Hatfield Historical Society volunteer
In observance of the 77th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II, we highlight the important contributions women from Pioneer Valley communities — including Hatfield — made on the home front at the Springfield Armory. The author drew on his research as an educational consultant for the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, as well as interviews Hatfield Historical Museum volunteers conducted with WWII-era Hatfield residents in 2015, in conjunction with our 2015 WWII exhibit in the Historical Museum.
Marion Howes felt she needed to do something. Pearl Harbor had been bombed Dec. 7, 1941. The United States responded by declaring war upon Japan Dec. 8. War declarations on Germany and Italy followed Dec. 11. “I’ve got to do my part. Where can I do it?” Marion remembered asking herself as the nation mobilized for a long struggle on two fronts, across the Atlantic and in the Pacific. She wanted to do something significant yet stay close to home, and “the Springfield Armory was the only place around.”
Marion spoke with Hatfield Historical Museum interviewer Marta Bilodeau in 2015 about her post-Pearl Harbor decision to work at the Armory. She was 96 years old when she passed away earlier this year.
Breaking gender barriers
There never had been so many women on the Armory payroll. During World War I, for example, only 15% of the employees were women, many of them assigned to office positions. At the peak of World War II, they comprised 42% of the 12,000-employee workforce and most were helping to manufacture weapons. On the factory floor, many WOWs wore red bandanas with the distinctive markings of a flaming bomb, one of the insignias for the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Corps. The bandanas were both a safety precaution and a symbol to help instill camaraderie, pride and achievement in their contributions to the war effort.
By working in skilled manufacturing jobs, Marion and other WOWs were breaking gender barriers that, until the late 1930s, had always existed in American industry. Traditionally, the machine shop and the factory floor were the exclusive province of white men. As America geared up for war in 1941 and faced a labor shortage, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an Executive Order that barred job discrimination on the basis of gender or race in federal workplaces. It was an exciting time, remembered Harriet Atwood, a former WOW who spoke to me in an interview for a Springfield Armory NHS oral history project. “Women learned to do things they didn't know they could do," the Springfield native said, adding that some men remained critical of women taking industrial jobs. As the war progressed, however, and WOWs often excelled at their jobs, many of the skeptics began to accept the women as the skilled workers they were.
The female presence in manufacturing shops, the Armory February 1942 newsletter noted, rapidly triggered noticeable changes in workplace culture. In the prewar all-male manufacturing departments “the air was often dark blue, shot with flashes of lightening,” the reporter wrote, with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humor. “But now that the ladies are here conversation is kept low and business in the jobbing shop office is conducted in peaceful, churchly quiet.”
While interviewing former WOWs for the Springfield Armory NHS, I heard more stories of the working relationships and friendships between whites and African Americans, as well as between male and female Armory workers. As WWII wound down, and armaments demand decreased, many women left voluntarily or were laid off. Some went on to skilled positions in domestic industries or, others— like Marion (Howes) Root— went back to work at the Armory during the Korean War. She also worked there one more stint after that. Significant color and gender barriers had been breached by home front workers, and local women were part of this big step toward workplace diversity.
Rob Wilson is the former executive director of the Veterans Education Project, a nonprofit based in Amherst, MA, and he resides in Hatfield, MA.