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WWII vets, homefront workers honored

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

With the recent commemoration of the 75th anniversary of World War II, there have been multiple programs to honor the war’s remaining veterans, but what about those who toiled at ordinance factories on the homefront?

Friday, the unveiling of two new Historic Highway Markers for Pulaski County not only honored the veterans, but also the many men and women who supported the war effort on the homefront.

In addition to honoring the soldiers’ acts of bravery and sacrifice, Nancy Burchett said Pulaski County’s commemoration committee felt a need to honor past workers of the arsenal, then known as Radford Ordinance Plant, and New River Ordinance Plant, sometimes called Dublin Bagging Plant. She noted many of those workers were “women who had never worked” outside the home until that point.

Burchett said the committee felt historic markers were the best way to achieve its goals of “honoring WWII vets, paying tribute to employees at the two plants, documenting county history and educating citizens and others on this extraordinary time in our county and region’s history.”

Burchett spoke Friday during an unveiling of photographs of the markers, which already have been installed near Dublin Town Hall and near the arsenal guard station on Bagging Plant Road in Dublin. Burchett is chair of Pulaski County Courthouses Exhibits Committee and a member of the WWI/WWII Commemoration Committee.

The historic information and wording of the markers was courtesy Dennis Kitts, a retired manager from Radford Army Ammunition Plant, who has compiled a history of the Radford and Dublin ordinance plants. He called his contribution to the markers a “wonderful experience,” although somewhat “challenging to confine” the text to 100 words.

One of the markers, “World War II Home Front” (marker K-284) points out how the Radford and New River ordinance plants changed the landscape and economy of the region and county by bringing an influx of thousands of workers to the area.

The ordinance sewing and bagging operation originally was to be within the confines of the Radford plant. However, Kitts said, a massive explosion that killed 50 and injured 100 at another ordinance plant resulted in a need to find additional land. Eighty parcels of property south of Dublin were converted into the New River plant, which enabled the buildings to be spaced farther apart.

According to Kitts, the Dublin property was converted from farmland into a propellant bagging facility in just seven months, two weeks. It consisted of 500 buildings, including sewing rooms, bagging operations, storage facilities, full-service cafeterias and canteens to feed the workers, a full-service hospital, fire department, power station and water works to supply drinking and processing water.

Staff village, which is on Wilderness Road to this day, was constructed to house the plant’s managerial employees. While the cost of a new home was about $3,000 here at that time, the Staff Village homes cost about $25,000 each to build and equip with the top amenities available at the time — including indoor plumbing, Kitts said.

The anticipated influx of thousands of workers drove local rents up 44 percent, he noted.

New River Ordinance Plant was the site of several historic firsts during WWII, according to Kitts:

  • Edith Brown, a Roanoke native, operated a sewing machine there before advancing into supervisory positions and becoming the only woman to serve in a supervisory position at an ordinance plant in America at that time.
  • The plant’s workers placed 239 million charges into “Cheese-It-sized” cellophane packages as part of new rocket technology.
  • The plant developed a product that created a white fog to camouflage gun flashes from the enemy during night battles. Kitts said that technology saved “countless soldiers’ lives” by preventing the enemy from determining their location from the flashes of fire.

The Corps of Engineers took over operation of the New River Ordinance Plant in 1945.

Radford Army Ammunition Plant’s 39th commander, Lt. Col. James H. Scott, also attended the unveiling. He thanked those involved in creating the markers to share the arsenal’s history. He said the arsenal is “just as vital today as it was 77 years ago.

“Let the markers endure as a token to the courage, character and unwavering commitment that embodied not only the four generations of arsenal employees, but their families, this great community and our great nation,” Scott said.

Jim Hare, a director with Virginia Department of Historic Resources,” commended those responsible for obtaining the nearly $4,000 to make the historic markers a reality. The Historic Highway Marker Program is part of the historic resources department.

Burchett pointed out Pulaski County Board of Supervisors provided the funds.

Hare said Virginia was the first state to create a historic marker program, but almost every state now has such a program. He said Friday’s ceremony made his contemplate how many WWII soldiers passed such a marker en route to serve the country. He wondered if they realized they were on their way to make history — some to never return.

Early markers — there are now 2,600 — had very short and succinct text because they were to be read as cars passed them, according to Hare. He noted early transportation was much slower than today’s.

As vehicles became faster, the markers included more information since motorists had to stop to read them. Now, Hare said, the historic markers are moving into a new age — the GPS age.

Testing of a new application is in the works that will allow the text of historic markers to be read to motorists as they pass them. Right now, every historic marker within a quarter mile of Interstate 95 near Richmond is tagged with a GPS marker that recites the information on the markers.

Asked whether people will use this new technology, Hare said he responded that the point of the program is not to entertain people as they ride about the state, but rather to “bring history back into the classroom again.” He says a distinct disadvantage for students in America these days is that they don’t learn their American history anymore.

“We hope by doing this, we can get students from communities to work with their teachers to record text of the 2,600 markers,” he said. This will not only serve to teach students their local history, but also will “capture Virginia voices.”

Hare is in the process of launching a 700-mile GPS marker program for the Crooked Road. He said Pulaski County’s two newest markers, as well as it’s others, will be included in that project, so students will be needed to record them.

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