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April 2023

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Local 1 and the Wings of Brotherhood

The link between patriotism and unionism has always been part of the IBEW story. It is a principle of our union that to lift up your brothers and sisters is to lift up your community, and thereby your nation. While this may seem aspirational, there are times when a day's labor is a true patriotic act.

Never was that more apparent than when the IBEW's original local bought a warplane.

As soon as Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, launching America into the Second World War, Americans stepped up in great numbers to buy defense bonds.

Just one month later, a census conducted by the IBEW estimated that local unions had purchased $2.8 million in defense bonds, with an additional $4.9 million in bonds bought by individual members. Several local union efforts were highlighted in the census, such as Local 481 in Indianapolis, whose entire membership purchased $6,075 in bonds in a single day. The census also noted the AFL's campaign to raise $1 billion in bonds, enough to pay for 4,000 heavy bombers.

Inspired by this outpouring of patriotic generosity, Local 1 in St. Louis announced an ambitious goal: Their members would donate one Saturday's pay to raise $50,000 in war bonds, enough to pay for one P-51 Mustang fighter plane. At the time, a Saturday's pay amounted to $28 when using overtime rates. With over 2,800 members in the local, a majority of whom were employed in ordnance plants, it was estimated that it would take six months to reach their goal. They did it in four.

James A. Morrell, business manager of Local 1 at the time, published updates in The Electrical Worker throughout 1942, detailing his negotiations with the U.S. government, which authorized the local to sell defense bonds directly to members. In the April issue, he announced that the local had reached its goal of $50,000 and urged other locals to do the same.

"There can be no doubt concerning the patriotism of electrical workers, for there is no group which stands to lose as much as does organized labor," wrote Morrell. "The blessings of the right to organize, and to use those organizations to obtain a fair wage for a fair day's work, are things our democratic form of government guarantees to us and are the very foundation of our American ideals. For that reason, I am sure you will join me in the unqualified desire to lend every effort within our power to assist our armed forces and insure ultimate victory for Old Glory."

In November 1942, after months of coordination with the U.S. War Department, Local 1 presented a check for $50,000 to Walter Edwards, assistant internal revenue collector for St. Louis. In attendance was a Local 1 member who had lost a leg in the First World War. Upon seeing the check change hands, the member gave a "whoop of joy," saying, "I've been wondering how I could get in there, and now I feel that I am back fighting again."

On Dec. 7, 1942, one year to the day after Pearl Harbor, a dedication ceremony was scheduled at Lambert Field in St. Louis where a fully operational P-51 Mustang was to be flown in. Leading the ceremony was Army 1st Lt. Charles L. McClure of University City, Mo., who flew in Gen. Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942. Unfortunately, bad weather prevented the P-51's arrival, but the assembled crowd still held a banquet dinner. There, McClure enthralled the audience with the story of his top-secret mission over Tokyo, which ended with a dramatic crash landing on the China coast, followed by 30 days of recuperation in various Chinese villages.

The P-51 arrived a few days later, and the dedication was rescheduled for Dec. 12. McClure once again presided and officially accepted the plane on behalf of the Army. The wife of the business manager swung a bottle of champagne against its propeller, saying, "I christen you St. Louis Spirit." This name, as well as the IBEW seal, was proudly emblazoned on the side of the plane.

A flying demonstration of the P-51 was conducted by 2nd Lt. Larry D. Tootle of Dayton, Ohio, who said to the crowd, "I'm not going to talk very much; I'm just going to show you." According to an article by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tootle "powered up the fighter, skimmed down the runway and was soon 15,000 feet above the field; he then gave the spectators a thrill with a series of dogfight maneuvers followed by a power dive that ended a scant 100 feet from the ground."

IBEW research has revealed that the St. Louis Spirit was one of 150 Mustangs ordered by the British in 1941 as part of the Lend-Lease Act. This was a government program that allowed U.S. allies to lease war materiel produced in America for use overseas.

However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. decided to keep 58 Mustangs for its own forces. The first batch of planes rolled out of the factory in July 1942. They had a 37-foot wingspan, a liquid-​cooled Allison engine and 20-millimeter cannons on both wings. By December, 35 of these planes had been sent to North Africa to fight. The remaining 23 stayed in the U.S. for combat training and further modification. As of this writing, the fate of the St. Louis Spirit is unknown, but further research is ongoing.

No matter what became of this IBEW fighter, the principles it represented were clear. "The IBEW has made a great contribution to the welfare and progress of our nation; it has set the pace in creating the highest living standard on earth," Morrell wrote in his June 1942 article. "The spirit of loyalty, duty, and cooperation by union members demonstrates that organized labor is an indispensable force to defend and protect our democratic way of life, and is one of the impervious pillars of our American republic."

While we continue to strengthen that force of unionism today, let us remember the day when it took to the skies for the world to see.

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The St. Louis Spirit was a P-51 Mustang purchased with $50,000 in war bonds Local 1 members bought.


U.S. Army meets Local 1 in a photo published Dec. 12, 1942, in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. From left: Local 1 Business Manager James Morrell; 2nd Lt. Larry D. Tootle; Joseph Votruba Jr., the plane's painter; and Capt. Frank B. Fisher.