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Bob Ross admits to snooping.

But as a college student working at a Marshfield lumber company during the summer of 1978, the exploration of a barn's third floor helped him understand the contribution of Wisconsin's lumber industry to World War II.

Now, almost 30 years after his job at Weyerhaeuser Co., Ross, a project leader and engineer at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, is immersed in history.

The majority is in the form of thousands of research documents compiled by FPL scientists and engineers who have tested and analyzed wood uses for almost 100 years.

Today, Ross will get a CliffsNotes version of some of that history with the opening of an exhibit that traces the use of plywood for the construction of World War II aircraft.

One type included gliders, parts of which were made from thin sheets wood veneer clipped to lines to dry in the barn in which Ross and his co-workers liked to explore.

"If you looked around, the clips were there," said Ross. "They made a lot of neat stuff there."

"Wisconsin Flying Trees: Wisconsin Plywood Industry's Contribution to World War II" is the creation of Sara Witter Connor, granddaughter of Hamilton Roddis, who led the Roddis Plywood & Veneer Co. from 1920 to his death in 1960. Witter Connor is also director of education and curator for the Camp 5 Museum Foundation in Laona, about 220 miles northeast of Madison in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

The 23-foot-long, 9-foot-high exhibit is on display at FPL beginning today through the end of March. It will then embark on a national tour that includes stops at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, N.C.; the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinneville, Ore., for the 60th anniversary of the flight of the Spruce Goose and to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Wisconsin plywood manufacturers during World War II controlled 60 percent of the plywood market in the country. And with the help of FPL, waterproof glues and laminates were invented that helped aircraft withstand the tropical humidity of the South Pacific, Witter Connor said.

"The story hasn't been told. It's just been kind of glanced over," Witter Connor, 57, said from her winter home in Whitefish, Mont. "This is the story of the people who worked in the industry."

They included factory workers like Anna Wundrow, whose picture is on the exhibit twice -- as a young woman during her working years at Roddis and a more recent photo. Wundrow used an iron to connect pieces of veneer.

"There were glue people that would glue the edges of the panels and we would iron with a flat iron until it made a big panel," Wundrow said in a quote displayed on the exhibit.

"We knew the plywood was going for airplanes," said Verna Fohrman, who started at Roddis in 1941. "It was no secret."

Industries throughout Wisconsin took part in the war effort. Submarines were constructed in Manitowoc, tractors and generators in West Allis and ammunition near Baraboo.

Wisconsin plywood companies supplied glider materials to the Northwestern Aeronautical Corp. in Minneapolis, Steinway & Sons, Pratt-Read Co., Cessna Aircraft and about a dozen other companies that were making gliders for the war effort.

In Madison, FPL helped develop "papreg," a high-strength "paper plastic" used for the floors of the gliders, which were used to haul men and cargo.

"They were light and extremely strong," Witter Connor said of the paper floors. "They could hold a jeep."

The exhibit features a 5-foot by 4-foot piece of a glider wing made from mahogany and manufactured by Roddis for the Pratt-Read Co., which made the "Voo-Doo" glider.

Staff at FPL also dug through archives, closets and offices looking for artifacts from the war era that relate to the exhibit. They include wood propellers, a piece of papreg from a glider and a model of wood shipping crates that FPL researchers helped design. The crates were used to ship rifles, cannons and machine guns overseas.

"It's work like that that led to sometimes tripling the amount of materials in the boxes and getting it there with less damage," said FPL Director Chris Risbrudt. "People don't realize the role FPL played."

Besides gliders, Wisconsin plywood was also used to make the DeHavilland Mosquito, the fastest airplane manufactured for the war. Over 7,700 Mosquitoes were built in 43 variants, including the Sea-Mosquito LR-359, the first twin-engine airplane to land on an aircraft carrier.

The state also played an instrumental role in the construction of one of the most well-known airplanes ever made but which only got about 70 feet off the water for just under a mile.

Yellow birch for the Hughes Flying Boat, better known as the Spruce Goose -- a 300,000-pound cargo plane with a wing span the length of a football field -- was harvested from Vilas County and turned into plywood at Roddis.

FPL was asked by Howard Hughes to study the durability of glue joints exposed to water, gasoline, oil and weather; the rates of water absorption or weight increases; and the suitability of spruce and birch for the job.

"This is called civil research military history. People are just not aware of this," said Witter Connor, who worked about 18 months on the exhibit. "It's been a full-time job. I've had a lot of amazing discoveries."

If you go

"Wisconsin's Flying Trees: Wisconsin Plywood Industry's Contribution to World War II" will open today at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, 1 Gifford Pinchot Drive, near the intersection of Walnut Street and Campus Drive.

A 3 p.m. ceremony will feature talks by Sara Witter Connor, director of education and curator of Camp 5 Museum Foundation in Laona. She led the effort to create the exhibit.

Les Schwarm, a former member of the 82nd Airborne will discuss Operation Market Garden and Battle of the Bulge. John W. Koning Jr., a former assistant director of FPL who spent 25 years with the organization, will receive the Forest History Association of Wisconsin Fixmer Award for distinguished service.

The exhibit is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. through March 23.


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