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Charleston lost its original airport in 1942, when Wertz Field was closed after 12 years of operation, as the field's property became the site of a large synthetic rubber plant for the war effort. It took just 10 months for the employees of Ford, Bacon and Davis to build the massive plant. Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corporation along with U.S. Rubber undertook the project. Charles C. Whittlesey, completed the $6o,ooo,ooo synthetic rubber plant at Institute, and was project manager for Ford, Bacon & Davis .


Because next to steel,  rubber was the most important commodity in the war effort against Germany and Japan. Most of our source of supply had been curtailed or cut off completely,  and so in desperation we turned to the possibility of synthetic rubber.  This was a huge gamble,  as synthetic rubber had been a failure in the past, as compared to real rubber.  So this plant was considered to be top priority and one of the nations most important plants.  To protect it's secrets and developments from spies and prying eyes,  many more guards than typically necessary was utilized during the war period.


Institute and WWII: ; Creation of Synthetic Rubber Plant Was Exciting
By Clarence M. Nelson

Nearly 65 years ago, as a young man, I left my boarding house on Quarrier Street and took a bus out Washington Street, then on Roxalana Road past Dunbar to the lovely hamlet of Institute. I was practicing a little chemical engineering to help start a large rubber plant in early 1943.

When we arrived at the plant site, we were amazed. The huge place was alive with several thousand craftsmen constructing buildings, installing equipment and miles of pipelines. It was a shock to be thrown into this massive project, but also very exciting. The Institute plant was the first in the American Synthetic Rubber Program to reach the startup stage.

Few of us at the time realized how important this plant was for the American economy and the war effort. The program created a huge industry in an unbelievably short period. It was the outstanding chemical engineering project in World War II. Without its success, the war would not have been won.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, the United States and its allies lost 95 percent of their source of natural rubber. The stockpile in this country was barely a year's supply. Fortunately, the design and plans for a huge synthetic rubber industry were well advanced.

The Baruch Committee in 1941 had reported to President Roosevelt: "Of all critical and strategic materials, rubber is the one which presents the greatest threat to the safety of our nation and the success of the Allied cause. If we fail to secure a large new rubber supply quickly, our war effort and domestic economy will collapse."
Roosevelt took immediate action, setting up a government agency called the Rubber Reserve Co. Top executives from the chemical and rubber industries were called up to direct it. Outstanding scientists from the major rubber companies and 11 universities were assigned to do advanced research on synthetic polymers. Their studies increased understanding of the polymerization process.

Before our entry into the war against Germany, Standard Oil had a relationship with I.G. Farbin, a large German company doing development work on synthetic rubber made from butadiene and styrene. Standard Oil traded its process know-how for making aviation gasoline for the German know-how on Buna-S.

The Rubber Reserve Co. asked U.S. Rubber (later Uniroyal), Goodrich, Goodyear, Firestone and Standard Oil to pool their technology. This was a historic agreement, wherein bitter competitors joined forces to share their trade secrets. It was decided that a polymer made from butadiene and styrene would be the best choice. It was decided to call the polymer GR-S, for government rubber made from styrene.

The butadiene production facility, run by Carbide, located at Institute, used grain alcohol as a starting raw material. The alcohol was produced by fermentation of corn, which kept farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin busy.   The government also asked whisky distillers to produce alcohol for synthetic rubber, and the country suffered in silence while whisky was rationed.

After the design was fixed, only nine months lapsed before the first and largest synthetic rubber plant, at Institute, was ready for startup. It kept the rubber industry going full blast, making tires for the military. By the end of 1943, all the plants were in production. Nearly 200,000 tons were produced in 1943, and in 1944 production rose to 800,000 tons.  Later, research chemists discovered that the quality of the polymer could be improved greatly if the polymerization was conducted at 5 degrees Celsius, instead of the previous 50 degrees. This required new cooling systems. The resulting polymer, called cold rubber, made better-wearing tires. Today, we have tires that run for 60,000 to 80,000 miles, compared to natural rubber tires that lasted only 10,000 miles.

In 1955, the government sold all the GR-S plants to rubber and oil companies, and many of them still are in operation.  The startup days at Institute were exciting, with thousands of men and women at new jobs. I enjoyed everything about West Virginia - the Cap, Andy & Milt banjo music, the beautiful hills, and the lovely girls. I am proud to have played a part in the famous Institute synthetic rubber plant.

*Charleston Gazette


Ford, Bacon & Davis, LLC is a privately held, full-service engineering, procurement, project management and construction management company with offices located in Baton Rouge and Monroe, Louisiana, and Greenville, South Carolina.
Ford, Bacon & Davis has developed and maintained a reputation for experience and expertise in the chemical, petrochemical, refining, paper, power, industrial power / cogeneration, gas and liquid transmission, manufacturing and fabrication industries


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