To Support and Defend: The Growth of the Military and Defense Industry in the Northwest

The Great Depression not only effected the civilian sector but also the military as well. In the years following World War I during the interwar period the United States military forces were drastically reduced as the United States retreated into isolation following the war.  The US Army alone went from 851,624 in 1919 to 204, 292 in 1920 with significant reductions following throughout the 1920’s and 30’s.[1]  The first and seemingly most sweeping changes came as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs.

When people often think of the effects of the New Deal, they tend to focus on projects such as the Work Progress Administration, or the massive undertakings of building of the dams at Bonneville Lake, and Grand Coulee.  The WPA would employed over 250,000 people[2] with dams employing around 3,000 at Bonneville[3], and 8,800 at Grand Coulee[4].  Indeed, Roosevelt’s New Deal brought jobs, and infrastructure improvements to Washington like never seen before.  This is however only part of the story.

The New Deal public works projects ensured that the Pacific Northwest had jobs for the people, as well as power for industry.  It would be the combination of these two that prove vital to rapid growth and expansion of both the War Department and defense industry in the Pacific Northwest and Washington State.

While the New Deal and its projects spurred on growth in the Washington, they would pale in comparison to the effect that World War II would have on the region, like all places in the United States.  No region escaped the impact of the war, there are few that were experienced the growth before and because of like Washington and the Pacific Northwest.[5]  While this growth shifted into high gear after the events of December 1941, it was increasing before that. 

In 1939 the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II began to send shockwaves throughout the rest of the world.  In the U.S., Roosevelt calmly reassured the American people that he would not send the United States into war in Europe.  Roosevelt, however did in public continue to keep America out of the war, by insuring the American people that we would remain out.  The private sector and War Department, however, would slowly begin to turn their focus towards providing more munitions and preparing for War that the US would inevitable become involved in.

The Honorable Senator Carl Vinson-D-GA

Senator Carl Vinson D-GA. The "Father of the Two-Ocean Navy."  Wrote and sponsored the Naval Exapansion Act's of 1938 and 1940 which brought significant growth and devolopment to Washington Naval Bases such as Puget Sound Naval Ship Yard, and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The Hand Over of Tacoma Field to the US Army Air Corps

The 1938 Hand over of Tacoma Air Field (Current day Site of Joint Base Lewis-McChord) the the US Army Air Corps signified a step towards creating a perminate air defense presense in Washington State.

In Washington D.C., Congress, the Navy Department and the War Department (Department of the Army), were busy preparing the nation’s armed forces for the growing possibility of war.  Several measures were passed that would prepare the nation for war, but would also bring rapid growth and expansion of the military presence in Washington State.

In 1940 the “Two Ocean” Navy Act, authored by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark, and brought to the armed forces committee by Representative Carl Vinson, called for a dramatic increase in strength at the cost of $4 billion dollars[6].  The Two Ocean Navy Act, plus the Defense Appropriation Act for 1941, both approved in June 1940, set aside over $300,000,000 for public works to expand and improve shore establishments[7].  A portion of this funding would be channeled into Naval Station Puget Sound, at Bremerton Washington.  The extent of the funds received would go to improving and expanding barracks facilities for the flux of incoming sailors as well improving and expanding dry dock facilities.  These expansions would make NS Puget Sound a crucial repair and rework facility following the events of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into war with Japan.  While the Navy was busy expanding the fleet and improving its facilities.  The Army was busy expanding their facilities as well. 

As the need for defense against an increasingly aggressive Japan increased, the War Department, which at the time was in charge of the Army Air Corps, began to scout locations along the Northwest Pacific coast to place a base for air defense.  The focus was to not only defend the coastline and the shipping and industrial centers of the Puget Sound.  The site that was chosen was an airfield outside of Tacoma.  The airfield, which at the time was owned by the city of Tacoma.  In May 1938 the city signed the deed over to the government and was renamed McChord Field.  As soon as the base was signed over, work began immediately began on improving the facilities, the WPA went to work leveling grounds and improving runways.  Improvement on the facilities continued for the next two years awarding nearly 18 million dollars in contracts, and creating jobs for hundreds of recently unemployed workers, until the field opened and became operational in June 1940[8].

The government along the Navy and War Departments realized the need to not only expand the size of the military as events in Europe and the Pacific grew more tense, but also the need to provide protection to vital industrial areas.

B-17B Flying Fortress at McChord Field

B-17B on display at McChord Field

B-17 Production, Boeing Seattle

B-17 Production Seattle

Industry -

As the events in Europe spiraled out of the control, into the 1940, private industry was ramping up production of much needed munitions and armaments.  The Neutrality Act of 1939 lifted the arms embargo allowing cash only sales of munitions and arms to belligerent nations. This change benefited the Boeing aircraft corporation based in the Seattle area.  The initially small company was beginning to reap the benefits of the new aluminum producing facility at the Alcoa facility outside of Vancouver, which was powered by recently completed Bonneville Dam.  The Bonneville dam was able to provide cheaper power to both Seattle and to the aluminum facility. 

The Company, which began producing its B-17 “Flying Fortress” in the mid 1930’s had only produced and sold a few to the Army initially, saw a drastic increase in orders following the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the enactment of 1939 Cash and Carry policy.  As a result, Boeing was able to shift into high gear and start producing the aircraft in greater numbers.  Of the original 39 called for in a 1939 government contract, 20 of the planes were sent to the RAF in England for high altitude missions[9].  This number would only continue to grow.  By July of 1940 an order for over 500 aircraft was placed, but this was only the beginning.  As the war ramped up to its high points in the early 1940’s the Seattle plant had turned out over 4,000 aircraft with the ability to produce 16 planes within 24 hours[10]

The growth of industry and the footprint of the Navy and Army Washington state experienced exponential growth following the Great Depression.  This growth, as we have seen was spurred on by a series of events that were not necessary related in the beginning but ultimately became intertwined by the beginning of the 1940s with the United States entry into World War II.  New Deal projects such as the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Damns paved the way for Washington and the region to be able to support more industrial improvements, including improved aluminum manufacturing.  These developments, coupled with the growing need to prepare for a war and the defense of the nation, pushed the government to make expanding and upgrading its facilities such as Puget Sound and Camp Lewis, by acquiring the for and building McChord Field (now a part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord) a high priority.  We see that these improvements as well spurred the need for industrial growth as well, as Boeing was able to capitalize on the growing need and easy access to power and aluminum.  In short, while it is argued that the advent of World War II brought the Washington, and the country truly out of the Great Depression, it was the projects created by the New Deal that made the defense of Washington a high priority to the government.  They truly worked together to not only bring the country out of the depression but to create a thriving new industry in Washington state.


[1] Russell F. Weigley, History of the United States Army. Enlarged Ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 596-597.

[2] Jessie Kindig, “The Great Depression in Washington State: Public Works: Rebuilding Washington,” University of Washington, Published, 2009, Accessed November 16, 2016,

[3] William F. Willingham, “Bonneville Dam,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, Accessed, November 16, 2016,

[4] Christian McClung, “The Great Depression in Washington State: Grand Coulee Dam: Leaving a Legacy,” University of Washington, Published, 2009, Accessed November 16, 2016,

[5] Carlos A Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History, Revised and Enlarged Edition, (Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 408.

[6] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Two-Ocean Navy Bill Becomes Law, 19 July 1940,” Naval History Blog, U.S. Naval Institute, published July 19, 2010, Accessed December 1, 2016,


[7] J.J. Manning, Rear Admiral, (CEC) USN, “Report on Activities, Bureau of Yards and Docks, World War II,” Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II:Vol I (Part I), Published June 14, 1946, Accessed December 1, 2016,


[8] McChord Air Museum Foundation, McChord AFB-Early History Ever into Danger, accessed December 1, 2016,


[9] Boeing Company, Pedigree of Champions: Boeing Since 1916, (Seattle: The Boeing Company, 1963), 39.

[10] Ibid, 41.

To Support and Defend: The Growth of the Military and Defense Industry in the Northwest