AMERICA observed two milestones in December.
First, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Few of us today were around for that event. Instead, our generation has memories of a similar day that occurred 10 years ago. History seemed to repeat itself a decade ago when planes flown by enemies of the United States once again caught our nation unaware and killed more than 2000 of our people.
The second milestone: the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association announced that it would disband. The size of the group had dwindled, and many of those still alive found it difficult to travel to the reunions. December 7 is still a day that lives in infamy, but the simple ravages of time have accomplished what Japanese planes failed to do.
This second milestone has far greater ramifications for us today. Yes, the attack on Pearl Harbor was significant. It points out how important it is to be the best nation we can, to be prepared to handle unexpected challenges. But the second milestone makes it clear to whom this message applies. It's addressed to us. With the passing of what has been called “the greatest generation,” it's officially our turn. Baby boomers and their children now bear complete responsibility for the state of the nation.
That responsibility includes an industry that was indispensible during World War II — the production of trucks and trailers. We talk a lot about the importance of our industry in delivering the goods that consumers need. We've heard it said countless times that trucks bring us our food and our bed, not to mention the latest electronic gadget. But our industry has shown that it is just as important in times of war as it has been in times of peace.
American factories turned out staggering numbers of equipment to win World War II, including 2,382,311 military trucks. Our truck production was almost five times the number of vehicles built by Germany and Japan combined. As the war wore on, we increasingly held the upper hand in being able to move our troops and to provide them with the services they needed. And when we could not build something fast enough, we developed a new way of doing things. As an example, we could not produce enough castings during World War II, which limited the number of fifthwheels that could be built. In response, John Fontaine figured out how to accomplish the same purpose with a fabricated fifthwheel instead of a cast one.
The amount of freight that needed to be moved was massive. More than 19 million tons of war materiel moved on ships, according to the Army Air Forces Statistical Digest. That was cargo that typically had to be trucked to the dock and then trucked again to the frontlines and other destinations in Europe and the Pacific.
Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged us into World War II, American fabrication shops and factories began working around the clock. They produced 324,750 aircraft, 88,410 tanks and self-propelled guns, and added more than 1000 ships to the US Navy.
So as we say good-bye to “the greatest generation” one member at a time, it's appropriate to thank them for their service as well as to reflect on our own situation.
Are we capable of doing what they did? If our country needed massive quantities of military trucks and trailers, could we deliver? If not, what do we need to change?
Today's CNC machine tools give us manufacturing flexibility unlike anything we had during World War II. You can see that technology on display in our report on the recent Fabtech exhibition (coverage begins on Page 26).
But what about our approach to the work we perform? The World War II generation struck a balance between blind determination and improvisation. The Great Depression taught them to keep fighting, to never give up. But they also did whatever was required. Need a landing craft for D-Day? Modify the boats that Cajuns use in the swamps of Louisiana. Need employees? Stay-at-home moms joined Rosie the Riveter on the production line. Many truck body and trailer manufacturers today are finding it difficult to hire enough welders, even at a time when the unemployment rate is historically high. How will we as a nation respond to a critical labor shortage?
The world has changed a lot since the first Pearl Harbor Day. Many of the machine tools that we use to fabricate truck bodies and trailers come from the very countries that we fought against during World War II. But we would do well to learn from those fought that war — on the frontlines and in the factories. Some of the values they exemplified should never change.
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