Dozens of seemingly out-of-place structures dot farm fields west of Illiopolis, the last reminders of what once was one of the U.S.’s largest producers of World War II artillery ammunition.
From 1942 to 1945, the Sangamon Ordnance Plant produced 24 million artillery shells, 10 million 90mm anti-tank rounds and more than 100 million artillery and bomb fuses and boosters. The production and transportation systems were so efficiently integrated that, as the Illinois State Journal reported in 1945, fuses that left the plant’s assembly line “on Friday of one week were affixed to shells and fired at the Germans in Italy by Thursday of the next week.”
A workforce that approached 10,000 people at its peak also helped pull the Springfield and Decatur areas out of economic doldrums created by the Great Depression and the long-term decline of coal mining. More than 60 percent of those employees were women (nicknamed WOWs – “women ordnance workers”), many of whom were working outside their homes for the first time in their lives.
The site covered 19,200 acres in eastern Sangamon County. Virginia Walgren explained how federal officials chose the area for ammunition production in her 2013 master’s thesis, The Historic Remains of the Sangamon Ordnance Plant (excerpts from theses and interviews below have been lightly edited for punctuation):
There were several factors contributing to Illiopolis being chosen for an ordnance plant. First, its location: Illiopolis is almost exactly the center of the state, and it is located nearly half way between Springfield and Decatur, Taylorville and Lincoln. Second, available transportation: (The site) is along what was the Wabash Railroad and the Illinois Central Traction System (also known as the Illinois Terminal, or Interurban), and U.S. 36 ran through the area as well. Even though the farmland in this area is some of the richest and most productive in the world, little consideration was given to that. Rather, it was viewed as an open spot with plenty of ground to provide a safety buffer around the plant in the event of an explosion. … Ironically, that which made the land so good for agriculture was also part of what made it so desirable for munitions production: firm, level ground with ample water and nearness to rail and roads. … Farmers both locally and across the country tried to fight the locations of ordnance plants, but to no avail. The country was in need, and that need outweighed the need of the farmers.
In fact, the Illinois State Journal reported that farmers who attended a March 13, 1942, meeting with plant developers “became very heated.”
“The land owners listened with undisguised animosity to the projects that are taking their rich lands, when, as they see it, less fertile acres are available not far away,” the Journal said. In the end, the federal government purchased 77 tracts of land, “eight of them unwillingly,” Walgren reported.
The plant originally was built as two separate operations. North of U.S. 36 was the Oak Ordnance Plant (sometimes also called the Midland plant), operated by Johnson & Johnson. The Oak plant manufactured 90mm high-explosive shells and 3-inch, 75mm, and 76mm artillery rounds. On the south side of the highway was the original Sangamon Ordnance Plant, operated by Remington Rand. Its output included bomb and artillery fuses and fuse components, along with artillery boosters and “bursters” (a burster was the heart of an incendiary round).
The two plants merged, keeping the name Sangamon Ordnance Plant and under sole management by Remington Rand, in September 1943.
Construction was a massive undertaking, requiring 15,000 construction workers, but was accomplished quickly. The project, made public in February 1942, became fully operational by March 1943.
Over that period, Walgren reports, workers built the bulk of more than 2,000 buildings, 58½ miles of roads, and 79 miles of railroad track within the site, along with support services like wells, water systems and sewage treatment plants.
B. David McCarthy, who wrote his own master’s thesis, The Sangamon Ordnance Plant, in 1990, added the detail that roads through the property carried “appropriate wartime names”: Victory Drive, Coral Sea Road, Pearl Harbor Drive, etc.
Influx of workers
The influx of construction workers kicked off a housing shortage in nearby communities, a situation that continued until the war ended. The Illinois State Journal outlined the impact in August 1942.
But if the situation (in Springfield) is acute, the housing problem in Illiopolis itself is almost beyond conception. As one official put it, “even the park benches” are eyed longingly by the war workers. Officials said not one home in that village is available for rent.
The village has blossomed into a huge trailer camp, with townsfolk renting out almost every inch of available space for trailer use. It was estimated that about 400 trailers are located in or near the village.
A great number of trailers also are located on the fringes of Springfield, and some realtors said many more probably would come here for the duration.
Paul Hohenstein, who was a child when the plants were built, remembered that the influx of workers had another effect on his hometown. (McCarthy interviewed Hohenstein and others in 1989 as part of his thesis research.)
(T)here was five or six taverns in our little town … and they were rowdy all the time. I know there was a pool hall up above where Sam Rogers’ store is now, his antique shop, and it was quite interesting. My father allowed us to go up there and play pool, you know, and then they had pretty important people out of Decatur and from all over come up there to gamble and it was really almost like a wild west town, it was really kind of rough. You’d see drunks laying in the street in late hours and especially in the summertime, my gosh, it was going until one or two o’clock in the morning.
Some people worried that “Okies” would flood central Illinois in search of defense jobs, a fear Illinois State Journal columnist A.L. Bowen tried to squelch in a May 1942 column.
From the start, he wrote, “it was the plan to draw all the employees within a radius of fifty miles, so that most of them could come from their homes and return to them each day. …
“There will be some trailer camp population but I doubt that it will ever be large enough to be serious, either during production or after it ceases. Whatever size the trailer camp problem may assume, it can be handled and all the anticipated evils prevented.”
Bowen turned out to be right. The ordnance plants’ labor pool ultimately was concentrated in an area generally bounded by Springfield, Decatur, Taylorville and Lincoln.
On-site dormitories accommodated a relatively small proportion of plant workers – the five dorms could hold about 800 people. They paid weekly rents ranging from $3.50 each to share a room up to $5.25 for an extra-large private room. Meanwhile, the plant’s top supervisors lived in 40 two-story private homes, 20 on each of the original two plant sites. (Those homes remain as private residences today.)
The thousands of other workers commuted from their homes, many by bus or auto, but most on special trains running on the Illinois Terminal Railroad’s old Interurban line, which paralleled U.S. 36 and the Wabash Railroad between Springfield and Decatur. In June 1942, the IT bought 55 retired wooden passenger cars from the New York City transit system, remodeled them for IT use and inaugurated the Victory Special route to and from the ammunition plants.
“The Victory Special: The lllinois Terminal and the Sangamon Ordnance Plant,” an article written by Steve Holding, Dale Jenkins and Ray Reed for the Wabash Railroad Historical Society, reported that the cars were readied quickly.
The new seating arrangement consisted of three rows of cane upholstered benches running the length of the car. Capacity was approximately 100 people, with hanging straps for standees. The cars had good lighting, ample electric heat, and were painted in standard IT tangerine orange. …
(The first eight cars) were assigned to ordnance service, which began with the transporting of plant office staff workers on September 2, 1942. Soon after, over half of the workers at the uncompleted plants were riding the trains to work.
The first official Victory Special – 11 passenger cars and 500 riders, pulled by a red, white and blue locomotive — left Springfield’s IT station on Clear Lake Avenue at 7:45 a.m. Nov. 29, 1942. A single trip was 20 cents, while a weekly discount ticket was $1.50. The trains were exclusively for ordnance plant workers, so riders also had to carry special passes, which were checked by guards aboard the trains.
Artillery components were manufactured on 11 “load lines” – seven on the original Sangamon Ordnance campus and four on the Oak site.
The Voice of Sangamon, the merged plant’s monthly newsletter, in March 1945 took readers step-by-step through production of a 90mm shell, including the painstaking process of loading it with TNT.
The federal government recognized the Oak Ordnance Plant with an “E” (for excellence) award in 1943 and added three stars to the flag, signifying continued high-quality work by the combined Sangamon Ordnance Plant, in 1944 and 1945.
Security and safety
The site was surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Six hundred plant security officers patrolled the perimeter in cars and on horseback, and employees had to show badges to enter the plant.
Inside the fences, safety precautions required load-line workers to change into coverall uniforms and wear specially designed shoes. McCarthy detailed some of the required measures.
In a facility where dangerous explosives were handled as a part of nearly every stage of manufacturing, safety was the prime concern for all employees. Precautions were taken to eliminate sparks which might set off an explosion. Workers were not allowed to wear jewelry and women were not allowed the use of hair pins or bobby pins. Searches were conducted before workers were allowed on the job. Matches were forbidden in the production areas.
Each worker was outfitted with a special pair of safety shoes which had rubber and graphite soles and heel plugs to bleed electricity from the body to the ground. … The shoes were designed to be black with brown toes so that guards could tell at a glance if workers were wearing the proper safety footwear. …
Two types of plastic non-sparking glasses were provided for those who wore glasses. … The only items that workers were allowed to carry onto the line were: handkerchiefs, wallets, wooden pencils, glasses and gum.
The precautions were effective. Despite the millions of shells that went through the plant, only two people died as the result of production line incidents. (At least four others were killed in other accidents in or near the plant, including one man whose body was found in the debris of a dormitory that was destroyed by a fire in January 1944.)
There were other hazards besides explosions, including “powder poison,” the result of handling TNT powder. Lila Roese of Springfield discussed her case of powder poison with McCarthy in an interview.
It was terrible, you turned yellow. Just as yellow as yellow could be and orange, your hair turned orange, and your whole body that was exposed to the powder turned yellow. And I laid for a week, well, I went to work every day, but I was a week in the hospital out there. A car would pick me up and take me up to the hospital and keep me. All the veins in my face came to the surface and it was terrible. …
You could tell when you went anywhere, you could tell who was working in the powder because they all turned the same color.
The long-term cure for powder poisoning was simply to move to a different ordnance job. The condition was caused by skin contact with TNT, which was difficult to prevent even with protective clothing, gloves and masks. The February 1945 edition of The Voice of Sangamon, without ever quite mentioning powder poison, encouraged workers to use Fend-O, a cream that, the article said, “acts as a film and prevents toxic dust from contacting the skin.” (A related product, Fend-X, was recommended to prevent skin irritation and promote smoother skin.)
Hiring and morale
Recruiting and keeping employees was a struggle during the plant’s entire existence, and recruitment personnel had to be imaginative. The plant actively sought teachers, students and farmers to work seasonally, and people who could fit it into their schedules were encouraged to take on four-hour shifts at the ordnance plant after finishing their regular workdays elsewhere (McCarthy says this was mainly an option for residents of Decatur, which was much closer than Springfield to Illiopolis). And a “twin worker” program even allowed two employees to split a single job assignment, working alternate days.
A typical newspaper advertisement in January 1944 (ad below courtesy SJ-R) aimed mainly at women, was headlined “What Can I Do?” It promised “excellent wages” with overtime, paid vacations, group insurance, free medical service, “good meals served at our Company’s Cafeteria at low cost,” free uniforms and safety shoes, a “large well-supervised nursery to care for children while you work,” and “pleasant associates in a large modern war plant.”
The plant also needed 200 “husky and able bodied men” for heavier jobs, the ad noted, but in a nod to the difficulty of finding qualified workers, added, “persons now engaged in essential war work should not apply.”
Base pay for a trained worker was 75 cents an hour, McCarthy found.
The most innovative employee benefit may have been the nursery school/daycare facility that was added to one of the dorms in September 1943. In his thesis, McCarthy reported that a staff of six cared for 50 children (ages 2-14) during day shifts five days a week.
Today this arrangement would not seem so unusual with many employers providing some form of daycare facilities. In the 1940s, though, this was described as a “unique setup, not common in connection with industries over the country.”
The facilities, which were housed in the north dormitory on the south side, included: sleeping rooms, dining rooms, a modern kitchen, a music room, and an outdoor playground. A ninety foot indoor playroom was also available with play equipment. The outdoor playground was fenced and had slides, teeter-totters, sandboxes, and outdoor toys. In addition to lunch, children at the center were given a mid-morning snack of milk and cookies.
The center was often used as an enticement for mothers to come to work at the plant. Although difficult to prove, the availability of child care must have proved attractive to many women.
Morale-boosters included plant newsletters – prior to the merger of the two plants, the Oak Ordnance Plant’s own newsletter was The Acorn. The monthly publications included feature articles, safety suggestions, war bond solicitations, articles on plant procedures and management, and humor. But their heart was chatty reporting on employee milestones – awards, weddings, military enlistments and promotions, and general gossip.
Sports were a big part of the plants’ recreation programs, with softball, basketball, bowling and other intra-employee competitions held in Springfield and Decatur as well as on-site. Results were prominently reported in the newsletters.
The Oak plant also had a recreation building “equipped with record players, radio, comfortable lounging chairs, motion picture equipment and games,” the Illinois State Journal’s Beulah Gordon wrote in August 1943, and even a plant orchestra, “which furnishes music for most of the dances (and) appears periodically in the main cafeteria where employees provide various types of entertainment.”
The cafeteria/coffee shop building could accommodate almost 500 people in a single sitting. Ten physicians and 25 nurses worked in the site hospital, which included X-ray equipment.
Sometimes, Sangamon Ordnance workers would get a direct reminder of the effect they were having on the war. In early 1945, Bernice Harris of K Line, who had written her name on one of the fuses she worked on, received a letter signed by 13 soldiers with the Belgium-based 2nd Gun Section. Reprinted in The Voice of Sangamon, it said:
While we were in Luxembourg hitting a part of the Nazi counter-attack, we ran across a fuze with your name and also that of a fellow worker (Bud Rahey) on it. That was the day before Xmas, so we decided to save it for the next day, and present it as a gift to the Nazis from the both of you. Sure enough, the next morning our R.O. (reconnaissance officer) … spotted some enemy activity in a wooded area and called for a battery concentration of fire. The first round out of our gun that day carried your signature on the fuze.
The Germans have well learned to respect our artillery, and I know it will make you feel proud to know that one of your pieces of work landed on the Krauts as a Christmas greeting.
Some plant photographs show African-Americans working on production lines and in some skilled maintenance posts, and there was at least one black security officer. However, newsletters and other sources make it clear that, as in 1940s society in general, most black employees at the ordnance plant were relegated to low-level service jobs.
The janitorial and dormitory housekeeping staffs were virtually all black. In the cafeteria, while all the “busgirls” were black, cooks and food handlers were nearly all white. Administration and clerical personnel were nearly, and perhaps exclusively, white.
The biggest influx of black workers took place in early 1944, when 400 members of an African-American Army unit from Camp Ellis were assigned to Sangamon Ordnance for two weeks of training in ammunition handling.
Not surprisingly, there seem to have been no African-American supervisors, even in areas where blacks made up all the lower-level workers. (For that matter, while some white women did reach supervisor status, white men made up the bulk of supervisory personnel, and all the top plant executives were white men.)
The Sangamon Ordnance Plant was declared “surplus” on Sept. 6, 1945, two weeks after V-J Day. Although some areas had to be decontaminated first (chemical residues continued to be found in some sites around the former plant for decades), most of the property was put up for sale.
Many of the plant’s frame buildings were sold at fire-sale prices and relocated (Walgren includes a list in her paper) or demolished for scrap. The earliest facilities at what is now Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport included a half-dozen former ordnance structures. The Auburn School District bought an “auto shelter” for $11.
Previous owners of farmland got the first opportunity to buy the land back, at a discounted price that reflected the damage the land had suffered and the need to remove unneeded structures, foundations, gravel roads, etc. If a landowner or tenant chose not to return, farms were offered to war veterans via lottery. Claire Pritchett described her husband’s purchase of a small farm through the veterans’ program.
What we paid for it I have no idea, I really don’t, but it was a very small amount comparatively, they really did not cheat you when they were selling the ground back. … (T)he house that we received from it you could not go in and live, of course, it had been sitting empty with broken windows and such as this during the time and the people left it dirty. I mean, we started in with a scoop shovel. It was a framework and that was about the extent of it. Well, we put in windowpanes, not new windows, and we have an eight-room home with a basement and a walk-in attic, so there’s a lot of house there but basically we had to do an awful lot of work. And there was no running water and no electricity.
Dora Welch, one of McCarthy’s 1989 interviewees, recalled that her brother-in-law was able to repurchase his family’s property off the Mount Pulaski/Welch Road. “He was so happy when he got the land back that he got down and kissed it.”
Industrial buyers included DeKalb Inc., which bought land and buildings to raise chicks and for seed corn production, and American Polymer Co., which opened a plant on the old south side of the ordnance site. Borden Chemical bought that property in 1953 and greatly upgraded and expanded the facilities to produce plastic polymers.
Formosa Plastics, in turn, bought out Borden in 2002. However, a massive explosion of polyvinyl chloride on April 23, 2004, killed five people, seriously injured three others, and wrecked the plant. Few traces of the facility remained in 2015.
When Walgren completed her study in 2013, only 159 of the 914 buildings she had mapped were still standing in good condition; another 89 were standing, but dilapidated. By 2015, another dozen structures had been totally removed. (Note that the vast majority, if not all, ordnance buildings that remain are on private property and not accessible by the public.)
“The remaining portions of the site … contain none or very little surface evidence to show what had once stood there,” Walgren wrote.
Pride in victory
Writer James Krohe Jr. wrote about the Sangamon Ordnance Plant and its workers for Illinois Times in 1976:
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.
McCarthy’s interviewees, however, were more down to earth.
“All the farmers, my mother even, went to work on the line,” said John Lyon, an ordnance plant security guard who eventually farmed some of the land. “There was no other jobs right around at the time, only this one, and this was the most essential job, and we all went to work at it.…
“We didn’t get mad because the government took our land, because we didn’t want the Japanese to take it.”
More information: You can download a .pdf of Walgren’s thesis by following the Dropbox link in the fourth paragraph of this entry. McCarthy’s thesis is available at Lincoln Library in Springfield, and both theses can be read at the Illiopolis/Niantic Public Library in llliopolis.
The Wabash Railroad Historical Society article is available at the Illiopolis library. That library also possesses a large scrapbook containing laminated news articles about the Sangamon Ordnance Plant and related issues; it was compiled by the late Ruth Pritchett, who herself worked at the plant.
Both libraries have some copies of The Acorn and The Voice of Sangamon, including the March 1945 Voice that contained “A Shell Is Born.”
Illinois State Journal coverage of the plant is available through Lincoln Library. Transcripts of McCarthy’s 12 interviews can be read through the Illinois Digital Archives: search for “Sangamon Ordnance Plant Project.” Other sources are linked above.
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