Saturday, June 9, 2012

Chicago: A Look Back at June 9, 1942

Orchard Field, Home of the Douglas Chicago Aircraft Assembly Plant (Google image)

On this date in 1942 The Chicago Tribune announced that preparations for a new Douglas Aircraft plant would begin within days.  At a cost of 20 million dollars the factory would be constructed on a 1,347 acre tract in northwest Cook county near Bensenville.  Over 15,000 workers eventually worked at the site during the war, primarily responsible for production of the C-54 Skymaster.

The C-54 Skymaster (Google image)
Factors that led to the selection of the site were its proximity to essential transportation lines.  Three main line railroads had agreed to provide shuttle service for workers as well as spurs and freight sidings for the plant itself. 

Leverett S. Lyon, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Association of Commerce said, “Not only will the plant give the Chicago district another great war industry, but, equally important to labor and business, there is reason to believe it will continue in operation after the war producing planes for the transport of freight.”

The site would go far beyond Mr. Lyon’s predictions.

Despite objections from citizens who wanted to preserve the rural nature of the area, the land was rezoned for industrial use on June 18, 1942 and the area was renamed Orchard Place.  The first building in the new complex was begun on June 30, 1942 and construction began on the main factory building on August 24 of that year.  By November the first section of the assembly building was turned over to Douglas.

The Assembly Line at Douglas (Northwest Chicago
Historical Society)
The Assembly Building, when it was completed, contained more than two million square feet of space.  Because of the scarcity of steel during the war, wood was the primary construction material and, when finished, the assembly  building was the largest all-timber manufacturing plant in the world.  A total of 31,750,000 board feet of lumber were used in its construction.  Ten months after construction began, the main factory was operational.

Four runways were constructed, each of them consisting of 15 inches of stone topped with a ten-inch layer of concrete.  Once again, because of the value of steel to the war effort, the runways, 5,500 feet long and 150 feet wide, were built with no reinforcing rods.  The paved surface totalled 1,300,000 square feet.

With test pilot Win Sargeant in the cockpit, the first C-54 rolled down the runway on July 30, 1943.  Before the plant closed in October of 1945 the Chicago Aircraft Assembly Plant at Douglas Field produced 655 cargo planes for the war effort.

Early days of O'Hare Field (Google image)
In 1945 a Site Selection Committee appointed by Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly chose Orchard Field as the site for a new Chicago airport, and by 1946 temporary runway lights had been added.  In 1949 the field was renamed as Chicago-O’Hare International Airport in honor of Lieutenant Commander Edward H. O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient who died in World War II.  By the end of 1962 O’Hare was the busiest airport in the world.

The background information just presented comes in large part from the Northwest Chicago Historical Society’s excellent description of the development of O’Hare Field, along with information from the Chicago Department of Aviation’s website.


  1. This was all new to me, very interesting!

  2. It's also why O'Hare has the code ORD short for Orchard!

  3. According to the FAA web site the official designation was made as follows..

    OR = Orchard D = Douglas

  4. My dad was a foreman on the production line, and my mom Rosella, now in her 90's, worked in the office and then when she got bored in 1944, as a riveter.
    Tom Nugent Grosse Pointe MI.

  5. My dad worked there. He was a Manager in the Personnel Department. His name was John Minogue.

  6. My mom, Virginia Jaskowiak, was a Rosie the Riveter.

  7. My grandfather Richard (Dick) Behrendt worked there too