A simple blue and gold historical marker unveiled Tuesday at an East Farmingdale shopping center tells the story of the site's past as a vast airplane manufacturing plant that churned out fighters critical to the Allied cause in World War II.
"The men and women of Republic Aviation built 9,087 P-47 Thunderbolt fighters in E. Farmingdale for the USAAF: 1941-1945," it reads, a short epitaph for a proud past.
On ground now occupied by Airport Plaza, an estimated 30,000 Republic Aviation employees worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a facility that spanned 2 million square feet.
The sheer number of the heavily armed fighters they built helped establish Allied air dominance in Europe. The scale of production, which had little precedent in American history, helped transform largely rural Long Island into the suburbia we know today.
But members of the Long Island Republic Airport Historical Society, who erected the marker with a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which funds historical markers across the state, said few Long Islanders know the whole story.
"I still have a habit of saying, 'Right by the aircraft factory,' and they just look at you," said Mike Morra, 64, of Farmingdale, whose father welded P-47s at the plant and who later worked there himself painting aircraft.
Morra recalled dinnertime conversations where his father told his mother about "how hard and hot it was to lay in the aircraft and weld. He'd come home with welding burns all over his body, but he'd say, 'We got another one out, the assembly line is moving.' "
Their product was the workhorse of the Allied air forces, and its combat record was devastating: 546,000 sorties destroying or damaging 12,000 enemy planes, 86,000 railroad cars, 9,000 locomotives and 6,000 armored vehicles and tanks.
"It was the most-produced American fighter in history," said Joshua Stoff, curator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. "It was central to the war effort."
Workers for Republic helped swell Babylon Town's population from 27,000 at the war's cusp to more than six times that in 1960, reflecting a regionwide population increase. The plant hired women, African-Americans and workers with a wide array of skills that remained relevant in the postwar economy.
"It laid the foundation for the Long Island that we know," Historical Society president Leroy Douglas said. "We want people to understand the heritage that's here."
But the numbers of those who built the planes are dwindling. One of the last workers, Josephine Rachiele, 91, of West Babylon, a P-47 riveter, helped cut the shroud off the marker Tuesday.
"It was a huge building," she said. "The noise was horrible. I had a partner; we shouted to each other, it was the only way we could hear."
She recalled the rigors of a 10-hour workday with 10 minutes off in the morning, 10 in the afternoon, 30 for lunch. "I remember how hard I worked," she said. "We were busy all the time."
40 feet, 9 inches
36 feet, 1 inch
up to 2 tons
Source: "The Historic Aircraft and Spacecraft in the Cradle of Aviation Museum," by Joshua Stoff