Ghosts of the Sangamon
. . . where worked 12,000 WWII shell-stuffers
November 26, 1976
I was spurred to do this story by my curiosity about the concrete bunkers that I saw dotting the fields along U.S. 36 east of Springfield. I later learned these structures were relics from a massive wartime ammunition factory that sprouted there in 1942 as quickly as weeds after a rain. in the years since this piece was published, the story of the war plants has been told often; one of the better versions appears here at Sangamon Link.
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.”’
The 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.
* * *
The first word anyone in Springfield heard about a munitions plant came in the winter of 1942. In 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.
The 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 36. Johnson and 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.
The news 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 the old 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.
Each plant 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, and police and fire departments; in time a print shop, baseball diamonds, and tennis courts would be built.
The 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 minimum.
The 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 yet?”
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.
Above all, 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 the Railroad.
WE’VE BEEN WORKING AT THE SANGAMON
We’ve been working at the Sangamon,
All the livelong day
We’ve been working at the Sangamon,
Just to pass the time away.
Can’t you hear the preacher calling,
Praise the Lord and then,
Pass the ammunition over
And free the world again.
* * *
While 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 slow pace.
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, or 65 percent, were female.
The change in the work force was reflected in the facilities built for the workers at Illiopolis. 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. Along with the baseball diamonds for pickup lunch hour games, workers were provided day care centers and a beauty salon. Beyond these, there were few concessions made to the workers' sex. 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 the lark.”
This life 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.
Perhaps in 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 over-educated and over-paid morale officer, but at the Sangamon Ordnance Plant they worked as if they believed it top to bottom.
* * *
Of the 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 the 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].’’ There 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, depending who you asked, suffered—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.
After 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.
Moving 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, and in any event many workers didn't own cars. 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 still 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.
Workers 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 by then 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 jerry-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 because he “couldn’t find any dirt on the cars.”)
* * *
The commuter trains 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.
The train 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-numbing 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 what historians would come to confirm later, which is that it was America’s factories that won the war—and they were proud of it.
Shells 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.”
The value 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 'Schickelgruber 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. ●
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