The Arkansas Ordnance PlantPosted: February 23, 2013
by Allen Whitt
In October of 1941, the United States War Department announced that it would build defense plants in Arkansas. The Arkansas Ordnance Plant (AOP) was constructed in Pulaski County in Jacksonville. When the United States entered World War II in December, my father was 34. He tried to join the Army, but was turned down because he was told he had a heart murmur. Dad enlisted in the National Guard, and went to work at the plant as a tester and safety inspector in the manufacture of detonators, primers, percussion devices, boosters, relays, and fuses that were sent by trainloads to the Pacific and European war fronts. During full-scale production, there were over 14,000 workers at the plant. Some came from the local area, but many commuted by bus and rail from Little Rock and its environs. Most of the workers were women who had never worked outside of home. The women gave themselves the nickname “Wildcats.” Many African-Americans worked at the plant, and they made up about one-fourth of the workforce. Children as young as 14 were hired, largely because claimed to be 18, and the government did not check very closely since workers were badly needed, and the plant was a crucial source of income for a poor population that had just begun to emerge from the Depression. The plant had 12 production lines that operated 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. By the war’s end, the AOP had produced well over one billion devices.
The government constructed a housing project on the opposite side of town to house 500 families of AOP employees. There were schools, shopping areas, and 500 houses arranged along a grid of streets, made out of recently poured concrete that was clean and white in the sun. The houses were small and plain, prefabricated, and all exact copies of each other (except that our front door had a large “100” over it—I liked the round, black, metal digits). The houses had open sunny yards, with maybe one skinny tree right in the middle. But, for kids, those yards were full of the sweet smell of blossoming clover in the spring, and the enclosing concrete sidewalks displayed the neat splatters of the first few big, warm, June raindrops. There was room for kids to play, Victory Gardens to grow, and laundry to flap in the breeze. Everything was, it seemed, orderly and safe.
I was 2-years old when we moved from Little Rock to Jacksonville, and only 5 when the war ended, so I was too young to know much about the war. I also did not realize that there was enforced racial segregation in the state, and that African-Americans were separated at work in the plant and at home. We had an African-American maid, Tressie, who did laundry, and sometimes took me home with her for the day. She laughed a lot, had a missing front tooth, and wore a white cloth wrapped around her head. She looked like a happy pirate. I loved her, and enjoyed playing with her two children who were my age. They lived in an all-black community a short walk from our housing development. I learned many years later the the community was established by freed slaves after the Civil War, and they called it Mt. Pisgah, named after the mountain in the Bible from where God showed Moses the promised land.
When I got older, Dad would take me out to a remote part of the plant to show me the heavy concrete barriers with thick glass viewing ports that he stood behind when he fired test rounds of ordnance. I knew it was important and dangerous work. He drove an olive-drab car with a white star on the side, and wore a pith helmet and a badge. Although he was only five feet six, he had black wavy hair, and was handsome, strong, and broad-shouldered. To me, he was tall, and I thought he looked like a war hero from the movies; I was proud.
The plant was virtually a self-contained community with a hospital, fire department, and many other facilities. It was also fenced and had 18 entry gates and 60 guard houses, included some on towers. Security was tight. One icy, dark winter evening, my mother drove our green 1936 Oldsmobile out to the plant to pick up my father. I was about 3 at the time, and was in my car seat which was attached high up on the back of the passenger side seat. The car windows were iced up, and Mom had to stop and scrape off the windshield in order to see how to drive. She made a wrong turn and drove through a security gate without noticing the armed guard. He shouted, “HALT, or I’ll shoot!” twice. She didn’t hear him. When he leveled his rifle at our car, and shouted for the third–and last–time, my mother happened to hear him, and stopped. The guard ran over to the car, still aiming his rifle, and Mom rolled down her window. Mom told me later, “He was just a kid, and was as scared as I was.” It was a close call for Mom and me.
The Little Rock Air Force Base now occupies the former AOP site, and one of the 60 original guard houses is listed on the Ntional Registry of Historic Places, and resides in a museum as a relic from World War II.