the November 26 1976 Illinois Times
of the Sangamon Bomb Factories
During World War II, 12,000 shell stuffers made ammo for the Allies
on 18,000 acres of prairie near Illiopolis
Their purpose, ultimately, was destruction, although few of the people who
worked there would have described it that way or been much concerned if they
did. For three years, from a few months after Pearl Harbor until V-J Day, the
Sangamon and Midland (later Oak) ordnance plants on the, eastern fringe of
Sangamon County turned out bomb fuses and howitzer shells by the thousands
-ammunition to beat the Axis, ammunition to win World War II, ammunition, as
they used to say around the Oak Plant, to “keep ‘em shootin.”’
factories are empty now, but they’re still there, off Route 36 just west of
Illiopolis. They’re falling apart, disassembled a board at a time by the years
and the weather. Today there probably isn’t one person in a hundred who knows
what those buildings were built for or when. Barely one person in four now
living in central Illinois was even alive then. The war, to this 75
percent of the population, isn’t something remembered, it’s something read
about, dreamed, half-recalled from school (“Was that before or after the
Depression?”) or from John Wayne on Omaha Beach, a cowboy movie with tanks.
To the children and grandchildren of the people who worked in them, the Sangamon
ordnance plants could be Fort Apache or the Alamo, so far are they removed from
them in time.
The War Department closed the plants when the war ended. The number
of bombs and artillery shells produced there, if it is known at all, is buried
somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon archives, as safely hidden there as if
it were buried in the bunkers they stored shells in at Midland. To the north of
Route 36, the bunkers look like grass-backed cows sleeping in a pasture.
word anyone in Springfield heard about a munitions plant came in the winter of
January, agents of the War
Department flew to town to meet with the excited representatives of the Chamber
of Commerce. The department, they explained, wanted to build two plants for the
assembly of fuses and bomb cores. They had surveyed many possible sites. They
needed land—-up to 20,000 acres—and rail facilities to move raw materials in
and finished shells out. Most important, they needed people. When they got
cranked up to full capacity, it would take 12,000 people (“12,000?", the chamber members must have gasped) to run the plants.
The agents told the
businessmen that they had decided upon a site. It was in Sangamon County,
just on the Springfield side of Illiopolis, close to where Route 36 jogs to the
south on its way to Decatur. The place was midway between Springfield and
Decatur and close enough to both that workers could commute each day without too
much trouble. The Illinois Terminal Railroad ran right by the site on tracks
laid parallel to the highway. And there was nothing out there but bean and corn
fields—flat ground that would be cheap to buy and easy to build on.
department, the agents concluded, had already signed contracts for the
construction and operation of the plants. The Remington Rand Corporation
would build one plant—the Sangamon Ordnance Plant, on the south side of Route
Johnson of Racine, Wisconsin, acting through a subsidiary, would build the
second—the Midland plant, across the road to the north. If the chamber
helped and everything went according to plan, the first shells would roll off
the assembly lines by Christmas.
had barely hit the papers when Remington’s first team of managers arrived in
Springfield to begin work. They set up a temporary headquarters in unheated
rooms at Central High School at Adams and Pasfield. While the Remington staff
huddled in their overcoats, the vanguard of the Midland’s administrative crew
was setting up shop in more comfortable quarters in Decatur’s Orlando Hotel.
Work on the
Sangamon plant’s permanent structures started on March 22 and continued
without a break all summer. In June a visitor would note. “Hammers are
swinging, saws are singing, trucks are snorting and Diesels are humming.”
There was “an electric tingle in the air.” When the work gangs left the
sites in September they left behind them the equivalent of two small cities.
had its own sewage system, its own water supply system, its own lighting and
power plants. The 18,000 acres of farmland bought by the War Department were
criss-crossed by ninety-two miles of gravel roads and seventy-seven miles of
railroad tracks. In addition to the main factory buildings— long barracks-like
frame structures which housed the assembly lines—there were garages,
maintenance shops, seventeen first aid stations, six dormitories and seventeen
cafeterias. The plants had their own laundries, police force and fire
departments; in time a print shop, baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a beauty
salon and day care centers would be built.
contractors had been given six months and $35 million to finish the job. It took 15,000
men working around the clock in late snows and through corn-growing summer
heat, but the plants were finished on time. By September 1942, the Sangamon and
Midland ordnance plants were ready to go.
The summer of 1942 had been a
hectic one. Even before the office staff moved into their temporary quarters at
the plant site, the Sangamon plant began to publish a newsletter to keep
everyone informed of progress. Midland/Oak plant would have a newsletter
of its own in time, a fancy two color magazine called the Acorn. It was like most factory newsletters in most
respects—typewritten, mimeographed, crammed with news of babies being born,
marriages being made, gripes being aired. There were bowling scores—the
“RemRand Rollers,” the “Jeeps,” and, inevitably, the “Bombshells”
helped make up the plant league—and jokes. But the censors kept news
about the building itself, and what would go on when the building was done, to a
real purpose of the newsletters was to remind the workers that they were there
to help win the war. For instance:
“Illiopolis, Pop. 700” reads the sign
approaching the town where we will soon be laboring. “Illiopolis,
Pop the AXIS” is the sign we
would suggest, is slightly more appropriate after we arrive.
And, as if anyone were likely to forget, this reminder:” Only 162 days
left this year to smash the Axis. Have you done your Christmas shopping
The jokes, the news, the slogans—especially the slogans—all centered around
the war. Along with the weather, the war had become the one thing that
even strangers shared in common, and, like the weather, everybody talked about
it. Workers at Sangamon and Midland were scolded, shamed, kidded and
bullied to buy bonds, save rubber, conserve gasoline, keep quiet.
to keep quiet. “Be smart, play dumb!” became the plant’s slogan. One
of the first things the plant managers had to do was to impress upon their
workers the importance of being discreet. Saboteurs were everywhere, or were
assumed to be—the worst thing about them was that you could never be sure.
As early as June of 1942 workers at Illiopolis were being warned:
Now is a good time to begin guarding your speech. No talking about
the plant to strangers... Don‘t talk shop; even among friends and relatives.
Don‘t be a “gossip hound.” Remember—starting idle rumors sometimes stops
victory marches! Don‘t give your country the slip—BUTTON YOUR LIP!
Morale was watched like a
fever victim’s temperature and efficiency became a mania among the plants’
managers. “Mesh gears and avoid tears!” was the byword. Whether they
pushed a pencil or a broom, the workers at the Sangamon plants were never
allowed to forget that they were all soldiers in the home front army. They
even had their own marching song, sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on
WE’VE BEEN WORKING AT THE SANGAMON
been working at the Sangamon,
the livelong day
been working at the Sangamon,
to pass the time away.
Can’t you hear
the preacher calling,
Lord and then,
And free the world
the carpenters hammered, the administrators and their staffs had begun to
organize work schedules, requisition supplies and print forms. Both Rand and
Johnson brought in experienced administrators and engineers from their other
plans to train local personnel. Twenty-seven of the Rand staff formed the
nucleus of the Sangamon’s front office, for example, and locals were given a
crash course in munitions production at other plants around the country.
The plant managers also began to hire the factory hands who would actually do
the work. Whatever questions lingered about the scale of the new plants
were answered by the hiring calls issued. Four thousand men and women were
wanted to work at Midland and another 8,000 to work at Sangamon. Locals,
taking their cue from hyperbolic union men, had long been accustomed to
describing Sangamon County’s 3,000 or so coal miners as an “army”; they
did, after all, constitute the single largest category of workers in the county
before the war. But all Sangamon County’s coal diggers couldn’t run
the smaller Midland plant through one three-shift day. If the miners made
an army, what were 12,000 shell-stuffers to be called? And where, many people
wondered, would they come from?
Through the months before Pearl Harbor, Springfield and central Illinois were
still nursing an economic hangover from the Depression. Employment levels were
up from the worst days of 1932 but there were still too many people out of work.
The Chamber of Commerce complained about it, the politicians promised relief
from it, the unemployed endured it, but employment improved at a maddeningly
After Pearl Harbor the Sangamon munitions works weren’t the only war
industries in central Illinois, by any means; there was hardly a foundry or
trucking firm or assembly plant that didn’t make some money selling to the
government. But the Sangamon plants were the biggest of the wartime
employers. Applications for jobs at the plants began to be accepted in
Springfield on March 17; by the end of the next day more than 1,700 people
had signed up. Separate employment bureaus were opened in neighboring towns like
Lincoln to handle the applicants there. The available pool of employable
males between high school and retirement was quickly exhausted. Those that
hadn’t been drafted were added to the assembly lines. When there were no
longer enough had their men to fill the jobs the war created, women were hired.
A new class
of worker appeared almost overnight—the WOW, or woman ordnance worker.
In a few months the sight of a woman in overalls with a lunch bucket in her hand
became as common as movie stars at a bond sale. They were, predictably, a
varied lot. Some were married, many were not. Some sought work to replace
male-earned incomes taken by the draft, others to help win the war, or because
the pay was good—or because it was a change from the genteel servitude of life
behind a desk or sales counter. By the end of the war they were carrying
the weight of war production on their backs. In Springfield, to take just
one example, 9,000 of the 14,000 people engaged in war work in the spring of
1944—65 percent—were women.
in the work force was reflected in the facilities built for the workers at
Illiopolis. Along with the baseball diamonds for pickup lunch hour games,
workers were provided day care centers and a beauty salon.
there were few concessions made to the workers sex. Many of the women had
to tend to children and housekeeping chores in addition to their jobs at the
plant. For some this meant starting their days at three or four in the
morning. They often made light of their schedules; the Voice of
Sangamon, the plant newsletter, once reminded them that were it not for
their early morning risings, they would not have been “charmed by the song of
of toil was not without its rewards. With overtime, some war workers were taking
home $100 a week, as much as they could have made in a month during the
Depression. For thousands of central Illinoisans, the war was buying the dreams
they’d been cheated out of by hard times.
The battalions of overalled workers who
staffed the Sangamon plant loaded a deadly assortment of the Midland plant.
The Midland plant loaded both
high explosive and armor piercing shells for guns and howitzers ranging in size
from the 20mm gun to the three inch howitzer.
The WOWs wrote their names on the shells
they handled and got back letters from servicemen all over the world. Home front
historian Mary Watters tells this story: “To Velma Foster, employee at the
Sangamon Ordnance Plant, for instance, came a letter from ‘Private Yank’
(Peoria) on the Anzio beachhead. He wrote to tell her that a fuse signed
by her had helped to ‘disorganize’ a group of German tanks. ‘I thought you
would like to know,’ he said.”
The war, as Watters said,
“was a race for time and distance.” The nation’s first assembly line for
the production of 22mm shells was set up at the Sangamon plant. It boosted
the rate of production 2,500 percent while reducing costs. By such
economies the Sangamon plant was able to meet its production quotas with shells
to spare. The War Department awarded Remington Rand and its Illiopolis
employees the coveted “E” flag for excellence in July of 1943.
recognition of these achievements, and certainly to eliminate the administrative
duplications required to run two plants next door to each other, the War
Department awarded the Rand Corporation a new contract in the fall of 1943 for
the joint operation of both Sangamon and the Midland plants. From that
date until their closing the two plants operated under the name, “Sangamon
Ordnance Plant”; it was under that name that the facility won another
production award in the winter of 1944.
“Producing for Victory” may have been just another motto, another bright
idea from some overeducated and overpaid morale officer, but at the Sangamon
Ordnance Plant they worked as if they believed it top to bottom.
12,000 men and women who eventually signed on at the two plants, roughly three
or four thousand lived in Springfield or the immediate Springfield area. The
rest came from Decatur, Lincoln, Taylorville and the dozens of crossroads towns
which dot central Illinois. Those who didn’t live close enough to
commute to work tried to find housing in the Springfield-Decatur area. But this
was about as easy as finding a ticket to the seventh game of a Cubs-White Sox
World Series. Rooming houses, apartment buildings, trailer courts, even
cheaper motels and hotels in both cities were all filled. The situation in
the small towns was, if anything, even worse. As one account described it,
‘Construction workers often poured into new war plant areas ahead of
homes—they slept in cars, on lawns, in haylofts, and city halls.... In August
1942, they were sleeping ‘on the bare ground [in Illiopolis].’’
wasn’t much improvement by early 1943. A news report read, “If the situation
[in Springfield] is acute, the housing problem in Illiopolis itself is almost
beyond conception. As an official put it, ‘even the park benches’ are eyed
longingly by the war workers.” Illiopolis enjoyed—or suffered—
opinion was divided on the point—a population boom. The village of 700
absorbed 400 new citizens, most of them holed up in one of the new trailer camps
which sprang up. The camps were home to a migrant breed of industrial
worker, tin-bucket Bedouins who moved from plant to plant, trailer camp to
trailer camp in search of work. The best efforts of church and business
groups in Decatur and Springfield to find housing for the workers failed.
The plant managers built dormitories on the plant grounds. The first of
these facilities was opened at the Sangamon plant in January of 1943.
Christened “Victory Hall,” the dorm had sixty-eight double rooms and
twenty-four singles. Tenants got a bed, a dresser, a desk, lamps, a
closet, and in the double rooms, a radio, with maid service extra—all the
comforts of home for $3.50 a week for a single room. Like most dorm rooms,
they were about as inviting as a broom closet. But there was a war on, and
even a broom closet is better than a park bench.
12,000 war workers from home to job and back again proved a tougher problem.
The only road into and out of the plant sites was Route 36, a two lane blacktop
which connected Springfield and Decatur. It wasn’t enough road to handle
the traffic that would result if workers drove cars to work. The answer
was trains. The old interurban line which once linked the two cities had
long since dropped passenger service through Illiopolis, but the Illinois
Terminal tracks ran next to the road between the plants. The railroad
agreed to run commuter cars on their line from Decatur and Springfield out to
the plants and back.
were encouraged to ride the trains by arguments that were as much patriotic as
practical. Gas was in short supply, as were auto tires. Riding the
train to work saved both; every gallon of gas saved, every scrap of rubber
unused, meant that much more of both that could be used at the front.
But the IT
made its living hauling coal not commuters. To accommodate its new cargo, the
road bought eleven cars from New York City’s Sixth Avenue ‘El,” shipped
them to Decatur and refitted them for use on the run to the ordnance plant.
The cars were double-deckers and could handle as many as one hundred passengers
each. The gerry-rigged commuter line made its maiden run on November 30,
1942. The train was called, of course, the ‘Victory Special.” (The
‘rumor,” reported in the Sangamon Ordnance Plant newsletter, that
“columnist Walter Winchell was coming along with some of the New York elevated
cars” proved false, to no one’s surprise; he “couldn’t find any dirt on
The line ran until the plants
were closed at the end of the war. Twice per shift the El cars filled with
people. They read the paper and talked, about work and about the war and how
this son or that husband was getting along at the front. Sometimes, on an
especially cold day, the riders passed a coffee jug around and everyone tried to
down a swallow or two, tricky business as they bumped along. Once in
awhile they sang songs together—Christmas carols, popular tunes, occasionally
a “Happy Birthday” when the calendar called for it.
ride was just one more thing that the war workers at the Sangamon and Midland
shared, along with gossip, the bad cafeteria food and the mind-rotting
repetition of the work itself. But they also shared a deeply felt pride in
doing something to help the country. The men and women who populated the
city in the bean fields felt themselves soldiers, albeit soldiers of a different
sort than the ones who killed and were killed by the shells and bombs they
helped make. They understood, historians would only come to realize later, that
it was America’s factories that won the war—and they were proud of it.
loaded at Illiopolis were used in Allied campaigns in Anzio, Finchaven, China
and New Guinea. A 1945 newspaper account noted, with as much awe as pride,
‘that “Fuses which left Sangamon plant on Friday of one week were affixed to
shells and shot at the, Germans in Italy by Thursday of the next week.”
of Sangamon shells to the Allies in each of these faraway places was measured in
blood. But the fact, even if perceived, was only grudgingly acknowledged
by those who made their livings making them. Most didn’t think much
about what happened to the shells when they reached their destinations.
They knew that they could kill and maim, of course. But the workers
weren’t killing and maiming people; they weren’t even killing and maiming
Germans or Japanese. They were Krauts, Japs, the Axis, ‘the Mikado mob, the
Schickel-gruber gang”—the enemy. It
was a necessary self deception; the thread of imagination that connected
Illiopolis and Anzio was a thin one.
They wanted to help win the
war, and they did their part, according to the rules. —James Krohe Jr
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