Arsenal for Democracy
Help Wanted on the Home Front
“NO CUTBACKS HERE—200 WORKERS NEEDED,” announced the June 14, 1945, ad in the “McHenry Plaindealer.” “Mortar Shells, Numbering into the Millions, Will Continue to Flow to Every Battlefront until the Last Enemy Gun is Silenced.”
The Fencil Fuze Factory—also known as “Powder Park”—was built on 10 acres of land leased from the Hughes family farm in Huntley. The factory was surrounded by cyclone fencing and guard towers and bordered the Chicago and Northwestern rail line. A gatehouse where armed guards checked photo IDs was the only way employees could enter or leave.
Many of the workers lived in Huntley. Others arrived by chartered bus or carpooled from throughout McHenry County. They worked one of two shifts, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., often six days a week, to help this small Illinois farming community keep up with America’s wartime demand for munitions.
“My family had a fit when I quit my job at the Elgin Watch Factory to work there,” said Bessie Piske, former detonator inspector. “I wanted to be patriotic. I had two brothers [Kenneth and Clyde Bakely] and a boyfriend in the service, and this was the best I could do.”
The plant produced mortar shell fuzes and detonators so vital to an Allied victory. The main ingredient was tetryl, a sensitive nitric-and-sulfuric-acid-based compound with a detonation velocity of 7,570 meters per second—about 10 percent greater than TNT. Another help wanted ad promised, “You Can Help Us Get Them to the Boys Abroad and Earn Good Money at the Same Time!” Workers earned $35 to $50 per week.
“I thought that was a fortune,” said former Fencil employee, Thelma Akerberg. “This was a big deal for women. It wasn’t the typical job as a sales clerk, so a bunch of us gals got together and went to work.”
No Smoking, Please
The main plant consisted of several structures. Among them were the sift and blend building where clumps were removed from the explosive powders; the administration building, which always had a nurse on duty; and the pellet house, where the dynamite was measured and loaded into the empty fuze casings. Each building was located a safe distance from the next. That way, theoretically, an explosion in one would not disrupt workflow in the others.
Several hundred feet away sat a dozen concrete bunkers full of explosives. Thirty feet deep by 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall, each bunker was covered with thick soil and sod. The covering served a dual purpose. It camouflaged the bunker from aerial surveillance and blunted any explosions that might occur. All cigarettes were checked at the guard house.
“We all smoked,” Akerberg said. “The guards would frisk you, and you could smoke only on lunch break in a special smoke room where they’d confiscated your cigarettes.”
Indeed, it was dangerous work. In the pellet house—nicknamed the “hen house” because it was staffed exclusively by women, owing to the belief that their nimble fingers were better suited for such delicate work—workers packed bottle-sized canisters full of explosive powder and installed wire triggers to detonators. These women wore special shoes without nails or metal fasteners to prevent sparking. Likewise, they wore hair nets to eliminate electrical static.
While cautious, their work was paced for victory. In fact, there was a sense in the pellet house that the more shells they shipped out the sooner America’s fighting men would win the war and ship back home. One Wonder Lake resident, Mrs. Von Bampus, whose son was serving in the Pacific, earned the nickname “Dynamite Nell” for the speed with which she filled those canisters.
A Record of Excellence
Accidents did occur. On July 7, 1945, an explosion in the pellet house “nearly ripped the roof off,” according to Mary Beth Manning, whose mother, Mabel, was an employee at the scene. Mabel lost her hearing for three days. Two other women, both of whom commuted from Crystal Lake, were hospitalized with superficial cuts and burns. A third was treated for shock. Nobody was seriously injured, fortunately, and that incident was the worst mishap on record in over three years of operation at the Fencil Fuze Factory.
After the war, stories of the plant’s munitions being responsible for the deaths of dozens of soldiers had circulated in the newspapers and gained some currency on the radio airwaves. These rumors were quickly put to rest by William M. Fencil, the president of the fuze factory. Official records proved that none of the defective fuzes had originated in Huntley.
Deservedly, the Huntley munitions plant won the distinguished Army-Navy “E” Pennant. “Management and employees of the Fencil company because of devotion to duty, and quality and quantity of workmanship on vital war materials, had merited the nation’s highest award for outstanding service on the production front,” read one report about the September 2, 1944 ceremony.
And so it was that this small town in rural McHenry County had rolled up its collective sleeves, gone to work and done its share to make the world safe for democracy.