Friday, April 23, 2010

What Was The Spruce Production Division?

Photo credit:  "Possibly WWI Fighter Plane, 1916," Prints & Photographs Div., Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-D418-407 DLC

[Also click here to check out this fascinating and funny website of photos and info about early aircraft].

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, three years after the war began in Europe. Airplanes were a relatively new technology at that time, especially untried in the arena of war. U.S. industry had been supplying England and France with some planes during the first part of the war. A number of different aircraft designs were tested. By the time the U.S. got involved in the war, the Allies decided to try using air assaults, since ground offensives had reached a stalemate. The preferred material for airplane structure was Sitka spruce wood for its qualities of strength, light weight, and clear straight grain, “and would not splinter when struck by a rifle bullet” [quote by Lt. Col. Disque, cited in “The Spruce Production Division,” Forest History Today, Spring, 1999. See this site also for detailed history & photos]. The wooden framework was then covered with a canvas-like membrane.

Weeks after the nation joined the war, an act of Congress allocated $11 million for stepping up aircraft production. Lt. Col. Brice P. Disque was appointed by the government to secret duty to assess the situation in the Pacific Northwest, where most of the prime Sitka spruce forests were located. A powder keg of labor unrest was getting ready to blow at that time in the logging and lumber milling industries. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, aka the “Wobblies”) were agitating the situation and workers were getting ready to strike for shorter work days and higher wages.

On November 6, 1917, Disque was promoted to Colonel and was given command of the Spruce Production Division (as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps). Headquarters were stationed in the Yeon Building in downtown Portland, Oregon. The main operations center for troop movement & training was Vancouver Barracks, Vancouver, Washington. Vancouver was also the site of the main sawmill called the Cut-Up Plant, which was also constructed and run by “spruce soldiers” [see this link for extensive history of the Vancouver Barracks & photo of the Cut-Up Plant on page 7 of 173 pp.].

Initial recruitment of soldiers with logging and woods experience to the Spruce Division were viewed by local lumbermen as “scabs,” or strike breakers, which did not relieve the tensions of the labor situation. Disque developed a brilliant strategy to overcome these problems by appealing to workers’ patriotic loyalty to country and understanding of the extreme efforts required of citizens during wartime. The plan gave the Army oversight of the spruce production, while soldiers were hired out to and paid through civilian logging operations. Despite initial resistence, all parties soon recognized that the scheme was of mutual benefit to private lumber owners and laborers, as well as to the government. This led to the founding of the Loyal Legion of Loggers & Lumbermen (the 4-L’s), a civilian organization whose members had to sign a patriotic pledge in exchange for a membership card and badge. The LLLL loggers worked along side the Spruce Division soldiers.

Photo found here.

There were five military field districts of the Spruce Production Division. In addition to the Headquarters in Portland, and the Vancouver Barracks, the districts were located in Puget Sound, WA; Grays Harbor & Wallapa Bay, WA; Clatsop & Coos Counties, OR; and Lincoln County, OR. Over 26,000 soldiers and about 1,000 officers established 234 camps in these sections of the Washington and Oregon coasts.

The war ended on November 11, 1918.

Posted by jackie.

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