Thursday, January 29, 2015

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? A Short Discourse on Penn Reels During World War II

What did you do doing the war, Daddy?

The phrase “what did you do during the war” was a popular one in the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, with so many millions of men and women mobilized for the war effort both at home and abroad, there were no Americans whose lives were not impacted by World War II. The millions of children born in the wake of the war were naturally curious as to what role their parents played in the greatest conflict in the history of mankind.

Fishing tackle makers and the Second World War have been written about often. It’s not a mystery what most of these companies were doing. Tycoon Tackle in Miami, Florida was expanding from a dozen employees to over 400 in the war years, making struts for F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat fighters. Montague City Rod & Reel Co. made bamboo ski poles for mountain troops. Shakespeare made machine gun parts, among many other things, and of course Heddon made parts for the Norden bomb sight. Currey Gayle of the Gayle Reel Co. made parts for the Atomic Bomb, although he did not find out what he was making until years later.

When Mike Cacioppo started working on his final manuscript for his book The Chronological History of Penn Reels, 1932-1957 several years ago, I began to do serious Penn research to help fill in any gaps in the history of this company. It was a fun project that took many hours, but there was one mystery I was never able to crack:

What the hell was Penn doing during World War II?

We know a lot about Penn during these years; they advertised heavily, for example, declaring their support for the war effort, and sent out a lot of free lube to American anglers using their Penn reels to supplement their rationed foods. We know they also changed factories, moving to Hunting Park Avenue during these years. But what I was never able to find out was, what exactly were they making during the war?

When I ran across this want ad recently published in the Philadelphia Enquirer for April 18, 1943 showing that Penn was hiring, it reminded me of how frustrating this search has been. Note that the ad calls for women, and declares it was "light machine work in defense plant." Note also the old Lehigh Avenue address.

Penn followed this with another ad on October 16, 1944. Not only was Penn hiring, they were promising post-war employment to any new hires. This implies strongly they had a fast growing concern and more work than they knew what to do with. And of course, they had so much work they had to leave their old factory for the new one on Hunting Park Avenue (only about a mile from their old digs).

Penn had a world class machine shop, and some outstanding machinists working for them. They were certainly involved in war work, to the point they needed to hire more bodies.

But what they heck were the making? Anyone have any clues? Drop me a note if you do. I’d love to strike this mystery from my list of nagging questions.

— Dr. Todd

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