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On the morning of December 7,1941, a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, led to the United States' entry into World War II. Upon the declaration of war by U.S. Congress, companies throughout the country converted their factories from peacetime to wartime production.

In Michigan, the Chris-Craft Corporation quickly transitioned from building pleasure boats to constructing landing craft for the war effort. Together, its factories would become part of America's "Arsenal of Democracy" by producing the boats that helped win the war.

In the fall of 1940, when World War II was raging in Europe and Asia but had not yet involved the United States, the Chris-Craft Corporation of Algonac, Michigan, was awarded a $37,000 contract to build 27 utility speedboats for the U.S. Army to use as crash boats and rescue boats to retrieve downed aircraft pilots. That contract signaled the recreational boating company's first-ever military contract, which would eventually lead to the production of at least 11 different types of military watercraft used in World War II.

The Chris-Craft Corporation Goes to War

A year earlier, the Chris-Craft Corporation had announced plans to establish a second boatbuilding factory in Holland, Michigan. The 600- by 107-foot plant was wood-framed and covered in galvanized steel, and it included 500 windows and 5 miles of piping for steam heat. It was divided into four areas--woodworking, hull framing, painting, and final assembly--which reflected how a boat was to be built from raw lumber to a finished product. Those areas were further subdivided into four production lines, much like an automobile plant.

The new Holland plant included a railroad spur connected to the main Pere Marquette rail system that passed through the area. That spur was used to bring in raw materials to the plant--including lumber, chemicals, engines, and other boatbuilding supplies--and to ship completed boats to consumers around the country. In early February 1940, more than a hundred workers watched the first boat leave the Holland factory, the first of thousands that would be produced until the plant was shuttered in January 1989.

Several factors--such as early successes at the Holland factory, an increase in consumer demand throughout the country, labor union strikes, and the looming war in Europe--encouraged the Chris-Craft Corporation to establish a third, much smaller plant in Cadillac, Michigan, in January 1941.

Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entrance into the war in December 1941, security fences were erected around all three Chris-Craft factories, sentry towers were built and manned by armed security guards, and all employees were required to furnish a birth certificate.

Orders and blueprints for 1,025 boats were quickly brought from Washington, D.C., to Michigan for the construction of four types of 36-foot military landing craft, which were based on designs that had been created by Andrew Higgins of Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana. Those models included the Landing Craft Personnel Large (LCPL), Landing Craft Personnel Ramp (LCPR), Landing Craft Vehicle Ramp (LCVR), and Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP).

Of those models, the LCVP saw the highest numbers bunt during World War II. It measured 36 feet, 3 inches by 10 feet, 10 inches; had a draft of 3 feet; was propelled by a 225- or 250-horsepower diesel engine; and could reach a top speed of 9 knots. Each LCVP could hold a 6,000-pound vehicle; 8,100 pounds of general cargo; or 36 soldiers. A crew of three men manned the boat and its two .30-caliber machine guns.

Building the Boats

When wartime production began at the Chris-Craft Corporation, the Holland plant was scheduled to construct six landing craft per day--though it occasionally built as many as ten per day--and the Cadillac plant, two per day. At both factories, several stations on an assembly line were used to construct the landing craft. Four production lines were in place, with the boats moving to the next station every one or two hours.

Each landing craft took its basic shape from precut oak parts and long sheets of precut marine-grade plywood that had been prepared in the plant's mill room. Former Holland plant employee Abe Vanden Berg remembered that each side of a boat was made out of one sheet of plywood that was hoisted into place onto a large jig by five or six men and attached to the inner ribs by a few men and women using drills and drivers on each side.

At other stations, workers added a deck, a steel ramp, a powertrain, steering equipment and hardware, a gun platform, and a coat of grayish-blue paint to each landing craft. A federal inspector working in the plant would review each boat to make sure it was up to government specifications.

Once the landing craft were completed, they were then shipped either by rail or truck to the Chris-Craft factory in Algonac for testing on the St. Clair River to check for leaks and other mechanical problems. Algonac plant employees such as Christopher Smith, grandson of company founder Christopher Columbus Smith, conducted those tests. "In high school, they let me work summers," he recalled, "and I remember unloading two boats from Cadillac every single morning except on Sundays." From there, the landing craft were shipped to east coast ports for loading onto large ships bound for war zones overseas.

A Crisis of Labor

The wartime production at the three Chris-Craft plants so impressed the U.S. government that the company was awarded the Navy "E" Award for excellence in the production of war equipment on June 15,1942. Much of that success can be attributed to the 20 years of experience that the Chris-Craft Corporation had in boatbuilding and that it had become one of the largest producers of boats in the world. Other factors included an outstanding work ethic on the part of the company's labor force, which had increased by a thousand workers to stay on schedule.

In 1942, a union organizer from Higgins Industries in New Orleans came to Holland to organize at the Chris-Craft factory. When a vote was taken, 52 percent of the hourly employees voted to unionize, though union membership never reached more than 70 or 80 percent of the workforce.

Nonstop production of military landing craft by the Chris-Craft Corporation continued until April 1944, when more than 150 Holland factory employees walked off the job over delays in wage adjustments by the National War Labor Board (NWLB). Those workers were members of four unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor: the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the International Association of Machinists, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Brotherhood of Painters, and the Decorators and Paper Hangers of America.

A few days later, support for the walkout in Holland extended to the factories in Algonac and Cadillac plants. Eventually, as many as 1,000 workers from the three plants participated in the strike. By early May 1944, the NWLB agreed to meet with union leaders over the dispute if the striking Chris-Craft employees returned to work. The unions agreed, the workers returned to their jobs, and full production was restored at all three plants.

Chris-Craft Boats in the Invasion of Normandy

On June 6,1944, Allied soldiers clambered over the sides of large troopships into more than 4,000 landing craft--many of them LCVPs--and prepared to storm several beaches in northern France to kick off the Allied invasion of Axis-occupied Europe, known as "Operation Overlord" or "D-Day." It was the largest amphibious invasion in modern history.

Landing craft ferried tens of thousands of Allied troops to the hostile shores of Normandy, where the large steel ramp at the front of each boat dropped and the men charged ashore under heavy enemy fire. Taking only three or four minutes to unload, the landing craft would raise their ramps with a cable and pulley system, quickly turn around in the breaking surf, and return to the troopships for more men. It was reported by some sources that a Chris-Craft-built LCVP was the first boat to land troops that day, but without builder plates on the boats, it is impossible to know for sure.

After the initial assault had ended and small beachheads were established ashore at Normandy, the landing craft were used to transport wounded soldiers back to hospital ships and return to the beaches with more men, vehicles, and supplies. Boats that were damaged in the assault were later mended in land-based repair facilities. The rapid and effective repair of landing craft during the course of the war allowed newer boats to be sent to other areas of conflict, such as Italy, southern France, Germany, and the Pacific.

By the end of World War II, the Chris-Craft Corporation had produced approximately 12,000 landing craft that were used by Allied forces in all combat theaters. The Holland factory had built roughly 10,000 of those boats, while the Cadilac plant made up the remaining 2,000. In total, the Chris-Craft Corporation and other boatbuilding companies produced more than 23,000 LCVPs--the boats that helped win the war.

By Geoffrey D. Reynolds

Geoffrey D. Reynolds is the director of the Joint Archives of Holland at Hope College and author of the book Boats Made in Holland: A Michigan Tradition.

Caption: Opposite page: A military landing craft brings U.S. soldiers toward Omaha Beach on the morning of D-Day,June 6, 1944. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.) Above: The Chris-Craft Plant in Holland, Michigan, c. 1940. (Photo courtesy ofthe joint Archives of Holland.)

Caption: A completed Chris-Craft Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) being loaded onto a truck for transport. (Photo courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.)

Caption: Several completed Chris-Craft LCVPs pass th rough downtown Cadillac en route to the war zone. (Photo courtesy of Ruth Jacob Hammar and Ruby Jacob Samuelson.)

Caption: The Chris-Craft Corporation reached a major mile stone with its eight-thousandth landing boat completed during the war. (Photo courtesy of the joint Archives of Holland.)

Caption: Troop-laden LCVPs bound for Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

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Author:Reynolds, Geoffrey D.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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