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Allen County went to war with Japan

The hours could be dreadfully long, the work was hard and sometimes dangerous, but 50 years later, the men and women who took up battle stations on Fort Wayne's home front are still proud.

"If Fort Wayne had not been in war production, we'd be speaking Japanese now," said Wayne Pribble, 76, a plastics consultant who was an engineer at General Electric during the war.

When Japanese raiders laid waste to a U.S. fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Fort Wayne workers already had helped lay the foundation for eventual victory over Japan.

From gearing up for production in 1940 and 1941 to helping build the bombs that ended the war, Fort Wayne workers were in the war effort all the way.

Months before the United States officially joined World War II, war jolted the city out of depression with massive defense contracts.

Existing plants were doubling and tripling in size to meet the government's appetite for weapons and ammunition. New plants settled in Fort Wayne to be close to established supplier plants.

In fact, as Pribble remembers it, workers felt as though the nation already was at war by the time the bombs dropped in Hawaii.

"When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, it was just another incident," he said. "We were already supplying everything we could. (After that,) it was just more of the same and lots of it."

Dottie Askren went to work at General Electric in October 1942. She was a raw-materials order clerk.

Even being a clerk called for long hours then. She remembers her standard week was 54 hours in six days. But most of the workers understood the grave importance of production and didn't begrudge the time.

"The attitudes were a lot different back then, although we had a lot of young people, and sometimes it takes a while for the seriousness of things to set in," said Askren, 67.

Pribble's voice still shakes with excitement when he recalls the way things were done during the war, when production was so absolutely vital that new parts could be designed, tested and put on the assembly line in days, rather than years. It was a time when people would stay up all night working on a good idea if their normal 12 or 14 hours weren't enough.

There was a point early in the war, Pribble remembers, when P-40 fighters weren't making their flight ceilings. Engineers thought the problem was that magnetos weren't supplying the necessary power at high altitudes.

"A man came in on a train from Schenectady, New York, on a Friday with drawings for a magneto made out of plastic," he said. "My boss asked me if I could design molds over the weekend, and he said he'd have a man standing by to make them."

Pribble delivered his mold design, and sample magnetos were ready later that week. They were tested in New York a week after the drawings were delivered to General Electric, and the company had a production contract the following Monday - just 10 days after Pribble got his assignment. Why the rush?

"The German planes could fly higher than ours. If there's one place you don't want to be in an airplane, it's below the enemy," he said.

Workers at every level, from the boardroom to the drawing board to the assembly line, heard the message again and again, and they believed it: American lives could depend on their work.

Rita Jackson, now 67, came to Fort Wayne in 1942, looking for work that just wasn't there in her hometown of Edgerton, Ohio.

By 1942, companies wanted women like never before. Jackson hired on at Horton Manufacturing, where she made $50 or $60 a week.

Before the war, Horton made washing machines. When Jackson got there, she went to work inspecting the plant's new product: 40mm shell casings.

"Your supervisors instilled it in you, that you had to be careful and do good work," she said. "I had three brothers (in the Army) over there, and I didn't want any of this to malfunction."

The war convinced Pribble that little things can indeed mean a lot. He likes to tell the story of a tiny plastic pin - it weighed just 1/10 of a gram - that he says won the Battle of Midway. Many regard that battle as the point when Americans started rolling back the Japanese in the Pacific.

Steel was in demand for everything from guns to tanks to battleships during the war. That made it costly and hard to obtain.

GE made a prototype plastic firing pin to replace a steel pin used in 40mm anti-aircraft ammunition. But cleaning the excess plastic off the piece made manufacturing it more time-consuming and expensive than the steel part it was intended to replace. The government told GE to forget the project.

Pribble and a co-worker had a better idea. Working in secret in their spare time, they developed a mold that would cast a cleaner piece.

Then they bypassed government procurement channels and sent the new prototypes directly to the Toledo factory that made the shells.

The new firing pin was a hit, and General Electric cranked out 100 million of them during the war. Being able to make more ammo more quickly meant that by the time Midway was fought, in June 1942, U.S. ships were well-supplied.

"Forty million rounds were fired in the Battle of Midway," he said. "We put up a barrage the Japs couldn't get through."

Almost 50 years after that battle, Pribble is still proud of the part the city played and of the extraordinary efforts of workers during the war.

"Everyone worked together. Most of them had a father or a brother in the war," he said. "We were doing things that hadn't been done before. . . . We were trying new approaches."

Joslyn Stainless Steels did its share of conventional war production. It supplied the welding rod used to join steel plates in the battleship New Jersey, for example.

But Joslyn, later purchased by Slater Steel, did more than contribute to conventional fighting. Fred Lehman, 80, was the plant's chief chemist, chief metallurgist and superintendent of its melt shop during the war. He remembers the role the plant played in building the world's first atomic weapons.

"We were the first company in the U.S. to roll uranium from uranium ingots," he said.

The part those men in the Joslyn rolling mill played in the Manhattan project was relatively simple. They took ingots of jet-black uranium - about 4 inches wide and 18 inches long - and flattened them out out by running them through a hand-fed mill. They then turned uranium on lathes to make rods about an inch in diameter. The rods were sent out of the plant and later were used to make U235, the active ingredient of the first atomic bombs. "That was hush-hush at the time," Lehman said.

He was on a plant committee that planned how the uranium would be handled. During the war, about 50 1-ton shipments of uranium went through Joslyn.

Lehman remembers that with the uranium came an entourage of government men to supervise the work and make sure that the scarce metal was carefully conserved. Dust and fragments that came off while the metal was rolled and turned on the lathes were scooped up and returned to the St. Louis company that cast the ingots.

"The scale or oxide that came off was meticulously picked up, as were the shavings," Lehman said.

The uranium was volatile, and it had to be rolled carefully and cooled often. As Lehman remembers, many companies were too spooked to work with it.

"We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know whether it would blow up or what," he said.

But Joslyn accepted the challenge, just as workers in plants across the country faced unprecedented challenges during the war.

"Everybody was very patriotic, very willing to put their shoulder to the wheel and get it done," Lehman said.


Many Allen County manufacturers had converted to war production even before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor 50 years ago this week. Here are some of the companies that built for the war and the items they produced:

* General Electric - superchargers for aircraft engines, gunnery controls for airplanes and warships, aircraft magnetos and radio equipment.

* International Harvester - 5-ton military trucks and halftracks.

* Magnavox - radio, radar and sonar systems; machine-gun firing controls and bazooka firing controls.

* Studebaker - aircraft engines.

* Tokheim - aerial-bomb and mortar-shell bodies.