BEHIND THE IMAGE: Inside the Fortress

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It looks like the interior of a spaceship. But the shimmering framework is that of a B-17F, under construction at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Long Beach, California, in 1942.

The picture is by Alfred Palmer, a photographer for the United States Office of War Information (OWI). Established by Franklin Roosevelt following America’s entry into the Second World War, the OWI was essentially a propaganda agency, with the purpose of toughening the resolve of a nation plunged into a conflict of unprecedented scale.

The OWI coordinated all news about the war that the American public received. It also produced posters and radio broadcasts, safety and recruitment campaigns, and worked extensively to torment the enemy overseas.

Palmer became known for his focus on the war economy, now in high gear, with pictures of men and women hard at work on the railways and in the factories of the United States.

His style was that of crude, striking images – perfect for propaganda. Although this one was probably staged, it is realistic. With so many men enlisted abroad, a typical aircraft plant’s wartime workforce was around 40% female.

The Douglas Aircraft Company was, along with Lockheed and Boeing, responsible for producing various models of B-17s until the end of the war. First developed in 1935, each new version of the fearsome aircraft was more heavily armed than the last.

And its nickname too was apt: over Germany and the South Pacific in particular, the ‘Flying Fortress’ became legendary for its ability to stay in the air even after taking a severe battering.

Palmer, meanwhile, ultimately worked for the OWI until 1945, when the agency was disbanded by Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, who hailed its ‘outstanding contribution to victory’. The same, of course, could be said of the B-17.

This is an article from the February/March 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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