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City of Vancouver played important role in World War II

On Veterans Day Americans honor the men and women who have served in our country’s armed forces. If an American town were ever similarly acknowledged, Vancouver, Wash. could stand proud, especially for the contributions this community made during World War II.

Vancouver is rarely the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of World War II. The Holocaust, the tragedy at Pearl Harbor, or movies like “Band of Brothers” are far more iconic. Yet, Vancouver’s contribution to the war effort, as an army base and a source of military equipment and raw materials, was significant.

Fort Vancouver and the Vancouver barracks have served a historic military role since 1849. Until it closed in 2011, Fort Vancouver was the longest occupied U.S. Army post in continuous operation west of the Mississippi. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it became a key staging area for troops and supplies before deployment through Seattle to the European and Pacific theatres. During the war, Fort Vancouver provided billeting space for 250 officers and 7,295 enlisted persons.

In addition to being a temporary home to servicemen, our community also produced many of the ships and airplanes that helped to win the war. The Kaiser shipyards opened in 1942 and, over the course of the next 44 months, produced two 14,000-ton dry docks and 141 military ships, including 10 liberty ships, 30 tank-landing ships, 50 escort aircraft carriers, 31 attack transports, 12 C-4 troop ships and 12 C-4 cargo vessels.

Vancouver was also a significant source of the aluminum required for airplane production. Prior to World War II, aluminum was a rare and expensive product because of the significant amount of electricity required for its manufacture.

In 1938, Bonneville Dam began producing hydroelectric power at the same time Hitler began to use the Luftwaffe as a major part of his air strategy.

In 1940 the Alcoa Aluminum smelter opened in Vancouver and the Northwest aluminum industry was born. The Vancouver plant eventually produced enough aluminum for 3,000 planes per month.

According to clark.wa.gov, the start of WWII brought unprecedented development to Vancouver as nearly 40,000 laborers moved to the area to work at the Kaiser Shipyards. From 1941 to 1944, the population of Vancouver swelled from 18,000 to more than 90,000 residents. The Columbian Newspaper reported that a visiting reporter compared downtown Vancouver to Fourth and Pike in Seattle.

Although the local aluminum smelting plant contributed toward the war effort, it also left behind contaminants that are still of environmental concern today. The site was listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priority List in 1988. Remediation efforts have focused on cleaning up the soil and ground water, but a 2010 report of the Washington Department of Ecology said the smelting site was still contaminated.

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