Buying a Bomber

The Town of Winchester purchased the right to name this B-17 bomber for the town after raising well in excess of the required $175,000 at a brilliant auction 75 years ago.

WINCHESTER – On April 13, 1943, a pig named Adolph, a rooster, a 32-pound carton of butter, fruit, milk, potatoes, 32 pairs of nylon stockings, golf balls, a wrist watch, a pair of tires, and much, much more went on stage at the Winchester Theatre, all to be auctioned off so that Winchester could buy a bomber for the U.S. Army and help the Allies win the war.

It was a stunningly successful event.

Ever since the country began selling Defense Bonds, Winchester’s Defense Bond Committee, later the War Bond Committee, sponsored a series of events to sell bonds. (See the Nov. 25, 2016 issue to learn about Uproar Day.)

In 1943, the Bond Committee aimed high. That April, a spectacular “Buy A Bomber” auction was held. To buy the bomber and have it named after the town, $175,000 worth of War Bonds had to be sold at the auction.

The plan for selling a massive number of bonds was to include a free prize with each sale. Whatever the bid was, the winning bidder would get that amount in bonds plus the prize item. The Rotary Club did a stellar job gathering more than 100 items, donated by local businesses and firms, many of them hard to get like gasoline, butter, and nylons.

Publicity was splashed in the newspaper and posted in downtown. The postmaster saw to it that a copy of the auction program went to every home. The Army sent a pre-auction display to the common on the Saturday before the event, in the form of a detail of men, machine gun mortars, and other equipment.

The seating capacity at the theater was 874 persons – and it was packed. The Fortnightly (women’s club) sold the majority of the tickets. The theatre donated its seats, and special audio and lighting equipment was arranged by the Winton Club, which also provided ushers. St. Mary’s band provided “snappy music.”

A famous auctioneer named Lee Aubrey "Speed" Riggs (with a voice familiar to listeners of the Lucky Strike radio program) came to Winchester to conduct the auction. Townspeople outdid each other bidding.

A one-pound box of candy was won with a bid of $25 in bonds and a rooster went for $25, which shows that there were a few affordable items. But a playpen went for $500. One woman's dress went for $1,500 and another for $2,100.

A 16-pound ham raised $5,000 in bond sales. A $50 order from Whiting's Milk delivered to a Winchester home went for $5,000. A set of golf clubs was the prize for $9,000 in bonds.

The women's nylons brought in between $5,000 and $9,000 for every two pairs. The winning bid for 32 pounds of butter was $10,000, and the winner immediately returned 16 pounds on the condition that it sell for $500 per pound. In two minutes that was done.

A refrigerator went with a $16,000 bond purchase to a bidder who announced that he was giving it to the Home for Aged People (now the Mt. Vernon House). Adolf the pig was won for $2,500.

The top bid of the night was $32,500 in war bonds for 100 gallons of gasoline – $325 per gallon.

But that’s not all. Bonds were being sold in the lobby. The Town Treasurer announced to cheers that the town had purchased $100,000 in War Bonds at the desk, and it was announced that an anonymous subscriber had purchased a similar amount. The Winchester banks further swelled the sales by purchasing a total of $575,000 in War Bonds.

After the auction, Riggs said, "I've conducted a lot of War Bond auctions since Pearl Harbor, but I can tell you that I have never seen anything like this in as small an audience. The patriotism of Winchester people must be very high and your town should be very proud of the fact that they have aided the war effort by the purchase of nearly a million and a half dollars in one evening. I shall take great pleasure in telling of Winchester to other audiences that I face in the future in various parts of the country."

According to The Winchester Star, “The complete success of the affair amazed representatives of the United States Treasury Department who were present and they frankly said so. It was a real display of civic spirit and Americanism.”

In July, the Star printed a photograph of the B-17 bomber purchased with the auction money and named “Town of Winchester.” But apparently that was the last anyone back then heard of it. The people who paid for it probably never knew what happened to it.

Today, however, Boeing records tell us it went to Hendricks Field in Florida, which was used during the war as a heavy bomber training school. Initially the field was used to train and coordinate combat crews. Late in 1942, it became a specialized school for four-engine first pilots. Over 10,000 pilots and other crew members were trained at Hendricks Field.

The “Town of Winchester,” therefore, did its bit by helping young men to be trained as pilots and become part of bomber crews. It survived until the end of the war when it was scrapped. The base was closed on Dec. 31, 1945 and declared as surplus in 1946. Since then, the airfield has been the Sebring Regional Airport & Commerce Park.

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