War Production Board

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This page was last updated on August 17, 2022.

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WPB Created

The War Production Board itself was authorized by executive order on Friday January 16, 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The War Production Board issued General Limitation Order Number 97 on Saturday April 4, 1942. This order required locomotive builders to obtain prior authorization from the WPB prior to committing to production.

An April 8, 1942 meeting between the Transportation Equipment Branch and the Railroad Industry Advisory Committee was conducted to develop a railroad equipment program for the remainder of 1942. The April 8th meeting determined which builders would build what type of equipment.

WPB Terminated

Executive Order 9638, dated October 4, 1945, terminated the War Production Board and created the Civilian Production Administration. (Federal Register page and date: 10 FR 12591, October 6, 1945 Amends: EO 9024, January 16, 1942)


"Most of the restrictions that are blamed on the War Production Board during World War II were voluntary by the builders themselves, but coordinated through the WPB. In this case (Baldwin), there was a lot more money to be made making defense related stuff than in making those newfangled diesel locomotives for the railroads. This was was a coordinated effort between the government, the railroads, and the nation's heavy industries. The railroads said that they could get by just fine with the locomotives and cars that they already had, so the WPB let the locomotive builders get into other business. It was an open-bid process, and Baldwin and Alco successfully under-bid many contracts for increased war material production because they already had the heavy manufacturing infrastructure in place. There would be no wait for a factory to be completed before production could begin, like at Ford's Willow Run factory for B-24s. Baldwin and Alco (along with Chrysler) contributed greatly to the Allies' ability to bring the land war to Hitler, in North Africa, much sooner by building M3, M4 and M5 tanks and other equipment in very large numbers." (Don Strack, January 9, 2001, to the Diesel Modeling List)

"The railroads didn't decide that they wanted new locomotives until late 1944 and early 1945, with the obvious end of the war well within view, then they wanted all that they could get, to be delivered within 60 days. With the end of the war, the restrictions were restrictions of production capacity." (Don Strack, January 9, 2001, to the Diesel Modeling List)

"WPB did control material allocations and implementation of design changes in 1942 and 1943. The beginning of WPB control in April 1942 serves as a convenient dividing point for Baldwin's diesel production, as BLW delivered the in-progress VO660 orders by early May, built one VO660 for Westinghouse in late May from spare parts (which meant that Baldwin didn't have to ask for a material allocation), and began work on a batch of VO660's and VO1000's in July. I had thought that the Westinghouse VO660 was the first use of the hip-roof cab, but that turns out not to be the case." (David Thompson, January 10, 2001, to the Diesel Modeling List)

Additional Comments

The following comes from The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th edition, Columbia University Press:

War Production Board (WPB), former U.S. government agency, established (Jan., 1942) by executive order to direct war production and the procurement of materials in World War II. The chairman (Donald M. Nelson, 1942–44; Julius A. Krug, 1944–45) was granted sweeping powers over the nation's economic life. The WPB converted and expanded the peacetime economy to maximum war production; controls included assignment of priorities to deliveries of scarce materials and prohibition of nonessential industrial activities. During its three-year existence the WPB supervised the production of $185 billion worth of weapons and supplies. Businessmen serving with the WPB were sharply criticized by a Senate committee headed by Harry S. Truman. WPB organization changed frequently, and disputes with the armed services occurred. After the defeat of Japan, most restrictions were quickly lifted, and the WPB was abolished in Nov., 1945. The Civilian Production Administration was set up to take over the remaining WPB reconversion functions.

The following comes from the Harvard University's finding aid for the War Production Board Records 1941-1945:

The War Resources Board was established August 9, 1939, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a civilian advisory group to collaborate with the Joint Army and Navy Munitions Board in formulating economic mobilization policies. It was abolished November 24, 1939. The Advisory Commission to the World War I Council of National Defense was revived on May 29, 1940.

Three of its functional divisions (Industrial Production, Industrial Materials, and Labor), responsible for the stockpiling and delivery of critical raw materials, were integrated into the Office of Production Management, established January 7, 1941, to develop and execute policies relating to the production of defense materials. On August 28, 1941, OPM's Priorities Board was replaced by the Supply Priorities Allocation Board, which was responsible for coordinating the supply and allocation of defense-related materials and commodities. The Supply Priorities Allocation Board, and subsequently all of OPM, was superseded by War Production Board, January 1942.

The following comes from John Kirkland, The Diesel Builders, Volume Two, American Locomotive Company, page 79:

The War Production Board did not prohibit locomotive builders from engineering and building new engines and locomotives during the war that could serve as prototypes for post­World War II production, provided that such activity did not interfere with the war effort. The Transportation Equipment Division of the WPB was staffed with government officials, as well as representatives of the industries that would be affected by the regulations. Included in this group was Robert B. McColl, Vice President-Manufacturing of Alco.

The minutes of the WPB meeting held on September 23, 1943, reveal that Mr. McColl requested authorization for Alco to enter into the manufacture of a new design of road locomotive, powered by the model 241 engine, on a production basis. Obviously this would involve, initially, the GM&O order for 20 locomotives which had been placed in 1941, at the inception of the model 241 engine program, before the design had been finalized. The minutes of this meeting go on to report the response given to Mr. McColl's request by Andrew Stevenson, the government's representative, which reads as follows: "Mr. Stevenson then pointed out that both A1co and Baldwin had been allowed to construct experimental road locomotives." The minutes further state that " ... until such time as more conclusive evidence of the road tests of the experimental locomotive had been received by ODT [Office of Defense Transportation] and WPB, he [Mr. Stevenson] felt it premature at this time to schedule this [locomotive] type and consume requisite materials."

Preston Cook wrote about the War Production Board in his Railfan & Railroad article "Electro-Motive's FT Celebrates 50 Years":

Over the years a number of stories have developed regarding the role of the War Production Board in apportioning manufacturing capacity and influencing locomotive designs during the wartime years. Many of the tales relating to Alco have been addressed and dispelled in recent writings, but the perception that the success of the FT locomotive was due to war production restrictions has persisted and needs to be addressed here.

There are three essential facts which provide a detailed picture of EMD's market situation with the FT and the influence of World War II on the company's locomotive business: (1) In December 1941, when the United States entered the Second World War, EMD had already received orders from the U.S. railroads for a total of 57 of the four-unit 5400 horsepower FT locomotives This represents nearly one-quarter of all of the FTs which were ever built, that were either on order or delivered before the U.S. got involved in World War II. (2) EMD had three extremely critical national defense contracts in process which were accelerated to highest priority status once the war started. These were considered far more important than locomotive production and pushed the FTs back into fourth place in the company's list of priorities very early in the war. (3) By late in 1942 the three defense projects had brought locomotive production at EMD virtually to a stop. This situation continued into early 1943.

The projects which took a higher priority than locomotives at La Grange during the critical early war years were: (1) The Model 184A "pancake" diesel engine with its related gearbox, propeller shafting and controllable pitch propellers, all of which were manufactured by EMD. These were turned out by the hundreds early in the war to power the 110-foot sub-chasers which were used for coastal patrol and escort duty throughout the U.S. seacoasts and in the Caribbean. (2) The Model 567 ATL engine program which involved the manufacture of matched sets of port and starboard main engines for the U.S. Navy tank landing ships (LSTs). This program became EMD's number one priority as the Navy prepared for the amphibious operations in Africa, Europe and the South Pacific. EMD eventually built more than 2000 engines for this program. (3) The quad Detroit Diesel main propulsion set which was used in the Navy's LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) vessels. EMD was a prime assembly contractor for this program, and the need for the engine sets increased in urgency along with the parallel LST engine program as the U.S. undertook amphibious operations around the world.

The effect of these critical defense programs on EMD's locomotive production has previously been largely ignored by a generation of rail historians who tend to view EMD only as a builder of locomotives. It would not be unreasonable to assume that if the United States had not been forced into the Second World War, and EMD had been able to concentrate solely on the marketing and construction of the FT, it might have built and sold more FTs between 1940 and 1945 than it was actually able to produce under the wartime conditions.

Jim Mischke wrote about the War Production Board in an email dated June 4, 2022:

Someone wrote: "Remember this is at the height of WW2. EMD could not build a "new" passenger locomotive.... "

I would differ on this.

Many prohibitions attributed by railfans to the War Production Board during WWII are indirect, mis-attributed or nonexistent. Repetition by secondary sources does not constitute confirmation.

- The War Production Board (WPB) allocated finite raw material resources to factories for production priorities determined by the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT).

- The WPB and ODT dealt only with firm orders and committed contracts. In this case, EMD booked no new passenger locomotive orders between early 1942 (L&N E6) and late 1944 (Alton and B&O E7A).

- In WWII-era locomotive procurement, the railroad first had to place a builder order with full financing arrangements. For high priority, the railroad had to apply for a "certificate of necessity" from the Office of Defense Transportation, sponsored by the War department, State Department, another empowered agency, or eventually the ODT itself. With high priority orders in hand, the War Production Board allocated materials, updated order priorities, and the builders booked factory space. This sequence only developed well into the war, what preceded it looked similar yet far more chaotic.

- Diesel locomotive builders confined production to existing models for which they had existing tooling and could solicit orders. There were shortages of material and engineering staffing for timely new product development and new production tooling, mostly emerging only after late 1944. Builders concentrated on prime mover engineering development with available resources.

- EMD devoted its production solely to landing craft pancake diesel engines for six months during 1942, a serious factor leading to a long FT waiting list.

- Once FT production resumed, priority went to railroads involved with land oil transportation, eliminating water transportation in bad water operating districts, and railroads' hottest freight trains. Seldom tonnage applications.

- EMD had no overt restrictions on switcher production, building GN and ATSF yard switchers during the war.

- For domestic railroad customers, Alco could only offer yard switchers. Exceptions: Alco produced RS-1 road-switchers but they were all directed to the Trans-Iranian Railroad, including those already built and delivered. The New Haven bought 30 A-A DL109 pairs, making an effective case with their passenger trains by day, freight trains by night operating plan.

- For a time in 1944, Alco manufactured switchers for stock because orders ran out. This runs counter to the widespread impression that the builders were booked solid for the duration.

- Baldwin only built yard switchers because they only had yard switchers to sell. No road freight locomotives or road-switchers available for sale.

- In the WPB files at the National Archives in College Park, some locomotive committee meeting minutes contain a Baldwin representative's inquiry that they had heard elsewhere that Baldwin was reduced to only producing diesel switchers, and they had no knowledge of this. What do you mean only switchers? The answer was vague, neither a yes or no.

- The WPB did issue Limitation Order L-97 for locomotives, yet is general and vague. It was updated from time to time, including empowering the WPB to turn away firm locomotive orders. Far from a smoking gun, there is no evidence WPN ever wielded this power. The original WPB L-97 order was quoted in its entirety in a 1942 Railway Age article which I cannot find at this moment.

These assertions run counter to conventional wisdom. and subject to the logic conundrum of proving a negative.

A main primary source for this treatment was a 500-plus page War Production Board transportation policy history composed while WWII supply side was winding down. At the time I looked, the only known library source was the US Naval Academy library at Annapolis on microfilm. Twenty-five years ago, I drove down there to see and copy this document. Took all afternoon and 500 dimes. So now it is just me and the US Navy. Just now, a Worldcat.org search shows microfilm also being at at Columbia.

Transportation equipment policies of the War Production Board and predecessor agencies (May 1940 to December 1943) United States. War Production Board.; Stevenson, Andrew. 1947

US Naval academy catalog link

Worldcat.org entry

Craig Rutherford wrote about the Defense Plant Corporation in an email dated June 5, 2022:

Was Defense Plant Corporation  (Plancor) subject to the War Production Board's or Office of Defense Transportation's review and approval processes during WWII?

Plancor had a Congressional mandate (Defense Act of 1940) to expedite  planning, finance, construction and administration of  new manufacturing plants / additions and to expand critical production capacities — i.e. aircraft, tanks, munitions, chemicals and rubber plants. The governmental agency handled more than 2500 projects of which a few encompassed the purchase of diesel locomotives from Alco (five S1s), Baldwin (two DS44-660s) and possibly EMD (two or more Model 40s). The locomotives were acquired on behalf of private companies contracted to operate/ build new government-owned facilities; some of the units were transferred afterwards to the U.S. military. Preliminary research suggests there might be other Plancor-funded locomotives yet to identified.

More Information

Wikipedia Article about the War Production Board

Huddleston, Eugene L., "The War Production Board and Diesels," Railfan & Railroad, Vol. 6, No. 1 (January 1986) (PDF; 11 pages; 11.7MB)

James Mischke wrote on December 6, 2006:

I would beg to differ on the Huddleston article. The builders had to deal with the War Production Board, the railroads with the Office of Defense Transportation for their "certificates of necessity". If you wish to really know why certain railroads got diesels and others did not, those certificates of necessity are a must find.

Huddleston scarcely mentions the ODT, attributes some of their function to the WPD, and perpetuates folklore at considerable length. Such as Baldwin and Alco building only switchers, EMD only FT's by WPB fiat. First, there was no such WPB directive. There were other reasons. Baldwin had no credible road locomotive product during the war. Exceptions abound. Alco was building RS-1's for the Trans-Iranian Railroad and DL109's for New Haven. EMD was building NW2 switchers for Great Northern and Santa Fe. Much of EMD's production capacity was tied up for nearly a year manufacturing engines for landing craft. All builders were busy with next generation prototypes and development throughout the war, although with considerable difficulty obtaining materials, labor and brainpower.

My hypothesis is that few pure passenger locomotives (the NH DL109's worked freight at night) were built during the war was not a WPB edict, but no certificates of necessity were issued for them. A railroad wanting a passenger engine could not find a compelling reason, hence no agency sponsor.

Also, if you want to understand who got road diesels during the war, follow the overland crude oil shipments before the pipelines came on line.

Yard locomotives are a different story. Demand was soft, certificates of necessity few, and to keep the production lines busy, Baldwin and Alco resorted to some building for stock. Such switchers got sold, but after the fact, not in advance. Baldwin and Alco successfully petitioned the WPB for materials to meet their production quota, sometimes without customers for all of them.

When I first read this Huddleston article, I liked it a lot. Later I saw the primary sources, saw how wrong it was, and I became a grumpy old fart. Nothing is the way it is told in the railfan press.