A little after 1:00 this morning I lost my mom. I’d really lost her months earlier to Alzheimer’s; her body just caught up this morning.

She was a writer who never had the confidence to submit anything for publication. Whenever someone or some group she was working with needed something written, she’d get the job. She filled notebooks and thre-ringed binders up with poems, stories, reminiscences, and thoughts. Andi and I gave her a computer 25 years ago and she transcribed much of what she wrote and added new material until about 4 years ago.

On the 15th of the month, I’m going to publish something of hers. This month I’m going to start with my favorite piece. I think it tells you a lot about her.

WORLD WAR II, WELDING AND ME!

Jim Bob and I met, eloped, and caused quite an upheaval at home.  All these things happened in 1941.  He was from a farming area just south of Indianapolis, I was from Jeffersonville.  We were introduced by a connection of the family – a really nice girl according to my mother’s belief, but after a really short courtship I do think Mother changed her mind about HenryEtta!

This was the era of Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt – Japan was our buddy, but the attack on Pearl Harbor was in the making.  The E. I. Dupont Powder Plant was built above Jeff at Charleston, and the Goodyear Bag Loading Plant was close by, loading the powder into silk bags, or something like that.  Daddy worked at Goodyear, was Assistant Traffic Manager.

Jim Bob’s baby brother, Ernest, graduated from college, but since he was unmarried and classified as 1-A by the Army draft, he was as good as gone.  Since he was going to be a teacher, no school would take him, since his departure to the Army was imminent!  He had a friend from college, Kenny Baird, who lived in the Charleston area, he came down to work for Kenny in his hamburger hangout, which also included a taxi service.  Ernest being the youngest child, Jim Bob’s mother sent him along to watch over Ernest.  He drove the taxi!
Jim Bob was 28 or thereabouts and the Army did not want him.

And so we were married!  BIG upheaval at home.  We had to live at Mother’s, because there was such an influx of workers that came to build and work at the war plants you could not rent a chicken coop for miles around.  Daddy decided there was no future in driving a taxi cab, so he jerked his new son-in-law up to Goodyear and Jim Bob became a guard.  More money.

Then came Pearl Harbor.  Age was no longer considered a deferment.  Jim Bob was drafted in April of 1942.  He had not been feeling well, and Dr. Garner, of New Albany, diagnosed him as having appendicitis.  He sent a letter with him when he went to Indianapolis saying operate on him NOW or send him home and I will do it; you can have him later.  The army examiners ignored the whole thing, pronounced him physically fit, and he became a private in the U.S.A. army and was sent to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas.  This was a raw, new camp, his unit in the 6th Armored Division going in as soon as the cadre pulled out.

Finally one morning in June he could not get out of bed.  So they operated, found out he had a perforated appendix, took it out, and he was one sick little cookie.

To make a long story short, I hopped on the train, when I saw him I thought he was dying.
Found an apartment, two part- time jobs and stayed until he was transferred to California, then came home

The next day I went up to Jeff Boat to get a job.  I knew they were building boats called LST’s, and that was the sum of my knowledge.  I applied for a job as secretary.  The man who interviewed me said, “We do not need secretaries now.  We are starting a class in electric arc welding, would you like to do that?”  Of course I said yes, not knowing beans about welding.  I did have sense enough to know what a boat looked like, so I asked if there would be climbing.  I couldn’t then, nor ever after, climb.  He said no, the first ones that completed the class would be working in the Plate Shop.  I did not know what that was either.

I went home, told Mother and Daddy I had a job.  When I described what I would be doing Mother rose and circled.  Daddy said “Don’t worry, Mabel!  When one spark hits her she will come home!”  Well – a lot of sparks hit me, but I didn’t come home.

When I went in the next morning we were instructed as to what kind of clothes to get, showed the big helmet we would wear, welding equipment, etc.  They did not show us the plate shop.  We had to sign various papers regarding secrecy, were told about guards on the gates, NEVER go in or out without showing our badge and being cleared by the guards, etc.

Then Mother and I went shopping.  We had to get boys jeans, those for women and girl’s had not been invented yet.  Boy’s boots (since I have a skinny foot I had to wear two pairs of heavy socks).  Boy’s flannel shirts with long sleeves.  At first we got bandanas to tie over our hair, otherwise we would have been bald.  These did not work too well, since sparks lit in the place where we tied them, so we went through them pretty fast.  Then I got lucky.
I found, at the Fair Store in New Albany, a bunch of caps like pilot’s wear, only they were made out of rather heavy tan cotton.  Once you crammed your hair up under them,the ear flaps came down the sides, and you were pretty safe.  I bought a few, we tried them out, then we raided the place.  Thank goodness they bought a bunch.

There were five of us.  Stella Morgan, Opal Chadwell, Laverne Daffron, Hartsell Durham, and me.   As time went by (and we were a blazing success) more women were added.

The plate shop was a very long, tall building, open at both ends.  A train track ran in one end and out the other.  There was an overhead crane that ran the length of the building.  It carried big pieces of steel in all shapes and sizes, and put them on the tables for us to work on.  The “tables” were large “floors” of steel, raised up to about 3 feet high by brick pillars.
There were probably 6 or 7 scattered down the sides of the shop.  

The overhead crane ran back and forth over our heads, and when it’s horn sounded especially shrill and steady, someone would probably yell “Down!” and you pretty well flattened yourself.  A lot of the time they brought large flat sections of steel, and angle iron, and we welded the angle irons in rows to the steel to strengthen it.  This was “flat” welding.
I always said welding was like sewing with hot steel.  You wanted to lay an even line, with no gaps or bubbles of air, just a nice seam.  You had to keep your welding rod moving in a steady back-and-forth flow, if you hesitated in one place you melted the steel, which made a hole.  Then you had to let it cool, then carefully repair it, so it would be strong.

 Sometimes they brought big bow sections, which were already shaped, some so large we could crawl inside and weld whatever was needed.  One of the several strange people in the gang on our table was a man named Elmer Clay Carpenter from Clay County,Ky.  He was otherwise known as “Carp.”  He was a tall, well-built man.  Our gang leader was a smaller and slighter man whose name escapes me.  Sometimes a piece of metal would need to be flattter in one place than it was, so our leader and Carp would attack it with sledge hammers.  We would gather around to watch – the rhythm of first one blow and then another was fascinating.  They were very good, but we waited for one or the other  to break that rhythm, which would have painfully damaged somebody!

If a welder suddenly threw her welding iron away, began to dance around and yell, every person on the table began to help her disrobe.  Now this did not mean that she was doing a strip tease, it meant that a chunk of red hot slag was somewhere in her clothing and she was burning!  This happened to Opal one day.  She was the only one of us qualified to do overhead welds, and that is what she was doing inside one of the big things.  A large piece of slag had zoomed down her shirt , between her breasts, and lodged in her bra.  First Aid was close by, they slathered her with some kind of ointment, took her to the hospital, because it was a big burn.  Unfortunately she was allergic to the medication, developed a big itchy place and couldn’t come back for about three weeks – couldn’t keep a top on.

One of the men in the gang on our table was a LARGE man named George Lynn.  He came in very handy when some steel plate had a bulge in it and George would be called to

stand on it.  In other words, he flattened bulges.  The second day I was on the table after training, he asked me for a date.  I said (loudly) “Why, I’m married!”  That remark went
around and around the shop forever more.  

Most of the men were very nice and protective of us.   As more women were trained,  truthfully they were not picked and chosen as closely as we were so we got some different types of welders.  But we all worked hard.

One of the things you had to watch out for were “flashes” in your eyes.  I was fortunate, I have dark eyes.  If you flipped your hood up, or didn’t get it down soon enough and a welder struck an arc near you, it could burn your eyes.  Blue eyed people went around all red-eyed and weepy looking a good part of the time.

In the summer we baked, because we had to wear so many clothes.  The train smoked us,
the welding and hot steel cooked us.  In winter we froze.  When we came in in the morning we fired up our equipment and “welded” us up a few rows on the steel table and sat on it!
Heat came from the big “salamanders”, steel barrells with legs welded on in which anything burnable kept us from turning into an icicle.  We also wore long underware.

I reached the place where I began to hurt.  Neck, shoulders, back, had a lot of colds and coughs.  Mother carted me off to the doctor.  He told me that if I did that much longer I would porbably have rheumatism or some other dread disease.  So I told the office I was going to have to quit.  But I didn’t get away that easily.  They transferred me to the Outfitting Department.  For a few months I worked my way through an office in the upstairs, and then I moved to the old Stokley building on Court Avenue, which had formerly been a cannery.

Not only was an LST a big boat with big bow doors that opened, took in a bunch of tanks and other vehicles, and spit them out on some foreign shore, it was chock full of “stuff” and I was the one with the big ledgers that kept track of it.  The warehouse was filled with big cages made out of fencing that reached floor to ceiling, and had a number on it of the LST everything was to go on.   Everything had one item and a spare (2 typewriters and I tried them all out before they went on the boat).  Some things (nails, screws, whatever) had thousands.

There was always a Navy captain on site at the yard.  When the ships were nearing launching, the Navy crew would come in.  What a cute bunch of little sailors!  All the females iin the yard drooled, married or not.

The ships were built on “cradles” that ran alongside the river.  When they were done as far as the building part, they were launched sideways.  All work stopped and everybody went to the launching.  The ropes and supports were chopped away, the boat slid down, hit the
water with a resounding splash, tipped almost over (everybody took a big breath and held it)  then righted itself. Then there was a big whoosh as every body let their breath out!

The fitting of the boat was done by the Navy crew, then they took it up river on a test run, maiden voyage, or whatever.

And then everybody went to work on the next one.

Then the war began to wind down, and it was obvious that the Yard would eventually go back to making barges.  One of the girls that I went to school with, and worked in another department at the Yard, said her dad was needing an office manager for a government agency that made farm and crop loans.  So I retired from the war effort, went to work for Mac McCarty, Jim Bob eventually got home – but that is a whole different story!

Martha Ferguson

                         

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