Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Oral History of the Joliet Arsenal, Interview with a Woman who worked in Munitions

by ann baskerville

I recently had the opportunity to interview a woman who worked at the Joliet Arsenal from 1942-1944.  Although I had known this woman the entirety of my adult life, I had no idea of her experiences working for the arsenal, nor any idea of the dramatic experiences she endured as a result of her work at the Joliet Arsenal.

She worked in the fuse bay, making bombs.  One of the chemicals involved in the making of the bombs, tetral, caused her to develop tetral dermatitus.  She was in St. Joe's Hospital in Joliet for two months and required 14 blood transfusions.  All of her hair fell out.  She "shed every bit of skin off of my body, and my teeth turned grey."

She remembers a Catholic Sister working at St. Joe's remarked, "Oh my God, you're like a fish!" upon seeing her peeling skin.  Many Sisters worked at St. Joes, she said, doing all tasks including scrubbing the floor by hand.  

Although she could not return to working in the Joliet Arsenal after her release from St. Joe's, she vividly remembered many details about her two years helping build bombs for the war effort.  She remembered many creeks near the Joliet Arsenal ran red from TNT residue.

She remembered the tragic Group 2 explosion.  She remembered that some of the "boys who were killed were not yet 18 years old."  Therefore, their parents were not eligible for any benefits.  She remembered a "a supervisor and two of my female coworkers collected money to give to the parents of the boys under 18."

Gas was rationed during war time so she often carpooled with friends from her farm outside Wilmington to the Joliet Arsenal.  One friend rode in the trunk. Men made 99 cents an hour and drove from Streater, Ottawa, and Onarga.  She has a friend from Tampa, Florida who made 1.035 an hour working as an electrician.

Finally, she remembered some farm families chose to move their homes out of the Arsenal when the government began buying land for the arsenal.  For example, the house pictured below, now located near St. Rose Church of Lima in Wilmington, Illinois, was originally in the Arsenal.