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Originally published September 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2006 at 10:33 AM

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"This is one of the places that won the war"

An old Boeing building where two World War II bombers are being restored will stay standing, for now, sparking hopes that one day the public might be able to see the planes where they were made.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The drab, cavernous building — huge enough to fit eight football fields — now sits silent and mostly empty on Boeing property in the 7700 block of East Marginal Way South.

Driving by the 2-40 Building, a motorist would have no clue of the crucial role it played in World War II, for Boeing and for Seattle.

It is a historic building that is part of a larger complex known as Plant 2. Boeing had planned to demolish the building but has now given it a temporary reprieve. Except for surplus equipment, the building's main occupants today are two World War II bombers being restored by volunteers — a B-29 Superfortress and a B-17 Flying Fortress.

The B-17 has been called the most famous bomber of World War II, a machine-gun-loaded plane with a distinctive clear acrylic glass nose, that darkened the skies of Germany in its bombing campaigns.

The two planes under restoration are owned by the Museum of Flight, and since 2004, Boeing has allowed them to be stored in the building.

When one of the volunteers, Dale Thompson, 65, a retired telephone engineer, walks into the 2-40 Building, he can envision what it must have been like during the war years.

On April 29, 1944, the plant churned out 16 of the B-17s at a time when daily production was a staggering 12 a day. The plant produced 6,981 B-17s, as well as the first three experimental models of the B-29.

At its peak, some 30,000 people, working three shifts a day, riveted together their share of what Franklin D. Roosevelt called the "Arsenal of Democracy." In some departments, nearly half of the employees were women who were part of the country's "Rosie the Riveter" war effort.

"The place just oozes with history," Thompson said. "When we work on the B-29, we do riveting with just one or two people, and that's very loud. I can imagine what it sounded like with 10,000 people per shift. The din must have been humongous."

The plant was considered of such strategic importance that during the war, in case of a Japanese bombing raid on Seattle, its rooftop was camouflaged to look like a suburban neighborhood.

There were fake trees made of board and mesh and held to the roof with wires. There were clapboard homes with painted rectangles for windows. A fake rooftop corner street sign said, "Synthetic St. & Burlap Blvd."

Thompson envisions a portion of the 2-40 Building being kept for posterity.

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For the near future, Boeing says that although the 2-40 Building had been scheduled for demolition in 2007, that may not necessarily happen.

Thompson said he understands the economics of demolishing a building no longer needed. But how about keeping a small chunk of it?

"Do we want to drive down East Marginal Way South to show our children and grandchildren a plaque, 'This is where Plant 2 once stood' ... or do we want to be able to show them a piece of history?" he said.

It is an idea supported by Mike Lombardi, Boeing corporate historian.

"I hope that the people of Seattle would see this as a sufficient piece of Seattle history that they would make their desires known," he said.

For now, the B-17 and the B-29 have had their lease at the 2-40 Building extended to the end of 2007.

That's a relief for the volunteers, who have another year not to worry about storing the planes outdoors, where they would be susceptible to corrosion.

Tom Dawson, 81, a retired aeronautical engineer from Normandy Park and restoration manager for the B-29, said volunteers spent 9,000 hours on corrosion repair.

On the B-17, one estimate is that since 1991, volunteers have spent 100,000 hours on repairs to restore the plane into a flyable condition. Boeing has provided hangar space, blueprints, tools and has manufactured parts. The entire B-17 restoration project has been valued at $3.7 million.

The volunteers say they appreciate Boeing's help.

But, they dream, wouldn't it be something if the public could see the planes right where they were manufactured?

For now, the group of volunteers includes those who can remember firsthand the heyday of working inside the 2-40 Building.

One of them is Margaret Berry, 83, of Seattle.

She was a 19-year-old from Waitsburg, Walla Walla County, who decided to help the war effort. She was 5 foot 3 ½ and weighed 118 pounds when she started working the graveyard shift at Plant 2, earning 68 cents an hour.

She proudly remembers getting good ratings from her bosses, and soon moving to the day shift.

"Back then, I had pretty good muscle," she recalled. "I had to use a 25-pound 'squeeze,' which was a 25-pound rivet gun with alligator jaws. The top jaw would hold the rivet in place and the bottom jaw would flatten it out. It was all overhead work.

"I think that's why I received a good rating. My arms didn't get sore. That's because of the work I did in Eastern Washington. I thinned apples in the orchards. Some of the ladders I worked on were 16-foot ladders, and those ladders were quite heavy."

In helping with the restoration, Berry went back to doing a little riveting around the wings.

"It brought back memories," she said. "I realized that Shop 308, where I worked, had to be real close to where I now was doing the work." She pondered the fate of the 2-40 Building.

"It should be kept as a historical building. A lot of people in Seattle don't know that the building has this history," she said. "It's something that Seattle should be proud of. This is where the women were brought to begin working in men's trades.

"This is one of the places that won the war."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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