This is not a story about terrorism. This is a story about William Boeing’s vision, and of those people who lived in the area around him. It is also a story about a small community of Italian and Japanese immigrants, living the American idea., and the sacrifices they made. It all centers on the Duwamish River, a military road, and a small bridge. Their are no real villians in this story, but their are some shirt button popping patriots.
It starts with a small farming community, that grew and raised food for the City of Seattle. Many are familiar with the Pike Place Market, and the fish tossers that are advertised on television. Few are familiar with the hard working farmers of the South Park and Georgetown area, and the hill above the city to the south, that supplied the city with it’s food supply. There is a road that connects South Park with the Pike Place Market. It was laid in 1885. It was called the South Park Bridge, also known as 14th Ave S bridge.
The road was built by the military and completed in 1873. I believe small farmers, mostly Japanese, but some Chinese, lived alongside of it and grew food for the City. The road was constructed by Chinese labor brought in specifically to reduce labor costs. The Chinese were driven out of the city during the Chinese riots in Seattle and much of the rest of the West coast. This fact leads to confusion about Japanese internment during WW2. I will explain. But the roads and axises are very important.
During the Great Depression, there was a big fight on about the amount of government spending. One of the casualties of this was military spending. America was headed for war in Europe, but no-one wanted to acknowledge it or spend the money in preparation. William Boeing alone saw the need for a large bomber. He spent his own fortune developing one. It was produced in 1937, but Congress wouldn’t pay for the factory to mass produce them, let alone order any large amount of them. Bill Boeing was already frustrated with the federal government for breaking up his company. He had businesses operating passenger flights, air mail (which was and is now equally profitable with passenger service), and owned Sikorsky and Pratt and Whitney. FDR needed a scapegoat for his failings in the depression, so he did was is all too commen, and found one in the west, specifically Washington State. Far from the corridors of power, and easily forgotten.
An Italian immigrant named Guiseppe Desimone, or Joe as he liked to be called, had heard that Mr. Boeing was considering leaving town and moving his operation to California. Boeing needed more space for his company, and the skinflint County wasn’t providing it. It was peacetime, and there was no method at the time for taking private property for commercial use (boy has that changed!). Joe, being a patriot, and a good hearted fella as well, thought that Mr. Boeings company was good for the town, and it provided jobs in the Depression. Joe made a sacrifice that is little heard of, and is one of the greatest sacrifices made in the history of the world. He went to his neighbor, William Boeing who had gotten his start in aviation in South Park, and offered him some land for his company. It is said for the extra space for another runway, this is not so. The land he gave was for a second plant, plant 2. Plant 2 is where B-17’s were made. The only plant in the world where B-17’s were made. The only plant in the allied world where a large bomber was made. Boeing built a plant on this land with the five section roof above the bridge roadway. Later, once war was declared, the plant was expanded to the point it touched the bridge visible on the right. The corner of the building was cut off at an angle to fit the last shed in. A small dirt roadway below the bridge roadway is the remnant of the military road, or 14th Ave. S., which led up to Capitol Hill and Volunteer Park Cemetery/Park.
There was a road coming down from the ridge above going straight past Plant 2. The road pointed directly at plant 2. If the Japanese decided to make a Doolittle-style raid, and managed to drop a bomb on this factory, England would have been lost. England had no way of seriously striking Germany without this plane. Fighters could not fly far enough to escort a bomber, and Boeing’s were the only ones with the firepower on board to have even a small prayer of defending themselves without escort.
The federal government expanded the building, and ordered the building camoflauged. All was dependent on this plant not being recognized by a Japanese pilot. This portion of the story is well recognized in Seattle. What is not known is the effort made to alter the entire area. The small community just above the quay was completely demolished, and turned to back to dirt. There was a fort at the bottom of military road, on either side of the Duwamish. which contained unique barracks. They were two story, 15’X25′ houses. They had been previously been removed from the area of what is now the north end of the King County/Boeing Airport, to Georgetown. They were being used as poverty housing (to clean up the area called Skid Row). Skid Row was so called because of the skidding of logs for timber downhill to Yeslers Mill on the waterfront, what is now called Yesler Way. These homes had large beams as foundations. There was no concrete, or any attachments to the earth, so ironically, they as well, could also be skidded. But originally they were south of Skid Row on or near the airport
They took these houses and scattered them around. They altered them to make a section of Georgetown unrecognizable to an enemy pilot. This lies between Carleton and Ellis Avenues. If you drive through the area today, they are still there. Most have little additions on them, or are turned, or are part of a larger home. But the roof-line is distinctive. A small two story house with a steep pitched roof (12X12 pitch to be exact). As part of the war effort they were scattered through-out the community. An entire town was constucted, trees and all. Not Plant 2’s roof, but on land north of there in Georgetown. The same was done in South Park. Even the trees along the beulevards were planted for this, and remain to this day. To throw off the potential raider, the streets in this section were tilted at a 15 degree axis. Confusion about the area, after the war, was prevalent all through my childhood. Something had drastically changed. I believe that wartime camoflauging is the answer. This had dire consequences in certain sections of post-war Seattle.
Getting back to Military Road, it pointed directly at the factory. The bridge almost touched it. This was a horrifying fact to military defense planners. But there was another factor that had to be accounted for that had nothing to do with civil roads. It was completely a cultural issue. The residents were all Japanese and Italian along a potential bombers route. The Italian situation was accounted for. Joe Desimone had proved his loyalty beyond a doubt. Joe also was the most successful of the farmers in the Italian community. He was wealthy by this time, and the economics of the community turned around him. He has been called a ‘Godfather’, but this is not accurate. Not in the movie sense. He was a successful and powerful legitimate businessman. He had monetary and power influence, not brute influence. Joe owned quite a few shares of the Public Market, but not a majority. He shared the market with the Japanese. The Japanese had the vast majority of the stalls. But if farmers wanted to sell their product, they needed Joe’s compliance. Joe’s word was law because of the economics of the particular situation. He could control the Italian population because doing the wrong thing would be cutting yourself out of the economic loop. Goodbye farm. Joe was a patriot, and he could keep the members of his communities mouth shut. There was no concern about Italians shooting their mouth off about details of military defense. They stayed.
The Japanese posed another concern. In preperations to defend the factory, a lot of their homes were destroyed. Their income producing greenhouses were destroyed as well. They farmed differently than other Americans at the time. Whereas land was plentiful in America, in Japan it was not. The weather was not that warm for most of the year. There were a lot of mouths to feed on the Island, and a regular food source was critical to their national stability. They had developed a practice of farming in greenhouses. This extended the growing season enormously. It proved particularly helpful in rainy dark Seattle. The similarities to their Island, for the japanese-Americans, were ideal. In the preperations for the war, the greenhouses had to be torn down. Between destroying their homes, and destroying their greenhouses, their was a legitimate reason for concern. The Japanese were loyal, but they had not always been treated well. Seattle could be a rough town. This became concerning for planners.
A second concern was the fact that the Japanese, and some remnant of the Chinese that had not been booted out, still remained up on military road. The eastern cultures are very strong. The have ritualistic religous practices, and they have New Years celebrations. Seattle is and always was a military town. Secrets have to be kept, because the economy and security depends on it. All of Western Washington is this way. It is the closest location to the east. Embedded in the face of the concrete tunnel going under Beacon Hill, coming off the bridge from Lake Washington, is the Slogan, “Gateway to the Pacific”. Maintaining a blackout was crucial. All parts of town practised this, and it was enforced by a Blockwatch Captain. There is a story in the book Seattle’s South Park, by Images of America, that recounts a story of a little boy who turned a light on in a closet, to change his clothes. The captain was there in an instant. Of concern to planners were the orientals up on the hill along Military Road. Orientals, like any other group, can be stubborn. But ritual, and linguistic alienation, can pose a serious threat. It wouldn’t take but a few ceremonial observers, to light a candle or a lantern, to make a good mark of the road for a Japanese bomber pilot. South Park was small enough to enforce. The ridge was not. It runs for 25 miles down to Fort Mahoney in Puyallup. Their is no way that each individual could be accounted for. An additional factor was the Oriental tendency to say and nod yes, whether they understand and agree, or not. I don’t mean to single them out, but they can be stubborn. I’m Scots-Irish myself, and there is a saying “God grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to bend”.
Japanese Internment Camps are a cold, hard, brutal fact of history. It wasn’t so much that they had to go, as it was they couldn’t stay. If you move one community, you have to move them all. Word gets around, and alienation and bitterness grows throughout the coast. Japanese neighbors are a part of the life and history of the West, that few elsewhere can understand. It is not part of your heritage, it is a part of ours. If I mention Ranald McDonald, your going to think hamburger. To those of us who study history it is something different.
Post war Seattle offered an oppurtunity to try and set things right. City, County, and Port leaders have made every attempt to make distributions to accomodate for historical fact. It is right, and I have no problem with this. Everyone, but one is being taken care of but two. The Communities of South Park and Georgetown are being seperated by the removal of an historic bridge. This bridge is every bit as much a part of Seattle history as the Pike Place Market. These communities have suffered like no other in America for the War effort. The social upheaval during and after the War is impossible to quantify. Streets have been turned, roads blocked by freeways, home values diminished by industry. Land was taken for wartime industrial use, and never returned. Homes and ways of life irreparably altered. Half the West side of the Duwamish River has gone to Boeing in the ensuing Cold War period. It was necessary and no one complained. South Park has been under wartime conditions for 50 years. They have not always been referred to respectfully by those in neighborhoods north of Skid Row. The state of repair in some of the houses is a natural function of having Warehouses brought in by commercial industry, as neighbors. Many of the homes were let out to rent because of the bustle of industry. this little area supplies enormous wealth to all civil governments surrounding it. The residents are not lawyers and doctors or any type of well educated elite. They are basically defenseless in a litiginous and power hungry world. The last remnant of the historic military road, the old route of farmers to market, and the sturdiest of little bridges is about to be taken away. This city is filled with the wealthy. I don’t want to hear we don’t have the money. We do. The leaders of this city lack the will to do the right thing, not the cash.