History Magazine: Prelude to Victory
Christopher Johnston looks back at industrialist Frederick c. Crawford’s tour of the western front in the late stages of WWII
In December of 1944, Frederick C. Crawford, president of Thompson Products, Inc., an automotive and aviation parts manufacturer in Cleveland, stepped out of an airplane in Cherbourg, France. He led a group of six major US industrialists as they cautiously tromped through the same sea of mud that had dogged Allied armies throughout Europe during those winter months. Quickly, they found themselves in awe of their surroundings, the terrible wreckage of harbor installations, docks and buildings, resulting from demolition by the German Army.
Crawford’s party included Stuart Cramer, Jr., president of Cramerton Mills, Inc., Cramer- ton, NC; Duncan Fraser, president of the American Locomotive Company, New York, NY; Charles Kendrick, president of the Schlage Lock Company, San Francisco, CA; S.E. Skinner, vice president of the Oldsmobile Division, General Motors Corporation, Lansing, MI; and Clarence Stoll, president of Western Electric Company, New York, NY.
Short of railroad trackage, without warehouses or adequate storage places, the extraordinary resourcefulness of the Army engineers in Cherbourg quickly became apparent. Forty-seven Liberty Ships were crowded against the wrecked docks or anchored in the harbor nearby. A fleet of ducks plowed through mud, down ramps into the harbor, out of the ships and back with huge loads of war materiel.
“These monsters – half truck and half boat – are one of the great inventions of this war,” Crawford said later in a speech at the Waldorf Astoria in New York after returning to the US.
To a one, the industrialists were impressed by the fact that, in a just few weeks, US Army engineers had raised the tonnage handled in this demolished harbor to four times that of its peacetime record.
Why They Were There
By September 1944, the Allies had made two false assumptions: Hitler’s army was defeated, and the war would be finished by Christmas. What followed were a disastrous Allied airborne landing in the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden in September, American setbacks on the German border and in the Hürtgen Forest, and the devastating Battle of the Bulge late in the year. Instead of an enemy anxious to capitulate, the Allies faced a determined foe that refused to negotiate a peaceful surrender no matter the cost.
Back home, people felt the war was coming to a close, so they had already begun to turn their attention to postwar activities. The National Association of Manufacturers, of which Crawford had served as President the past year, planned a convention to discuss postwar jobs. Although he never directly stated that the war was almost over, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had begun to reference Allied victory.
On 23 September 1944, at a campaign dinner in Washington, DC, he said: “We are even now organizing the logistics of the peace, just as [Generals] Marshall and King and Arnold, MacArthur, Eisenhower, and [Admiral] Nimitz are organizing the logistics of this war… The victory of the American people and their allies in this war will be a victory for democracy.”
FDR’s War Department, however, wanted to stimulate further industrial production to support General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to win the war with material, not men. Thus, Lieutenant General Brehon B. Somervell, Chief of the Armed Service Forces, had invited these six prominent industrialists to the front to observe the problems encountered due to lack of supplies, hoping that they would return and stimulate war production for the final effort to finish the war.
Flight To Paris
Leaving Cherbourg, the industrialists flew over the D-Day landing beaches. They saw the wreckage of the great Atlantic storm of late June, which had destroyed the temporary Mulberry Harbor structures off of Omaha Beach a week after they were built.They then flew over the fields where great tank battles had taken place; over St. Lo, where the Germans shelled the city for eight days; and over Caen, completely destroyed. All of the devastation of war stood against a background of beautiful, rich, green farmlands, farmers plowing, cattle and sheep grazing.
They then flew over the fields where great tank battles had taken place; over St. Lo, where the Germans shelled the city for eight days; and over Caen, completely destroyed. All of the devastation of war stood against a background of beautiful, rich, green farmlands, farmers plowing, cattle and sheep grazing.
In Paris, except for the wreckage of airfields and some factories, there were few signs of war. The people looked well. The city was cold, because the breakdown of transport left it without coal. Black markets have caused suffer- ing in the cities, and there are high prices and a shortage of food.
Here they met with Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee, who was in charge of all supply services. They learned of the terrible transport problem that faced the Army. Every railroad bridge was down. The Germans had destroyed 800 locomotives in the Paris area alone by placing a bomb in each firebox and removing the left cylinder. Of course, the Germans had taken all working automotive transport in their hasty retreat.
Crawford and crew felt no praise was high enough for the extraordinary job done by American engineers in building 400 bridges, repairing the railroads, stringing communication lines for telephone and Teletype. They saw a fleet of 30 jeeps that had traveled 35,000 miles – nearly one and a half times around the world – in a single week, delivering messages, where telephones were not available. One hundred twenty airports were built, each consuming 7,500 tons of steel strip. These enabled the fighter planes to operate close to the lines, thus consuming less of the precious fuel in reaching the battle zone.
Visit to a Base
Leaving Paris by car, they traveled on to a great base zone center, with many warehouses, including the largest clothing depot on the continent. From this base, millions of men were clothed and supplied.
At a waste salvage depot, they saw a pile of shoes as high as a house. German prisoners were sorting them by size and rebuild- ing them at long lines of shoe repair machines. Truck tires blown out or torn were brought in, and material was cut from the treads to make soles and heels. They also watched as Army mechanics repaired tank treads, welded great sheets of armor plate over shell holes and installed new equipment. Of 105 wrecked tanks brought in, 55 were soon returned to the battle line.
On a stop at Verdun, they witnessed an incident that touched them all. In 1918, a young major on General Clarence Ransom Edward’s staff, badly gassed in the eyes, was taken to a simple French home, where the family cared for him tenderly and nursed him back to health. During the group’s visit, 26 years later, this Army officer returned to the simple French home, met the survivors of the family, and found his picture hanging on the wall of the room where he convalesced. That officer was Charles Kendrick of their party.
Meeting General Patton
From Verdun, they traveled to the headquarters of General George Patton, in command of the Third Army. After lunch, General Patton reviewed the story of the war, of the great victory at Cherbourg, of the breakthrough and of the famous end run across France.
He told them of the short period of good weather that enabled the Air Force, through extensive bombing, to destroy bridges and cut off the Germans from their reserves. They also learned of the extraordinary advance of the mechanized equipment across France, called by General Eisen- hower one of the great military maneuvers of all time.
They learned of the supply challenges for the armored divisions, as there was plenty of gas in tankers off the beaches, but bridges were gone, railroads were destroyed, and pipelines would be installed later. Only trucks could keep the supply of precious fuel flowing from the tankers to the tanks. Every available truck was dispatched and began the long 700-mile run to the beaches. Even fighter planes were used to bring extra tanks of gas to the front to keep the drive rolling. Finally, General Patton ordered the gas from the trucks put into his tanks, and he told his men to go until the tanks stopped – and then get out and walk.
Under these terrible conditions, all quartermaster records went by the boards. Overcoats normally lasting 19 months were gone in nine; overshoes disappeared in half the time. Jackets normally lasting a year were out in eight months. The industrialists wondered what had become of the vast quantities of materials they had supplied the Army. Now, after seeing the conditions in Europe, their questions were answered. Crawford later told of how his own suit nearly fell apart during their three-week trip.
The “New War” in Europe Begins
Their next visit took them to the headquarters of General Omar Bradley in the 12th US Army Group. The quiet, frank-speaking officer took them into his map room and reviewed the situation in Europe. Unfortunately for the Allies, the end run across France ended at the strongest natural line for the defense of Germany, and in a remarkably short time, the enemy armies had re-formed. Thousands of new Volks- Grenadiers were hastily recruited. The enemy exhibited signs of skillful generalship. An entirely new situation presented itself, and Crawford and the group believed the first war had ended and a new kind of conflict had begun.
“In early December, we found ourselves standing before a thousand miles of coherent enemy lines, in the most defensive position in Europe,” Crawford later observed. “Mobile warfare was over for the moment. We were starting a new kind of warfare, in which we must slug it out with a revitalized enemy. We were learning how true the statement was that Germany is easy to defend and hard to attack.”
Land of the V-Bombs
Continuing north into Belgium, they experienced one of the most harrowing thrills of their whole trip. While stopped to wait for a lagging automobile, they stood on a ridge looking toward the German line, six or seven miles away. The fog and rain had lifted temporarily. The eastern sky was deep blue, according to Crawford’s recollections, and the setting sun in the west cast low shadows.
Suddenly, an enormous shaft of smoke and vapor from a V-2 rocket rose from behind the German lines – at first very slowly, and then faster and faster, and then on up and up, until it disappeared into the clear blue of the sky. This great column of vapor and smoke stood there straight as an arrow for one or two minutes, and then broke and blew away in the afternoon breeze. Later, they were again thrilled to see one launched after dark – a ball of fire rising nearly straight up, until it disappeared into the heavens.
Reaching a small Belgian town where they put up for the night in an ancient hotel, they learned why they were called buzz bombs, as the V-2s were flying over at regular intervals, 700, 900 or 1,000 feet high, sounding like huge, sputtering motorcycles, spitting out explosions of flame that rattled the windows and sometimes broke them. The missiles were fired in ever-increasing quantities into Belgian cities that were important Army supply points.
Visiting the Ruins of AAchen
The party drove to Aachen, where they witnessed utter destruction. The famed cathedral was shattered, possibly restorable, but not another building seemed fit to rebuild. Here they heard the story of how the US Army surrounded the city. It was doomed. A reasonable enemy would have yielded. A young lieutenant went forward with a white flag and gave the city a day to surrender. Word came back from German headquarters of their desperate decision to hold the city at any cost.
Here again the Army was faced with a decision – lives or shells? Men could take that city, but that wasn’t their way. Instead, they poured 300,000 105-millimeter shells, in addition to other sizes of ammunition, into that city of 100,000 people. When their fire lifted, the troops went forward and captured a dazed or dead enemy, with very little loss of American life. Snipers were blown from wrecked buildings with 155-millimeter shells. Again, the decision of the enemy determined the kind and amount of ammunition the US needed to expend. Their decision cost the US vast reserves of heavy caliber shells.
General Eisenhower’s Message
The weary group returned to Paris for their last stop at the headquarters of General Eisenhower. At dinner, he talked frankly and openly. They were impressed by the Supreme Allied Commander’s seriousness, his determination to stick to his job and crush the enemy. He reviewed this terrible new phase of the war and reaffirmed his pledge to the G.I.s that he would win with material instead of American lives, confirm- ing the great need for supplies.
He told of his great pride in the American soldier. When he visits the front, he said, he singles out a G.I., walks with him and talks with him, and invariably the conversation turns to what he expressed to the group as the “Spiritual, or call it what you may.”
In his speech, Crawford later recalled how General Eisenhower had concluded their evening by revealing that, “Our boys wonder what people are thinking at home. Are they behind the soldier? Are they going to stick with him to the end? He is hungry for assurance that we will not let him down. Don’t worry about the morale of our boys; just back them up.”
“We returned deeply sobered by our short trip to the Western Front as guests of the Army,” Crawford said in his address at the War and Reconversion Congress of American Industry of the National Association of Manufacturers, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York shortly after they returned in December. “This is a vast war. No one can understand it without seeing it. In our short trip, distinct impressions were burned into our minds. We face a powerful and fiendish enemy. Many lives will be lost before victory.”
Crawford concluded his speech that night by saying, “We thought of the home front still celebrating the victory of Cherbourg, still unaware that a new and more terrible battle for Germany had begun. We solemnly pledged our- selves to return to bring you this message, to travel this land, to tell all men who love their country to re-enlist in this battle for freedom.”
Crawford’s report was then printed and distributed to employees of Thompson Products plants at Cleveland and Euclid, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Bell, California; St. Catherine’s, Ontario; and to the more than 5,000 Thompson men and women who were serving with the Armed Forces.
After the war, Crawford continued to leverage his relationship with the National Military Establishment to ensure Thompson’s involvement in the development of jet aircraft. In the early 1950s, the recently renamed Department of Defense contacted him to find a way to acquire the work of two brilliant aerospace engineers, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, in California. The DOD was wary of the instability of their boss at Hughes Aircraft.
In October 1958, they added their RW to Thompson’s T to become TRW Inc. During his retirement shortly after the deal, Crawford relished telling the story of how Howard Hughes would call him in the early morning hours and cuss him out for leading the effort to merge Ramo and Wooldridge’s pioneering work with Thompson. The company went on to develop the first ICBM weaponry, communications satellites and other advances that made them a leader in the aerospace industry, until TRW was bought by Northrup Grumman Corporation in 2002.