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Women of  the  ‘Powder Plant’: Holston Ordnance  Works during World War II 

A woman works in a production area of Holston Ordinance Works, where floors were kept wet as a safety precaution. | Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Atlanta, Georgia.

By Colin F. Baxter

When I asked Julia  Loyd  what they were making at Oak Ridge (or “Dogpatch”) during World War II, she replied  humorously,  “Blackout pants for Lightning Bugs.” Strict security regulations were also enforced at the  gigantic $100 million Holston Ordnance Works located  150 miles northeast of Oak Ridge,  in the vicinity of Kingsport, Tennessee.  Rolling pastureland near  the Holston River  and  U.S.  Highway 11 became the site of the major wartime-munitions manufacturing plant. A historical marker dedicated in 1969 describes the plant as, “The Great Holston Ordnance Works for the manufacture of RDX, the most powerful explosive antedating the atom bomb.” RDX would be used on all the battlefronts of World War II in the form of the versatile plastic explosive C-4, as a filling in torpedo warheads  for submarines,  and  in blockbuster bombs dropped from aircraft. Most importantly,  RDX  in the form of Torpex, the filling for  anti-submarine depth charges dropped by Allied aircraft, finally gave the Allies a lethal weapon with which to sink German U-boats, thus helping win the critical Battle of the Atlantic. 

Eighty years later, the incredible story of Holston Ordnance Works (HOW) has been largely forgotten in the history of World War II. Sadly, the individuals who provided the writer with personal recollections of those years are no longer with us. Their memories, together with archival sources, have made possible this story detailing a largely unknown operation from World War II. The biggest secret of all, however, is the vital role played by several thousand Appalachian women who worked at what locals called the “Powder Plant.” Along with millions of other women who answered the government’s call to enter the civilian workforce, these women helped to secure Allied victory. 

Highly explosive

At the beginning of the war,  RDX was not a new explosive compound. First described in Germany in 1899, it was  rejected by military experts as too dangerous to produce, too  sensitive for safe handling and loading, and too costly to manufacture compared to TNT (15 cents per pound of TNT compared to $1.60 for what was then called cyclonite). During the 1930s, however, scientists at the Woolwich Arsenal in England discovered that by mixing the highly volatile compound with TNT  and  a  small amount of beeswax, they  were able to make the original compound  less likely to  explode. The Woolwich scientists named the resulting  explosive RDX, short for  Research Development Explosive. Twice as powerful as TNT, Woolwich researchers named the final product Composition B,  which consisted of 60% RDX, 39% TNT, and 1% beeswax. When aluminum powder was added, the product  —  called Torpex  — became  the most effective underwater explosive of World War II.   

 As valuable as it was, the  Woolwich  process  could only manufacture  RDX  in small batches. Vulnerable to German bombers,  Britain  looked to the United States to produce RDX in large-scale quantities. A revolutionary production system was needed to mass produce huge amounts of RDX. The  solution was found when Tennessee Eastman Corporation, located in Kingsport, was asked to manufacture RDX, a request that shocked  company officials  since  Eastman  was  in the business of producing  materials  related to photography. However, the same chemicals used in Kodak nonflammable and popular safety film, were also used to make RDX.  Tennessee Eastman agreed  to undertake research and development of RDX. With unbelievable speed, chemists and chemical engineers developed a process for the continuous assembly line production of RDX and Composition B. Tennessee  Eastman’s stunning success resulted in  the U.S. Government  authorizing  the  company to design and  operate  “The Great Holston Ordnance Works.”  In less than  two years, the $100 million  project  ($1.5 billion today)  became  the top-secret, massive munitions plant  for  producing  RDX and Composition B.  

A woman works in a lab at Holston Ordinance Works | Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Atlanta, Georgia.

According to a 1996 report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the plant consisted of two primary facilities: Area A and Area B. At 45 acres, Area A was the smaller section and produced the acetic acid and acetic anhydride used in RDX production. Area B was located four miles to the west on nearly 6,000 acres. The much larger Area B contained more auxiliary buildings where work was centered on the main production lines for RDX and Composition B.

As construction began on HOW, men and women of Southern Appalachia,  and others  who had  experienced the  dismal depression of the 1930s,  swarmed into  the area,  where they  might  start at between 30 cents an hour — the minimum wage at the time — and 50 cents an hour. The employment offered by  HOW was an economic  godsend for many in the area who had been earning well below the minimum wage. Besides receiving  a  paycheck, perhaps  the first in their lives, women  working at the plant  knew that they were serving their country  in the war effort. Employment  at HOW peaked at about 6,800 in 1944, with women accounting for nearly half of that number.  

All applicants for work at HOW were interviewed, investigated, fingerprinted, given a chest X-ray, and issued a photo identification card that had to be presented when entering the plant. Safety and security measures were stringent. No matches or cigarette lighters were allowed into the plant. Safety training included a demonstration showing how the explosive power of RDX could blow a hole through a steel plate while TNT merely dented the plate. Those on the production line,  more than  40% of whom were women, were quickly made aware that they were not making maple sugar. 

Mildred L. Erwin Photo ID | Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Atlanta, Georgia.

From the beginning, most of the office jobs at HOW  were held by women  with the notable exception being supervisory and administrative positions. Office secretaries, stenographers, and file  clerks were at the bottom of the pay  scale and earned between thirty and forty cents an  hour, compared to $1.10 an hour made by first-class machinists, electricians, and coppersmiths. 

On the job

Eula Holland had attended Elizabethton Business College in nearby Carter County, knew shorthand, and became a secretary at HOW. Women were soon working in the laboratories, testing the chemical ingredients that  eventually  produced  RDX and Composition B,  as well as testing  samples of the  actual  explosives. Other women were part of  the medical and  nursing staff located in Area B.  

Male managers  had been  skeptical about employing women for war production, but the lack of  available  men  led to including women on the 10  production lines that  made RDX. For safety, all production  line operators wore white cotton uniforms, cotton socks, and cotton underwear provided by the company. The safety attire had to be washed regularly, amounting to 100,000 pounds of laundry each month processed by a staff of 64. Employees had to shower after  work to  ensure that no one left the plant contaminated  with RDX.

Security at HOW was tight, with 38 miles of fences and dozens of guard towers. Guards in  cars, motorcycles,  and  on horseback patrolled Area B’s perimeter fences.  “Everybody had to keep their mouths closed,” Lois Henry, who worked at the plant, said.  “You weren’t allowed to tell how much you made. You weren’t allowed to talk anything about Holston. Nothing at all.”

Despite the tight security, it was rumored that  a local man  and  his  three hound dogs once wandered through the entire plant undetected. 

Buses transported two-thirds of the Holston workforce  to and from the plant  daily from surrounding counties and states. Some traveled as far as 65 miles each way to work for 50 cents an hour or less. For Henry, who  lived in the country near Blountville,  just getting to work was difficult. She had to walk  about a mile and a half  to catch a bus in Kingsport that would take her to Area B. Her brother  worked at  Eastman. “When  he could take me, he  did,” Henry said, "but  it was a little hard... It was a little hard.”

Female chauffeurs pose for a picture outside Holston Ordinance Works | Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Atlanta, Georgia.

The amount of traffic  generated by the plant  was  staggering. Employee Ernest  Burlson  once  recalled, “You could have walked from Broad and Center Streets  (in Kingsport)  to Area B on the tops of vehicles and never touch the ground.” Edith Baumgardner  remembered  that “almost everyone  in Washington County had a relative who worked at Holston Ordnance Works.”  

Dessie Simmons was among employees  who rode a bus to work until carpooling became more common. She said  it was open-topped, like a “cattle car,” and  was  neither heated in the winter nor air-conditioned  during  summer. Simmons  also remembered  the long,  two-hour drive to Kingsport on old  U.S.  Highway 23 from Johnson City to Area B.

Mildred Conley  remembered carpooling  for  the long drive from Erwin  starting at 6 a.m. to Area B, or as Conley put it, “Twelve hours in an 8-hour day.” When employees  returned home in the evening, no restaurants or stores were open. All shopping and personal business had to be completed on Saturdays. 

Hazardous areas

Except for supervisory and maintenance personnel,  operations in Area A were carried out almost  entirely by female employees. Most had no prior connection with a chemical plant.  One woman remembered an acid leak  that injured  some of her friends. The injured  were taken to the clinic in Area B and treated for burns to their eyes. Some women took crash courses in chemistry at East Tennessee State Teachers College to prepare for work at HOW, while the plant itself trained female employees to work in  the different areas. 

Women test raw materials in a lab at Holston Ordinance Works | Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Atlanta, Georgia.

In Area A,  the women wore blue uniforms and brought lunch from home. Henry  remembered  a coworker teaching her how to jitterbug during half-hour lunch breaks. Asked if she or any of her coworkers were concerned about an enemy attack, Henry said,  “Well, mostly  (we were)  afraid that the place was going to blow up.” 

In Area B, where RDX was mixed with TNT to produce Composition B, those on the production line, including women,  often had to turn large valves and lift 50-pound boxes filled with  Composition B. Thirty thousand boxes of Composition B a day were shipped to four Army loading plants in Texas, Nebraska, and Iowa, and to five Navy plants.  Women also worked  in the laboratories as technicians handling raw materials or testing the sensitivity of RDX and Composition B. It was dangerous work conducted on wet concrete floors to prevent sparks.  The RDX was mixed with melted TNT and the resulting hot-liquid Composition B was dropped in  tiny  globules onto a slow-moving conveyor belt. The globules, cooling as they traveled along the belt, became solid pellets that resembled Hershey’s chocolate Kisses. The female  operators, dressed in white coveralls and caps, quickly dubbed the end product “Jap  Kisses.”

Production began on Line 1  on April 29, 1943. Line 2 started on May 27, and by December, all 10 lines were in  operation. Production continued around the clock, seven days a week  with  three 8-hour shifts.  Full capacity, as originally planned,  called for 170 tons of RDX a day, a figure that  was achieved in November 1943. That initial capacity was doubled after August 1943, reaching 577 tons of RDX daily by February 1944. Meanwhile, HOW had received  the Army-Navy “E” Award for its outstanding production performance, and Colonel J.P. Harris of Army Ordnance,  who visited the facilities in November 1943, declared that  HOW  was  the “best explosive plant in the country.”

HOW suffered only three fatalities, and none were related to RDX.  To  prevent sparks, tools were either wooden or made of brass, and no  steel items were  allowed in the production areas.

In the news

Besides  women being essential on Holston’s production lines, they  performed  countless other operations. At the main switchboard, four operators averaged as many as 3,600 calls per hour, or 13 calls a minute.  The enormous amount of daily incoming and outgoing mail — 8,000 to 10,000 pieces — was distributed throughout the plant by a crew of neatly uniformed women driver/messengers. Doubling as chauffeurs,  they transported hundreds of visiting experts and government officials throughout the plant. When running at full capacity, HOW hosted a parade of dignitaries,  technical people, and journalists, one of whom was Marquis Childs of the  St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  

In early 1944, Childs was given  an official tour of the “hush-hush” munitions plant. He described his experience in a column headlined, “Super-Explosive.” His  military guide  had driven  Childs  to the “highest hill”  (Bays Mountain), stopped the car and said, “You are now looking at the greatest concentration of explosive force in the world.” Childs recognized the chemists and engineers who had worked tirelessly in laboratories, and he wrote, “Then there are the thousands of workers  (many who are women)  who must do the actual labor. They often live in makeshift houses or in big, dull barracks far from any town or place of  diversion. Yes, and they are subject to very real hazards.  Working in (Area B), you work under the constant threat that the ticklish stuff may blow up. ...Too little has been told about these soldiers without uniforms, for that’s what they are.”

War, jobs end

RDX and Comp B production continued  without a break until V-J Day. The heroic age of RDX  ended in 1945 with its  contribution to the trigger mechanism in the plutonium bomb  that was dropped on Nagasaki. Composition B was used to create the detonation waves that “squeezed” the plutonium core  sufficiently to cause,  in a  nanosecond,  a nuclear explosion.   

To the total surprise of all but a very few, the atomic bombs  ended World War II with a suddenness  that seemed impossible.  When the news arrived  that atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan, there was rejoicing, shouting and laughter among the workers at HOW. They knew the war would soon be over and that the troops would be coming home. Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945. 

The workforce  at  HOW  had increased from 200 in 1942  to more than 6,800 by 1944.  In May 1943, when the first lines began production, the manufacture of Composition B cost 30  cents a pound. By August 1945, the price had dropped to 10 cents a pound. By war’s end, HOW had produced 434,000 tons of RDX, or almost 1 billion pounds of Composition B.   

With victory won, HOW’s 10  production lines were shut down virtually overnight.  The speed of  the layoffs was traumatic. For women who had come to depend on those wages,  it was a cruel blow. Some were  fortunate enough to be  transferred to Tennessee Eastman. Others  had been empowered by learning new skills.  Many women would go back to  being  housewives and homemakers.

Every former employee  interviewed for this story, whether female or male, expressed pride in having been part of winning World War II. As a former employee noted, “It was common knowledge” that the Torpex made at HOW “broke the back of the German submarine activity that was sinking so many of our ships.” Although  the women of the “Powder Plant” did not necessarily experience equal pay and equal rights in the workplace while answering their country’s patriotic call, they nevertheless  made  significant strides toward that American  democratic ideal. 

Colin F. Baxter is Emeritus  Professor  of History at East Tennessee State University. He is  the author of  The Secret History of RDX: The Super-Explosive that Helped Win World War II, University Press of Kentucky, 2018 . Information and quotes for this article were drawn from the author’s earlier works on the subject, his personal interviews, and the National Archives and Records Administration, Atlanta, Georgia.   


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