Deaf workers aided war effort

Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

A supervisor communicates with a deaf ammunition inspector at the Milwaukee Ordnance Plant, a massive but short-lived World War II factory manufacturing .50-calibre machine gun cartridges. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, the federal government contracted with the United States Rubber Co. to build and operate the Milwaukee Ordnance Plant, producing .50-calibre machine gun ammunition.

U.S. Rubber leased a massive factory, which formerly housed the failed Eline Candy Co. operation on North Port Washington Road, and set about converting it to ammunition production. Time was of the essence and cost was no object.

U.S. Rubber spent the equivalent of $302 million and hired 5,000 workers to operate the plant 24 hours a day, six days a week.

Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

This truck, festooned with .50 calibre cartridges made in Milwaukee, was presumably decorated for a parade. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

As it neared the end of its first year in operation, Milwaukee was shipping out finished cartridges at the rate of 20 to 28 railroad boxcar-loads each week.

“Enough cartridges have been made at the plant to kill everyone in the United States,” the Milwaukee Journal cheerfully reported in its Sept. 29, 1943 issue.

The first year of production was also the last.

In an editorial appearing on Nov. 17, 1943, the Milwaukee Journal wrote, “After one year, the war picture had changed. The Milwaukee Ordnance Plant, even before full production, had turned out more .50 machine gun ammunition than all the plants in the country turned out in World War I. It is good ammunition. It is stacked high, in this country and near all fronts and future fronts.”

The ordinance plant's hiring office is now Waste Management's Glendale headquarters. Carl Swanson photo

The ordnance plant’s hiring office is now Waste Management’s Glendale headquarters. Carl Swanson photo

The paper added, “It was a costly year. A big job had to be done in a hurry. It was part of the necessary extravagance of war – for war is waste, at best.”

The short-lived factory was more than a historical footnote. It was also an early, and highly successful, effort to hire disabled workers. The plant employed teams of inspectors, all women, and many of them deaf.

It happened by coincidence. In its Des Moines (Iowa) plant, the United States Rubber Co. incorporated the Deaf in its workforce with excellent results. When U.S. Rubber opened the Milwaukee Ordnance Plant, the Army assigned Col. Arthur M. Wolff to oversee operations. In civilian life, Wolff had been a board member of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes in New York City.

inspectress_adWith both the company and Army solidly behind the idea, word went out urging deaf women to apply at the Milwaukee plant.

The women made ideal employees, Wolff told a local newspaper, “Noise does not distract them. There is never any idle conversation, and they generally have the steel will to succeed on the job with steady and hard work.”

In a May 30, 1953 story headlined “Arms plant enables deaf to help in war effort,” the Milwaukee Journal reported:

On one of the many inspection lines of the United States Rubber Co. in the Milwaukee Ordnance Plant on the Port Washington Road are a dozen or so women. They all smile. Working with lightning speed they are really happy about the chance to work. That inspection line is just about the pride of the plant.

Not one of them can hear and most of them are mute.

Since March they have been on the job at the ordnance plant as a team. Their job is speedy and rather intricate and there must be no mistakes.

Cartridges made by the Milwaukee Ordinance Works were stamped with an "M" and the year of manufacture. Photo courtesy Jerry Penry

Cartridges made by the Milwaukee Ordnance Works were stamped with an “M” and the year of manufacture. Photo courtesy Jerry Penry

The visit of the newspaper reporter included an amusing incident. Standing before a glass window in an enclosed office overlooking the factory floor, a visitor commented on the attractive appearance of one of the deaf workers. The young woman, seated at a distant inspection line, suddenly blushed while her coworkers grinned.

“If you don’t want them to ‘hear,’ you better keep your hand over your lips,” said a company executive. “They can read lips 40 feet away.”

The newspaper article noted a silk American flag adorned the factory ceiling, purchased with contributions from the entire inspection department.

The workers were invited to write statements for the visiting reporter. Most expressed heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity of working on a war job.

“We deaf people cannot join the WAACS or the WAVES,” wrote Sophie Rubin. “So the next best thing we can do is to be of service in the war plants. I am very proud to work here under our very beautiful American flag.”

One of the workers’ statements said simply, “We all think Col. Wolff a swell guy.”

Inspectors at the Milwaukee Ordinance Plant. The workers took up a collection to buy the silk American flag that decorates their workspace. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

Inspectors at the Milwaukee Ordnance Plant. The workers took up a collection to buy the silk American flag that decorates their workspace. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

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6 comments

      1. I struggled with the word myself and hadn’t caught the error in my own work until recently.

        I’m glad that i found your site – some excellent articles! Thanks for publishing this.

        Like

  1. Carl,

    The same general area was used for ordnance production during the first World War. Briggs Loading Company was established in 1918 to assemble, test and pack V.B. Rifle Grenades and detonating fuses.

    The Briggs behind the effort was Stephen Briggs of Briggs & Stratton.

    In case you might be interested in a future post about the facility, “The Legend of Briggs & Stratton” by Jeff Rodengen has a nice summary (beginning on p. 25). They used the abandoned stone quarries along the Milwaukee river to test the completed grenades. A few very nice pictures are included.

    The area is described in the book as across the Milwaukee River from the northern end of Estabrook Park.

    Like

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