A recent visit to Buffalo of a P-40 Flying Tiger and the B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle helped me recall my experience of working on the victory shift. This is a term few people have heard about, especially if you were born after World War II. It was a work shift that was used at defense plants such as Curtiss-Wright to augment the work force in building military aircraft used in World War II. Basically, it was designed for high school students ages 16 and older, mostly in their senior year, who hadn't been drafted yet for military service.
As a 16-year-old senior attending Emerson Vocational High School, I was one of those students. Some of my friends were a bit older than me and were working the victory shift for Curtiss-Wright at the Kenmore plant. Once I qualified, they suggested I join them. It sounded like a patriotic thing to do, and it enabled me to earn some money to help my parents financially coming out of the Depression. My parents were delighted to have some extra income but asked me if it would interfere with my studies. Having no trouble with my grades, I told them I could do it.
In the fall of 1943, I was hired at 65 cents an hour and became what is known as a skin fitter. This was a big increase in pay from my previous job, earning 25 cents an hour as an usher at the Strand Theater on Clinton Street. A typical victory shift was working from 4 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and eight hours on Saturday.
My job was to place four panels on the side of a P-40N and to drill four pilot holes for engine mounts. After installing the panels, I had to drill the holes for the rivets that held the plane together. A team of two young women - a riveter and a bucker - completed the panel work. Three men followed and drilled the final holes of the engine mounts, which were in hardened steel. Each job performed help drill a hole in the Axis war machine.
The P-40s built in Buffalo between 1941 and 1944 played a major role with Allied air forces in three major theaters: North Africa, the Southwest Pacific and China. They also had a significant role in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Alaska and Italy. Claire Chennault made the P-40 famous with the AVG (American Volunteer Group) in China, where the P-40 was given its famous name, "Flying Tiger." Curtiss Commandos also built at the Genesee and Kenmore plants dropped paratroopers near the Rhine River in Germany during Operation Varsity. The planes' most famous operation was in the China-Burma-India Theater. C-46 Commandos were the workhorse in flying "The Hump," transporting desperately needed supplies to troops in China over the Himalayan Mountains.
In early 1944, production of the P-40N was coming to a conclusion, along with the victory shift. Almost 14,000 P-40s and more than 2,500 C-46 Curtiss Commando aircraft were produced in Buffalo at the Kenmore and Genesee plants. Curtiss-Wright and Bell Aircraft Corp., also located in Buffalo, produced more military aircraft for World War II than the rest of the U.S. aircraft industry combined during this time period.
As one of many area production soldiers, I had and have great pride in contributing toward the war effort. This area's work force played a major role in helping defeat the Axis powers. If you worked the victory shift and are still around the Buffalo area, be proud that you made a major contribution preserving freedom in the United States.
Eugene R. Mruk, of Cheektowaga, is proud to have worked at the Curtiss-Wright plant as a teenager during World War II.