On the eve of Memorial Day, 1937, in the small Ohio town of Niles, strikebreaking was lifted to new heights. In the skies over Republic Steel’s plant, there began an airlift to rescue company employees locked inside during “the Little Steel Strike,” one of the most turbulent and bloody in labor’s long struggle to unionize workers.
Republic Steel president Tom M. Girdler had created a Maginot Line with other “little” steel companies—Bethlehem, Inland, National, Youngstown Sheet and Tube—to stave off trade union formation by the newly formed Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Big Steel, as the industrial Goliath, United States Steel, was known, recently had agreed to recognize the union. To Girdler, this was nothing less than betrayal and capitulation. He was ready for war. On May 20, he shut down Republic’s Massillon mill. Six days later, the SWOC ordered a strike against Republic and Sheet and Tube operations. Strikers formed a heavily armed picket line around the plants, blocking people and supplies from entering and loyal employees from exiting.
After hearing that 2,600 employees were holed up with almost no food or supplies in the Niles and nearby Warren plants, Girdler hatched a scheme to send them sustenance. “We were going to fly it!” he wrote in his autobiography, Boot Straps. “Airplanes were the only answer.”
The first aircraft to be made available, a Waco biplane, belonged to a company employee. Bread, ham, beans, and canned salmon were packed into padded sacks. On the first attempt, two sacks landed outside the Niles plant fence and fell into the hands of union pickets. But a second drop successfully landed 10 sacks, and Girdler’s employees were soon eating.
That afternoon, Girdler arranged to buy four used Wacos, the nucleus of a fleet that eventually consisted of seven cabin Wacos and two open-cockpit models. Four of the eight pilots were Republic employees. Flights originated from a secret base, Great Lakes Airport, 50 miles north of the mills. It took 200 workers to unload supplies off a convoy of trucks and reload them onto aircraft. Company representatives tried to get Ashland County sheriff Frank Wallett to deputize workers, but he refused, saying, “That would drag me into it.”
Republic was able to keep the whereabouts of its base of operations concealed for a time. Two weeks into the strike, however, the company was denied landing rights by Cleveland Mayor H.H. Burton and forced to seek another airport. A 50-acre private field in Ashland became Republic’s new base.
Management ordered a pine board landing strip to be built next to the rail yard at the Warren plant. From dawn to dusk for 28 days, Republic’s fleet of Wacos shuttled tons of food and supplies into the factories.
Witnessing a new brand of strikebreaking, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee responded with countermeasures. It sent its own airplanes skyward on “scouting missions” to thwart the airlift—in effect, to attempt an air blockade. Records don’t identify the union aircraft, but the Youngstown Vindicator reported: “The union planes did a few stunts in the clouds in their ‘maneuvers’ calculated to frustrate ‘enemy’ attempts to bring new supplies to the workers.”
On the ground, strikers resorted to violence. Men hid in trees and ditches and opened fire with rifles as the Wacos wobbled toward their destinations. Every landing was a feat. Pilot Frank Groat, an electrician and part-time pilot hired by Republic, remembered volleys of gunfire as he eased his Waco toward the airstrip. “Every now and then you could hear the bullets whizzing by you as you flew into the mill,” he recalled from his home in Florida. “We never shut off the engines when we came in. We landed, men came out to unload the planes, and we took off. In Niles they used a big net to catch the supplies when we flew over. On those flights we took a second man along, a ‘bomber,’ we called him. He threw the supplies out through the door.”
On June 2, an open-cockpit Waco slammed into a lumber pile alongside the Warren landing strip, bounced into the air, struck a boxcar, and crashed. One wing was broken off and the landing gear badly damaged. The pilot, who was not identified in the Vindicator, walked away with slight bruises.
By June’s end, the Little Steel Strike collapsed. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee failed to organize workers and ordered its men back to work without a contract. Ten people had been killed and a hundred wounded in the “Memorial Day Massacre” clash between strikers and police at Republic’s South Chicago plant.
Republic pilots had delivered 200,000 pounds of supplies. “In buying these airplanes, in flying food and supplies to the beleaguered plants,” Girdler said in Boot Straps, “Republic Steel Corporation was simply taking care of its own.”
—Robert G. Pushkar