How Evansville's Thunderbolts & Landing Ship, Tanks Helped the Allies in WWII
Injured, sleepless, and covered in muck, a shot-down German fighter pilot is hiding under the body of a fallen comrade. He’s desperately hoping that the dark blanket of what seems to be an endless night will conceal him from the menacing P-47 "Thunderbolt" searching for him from high above the ground. The American fighter aircraft already decimated his squadron, but appears to be determined to find the one man that got away...
“I like reading about World War II to a pretty big extent,” states Tom Lonnberg, the History Curator at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, located in the Vanderburgh County of Southwestern Indiana. “I admire Eisenhower for his leadership qualities.” Before Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower (1890 — 1969) became the 34th president of the United States, he was a five-star general in the United States Army and served as supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
In an interview with ARTpublika Magazine, Lonnberg is discussing the city’s unique role in aiding the Allies during one of the most impactful wars in human conflict. “At the museum, we primarily focus on local history — how the people here have risen to meet the challenges of the war throughout the years. It’s very inspirational.” As a long-term resident of Evansville, he proudly explains how the small city's manufacturing capability gave the Allies a pivotal advantage over the Axis Powers.
This has a lot to do with its extremely convenient location. “The Ohio River is really the key to that,” he explains. “We’re one of those classic industrial era towns — a waterway connection along a very busy commercial route." Without the Ohio River and the steam boat, there’s a good chance that Evansville wouldn’t have been as instrumental to the war effort as it had been. The elaborate waterway serves as a kind of major interstate highway that ships use to transport an astounding amount of cargo.
“Per capita, [Evansville] probably produced more war material than any other community in the United States.” To do that, established industries were forced to switch gears and create products or materials that could help the Allies. Chrysler was one of these. Before the war, it “was making Plymouth automobiles, but was tasked with rebuilding Sherman tanks” and others when it broke out. But that wasn’t all. “Really," says Lonnberg, "Chrysler’s biggest claim to fame is that it made 96% of the .45 cartridges used in WWII, right here in Evansville.”
Yet, ammunition was a very small part of what made the city a remarkable asset to the allies. It was the production of the Landing Ship, Tanks (or the LSTs) and the manufacturing of the P-47 “Thunderbolt” that made Evansville a game changer in the American war effort. “We weren’t their only producer, but we produced more than any other locale in the United States,” Lonnberg explains. “Those ships were the backbone of campaigns, such as the Italian Campaign, the Normandy Invasion,” and more.
The LSTs were 327 feet (and 9 inches) long, 50 feet wide, and 12 feet high. And even though they weren’t invented [in Evansville], the city still managed to make 167 of them. “The self-beaching craft does not have a keel,” states Lonnberg. “It’s flat on the bottom like a barge, but it could be driven up to the shore.” Once it was, its massive door opened, releasing the “trucks and tanks and men” that were waiting within. “The LSTs were a big deal [because] the Germans didn’t have them,” he stresses.
Similarly, the Germans didn’t have the P-47 “Thunderbolt,” which proved to be one of the most influential and impactful planes used throughout the war effort. According to Lonnberg, “they were not known as the sexiest planes, but they were definitely the most durable fighter planes around.” Their invention was prompted by the speed of the German Focke-Wulf 190s, which were some of the fastest and dangerous planes in the sky, before the Thunderbolt challenged their authority.
“Republic Aviation originally built the planes in Farmingdale, New York — before they were built in Evansville,” states Lonnberg. "When it became clear that the planes would be manufactured here, [the city] literally built the plants to do it." Over 6,200 of them were produced. “Though they were primarily used for aerial combat, these planes were often outfitted with bombs.” The Thunderbolt became renowned for its ability to survive extreme battle damage, as well as to inflict it.
According to Indiana’s Historical Bureau: “Prior to the acquisition of war contracts by fifty local companies. Evansville defense factories like Republic Aviation drew 25,000 permanent citizens to Vanderburgh County, employing African Americans, women and the physically handicapped, who might not have found work otherwise.” This was extremely important to the future of the city. Having been hit by the Depression, the war allowed Evansville to transform from a dying city, into a historic symbol of America’s industrial heritage.
Note* Image (1) 1940s Republic P-47N Thunderbolt flies its first combat mission, a sweep over the Pacific (U.S. Air Force photo) | Image (2) LST-337 and LST-338 soon after launch. | Image (3) 1940's Republic P-47D Thunderbolt nicknamed "Jug "(U.S. Air Force photo).