MDJ Editorial Page Editor Joe Kirby and KSU history Professor Emeritus Tom Scott spent two hours Thursday evening discussing the Bell Bomber Plant, from its origins as part of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s airport construction program, to its peak of 29,000 employees producing up to three B-29 bombers a day during World War II to its closure at the end of the war and its rebirth as the Lockheed plant at the start of the Korean War.
Marietta native Lucius D. Clay, son of Sen. Alexander Stephens Clay, headed up the effort to develop 450 new airports across the country, and Scott said he looked favorably on placing one in his hometown. The airport also had good access to the streetcar line between Marietta and Atlanta, freight railroad tracks, the Dixie Highway to the west, and what was called the “four lane,” to the east, now Cobb Parkway.
While Eastern Airlines President Eddie Rickenbacker had promised to offer service at the new airport, that all changed on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Scott said the inland airport was a good spot to avoid German submarine attacks.
“They really wanted to start building some plants away from the coastlines,” he said.
Kirby, author of the 2008 book “The Bell Bomber Plant,” showed slides detailing the construction and operation of the massive plant, which produced 668 B-29 Superfortress bombers. The first plane rolled out in November 1943, just 18 months after construction started.
“If you tried to do something like that today, it would take longer to do the environmental impact report,” Kirby said.
When the war ended, Kirby said Buffalo, N.Y., based Bell laid off 29,000 workers within a month. While some stayed in the area, others returned to their homes across the Southeast. The plant was used as an aircraft manufacturing storage facility until Lockheed got a contract to reopen it during the Korean War.
Eventually, that led to engineers coming to town, which Scott said helped improve the educational and cultural opportunities in Cobb.
The roundtable, presented by KSU’s Department of Museums, Archives & Rare Books, was held in conjunction with the temporary exhibition “Southern Industrial Landscapes: Photographs of the Marietta Bell Bomber Plant 1942-1944,” which was on display behind the speakers at the Sturgis Library. Matthew Harper, who curates the exhibit, said it will be on display until June 21.
“They really don’t focus on the people or the airplanes, just the industrial landscape,” Harper said of the 25-photo exhibit. “It tells the transformation of the landscape in Cobb County.”
Some in attendance worked at Lockheed or had family members who worked at the plant. Gayle Anderson of Vinings said her father, Robert C. Goddard, worked at the plant both under Bell Bomber and Lockheed.
She was impressed by how the speakers told of how the plant turned a group of farmers into skilled workers.
“It was amazing, very interesting,” she said of the discussion. “It made it seem like more than a building. It brought the history to life.”
Alan Davies of east Cobb regularly talks with schoolchildren about his days of living with Nazi bombing raids while he grew up in England during World War II. He found it interesting to hear about how things were going on the other side of the Atlantic.
“I was saying to my wife, they could never have built anything of this scope in England,” he said. “It was the American industrial ability that, in the end, beat Germany and Japan.”