How Mansfield Steel Shaped The Front Lines Of Battle: 1942

How did American forces of WWII gain traction in Europe after getting a foothold on the Normandy beaches of D-Day?

Answer: Martin Steel of Mansfield, Ohio.

France and Germany are made of mud and sand and mountains, none of which is particularly easy to drive over, or march over, or land a plane on.  So the U.S. Army devised a method whereby difficult earth could be covered with a layer of textured steel plates to create a serviceable road surface or runway surface.  It was called PSP: Perforated Steel Planking.  

It was manufactured on Longview Avenue right next to the tracks.

That was how the Army Air Force was able to land planes on all those little South Pacific islands made of sand: instant runways assembled from Mansfield steel.

Each plank was 15 inches wide and 10 feet long, covering 12.5 square feet of earth. They each had 87 holes in them to allow drainage and reduce the weight to 66 pounds per section.

The textured steel planks were often the first equipment loaded onto the beachheads of the Pacific, in order to enable the landing of wheeled vehicles.

Illustration syndicated in 1942 and printed in newspapers across the nation by the National Association of Manufacturers.

Even Hollywood acknowledged the importance of those steel planks when they filmed The Longest Day, the epic movie from 1962 about D-Day. This scene near the end shows soldiers marching away from Utah Beach over a hastily-mounted thoroughfare made of PSP.

Wartime Production

Martin Steel was not the only plant in America fabricating the steel planking: by 1945 the U.S. had shipped 477,000 tons of it overseas, and it took 29 factories working around the clock to crank out that much massive material.

But Martin Steel led the way.  Late in 1941 they were commissioned to document the entire process of taking a plain sheet of steel and turning it into essential wartime supply through a series of 25 photos made at the Longview plant.  This Mansfield photo essay became the instructional manual for steel plants across the nation.

And it provides us with a rare glimpse inside the North End factory complex.

A genuine piece of Martin Steel’s WWII PSP, on display at the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum, still shows some of its original Army olive green paint after more than 75 years.

Martin Steel

The Martin Steel Production Company was founded in 1895 on North Adams Street, and grew so profoundly through its first decades that the operation had to move to Longview Avenue in 1920 so it could build a plant five times larger.

They were known around the nation and the world for their steel agricultural products, primarily farm buildings like corn cribs, garages and silos. 

The Martin Steel plant was located on Longview just a few hundred yards down the tracks from the Steel Mill, known at that time as Empire Sheet & Tin Plate Co. All of the farm buildings, and all of the WWII steel planking produced at Martin were made of steel plate from Empire, known today as AK Steel.

Advertising brochure from the 1920s.

Through the decades and according to the strength of economic trends, Martin Steel employed anywhere from 50 to 450 workers- its peak coming during the WWII years.

All that remains today of the Martin Steel factory complex, since it closed in 1985, are the abandoned main office building standing at the corner of Longview and North Mulberry Street, and a railroad spur where stray freight cars are sometime still seen to be parked near Martin’s concrete loading dock.

History & Rust

Tough as it is, steel does not last forever.  Especially on old battlefields. Yet, even in ragged pieces it has made it farther down the timeline than those hands who shaped it, the company that shipped it, and the warriors who depended on it.

Last year, a corroded old chunk of PSP was found in a woods behind Utah Beach in Normandy, and, though reduced to fragile flakes of rust by the ravages of decades, it is clearly recognizable as made in the U.S.A., perhaps one of those pressed out of Mansfield steel.

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