- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) - Ruth Loehrl was only 17, but she understood the importance of her work.

Every day, seven days a week, she searched the smooth interiors of shell casings, one after another.

If Loehrl found a blemish, she sorted out the empty shell for refinishing.

She did not want to let the troops down by building bad munitions.

The 1944 graduate of Janesville High School joined employees at the city’s Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants making artillery shell casings during World War II.

Seventy years ago this month, Janesville stopped making shells at the now-shuttered factory after a successful three-year run, The Janesville Gazette (https://bit.ly/1Kq8ch0 ) reported.

Those who worked at the General Motors plant and those with family members who worked there remember the time with pride.

“I was right out of high school,” 88-year-old Loehrl said. “One week, I worked on the day shift. The next week, I worked on the night shift. It was so exhausting.”

Many male employees were fighting overseas, and she became one of the legendary “Rosie the Riveters” by taking a manufacturing job.

In April 1942, Janesville joined the rest of the United States in shifting to war production.

The city’s Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants stopped producing automobiles, and GM’s Oldsmobile Division took over.

About 500 people began tearing out old equipment and installing hundreds of new machine tools to make artillery shells.

At the same time, vocational schools trained employees to operate machines in classes held around the clock.

By August 1942, full production was underway.

By February 1943, workers produced the first million shells.

By December, they made three million more shells.

The slogan, “Keep ‘Em Firing,” kept employees working three shifts around the clock.

Most of the shell casings were 105mm howitzer rounds, but the combined plant also made 90mm, 3-inch armor piercing, 3-inch solid shot and 4.7-inch high-explosive anti-aircraft shells.

A World War I vet interviewed at the time summed up the effort:

“Most of us can’t get into the actual fighting for one reason or another. But we’ve got an important job to do here_and believe me, we’re doing it.”

By August 1945, workers had built 16 million shells. In the closing weeks of shell production, only the 105mm howitzer type was made.

GM was not alone in its war production efforts. Parker Pen turned out fuses. Janesville Cotton Mills made bandages. Hough Shade manufactured curtains to dim windows in air raids.

When war contracts ended, the Janesville plants returned to Chevrolet and Fisher Body control.

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Peggy Kowal of Janesville recalls the image of her father and other tired workers walking up a hill near the plant after a tough shift.

“They carried their lunch pails, clanging at their sides,” she said. “It was the old style lunch pail that looked like a couple of small metal buckets stacked on top of each other.”

Lunches were meager, but nobody grumbled.

Kowal’s father, Floyd Benzie, worked for Fisher Body as an electrician most of his working years, including during the war.

The 93-year-old Kowal grew up in an area known as Rock Hill, not far from the GM plant. Her family’s home was a tract house built by GM to encourage young workers to move to Janesville and to work at the burgeoning Chevrolet-Fisher Body operation.

“We settled in before the Great Depression,” Kowal said. “When financial calamity hit the nation, all that GM officials asked of local homeowners was payment on the interest on the mortgages.”

When war production began, the plant changed from one shift a day to three.

“No one complained, especially those workers who had relatives in service,” Kowal said. “And no one complained about a seven-day work week. They and their family members at home knew full well that others were making greater sacrifices elsewhere.”

Kowal’s brother, future husband, cousins and many others she knew were in the service.

“People were dedicated to their work,” Kowal said. “They didn’t want someone in battle to be without ammunition because they failed to do their job.”

Workers did not talk about what they did. They only referred to their work as “war production.”

“You never knew who you were talking to,” Kowal said. “The saying was, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ It was an unspoken code to honor and to live by.”

She called the home front “a man-less world.”

“The only men still at home were your father’s age,” said Kowal, a 1941 graduate of Janesville High School. “If a guy was home on leave, your eyes popped out. It was like seeing a star on the street.”

Her father never missed a day of work.

“A thing like a cold didn’t keep workers home,” Kowal said. “They had to be desperately sick not to go to work.”

As a result, the Janesville plant had one of the most remarkable records in the country for employees being on the job every day. A GM executive made the remark during a press conference at Janesville’s Monterey Hotel in August 1945.

The all-time high for employment during the war years was at least 3,000.

After the war, Kowal’s father splurged and bought himself a red Chevrolet convertible, his first new car.

“I’d like to think he earned it,” Kowal said, “and then some.”

___

David Williams punched out the brass for artillery shells at the plant.

“He came home and his head would ring,” his son, Bill, said. “He ran the machine only in the summertime because he taught school the rest of the year.”

The elder Williams was not drafted because he had three children. But he became part of a homeland defense group.

“They drilled at Monterey Stadium with make-believe rifles,” Bill Williams said. “They learned how to march. He was part of an Army in the U.S. because everyone else was overseas.”

David Williams was not the only one working two jobs during the war.

Art Arnold’s father, Floyd, farmed during the day and worked at the plant at night.

“There were a lot of farmers in our family,” Art said. “Mostly they were exempt from military service because of working in food production.”

Like so many, Floyd Arnold was proud of his work at the plant.

“It was a time when we had to pull together,” Art Arnold said. “And we did.”

___

Ruth Anderson’s mother worked at the plant during the war in bookkeeping. When the war ended, she wanted a small shell as a souvenir. But all that remained was a big one.

“For years, the shell sat behind a connecting door to our bedrooms when we were growing up,” Anderson recalled.

Her mother eventually gave the empty shell to Ruth’s brother, who left it in his garage when he sold his house.

“The new owners got upset and called the bomb squad,” Anderson said. “No one knew what it was.”

Allen Roehl’s father also brought home a souvenir.

Roehl of Janesville can’t remember his father, Edwin, talking much about the work he did at the plant during the war years.

“I found all the stuff after he passed away,” Roehl said.

Among the things he discovered were two shells.

“How my dad got them I don’t know,” Roehl said. “I have the big one, and my brother has the little one. They are not live.”

He keeps the shell in his garage. He also has a photo of his father making shells at the plant during the war in 1942.

“I bet the majority of people have no idea what they did at the plant during the war,” Roehl said. “I find it very interesting that I have a piece of history.”

___

Judy Neumueller said her grandfather Harold “Curly” Glass of Milton was given the last shell produced during the war.

“That’s the family story,” she said. “He kept silver dollars in it in the closet. My grandmother told me as a child not to touch it. I thought it was a real bomb.”

Later, she found out it was only a shell casing.

Her grandfather began work at GM in 1923 and retired in 1968. He was part of several generations of the Glass family that worked at the plant.

Neumueller always wondered what happened to the shell after her grandfather’s death.

Last week, she discovered a cousin now collects pennies in it.

Neumueller enjoys knowing her grandfather’s story.

“I think it is wonderful that GM could stop making cars and help the war effort,” she said. “I wonder if that could happen nowadays.”

___

Information from: The Janesville Gazette, https://www.gazetteextra.com

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