Big Plane, Small World
Meeting the ladies who handcrafted history
Anna could see her moon-cast shadow as she walked the snowy streets of Marshfield, Wisconsin. Her shift began promptly at 6 a.m., so she walked briskly, each step punctuated by a plume of frozen breath.
Like most of the 18-year-old girls she worked with, Anna preferred the late shift so she could stay up bowling and dancing with friends, but was thankful for this job — even the early shift. After all, 29 cents an hour was good money.
The other employer in town, a shoe factory making boots for the Army, didn’t pay nearly as well.
The horses had just finished hauling in their morning load of lumber and were back in their stables as Anna climbed the stairs to the second floor. Today she was lucky to get a spot next to one of the water pipes so she could stay warm during her shift.
It was in this small, unheated horse barn where Anna and a handful of other teenage girls handcrafted the veneer and ply- wood that became the skin and structure of Howard Hughes’ famous flying boat, the H-4 Hercules, the Spruce Goose.
Seventy years after one of Anna’s shifts in that barn, I was touring the work of her hands, now the centerpiece of Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
I had heard about this giant engineering marvel, but incorrectly assumed it was just large for its time. The H-4 Hercules is massive — even to today’s standard. It is the largest flying boat ever built and still holds the title for the longest wingspan in history. The fact that it was made almost entirely out of yellow birch and basswood, due to wartime restrictions on the use of metal, makes this aircraft a must-see.
It literally stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it. The full-size B-17 parked under its tail appeared miniature. (The horizontal stabilizer of the Spruce Goose is larger than the entire wingspan of the B-17.)
The aircraft was so large, I had to periodically look away to maintain perspective. Its wingspan is longer than a city block, and its engine nacelles, hanging five stories overhead, are larger than most of the aircraft parked beneath its wings.
Stepping inside the plane felt like entering a building — a giant warehouse. Officials from the city of McMinnville must have felt the same way, because they require the aircraft itself to comply with city building codes.
Up a spiral staircase was the fight deck, complete with a gallery of seats arranged more like a movie theater than an airliner. And behind those seats were two long hallways extending to each side, tall enough to walk down without ducking. These hall- ways were the interior of the wings’ leading edges. Lights were placed down the leading edge, but the hallway disappeared in dark- ness before reaching the end of the wing.
At the rear of the flight deck was a small porthole allowing access to one of the wing cells. At 11 feet 7 inches high, you could play a game of basketball inside the wing. It’s easy to forget you’re in an air- craft, except for the dwarfed seats up front with eight throttle levers, a few dozen gauges, and a pair of yokes.
The size of the aircraft was mesmerizing, and even more so when I looked at the detail of the skin or structure. The finely crafted wood and attention to detail didn’t seem compatible with the magnitude of what I was standing in. My mind was struggling to process what I was seeing.
Larry Wood, the executive director of the museum, encouraged me to lightly tap on the wood skin. The skin on the top of the aircraft is thinner than the sides and the bottom — just like Boeing’s new 787. Each square foot of this aircraft was engineering genius and master craftsmanship.
Howard Hughes was the mastermind of this project. His entire reputation was riding on its completion, as he made clear during his famous Senate hearing in 1947. But like all great projects, he wasn’t alone — a nation of craftsman, each skilled in his or her own craft, contributed from their own corners of the country.
After returning home from Oregon, my wife and I flew to Marshfield, Wisconsin, to meet some friends for breakfast. I had just been talking to Katherine about Hughes’ H-4 Hercules on the fight over, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw a display featuring it inside this small-town airport. I read with interest that the craftsmen who made the veneer for the Spruce Goose were teenage girls who lived and worked in this same Wisconsin town I called home for several years.
The yellow birch and basswood for the Hercules came from the same factory that provided lumber for my first home, and the aircraft’s paper-thin veneer was glued together in a horse barn I drove past every day for years.
Roddis Lumber and Veneer Co., now Marshfield Door Systems, was one of the nation’s largest suppliers of aviation plywood during World War II. It produced plywood for the de Havilland Mosquito, gliders that flew over Normandy beaches on D-Day, and Howard Hughes’ H-4 Hercules flying boat, among other projects.
When I read that several of the women who worked at Roddis during the war still lived in Marshfield, I told my wife I had to meet them. Sara Connor, granddaughter of Hamilton Roddis, created the display I was reading and helped me get in touch with a couple of the ladies.
Anna Wunrow, now in her late 80s, invited me back a few weeks later to talk about her years working in the horse barn making veneer during World War II.
“The veneer we worked with was thin — 1/90 of an inch — so thin you could see your hand behind it,” she told me. It dried to 1/100 of an inch, much thinner than today’s industry standard of 1/50 of an inch.
The horse barn was frigid in winter and extremely hot in summer, but she never considered it hard work. She was a farm girl, after all. These were normal working conditions.
“And it was good money,” she said, still excited 70 years later about her hourly wage of 29 cents an hour.
The ladies would take fitches of veneer stacked on one end of the barn then match, glue, and iron them together with irons similar to those used for clothes.
“We knew we were making airplane parts, but the most exciting part was that I had a job,” Anna said.
Anna’s supervisor, or “floor lady” as Anna called her, lived a few blocks away and shared similar thoughts.
Celia Heselberger had just won a round of bingo at the Marshfield Care Center when I found her. Since it’s not wise to interrupt a woman during her bingo game, I asked if I could join her for a few games. Her smile was welcoming, but I soon discovered why she was promoted to floor lady 70 years earlier. She was focused.
Making veneer during the war was also her first job. She didn’t think too much about what they were making parts for; after all, she, nor anyone she knew, had ever been on an aircraft. She was just thankful to have a job. “I was proud to be floor lady and only wanted to keep doing good work, and keep the other girls working,” she said.
Later that afternoon, I toured Marshfield Door Systems and saw the horse barn where Anna and Celia worked. It still wears its original coat of green paint and looks like any other modest barn in Wisconsin. It was inside this barn where teenage girls, thankful for a job, made veneer and crafted history. The work of their hands helped win the war and continues to inspire awe in museum visitors today.
These ladies have never seen the finished product of their labor, their masterpieces. They have not seen the wood since it left the horse barn and don’t consider their contribution to history to be anything exceptional.
Like most of their generation, these ladies are humble. Their thankful and appreciative spirits leave little room for self-praise, which is why we need to seek them out, listen to, learn from, thank, and honor them.
Every day hundreds of people gaze at Anna and Celia’s work, but only a handful will ever talk to them and hear firsthand what cold mornings in that horse barn were like. I lived in the same town and never knew my neighbors were such amazing women.
As impressive as historic aircraft are, the people who built, designed, and flew them are even more so. There are local legends in every neighborhood. Most will not consider their contribution anything exceptional, so you may have to look closely, but when you meet a 90-year-old lady who helped build the Spruce Goose and get to give her a high-five after winning a game of bingo, it will be worth it.