A History of Curtiss-Wright During WWII

Curtiss-Wright propeller in We Can Do It! WWII
The completed display in the We Can Do It! WWII exhibit. The propeller is a SB2C Helldiver dive bomber made by the Curtiss-Wright propeller division, Beaver, Pa., c. 1943. L2015.44.1. Photo by Liz Simpson.

On display in the Hall of Industry section of the We Can Do It! WWII exhibition is a propeller on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum that was made locally by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

The company was part of a large national network that produced components for a variety of airplanes. As World War II intensified in 1940, Curtiss-Wright faced an increasing demand for manufacturing airplane parts, including propeller blades. Despite having multiple plants operating at full capacity with sites located in Indiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Curtiss-Wright could not keep up with the demand.

Curtiss-Wright plant, Beaver, Pa., 1945
An aerial view of the Curtiss-Wright plant in Beaver, Pa., May 1945.
Beaver Area Heritage Museum, 2010.02.01b.

A search began for a location for a new plant and in February 1941, the War Department announced that a site had been chosen – a farm in Borough (now Vanport) Township near Beaver, Pa.[1] The new $5 million facility would be “the largest individual aircraft propeller manufacturing plant in the United States” according to the company’s president.[2] The factory brought thousands of new jobs to the area between 1942 and 1945, employing many men and women, especially as welders. These workers eventually fabricated more than 100,000 new propeller blades for a variety of aircraft each year. The propeller displayed in the We Can Do It! WWII exhibit is from a Curtiss Helldiver, a carrier-based dive bomber used in squadron raids against Japan.

When the propeller arrived at the History Center for the exhibit, the pieces were unassembled and our skilled exhibits team had the task of locking the blades into the central mount then securing the propeller on the support base and to the wall. The blades and central mount of the propeller are very precise and need to be completely level with each other in order to screw into place. This was no small feat to accomplish!

Once the bottom blades were attached, the central mount could be placed on the support base that we built to hold it. The final piece to be added was the top blade that had to be raised above the central mount with a lift, then lowered and screwed into place before it could be secured to the wall. Once assembled and secured in place, we could truly appreciate the skill and hard work that it must have taken for Curtiss-Wright workers to make these propellers and for technicians to assemble such impressive machinery at wartime.

Unassembled components of the Curtiss-Wright propeller
Unassembled components of the Curtiss-Wright propeller. L2015.44.1. Photo by Liz Simpson.

[1] Some newspaper accounts at the time refer to the land selected as being in “Beaver Township,” probably a corruption of the township’s original name “Borough Township.” The official designation was changed to Vanport Township in 1970. The name shift was recorded by the “Beaver County Bicentennial Atlas” (1976), as accessed online, part of the Beaver County History Online project

[2] “Big Propeller Plant Will Be Built Near City,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 27, 1941.

Exhibits team
The exhibits team lifting the top blade of the propeller into place. Photo by Liz Simpson.

Liz Simpson is the assistant editor for Western Pennsylvania History Magazine and assistant registrar with the museum division at the Heinz History Center.

49 thoughts on “A History of Curtiss-Wright During WWII

    1. Spencer M. Vawter,
      My grandfather Earle Taylor also worked at the CW propeller plant in Indianapolis during WWII. I am finding it hard to find any records or information on the facility.

    2. My father, Homer Mullen worked at the Curtiss-Wright plant in Columbus, Ohio and received an ‘honorable mention’ certificate for an idea he submitted that was used. I have the certificate but was never able to find out what his ‘idea’ was.

      1. My Mother also worked at the Indy plant during the war. She worked in the shipping department. Does anyone know where the plant was located in Indy?

        1. They leased space in 1940 for the Midwest Propeller Division at the former Marmon Motor Car Co. plant at 1231 West Morris Street.

  1. I worked in this plant when it was Westinghouse. I knew its history and sought out others who did too. Spent many lunch periods exploring. I loved it! Great memories! Thanks Hienz History Center, good work.

  2. Curtiss Wright also built propellers at their Caldwell, New Jersey facility (Propeller Division). My father was the plant Superintendent and I have several original production photographs from te WWII era.

    1. Hello George, I would like to see some nice photos of Curtiss-Wright Caldwell. Maybe with your Father so I can give credit. My Family were Farmers in Caldwell Township ( Fairfield ) but worked night shifts at the plant. Thanks Much, …………Paul Pollio NJ pollios@optonline.net

    2. Hi George, my Mom worked there + would love more info. Trying to register her at the Rosie Riveter museum in Calif.

  3. My father worked in the Vanport plant prior to enlisting in the Navy. Years later I worked in the plant after I served in the Air Force. It was Westinghouse then but now it is Cutler Hammer. Dad passed on a number of years ago and he left me with an old wooden aircraft propeller that I assume was made there. Wish I knew the history of the prop.

  4. My Father Frank Dickson and My Uncle Andrew Levich worked at the Hasbrouck Heights Plant during the war designing prototype Props

  5. My father, Frank Lucia, worked at Curtiss-Wright for 37 years and retired from the company on July 7th,1969. At various times in his career he would commute to Paterson, Hasbrouk Heights and Caldwell before during and after World War II.
    His father, Tony and brothers Tony Jr and George also worked for the company. Dad passed away two weeks ago at the grand age of 107 and with his kean mind was always willing to relay stories about the war effort put forth at Curtiss-Wright by it’s dedicated and loyal workers.

  6. My mom was part of the (Pennsylvania) Curtiss-Wright Cadette Corps’ second graduating class, Nov. 1943. She was part of an aircraft construction team. It was during that time she met and married a young serviceman (OCS Engineering student) at State College

  7. My mother, Christina Ferne (Leonard) Cook from Oak Hill, Ohio, worked at the Columbus, Ohio plant during WW-II era as a rivetor (i.e. : a Rosie the Rivetor). Meanwhile my father Clarence Cook (Blackfork, Ohio) was in the US Army stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for 4 years 1941-1945. GOD Bless and May you both R.I.P.
    Love your son ,
    Joseph Clare Cook, RPh
    Wentzville. MO. 63385

  8. Metal propeller 30% better climb rate- British Tomahawk had but not CW until much later- reason why? Local newspaper stories of events there.

  9. My father, John Alvin Bohl, was a manager at the Indianapolis plant during WWII. I would be grateful for any info as to where a picture of the plant and employee records could be found. Barbara Bohl Brunner

  10. I worked there under Brown as a system coordinator on x-19 until it closed. Shortly thereafter I went into the USArmy. Any body remember Bucky from the shop? Still have the publicity handouts and news coverage of the X-19. We lost the contract to Boeing but it sure resembles the Osprey (albeit many years earlier!)

  11. Just a little personal story about those propellers on WWII aircraft! In the 1940’s the Curtiss-Wright propeller plant was in Caldwell, NJ. We lived high in the hills of Towaco overlooking the Great Peace Meadow with Caldwell in the background on the other side of the Passaic River. As a little kid I used to sit on the cliff in our back yard and watch all the activity that long distance away. I was so intrigued I even tried to hike there but was blocked by the river! I had no idea I would also be blocked by Rt 46 and many other obstacles if I had ever gotten across the river! But after the USMC I did learn to fly at Caldwell Wright airfield! http://www.ecianj.com/index.php/home/essex-county-airport-cdw
    Semper Fidelis
    Bob Rohrer

  12. Blessings and many thanks to all of you with family members who helped build the Curtiss-Wright Helldivers that my beloved late father flew as a US Navy dive-bomber pilot in the Pacific during WWII. I salute their service!! Thanks to this plane’s sturdy, solid construction, Daddy made it home safely (along with a Navy Cross and DFC that he never discussed, because his heart was always with those who never made it home). I write this on the anniversary of his death long ago — he was taken from us way too soon… Respectfully, Bryn

  13. Dad had asthma and was not able to enlist in the military, so his contribution toward WWII was building planes at Curtiss Wright. He stayed at the plant until retiring in the 1980’s. In those years, the plant changed hands twice – Curtiss Wright to North American Aviation to Rockwell – and today, it is part of Boeing. After the war, Dad then became the plant’s Experimental Toolmaker and remained in that position until retiring. He was the only one in this position. He really loved his job because he never knew, one day to the next, where he would be in the plant. Being the only Experimental Toolmaker at the plant, he had the opportunity to have his “hands” in each contract the plant received

    I remember going to two of the company’s Family Day(s). The second was in 1976 and I saw part of their latest contract – the first NASA Space Shuttle. What a thrill that was!

    Occasionally Dad would bring a pic of some project he was involved with, including other NASA and Armed Forces’ contracts. I remember one apparatus that would be used in astronaut training. This is the only way I can describe it: The astronaut would sit inside a capsule attached to scaffolding on the ends. It would go up & down, side to side, & forward & back at the same time. Those who built it, including Dad, posed holding onto the scaffolding all the way up.

    1. I am exploring the history of my grandfather. He was a supervisor at Curtis Wright and also worked on the Spirit of St. Louis. I do have a photograph of him at the drafting table. Plus a photo of the Spirit of St. Louis. Any information you can give me to help my research will be appreciated.
      thank you

  14. I just realized, that in the comment above, I forgot to name where the plant was… Columbus, Ohio. Dad drove the 50+ miles from Logan and back for all those years.

  15. My dad worked at the Columbus plant during the war, assembling the fwd fuselage/bomb bay section. He was so proud of the Helldiver, I think his stories are what inspired me to get into aviation and make it my carrier.

  16. My mother worked at this plant in Vanport Pennsylvania during WWII. She was in the payroll department, and she said the day the war ended, the plant closed immediately and the second shift didn’t even go on. The payroll department stayed up all night processing final payroll checks and handing them out to the long line of workers.
    Thank you for this wonderful article!

  17. My Grandmother Ethel Dees worked at the Induanapolis Pland during the war. She worked on the Lunch Truck feeding the workers. She loved working there and talked about it often

  18. My father, Jerome M. Hetherton, was manager of Labor Relations at the Caldwell Propeller Division plant from 1941 until his death on July 5, 1955, when I was 11. When he passed, the union newsletter had a very moving tribute to him, saying he had quietly righted a lot of wrongs. I have a photo of several members of the Plant management on the tarmac in Caldwell with Richard Nixon in 1952 when Nixon was running for Vice President with Eisenhower.

    1. Hi Judith, I’m a Fairfield Historian, and would love to share your 1952 picture with our Historical Society. Thank You

  19. It’s the end of 2020 and I’m just seeing this, thanks to my grandson. My dad was an engineer in the propeller division in Indianapolis til it closed. He transferred there from a plant in New Jersey.

  20. From the US Department of Commerce publication: U.S. Military Acceptances 1940-1945 Aircraft, Engine and Propeller Production. Curtiss-Wright Propeller monthly employee numbers @ Beaver, PA plant. 1943 monthly employee numbers, start of production at plant Feb. 4396 to 3847 Dec. 1944 employee numbers 3495 to 3883 Jan. – Dec. 1945 Jan. 3988 to 257 in Nov. Dec. 1945 employee’s Zero! This publication gives no production numbers for number of propellers manufactured at each Curtiss-Wright propeller plants just total of all plants each month, nor can one know what model propellers each Curtiss-Wright factory produced from this 206 page,1946 publication.

  21. My Father Jason Woodbury worked at CW Caldwell NJ for many years during WW2 up into the 70s. During the war or part of it he was the President of Local A.F. of L at the caldwell Plant. Any photos would be appreciated

    1. Tom, My father was manager of labor relations at the Caldwell plant from 1941 until his death on July 5, 1955. Get in touch and we can share whatever information we have.

  22. My dad worked at the Vanport/Beaver Curtiss-Wright location. We lived in Tamaqui Village. I was told that Tamaqui was built primarily for the workers of Curtiss-Wright.

  23. To Tom Woodbury: Because your father was President of the local A F of L, you might find my father’s story less than pleasing.

    According to my father, he worked at the Caldwell plant making propellers. Specifically whether grinding, drilling, polishing or whatever, I do not know. One day an individual who claimed he was with the union came in and asked my father how many propellers he could process in an hour. My father replied “Ten.” The man said to him, “Well, cut that down to five. You’re working too fast.” My father replied, “My brother-in-law is fighting in the Pacific. Don’t tell me to slow down. Get out of here before I hit you with this propeller.”

    I would appreciate any insight you might have regarding this incident. Could it be that the union was just organizing at this time and that is what prompted this individual to demand that my father slow down his work?

    Dr. Michael Gialanella


  24. My Dad, Samuel C Barnitt, Jr, was a civilian test pilot for the Propeller Division of CW in Caldwell, NJ in the early- to mid-1940s. On 6/3/1944 he took off from the CW airfield in Caldwell in an early-model P-47 Thunderbolt, a so-called “razorback.” His job was to take the P-47 up to 25,000 feet and make five “military dives” at 400 mph. Unbeknownst to him he was testing the propeller intended to be used on the B-29 “Enola Gay” to drop the first atomic bomb. This was part of the super-secret “Manhattan Project.” About to go into his first dive the engine (Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp – a radial engine having two rows of 9 cylinders – “the engine that won the war in the Pacific”) started backfiring and quit. He had to “dead stick” it back to base, but couldn’t make it. He went into the woods thinking he was a goner, but one of his wings hit a tree, didn’t sheer off, but rather stopped his forward motion, spun around and plopped to the ground, not catching fire. He walked away with a few broken ribs. The cause of the accident was determined to be a ground crew mistake, mixing 91 with 100 octane fuel. The R-2800 engine required 100 octane. My Dad went on to a successful 34-year airline career (with Colonial and Eastern) and was inducted into the NJ Aviation HOF at Teterboro Airport in 1977.

  25. Is anyone alive who remembers my Dad, Samuel C. Barnitt, Jr., who worked as a civilian test pilot for the propeller division of Curtiss Wright in Caldwell, NJ during the 1940s? (He passed away on 5/6/1979) You can write to me at barnitt@aol.com.

  26. My father, Paul Reeb, worked at the Beaver, Pa. plant from 1941-1945. His job was as an Inspector Quality Control and X-rayed all propellers before shipment. This was done by using X-rays to detect any metal defects that would weaken the propeller and cause it to break during combat. Unfortunately, there was no X-ray safety shielding, and his head was hit by X-ray (no pain or sensation felt) with each exam. He had no idea he was exposing himself to brain damage. After the war, he died of a brain tumor caused by that industrial exposure! Later reports that many other Inspectors died from the same cause.

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