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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.