered spruce, a lighter wood previously used mostly for crates. An Emergency Spruce Committee joined the one for fir, and a government remanufacturing mill was built in Vancouver, Wash., to help cut airplane stock. The army sent 30,000 uniformed troops to help drag the timber from the hills and cut it. By the fall of 1918, Puget Sound shipyards had launched more than 200 new wooden ships, and western mills supplied up to 20 million feet of airplane spruce each month. Despite drives at the mills for Liberty Bonds, war stamps, and Red Cross funds, however, the home front was not all patriotism and calm. Just before the war, labor unions, including the International Workers of the World, or "Wobblies," had gained a hold. Issues about working conditions and pay became tangled with the concepts of unionism, patriotism, and communism. Sabotage and violence erupted, and strikes hampered production. Fortunately, with governmental pressure, owners made concessions on working conditions, employees made concessions on pay, and focus returned to the war.

Production = Victory 
Soon the common call was, "Production means victory!" As the war drew on, though, skilled hands were shipped to the battlefronts, leaving crews thin. First students, then wives and single women, augmented the ranks, sometimes donning coveralls for janitorial work, sometimes manning sorters or green chains in housedresses. Despite old timers' raised eyebrows, these crews got the job done. By the end of the war, the Northwest had supplied more than 5 billion feet of wood. By the second World War, wood was no longer quite as vital. Nonetheless, Northwest mills got busy making parts for Britain's Hurricane fighters and Mosquito bombers, wooden minesweepers built in Astoria, Ore., and internment camps in California. Logs again went on allocation, as did many materials sorely missed by the maintenance crews of an increasingly mechanized industry. Other shortages, notably beef and sugar, were felt at the logging camps, where a different kind of "forest harvest," such as venison, sometimes took the place of Victory Gardens back home. With December 1941, the threats hit closer to home. Over the next year, Japanese troops landed in the Aleutians and hostile submarines shelled Oregon. West Coast millworkers slapped plywood and paint over their windows, and masked vehicle headlights and other light sources, so the mills could churn on, blacked out. No enemy aircraft ever flew overhead, although a few Japanese bombs floated in on balloons. While none caused casualties during the war, one stray bomb that landed in the forest near Klamath Falls, Ore. It went off with tragic results when disturbed by hiking children years later. The war took other victims, both permanently and temporarily as soldiers. One mill manager in Idaho complained, "After scouring the country and many long-distance calls and wires, a crew of old men, school boys and others who had no experience was gotten together." Enough years had passed during the 1920s and 1930s to make women employees, known as lumberettes, once more a novelty. Potlatch's Dolores Kammeyer earned national attention as one of few women to sit a sawmill headrig when her photo shot over Associated Press wires. Especially at coastal mills, women were joined by moonlighting soldiers and Navy Sea Bees. A few interned Italian sailors filled the ranks.

Pulp and patriotism 
These employees ran pulp machines as well as sawmills. Technicians at Rayonier in Shelton, Wash., developed a nitrating pulp for making gunpowder. The Army Ordinance Department insisted Rayonier share the technology, and ultimately the company lost much of the gunpowder business to others. Meanwhile, mills that couldn't run nitrating pulp as their primary product shut down for lack of logs. Pulp kept the war effort afloat literally, too. More than once, a ship hauling supplies to Europe made port despite a run-in with a torpedo because the pulp in the hold swelled enough with seawater to plug up the hole! Today, war itself has changed. Whatever replaces the World Trade Center will likely be concrete and steel. Still, the anti-Osama bumper stickers now on the road are reminiscent of an older tradition: During World War II, log buckers sometimes carved stump ends with a V for victory, a caricature of Hitler, or slogans like "Ax the Axis" and "Hitler's coffin." Perhaps there's a log out there somewhere bearing bin Laden's likeness toward a buzzing saw. 

Sources:
Timber and Men; Hidy, Hill, Nevins; Columbia University, 1963 
From Jamestown to Coffin Rock, Alden H. Jones, Weyerhaeuser, 1974 
Company Town, Keith Petersen, Washington State University Press, 1987

 

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