The Bomb Rooms

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The Joliet Army Arsenal, on the far southern outskirts of Chicago, was built in 1941 in anticipation of America’s entrance into the Second World War.   Surrounded by a buffer zone of ex-farmland and spoiled prairie, the arsenal was the birthplace of many of the bombs that were dropped on Dresden, Tokyo and other cities, and later on Korea and Vietnam.  In a very concrete way, this quiet corner of the “heartland” became the genesis of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  (Vonnegut, too, came from a “prairie” state.)  Yet the TNT and bomb plants on the prairie were just one of many contradictions and ironies in the life of this place.

At a time, early in the war, when German submarines prowled the Atlantic Coast from Texas to Newfoundland, sinking cargo ships and causing fiery oil slicks seen by thousands of Americans almost every night, the possibility that the U.S. could be attacked by sea or air was not farfetched.  For greater safety, Illinois was chosen as the site for America’s biggest explosives facility.  Too far inland to fall victim to an air raid, the Joliet area was still on Chicago’s rail lines and close to industries and populations that could staff the bomb factory.  In the event of an accidental explosion, the spot was also sufficiently remote, away from the urban core.

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(Army road, Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

With safety and security issues in mind, the arsenal was further isolated within about 40,000 acres of farmland seized by the U.S. government.  Farmers received some compensation, but many fought the seizure.  Some moved their farmhouses to nearby towns such as Symerton and Wilmington.

Yet even the farmers’ tenure on the land was new.  Much of the northern Illinois prairies had only recently been converted to arable cropland.  As late as the 1920s, drainage ditches were killing off some of the last wetlands, critical to the native prairie ecology.  The evicted farmers themselves had spent a great deal of time destroying millions of acres of virgin grassland, marsh, and woods, an ecosystem that had evolved and remained intact since just after the Wisconsin ice sheet retreated north 10,000 years ago.

Since the 1980s, the Joliet munitions plant itself has been empty and decaying.  Yet even before the war, the farms were sitting atop a great ecological “ruin.”  While it is sometimes said that America has no ruins, from a very obvious and tragic perspective almost every square mile of it is wreckage and remains.  As Rebecca Solnit writes in “The Ruins of Memory,” “everything is the ruin of what came before.  A table is the ruin of a tree, as is the paper you hold in your hands.”

At peak production in the 1940s, over ten thousand people were employed at the Elwood Ordnance Plant, as the arsenal was called at first.  Its sister operation, the Kankakee Ordnance Works, was run by the Dupont Chemical Company.  A military railroad linked the two plants.  TNT was produced at Kankakee and bombs and artillery shells were loaded at Elwood.

The plant was the biggest, most sophisticated ammunition facility in the world.  During the Second World War alone, the arsenal produced 926 million bombs, shells, detonators, and land mines.  Arsenal workers also turned out artillery rounds and cluster bombs for use during the Korean and Vietnam wars.  The Joliet plant was called the “West Point” of ammunition production and provided extensive training programs to other Allied nations, including China.  For a time in the late 1940s, ammonium-based fertilizer was manufactured here as part of the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan.

The facility ceased operation in 1976.  In 1993, at the end of the Cold War, cutbacks in defense spending finally shut the place down for good.

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(Joliet Munitions Plant, September 1945.  Fortune Magazine.)

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(Loading bombs at the Joliet Arsenal, Feburary 26, 1960.  About 900 workers were employed here at the time this photo was taken, on the eve of the Vietnam War.  Tribune archive photo, Chicago Tribune.)

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(Tool shadows.  Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

The wide-open land surrounding the weapons plant was used as a security buffer, meant to prevent both civilians and saboteurs from walking onto the grounds and to protect nearby towns from the catastrophe that would ensue in the event of an accident.  On June 5, 1942, a night-time explosion did occur on the site, killing forty-eight workers, many of them women and immigrants from Jamaica and Barbados, who made up much of the wartime work force here.  In 1942, twenty-eight percent of the personnel at Elwood were women.  By the summer of 1944, over 700 women were packing TNT, “performing all other tasks typically performed by men, including work in the acid department.”

At the height of World War II, the weapons facility employed about 18,000 workers.  Ann Baskerville, a Will County resident, conducted an oral history with a woman who had been employed at the munitions plant from 1942-44.  The narrative of her experience makes it clear that the teenagers, women, and Caribbean immigrants who worked here in those years endured agonies often as intense as those experienced by soldiers fighting overseas, if not more so:

“She worked in the fuse bay, making bombs,” Baskerville wrote.  “One of the chemicals involved in the making of the bombs, tetral, caused her to develop tetral dermatitis.  She was in St. Joe’s Hospital in Joliet for two months and required 14 blood transfusions.  All of her hair fell out.  “[I] shed every bit of skin off of my body, and my teeth turned grey.’  She remembers a Catholic Sister working at St. Joe’s [who] remarked, ‘Oh my God, you’re like a fish!’ upon seeing her peeling skin…

“Although she could not return to working in the Joliet Arsenal after her release from St. Joe’s, she vividly remembered many details about her two years helping build bombs for the war effort.  She remembered many creeks near the Joliet Arsenal ran red from TNT residue.

“She remembered the tragic Group 2 explosion.  She remembered that some of the ‘boys who were killed were not yet 18 years old.’  Therefore, their parents were not eligible for any benefits.  She remembered ‘a supervisor and two of my female coworkers collected money to give to the parents of the boys under 18.’

“Gas was rationed during war time so she often carpooled with friends from her farm outside Wilmington to the Joliet Arsenal.  One friend rode in the trunk.  Men made 99 cents an hour and drove from Streator, Ottawa, and Onarga.”

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(D. Darian Smith, photographer.  Women working in a munitions factory preparing sand cores for practice bomb bodies in South Australia, 1943.  State Library of South Australia.)

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(Women making bombs, circa 1942.  National World War II Museum, New Orleans.)

Mary McCorvie and Patricia Welch, historians for the U.S. Forest Service, which now owns the huge property, wrote that part of the “buffer zone” was used for the barracks where an African American military police battalion lived.  The spot was known as Camp Des Plaines.  Late in the war, when labor shortages led to many Jamaican and Barbadian immigrants working at the plant, these workers were apparently put into racially segregated housing at the camp.

“One might wonder where these 17,502 people lived and slept in communities which formerly only housed approximately 2,148 people,” McCorvie and Welch wrote.  “Obviously overcrowding was going to be a serious matter.”  The Joliet area became a boom town, the 1940’s equivalent of today’s Williston, North Dakota, and other places in the Western oil fields that were sleepy a decade ago.  Like Williston, the towns near the plant attracted huge numbers of “roughnecks” and other workers, and faced many of the same challenges.

“According to Chicago and Sun Tribune reporters, construction gangs reportedly slept in ‘garages, barns, cellars, attics, and spare rooms of private homes – wherever they could place a mattress or sling a hammock.’  In Wilmington, ‘every house in town was open to them – not a spare room was left in a single dwelling.  At that, men slept in haymows.  The village hall and fire station and pump houses were made into emergency quarters.  In one large, well-ventilated basement, 17 men slept.’

“Such unlikely places as the Be-Gay dress shop in Wilmington served as clearing houses for accommodations.  The Misses Stanley and Alderson, and Mrs. Hopkins, owners of the dress shop, helped find housing for over 1,000 people.  ‘Frocks were pushed to the rear of the store as white-collar workers, men in greasy overalls, dredgers, pipe layers, mechanics and superintendents poured in, often 150 a day, looking for quarters for themselves and their families.'”  Government housing built in 1942 provided barrack-style rooms for soldiers, and a 200-room trailer park was set up nearby for families.

“There were so many young people attending school in Wilmington in 1941 that the school day was divided into morning and afternoon shifts.  Both Elwood and Wilmington had lost a number of rural schools that had been located on the arsenal grounds.  There were ‘classrooms every place you could think of that would be halfway suitable for a classroom, such as the Presbyterian basement.'”

Undocumented oral history also claims that a prisoner-of-war camp was established near the facility.  Its existence remains uncertain, though thousands of German soldiers had, in fact, been sent to the Midwest around 1943.  At least one other POW camp existed in Illinois at the time.

Several hundred of Erwin Rommel’s soldiers captured in North Africa sat out the rest of the war at Camp Ellis in Fulton County, near Peoria.  They and other POW’s spent their time gardening, doing fieldwork, cutting grass, chopping wood for farmers, and chiseling graffiti into the sides of buildings.

Many of the POW’s were conscripts and claimed that they were glad to get away from the war.  A few stayed in America.  Others were Poles who had been forced into the army during wartime labor shortages in Germany and had to be protected from the Germans by guards at Camp Ellis wielding billy clubs.  (Some of the Poles went back to England to fight against Hitler.)  The camp was torn down after the war, but a few concrete bunkers and a mile-long wall, once used as a firing range, survive today.

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(Firing range, Camp Ellis ruins, between Bernadotte and Ipava, Illinois.  2010.)

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(Karl Scholz, 1907-87, a German officer captured in France and shipped to Camp Ellis, Illinois, in 1943.  “When asked about his time at Camp Ellis, he mentioned that the food was the best he had ever eaten.”  Janine Crandall,

One the biggest ironies in the history of the Joliet Army Arsenal is that, in spite of its industrial and agricultural history, most of the thirty-thousand or so acres of semi-intact prairie and ex-farmland that buffered it were left relatively undeveloped.  Since 1997, when it was transferred from the Department of Defense to the Forest Service, a portion of that land has been turned into a national cemetery, a county landfill, and a Walmart distribution center.  Yet the rest of this former army property has a unique prospect ahead of it.  Much of what used to surround the arsenal is now being turned into the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

To most visitors, the “prairie” here seems more like weeds.  It is still scruffy and half-industrial in appearance, and it is important to remember that much of this land has not yet been coaxed back to life.  It is certainly not comparable to the expansive natural prairies that the American transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, friend of Thoreau and Emerson, came by steamboat to see in the 1840s.

Only about a tenth of the 20,000-acre site has been somewhat restored so far.  And natural restoration, unlike the restoration of a building, is a slow process, with no guarantees of success.  Industrialism has often been as destructive as glaciers, scouring everything in front of it and utterly changing the character and appearance of the land.  Its poisons have seeped into the groundwater and soil.  Without the help of naturalists and volunteers, nature on her own would take centuries to restore this place.  Mere overgrowth is not restoration.

Today, patches of prairie grass stand next to fields that were leased to farmers after the heyday of the arsenal was over, turned back to tillage and pasturage in the mid-’90s.  Though the ruins of the bomb plant sit atop a small rise and are largely hidden from view, the other signs of its presence are hard to escape, harder to erase.  Grant Creek, which runs under the rise, ran red with toxic waste until just recently, poisoned by TNT production.  And the hiking trails that cut across the many acres that will hopefully be real prairie fifty years from now are former army roads and railroad lines.

Volunteers cultivate and store prairie seeds in the 392 surviving World War II and Cold War-era ammunition bunkers or “igloos” – in appearance, like Indian mounds with ventilation shafts, or earthen sepulchers.  With care, the land set aside (but not truly spared) by industrial agriculture and bomb-making will be turned back into an enormous seed bank for the future restoration of grasslands all over North America.  As the Great Plains face severe levels of depopulation and abandonment in the 21st century, the restoration of some prairie lands west of here will become a real possibility soon.  In 2013, the land comprising the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the biggest surviving piece of prairie land east of the Mississippi, and the most ambitious restoration in the U.S.

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(Prescribed burns at bunker fields.  Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.)

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(Prescribed burns at bunker fields.  Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.)

Humans and “nature” are not truly separate forces, and humans have long been at least as powerful a force for landscape change as geological fault zones and weather conditions.  Ultimately, our own ability to shape the earth may be a force as far-reaching as natural ones that are always at work.  But just as we have the capacity to destroy, so too do we have the ability to re-create some of the old prairies.

In the indigenous languages spoken near the Great Lakes, such as Potawatomi and Ojibwa, midewin can mean many things, a word as diverse as a seemingly monotonous but infinitely variable grassland.  Though the term primarily refers to the Midewin, a historic native “society” devoted to herbal healing and spiritual insight, it has other meanings.  Midewin signals “rebirth,” “mystic doings,” and “the medicine of the earth,” even “resurrection.”

Broken prairies have clung to life in bizarre hideouts.  I say “bizarre” because these grassland shards grow in spots intimately connected to the human histories that destroyed them.  Microcosmic prairies live on in abandoned pioneer cemeteries, in the fifty-foot margins of railroad rights-of-way, and in the buffer zones of military installations, on bombing ranges and other remote places not subject to residential development — but often, too, in the very shadow of settled areas.  Pioneer burying grounds and industrial zones seem unconnected, yet both of these places are symbols of the often subtle, sometimes more evident, violence that Americans have committed against the native landscape.

Something “unsettling” remains amid that wreckage, in the sense that Wendell Berry used the word in The Unsettling of America.  Berry meant more than disturbance and disruption, and he certainly meant much more than a falling away from the “pioneer ideals” of our forefathers, the visions of the early settlers, who began much of the mess we have inherited.  That kind of “unsettlement,” of leaving the land, is significant to our problems, but he meant, also, a feeling of psychological unease, of living amid the remnants of something great, even mythic, that has passed away or hidden itself.

In suburban places where I have lived but rarely called “home”, where the authentic life of the land seems so distant, I have seen the look and witnessed the substance of what Berry recognized as loss, displacement, the feeling of being “out of place.”  Yet one cannot really be idealistic about the alternative, either, of all of us “going back to the land” en masse.  The deep tragedy is that this unsettled feeling often accompanies us now even to places like Midewin.

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(Interior of ammunition bunker.  Many of the bunkers are now used for seed storage.  Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul, Illinois.  2012.)

Walking into Midewin one winter, on one of three occasions that I have visited, I felt that sense of “exile”, of not-belonging, that Berry and other writers evoke.  Even with no other humans in sight (only a few day-old foot prints and tracks in the snow ahead of me), hiking toward the arsenal on the ridge top, I felt guilty of a kind of awkward self-consciousness and theatricality.  Mine was not a social loneliness, but one that recognized that probably nothing here cared that I was here.  Only diminutive owls glaring down suspiciously from snowy branches took me by surprise.

Mixed with that awkwardness was another sadness, a recognition of what this place would have become if America had been attacked in the Cold War, in the nuclear Armageddon so long promised.  I could hardly imagine that the arsenal was not targeted in some global network that spanned the destruction of millions, in the U.S. and all over the world.  Yet this place, with much hidden beauty in it, was the seed of Dresden and Tokyo and Vietnam.

What we dreaded happening here, happened elsewhere, through our own hands, thousands of times.  This spot had cradled the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of humans.  Bombs cradled by wartime women, women we admire for their patriotism and strength, helped incinerate thousands of women and children in Germany and Japan.  If there is a vindictive spirit in nature, seeking revenge against us for her wounds, I think this is it.

The area directly around the arsenal, even today, and especially in deep winter, feels like a piece of war-ravaged Europe, fenced in and deserted.  Approaching it on foot one January, it loomed like a concentration camp, or like the more modern apocalyptic landscape of a Cormac McCarthy novel.  Even “nature,” which we give human emotions to and that is so derelict in so many places, looked as inimical as I cared to see it.  What had sprung up again of old prairie and woods was quickly consuming what men and women had left behind of their wars.  Though these, assuredly, are not over.

Taking a few steps into a bunker where seed would be stored, I felt the weight of the isolation at last, and sang, just to hear what music would sound like here in this concrete echo chamber.  I imagined the voice of a soldier who must have come here once and shouted into the darkness, then listened to the echo of my own voice wrapped around and magnified into other things and voices.  I whispered what I remembered of Carl Sandburg’s “Grass”, about the bodies piled high at Ypres and Verdun and what place is this we come to now that is grass?  “Let me work,” it said.  Suddenly, no act seemed more jolting, nor so evocative of our unsettled place in nature.  Yet I sang and spoke a few things anyway.

Even in this ravaged place, a sanctuary of destruction, surrounded by much human desolation, I was so overcome by beauty, I had to walk out four miles and leave it to itself again.

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)


One thought on “The Bomb Rooms”

  1. My mother worked here for a time as some sort of supervisor of an assembly line. She was 41 when she stopped working there , never to return after the great explosion of 1942. She had to get up very early to get to work and was not on shift for the explosion..
    She was a college graduate, a farm wife with a mentally ill husband and three children, glad to find a job that paid well. She made many friends of varied ethnicities. I remember attending a lively wedding that involved a barrel of beer being rolled across the floor and a dance where men threw money into a basket to dance with the bride..
    The women had to wear “snoods ” to keep their hair from being drawn into the machinery.

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