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Racine helps win the war

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`Ike' credited Higgins boats with turning tide in World War II

By Rob Golub

Journal Times

Ike said Higgins boats won the war, and Racine helped build Higgins boats, so what does that say for Racine?

You might say Racine won the war.

In fact, the whole area was practically converted into a massive factory during World War II. Invention City became the launch pad for tanks, military transmissions, gun parts, bombs, war manuals and more. Factories around the city were short on employees, even as they were immersed in military purchase orders.

But it's Racine's work for Higgins boats that may be the area's most famous contribution to the war effort.

Gen. Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower called Andrew Higgins "the man who won the war for us." Higgins designed and mass-produced his boats, mostly in New Orleans, but with Racine parts.

These flat-bottom boats, used for the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944 and other invasions, were called LCVPs. In Armyspeak, that's "landing craft, vehicle and personnel."

"If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed on an open beach," Eisenhower said. "The whole strategy of the war would have been different."

It was Twin Disc Corp., and its Racine workers, that provided the gears for the LCVP engines.

"In every major assault on the shores of Fortress Europe and the islands of the Pacific, Twin Disc Marine Gears have been on the job," boasts a 1940s Twin Disc brochure. The Twin Disc gears, it says, allowed the LCVPs to shift easily to full-power reverse and back.

But this Racine contribution was just one among many. The Racine wartime production effort changed more than the nature of war - it changed the nature of Racine County. "It went from Depression, really, to very big output," said John Matthews, a volunteer with the Racine Heritage Museum archives. Matthews has pored through the county's wartime records.

Matthews said the sudden surge in production was difficult to sustain. Men were off fighting the war, and women in the 1940s didn't typically work, so there were not enough employees for the factories. Women were prodded to work, but it was not enough to fill Racine's wartime demand.

It's part of how Racine became a multicultural community. Trailer camps were set up for workers, most of them black, who came from around the nation for the promise of wartime jobs.

The camps were comprised of dull, cookie-cutter trailers with no toilets or washrooms and sheet metal for walls.

Despite its labor shortages, Racine became a major source for war materials, according to records kept at the archives. By mid-1943, most of the city's production was for the war.

Holand-Racine Shoe Co. produced 2 million pairs of shoes and boots for soldiers. Johnson Wax (now SC Johnson) produced waxes, canned heat and cleaning products. Horlick's Malted Milk Co. provided malted milk tablets for rations and survival kits. Western Publishing Co. printed millions of war manuals, maps and posters.

Case Corp., now a part of CNH Global, continued to produce equipment for agriculture while also focusing on war work.

"They had just built a new building on the south side and that was taken over for war work," said Ray Heller, former archivist for Case. "They had a subcontract to build wings for the B-26 bomber. They built Howitzer gun mounts. They built anti-aircraft shells in the foundry. They produced tractors that were used on air bases to haul things around."

Also in Racine, Massey-Harris built a light armored Howitzer, and the firm manufactured M-5 tanks. The M-5 was credited with helping the Allies defeat the Germans in North Africa. It was considered a light tank, with good speed and maneuverability.

W.K. Hyslof, former president and general manager of Massey-Harris, wrote a March 16, 1946, letter to a postwar historical committee about the firm's contributions.

"The Massey-Harris Company purchased the former Nash-Kelvinator Plant on the south side of Racine, specifically for the purpose of making Army tanks," he wrote. "Until the end of the war, more than 3,000 tanks of various types were produced."

The firm also ran a payroll deduction program to sell war bonds to workers, and it saw nearly 700 workers leave for the armed services.

"From Massey-Harris came men, machines and money in abundant measure," Hyslof wrote, "to help see the war through to its successful conclusion."

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