FERGUSON • Al Duperret, senior tool-and-die foreman at the turret plant, accepted the honor on behalf of his 10,000 fellow workers. Production inside didn’t skip a beat.
“I commend you as I would commend an outstanding gun crew,” said Navy Cmdr. Walter Veatch.
Veatch was among the military brass gathered at Emerson Electric Co. on Dec. 1, 1942, to present an Army-Navy “E” banner for excellence in production. Duperret, 71, an Emerson production worker for 50 years, stood with Stuart Symington, company president and future U.S. senator, outside the new factory at 8100 West Florissant Avenue.
The speeches were broadcast by loudspeaker to workers inside the 704,000-square-foot plant and at the company’s old location, at 2108 Washington Avenue, which produced parts. An honor guard raised the swallow-tail banner, emblazoned with a big E, on the flagpole outside the main door.
The government awarded more than 4,000 E banners nationwide during World War II to encourage maximum production from the Arsenal of Democracy. Emerson earned one for becoming America’s biggest producer of revolving gun turrets for combat airplanes, turning out as many as 70 each day.
The turrets were for American bombers, especially the “heavies” — the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. The turrets were designed for bomber crews to protect themselves against enemy fighter planes. Emerson made nose, tail, top and belly turrets, the last of those known as “ball turrets” for their round shape. The plant shipped turrets by rail to airplane assembly lines.
Each turret consisted of more than 3,000 parts, including two .50-caliber Browning machine guns. A gunner moved his turret and guns by electric and hydraulic power.
Emerson, founded in 1890, made fans and electric motors. After striking workers took over the old factory for 53 days in 1937, executives pondered leaving St. Louis. They stayed, settling on a 162-acre site in Ferguson for a vast new $10 million plant. Then came war.
Symington toured British turret factories. Emerson engineers modified the designs for the heavier American machine guns. Production began shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed. The new factory still was under construction.
Emerson was just one of many St. Louis-area factories that converted quickly to war production. The General Motors plant made 105 mm cannon. Curtiss-Wright Aircraft built Navy Helldiver bombers. General Steel made Grant army tanks. American Stove (Magic Chef) produced “drop tanks,” the disposable extra fuel tanks for fighter planes that let them escort the heavies on long raids.
Women made up 40 percent of Emerson’s workforce. By summer 1944, at peak production, more than 12,000 workers produced 2,200 turrets per month, more than twice original output. Layoffs began in 1945 as the Allies moved toward victory.
After the war, the Emerson plant won numerous defense contracts, including defense systems for B-52 jet bombers and turrets for attack helicopters. Most of the factory was demolished in 1995. Emerson still uses its old office buildings.