July 12, 2024

Ankeny Ordinance Plant during WWII

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Ground was broken on July 31, 1941, to build a huge plant in Ankeny for the production of both 30 caliber and 50 caliber machine gun bullets. This was well before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, with war officially declared by President Franklin Roosevelt. At that time, Ankeny was a sleepy little village of 700 people just a few miles north of Des Moines. But the central Iowa location was good.

My brother, Bob, graduated from St. Marys High School in May 1943 and joined the work force at the Ordinance Plant, numbering about 19,000 at peak employment. Can you even fathom this many people working three shifts a day turning out nothing but 30 and 60 caliber machine gun bullets? As many as 8,000,000 bullets were produced daily and shipped from Ankeny to our military in various parts around the world.

Chances are almost anyone living in central Iowa had a family member or friend working at the Ordinance Plant during that time. Patriotism was at an all-time high, and no doubt part of most folks’ paychecks were invested in U.S. War Bonds. An $18.75 War Bond was worth $25 at maturity in a few short years. School students of all ages were encouraged to proudly buy 10-cent and 25-cent savings stamps weekly at school or the post office, and eventually fill an $18.75 book to then purchase another bond to help fight the war. Patriotic — you bet we were!

Shortly after Bob started at the Ordinance Plant, my father joined him. In addition to a 40-hour week with a two-hour commute each day, they continued to run our 120-acre farm. They immediately headed for home at the end of their production day and out to the fields. In the spring, it was plowing, disking, harrowing, planting the corn and soy beans and then cultivating those crops as they matured. Our old steel wheeled F-20 Farmall tractor was running until the wee hours of the night.

Bob, who was a good innovator, took the headlights off our old 1928 Chevrolet sitting behind the corn crib and installed them on the front of the Farmall. He rigged up a generator and storage battery to the tractor, resulting in a lot of extra night hours out in the fields.

My cousin, Bill Brentano, tells about staying at the home of Earl Wise in Des Moines to save on gasoline. He was making 50 cents an hour at the Swift Packing House while Earl and both sons worked at the Ordinance Plant. He paid them $4 per week for a room and two meals per day and still had a little extra money to play penny ante most nights. His pay was $24 for a 48 hour week, which was considered pretty good in those days.

My brother, Bob, used to stow some 30 caliber firing caps in his shoes and bring them home. They were fun to set off but you had to be careful. One night at the St. Marys Skelly Gas Station, Wayne Young hit a cap with a hammer and immediately was digging a piece of embedded brass out of his nose. He bled like a stuck pig.

We had fun putting a few caps on the railroad tracks in front of our farm home and waiting for the oncoming trains to set them off. One day my brother Jim got the bright idea of placing a whole string about 20 feet long on the tracks. It startled the engineer into slamming on the brakes and bringing that big freight train to a screeching halt. Those juvenile “criminals” of me, Jim and Charles were hiding deep in the corn field by then.

After World War II finally came to an end in 1945, the Ordinance Plant began to close down. My dad was one of the last few to leave in the spring of 1946, and shortly thereafter joined the Maytag Company. This huge 2,240-acre Ordinance complex later was acquired by John Deere, as I understand. Many of the same buildings are in use today while the WWII plant is now only a memory.

Many stories could be told by the men and women who worked on those ammunition production lines. Jeanne Ersland, who spent 1943 and 1944 operating a machine that trimmed excess from 50 caliber bullets, was among the thousands of women who took the place of men who enlisted or were called into military service. She then joined the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve to further serve her country.

Jeanne’s story is among several others at the permanent Ordinance Plant display now at the downtown Ankeny museum. It is on my list for a visit one of these times.

Olden Days appears on Wednesdays in the Daily News. Contact the writer at mcneer @pcpartner.net.