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How “Shop Class” Helped Win the War: The “Model Aircraft Project” of World War II

This post was written by Michelle Cadoree Bradley, a Science Reference Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division.

In the collections of the Library of Congress, there are thousands of books in red buckram binding. These fairly innocuous exteriors can sometimes hide unique items. One such item from the stacks is the book Model Aircraft Project from 1942. This book is a collection of materials that was made specifically for the Library of Congress and given by the U. S. Office of Education to then Acting Librarian, Dr. Luther Evans.

High school Victory Corps. Donald Alman (left) and Melvin E. Lenox, students at McKinley Technical High School, Washington, D.C., build model planes for the Navy’s use in training military and civilian personnel. McKinley is one of 6,000 schools throughout the country which provides facilities for pupils to build model planes to Navy specifications.

I am…transmitting to you two complete sets of plans, specifications, and instructions issued to secondary schools…for the construction of 500,000 scale model aircraft requested by the Secretary of the Navy in his letter of December 3 to the U. S. Commissioner of Education.

This book evokes a time in the war effort when schoolboys in shop class came to the fore for the national effort. The miscellaneous correspondence inserted in the book details the plans for the project, but they don’t tell of the blood, sweat and tears that ordinary high-school students put into building model aircraft.

On December 3, 1941, Mr. William Frank Knox, the Secretary of the Navy, sent a letter to Dr. John W. Studebaker, the U. S. Commissioner of Education, stating the need for a large number of model planes. “Spotter” or “Recognition” plans were needed to teach aircraft recognition to airmen. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. By January 1942, a memorandum of understanding was signed to outline a joint project to produce to scale approximately 10,000 each of 50 model airplanes of both Axis and Allied types, to be used for “recognition, gunnery training, and observation training.”

The United States needs scale model planes for the emergency…This program gives the youth of the United States a definite responsibility in the war effort, a responsibility which should not be underestimated…It is doubtful if any greater privilege has been accorded to the schools of this Nation than that represented by this all-out effort in the making of model aircraft.
– Hambrook, Scale model aircraft production procedure, p. 1.

Oswego, New York. Oswego high school boy who made seventy model planes for the Navy, and was awarded honorary rank of Admiral.

Boy’s Life magazine in April 1942 exhorted “…the United States Navy is depending on the boys of America to furnish these models, and furnish them swiftly.” By August 1942, over 280,000 models had been made, and a call went out for 300,000 more.

Some of the more complex designs took over 50 hours of shop time for one model. Some jurisdictions, such as the New York State Education Department, came up with plans for a production line system. Modelers whose aircraft passed inspection were awarded a certificate and rank of ‘Cadet Aircraftsman’ for creating one plane and on up the ranks. In the collections of the Library of Congress is this photograph of Willard DiSantis of Oswego, New York, a sixteen-year old high school boy who made seventy-six model planes for the U. S. Navy, and was awarded the honorary rank of admiral.


United States. Office of Education. Model aircraft project. Washington, 1942.

New York (State) Bureau of industrial and technical education. More planes, easier, faster; a production plan for the Scale model aircraft project. Albany, the University of the State of New York, the State Education Dept., Bureau of Industrial and Technical Education, 1943. //lccn.loc.gov/43053594
Available full-text from HathiTrust: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/101794416

Hambrook, Robert W. Scale model aircraft construction procedure. Federal Security Agency, Washington, D.C., 1942.
Available full-text from University of South Carolina, University Libraries: http://digital.tcl.sc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/gdp2/id/2899

Further reading:

Zimmerman, R. “How we won the war (with tools commonly found in the shop), the model aircraft project.” Journal of American Culture, Winter 1985, v. 8, p. 51-58.

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