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Tag: World War II

Keeping them flying

If you use an Internet-enabled device (and if you are reading this, you do), you are almost certainly familiar with software updates. These ever-present parts of our daily lives can be annoying, because they come with increasing frequency and always seem to slow down your machine at the most inopportune time. But they do include security updates and other tweaks intended to keep your machine working in the changing digital world.

Software updates are a form of product support, a responsibility of producers to provide continued assistance to customers who have bought their product. In the digital world, product support can represent a long-term commitment. Microsoft provided mainstream support for its Windows XP operating system until 2009 (eight years after its initial release in 2001) and extended support until 2014. But XP running on some embedded systems is still supported even now, and will continue to be supported until next year, eighteen years after the OS’s release.

Long-term product support predates the software industry by decades. Car manufacturers provide support for their models, as do aerospace companies. In 1948, back when aerospace was only aeronautics, the Lockheed Star (the company newspaper of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation) reported on the activities of the Inactive Models branch of the company’s Service Engineering Group:

Among the diversified activities of Neil Harrison’s Service Engineering Group, supervised by Nels Griffith, is Inactive Models, a misnomer according to several in the department, since the so-called obsolescent type airplanes such as the Model 10, 12, 14, 18, PV-1, PV-2, and P-38 are anything but inactive.1

The engineers in Inactive Models provided technical data and specifications to the Spare Parts department to produce replacement parts for out-of-production aircraft designs being flown by assorted foreign and domestic operators. The major domestic airlines operated newer designs, as did many of the prestigious flag carriers of other nations. But second- and third-tier domestic feeder airlines used older aircraft, many of which had been bought secondhand when their original owners upgraded to newer planes. Demobilization after World War II created a glut of used planes, which had to be supported by Lockheed or other companies with spare parts. (Failing to anticipate the secondhand market, Lockheed built a prototype feeder airliner, the Saturn, but it was a flop and never entered production.)

In addition to supporting spare parts, the Lockheed Inactive Models branch designed upgrades of designs. One such upgrade was the design and installation of fire-protection features for National Airlines’ Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar fleet. Although the airline had pressurized Douglas DC-6 planes by this time, its older Lodestars were still in operation and needed safety upgrades.

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the "Buccaneer Route" of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the “Buccaneer Route” of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Other projects of Inactive Models included structural repair of a Model 10 Electra (a design of the mid-thirties) belonging to a foreign customer, and winterization of F-80 Shooting Star fighter jets.

Product support—whether it be of Windows operating systems or Lockheed planes—is a form of maintenance, which has always been a key aspect of technology. As David Edgerton argues in The Shock of the Old (2007), we need to pay attention to the use of technology across time—including its maintenance—not just the development of new things. The development of a technology is the beginning of its story, not the end. And for some technologies, like National Airlines’ Lodestars, that story can be a long one.

  1. “Engineering Highlights,” Lockheed Star (California Division), August 5, 1948. []
San Fransisco City Hall

How a colony helped found the United Nations

Just to the east of San Francisco’s grand Civic Center, UN Plaza is an unassuming pedestrian mall that hosts farmers’ markets and handicrafts fairs. Were it not for the name of the nearby BART (San Francisco metro) station, Civic Center/UN Plaza, it would be easy to miss UN Plaza among the grander spaces and buildings nearby—Civic Center, City Hall with its gold-trimmed dome, the Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco Public Library. On either side of UN Plaza, behind the tents of the farmers’ markets, granite pillars are inscribed with the names of all member states of the United Nations, organized by the date of their entry into this global community.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza is located here because it is where the United Nations was founded. With the ratification of the UN Charter in the War Memorial Veterans Building just west of City Hall, the UN came into existence on October 24, 1945 — seventy-two years ago today.

The first pillars in UN Plaza include the names of all fifty-one founding members of the United Nations. The names of the founding members include many names that one would expect to see on the list: Australia, Canada, Denmark, United States, USSR. But there is one name that doesn’t quite seem to fit: India.

How could India have been a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 if wasn’t even its own country yet? India would be a colony of the British Empire for another two years. How could a colony join a community of sovereign states?

The answer lies in the relations forged between India and the United States in World War II.

In March 1941, the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease bill after prolonged debate, enabling the United States to ship supposedly surplus arms to the embattled British Empire, which had been at war with Germany since 1939. At this point, the United States was still officially neutral—and would be until Pearl Harbor nine months later—but the Nazis’ blitzkrieg across Europe had led many American leaders to rethink their traditional stance of isolationism. American industry started to retool for arms production. (Much of the lend-lease aid was actually newly-produced, not surplus.)

As part of the British Empire, India qualified for lend-lease aid. The colony would serve as a staging-ground for the Allied war effort in the China-Burma-India theater. To coordinate aid shipments, the colonial Government of India set up a front office in New York, the India Purchasing Mission, in July 1941. It was the first official, government-to-government link between India and the United States. In 1942, the office was moved to Washington, DC and renamed India Supply Mission (ISM). Throughout the war, ISM coordinated aid from the United States and Canada to India.

When it came time for the United Nations Conference just after the war, India Supply Mission served as the official representative of India in San Francisco. The delegates from ISM would be colonial subjects for a little while longer, but they represented their country in the community of sovereign states.1

India Supply Mission continued to exist after the Indian Embassy was set up in Washington in 1946. After independence, ISM coordinated a different type of aid: development aid. From their office at 2342 Massachusetts Avenue NW, the bureaucrats of India Supply Mission saw to it that their country received the parts, equipment, and loan payments that industrialization demanded.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

  1. India had earlier signed the “Declaration by the United Nations,” on January 1, 1942. During the war, the name “United Nations” referred to the Allied powers. After the San Francisco conference, the name acquired its modern meaning. []
A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The Little Big History

What stories matter in history? If you had posed this question to a historian in the United States or Europe a hundred years ago, he probably would have told you in a roundabout way that only the experiences of white men mattered—more specifically, powerful white men. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost to a man (and they were all men), only studied the lives of kings, prime ministers, presidents, senators, and generals; or great artists, great thinkers, great industrialists, and great inventors. These historians didn’t pay any attention to the common man and woman, because these people simply didn’t matter in their worldview.

This sort of thinking about history seems silly and old-fashioned now, as well it should. All people are a part of history, not just the white and powerful, and their stories deserve to be told too. One outcome of this contemporary understanding of history is a profusion of books, movies, and museums about minority experiences—for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Chinese in America, Roots, and Hidden Figures. Another outcome is the rise in popularity of genealogical or family history research. If all people’s experiences are a part of history, then one’s ancestors are a legitimate subject of research, even if they were not powerful or influential.

Even though they are studying the past, family history buffs don’t really have the same objectives as historians. The job of a historian is to ask questions about the past—not only what happened, but why. (“History” comes from a Greek word meaning inquiry. The discipline of history is not, and has never been, just about facts.) Historians need to make connections from event to event, to understand why something was important. For family history researchers, significance is a given: this person is my ancestor, therefore he or she is important. Because family history isn’t exactly history as historians understand it, I prefer to use the term family heritage instead.

There is a genre of historical writing that discusses people who may not have been important in their own time, but their experiences can be used to draw broader lessons about the period in which they lived. This is known as microhistory. When written well, microhistories can be good reads that teach you about much more than the small event that is their main subject matter. (That not all microhistories are this well-written is not a valid reason for condemning the genre as a whole, as some of my classmates did in grad school.)

One excellent microhistory is Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The author takes a well-known but little-understood folk song and uses it to discuss convict labor and industrialization in the post-Civil War American South. The results of archival research are interspersed with accounts of the author’s travels to the places where John Henry lived, worked, and died. I have read more books about convict labor than I would care to count, but this is the only one I keep thinking about long after I read it.

Another great microhistory wasn’t even written by a historian, and it is on its face a creative nonfiction biography. But Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about more than just one man’s sensational life story. Hillenbrand uses Louis Zamperini’s experience of capture and imprisonment by the Japanese to illustrate the experiences of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater.

Can family heritage buffs learn something from the microhistory genre? I hope they can. If I were not a member of my own family, I wouldn’t care about the stories of, say, my Austrian immigrant ancestors who settled in Colorado a hundred years ago. But I would be interested to know how their experiences of migration, acculturation, and ultimately assimilation reflected broader trends in the lives of European immigrants in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century.

(Header picture: B-24 Liberator bomber in flight over Montgomery, AL. USAF photo from Wikipedia.)

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