By Joy Neighbors
The Evansville Wartime Museum opened two years ago in a small nondescript hangar on the Evansville Regional Airport.
It’s best described as a homefront museum because it pays homage not only to the troops who served on land, in the air and on the sea during World War II, but also to the family members back home in Evansville, working and sacrificing to win the war. History comes alive through exhibits, artifacts and stories told by a knowledgeable staff that guides tours and answer questions.
In mid-December 1941, Evansville was suffering like many other cities throughout the country from a decade-long depression. There weren’t enough jobs for the 96,000 residents, and with war coming, things looked bleak. Then a group of men traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend an Office of Production Management meeting. When these forward-looking citizens described the attributes of Evansville, Indiana, to committee members, the OPM began working with the city fathers to get local citizens back to work for the war effort.
A pivotal location
Evansville had it all: its own airport, rail yards, manufacturing plants, and a close proximity to the Ohio River, and in turn, the Mississippi River along with a workforce ready to work, and a land-locked location in the Midwest. These facts made Evansville a pivotal location for war production. In fact, during the war, no other city produced more for the war effort, per capita, than Evansville.
From that December meeting, the OPM gave the city an order for ordnance — between 3 and 5 billion .45-caliber bullets. Within a week, the Chrysler plant was inspected and approved as an ordnance factory. The contract stipulated 5 million rounds of ammo to be made each day. Within the first month, the number of bullets had increased to 12.5 million per day. Production began on Feb. 19, 1942 — just two months from the first meeting in D.C. Evansville produced 96 percent of all .45-caliber bullets during the war for a total of 3,264,281,914 rounds with a rejection rate of less than 0.1 percent.
In 1942, the first P-47 Thunderbolt, known as the “Jug,” rolled off the factory line at Republic Aviation in Evansville. These were the razorback models. The bubble canopy, first introduced on the P-47 in 1944, was the idea of an Evansville man to aid pilots with all-around visibility. The P-47 was the real workhorse for the Allied Air Force and served in every theatre of war. The Thunderbolt was the heaviest single-engine aircraft (weighing more than 8 tons fully loaded) in the war. But that weight wasn’t a problem thanks to the 18-cylinder 2,500 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Double WASP engine. From 1942 through 1945, 6,670 P-47s were manufactured in Evansville — nearly half the plane’s production, at a cost of $85,000 each ($1.1 million today.) Evansville was also home to a group of WASPs (Women Army Service Pilots) made up of civilian women pilots who ferried the Thunderbolts to airfields around the country. These women tested the aircraft and then trained Army Air Force pilots on how to fly them.
Evansville’s LST shipyard
The Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company, based in Leavenworth, Kansas, was in charge of the LST (Landing Ship, Tank) shipyard in Evansville. More than 19,500 people worked there during the war. The LST, known as “the ship that won the war,” was designed to land battle-ready tanks, troops and supplies directly onto enemy shores, and played a vital role in D-Day operations. From the launch of the LST in the Solomon Islands in June 1943 until the end of the war in August 1945, a total 1,051 LSTs were built. Of those, 167 were constructed in Evansville. Today, Evansville is home to the only WWII-configured LST still in operation in the country.
Other “claims to fame” for Evansville during the war include the refitting of the M4 Sherman Tank, the most widely used tank by Western Allies. T. Bootz Manufacturing Company supplied the U.S. Navy with Mark II Talker Helmet and Telephone Sets used on naval vessels during the war. Faultless Caster supplied casters used to move spotlights at shipyards so production of the LSTs could continue 24 hours a day. Twenty million 40-mm shell casings were made there along with 9-million 37 mm shell casings. Four thousand Army trucks were rebuilt there. The first lifesaving intravenous protein known as Amigen was developed there and used in triage units around the world.
During the war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created an excellence award for production plants that went above and beyond the nation’s call for the war effort. This Army-Navy “E (for excellence) Flag” was awarded to 15 war production factories in Evansville a total of 41 times — more than any other city in the country.
Besides manufacturing, Evansville had one of the most popular Red Cross Canteens. It served 1.6 million boys (1/10th of all soldiers) during the war with home-cooked meals, hot showers, freshly laundered clothing, a sewing repair service, dances, donuts and the opportunity to write home, relax and enjoy a few days of R&R (rest and relaxation) before heading back to the war. Visitors can walk through a replica of a canteen at the museum.
Going back in time
A trip through the Evansville Wartime Museum is a step back in time when everyone worked together to defeat the Axis powers. With four galleries, visitors can see a Higgins boat, a P-47 Thunderbolt and plenty of ordnance along with personal mementos, artifacts and photos belonging to the men and women who served their country during WWII, at home and abroad.
The P-47 Thunderbolt was the real workhorse for the Allied Air Force and served in every theatre of war.
The museum was created when concerned citizens realized that precious artifacts were being lost. No one knew what to do with the uniforms, jackets, parachutes and memorabilia family members had collected and saved from the war. Now residents can bring their items and stories to the museum where this local history will be preserved and made accessible for future generations.
A new exhibit is planned for the fall. In the Service of Mercy will highlight the extraordinary service of Tri-State area nurses during the First World War.
The museum is open on weekends. Groups and school tours are also available. The facility may be rented for meetings, events and special programs.