They forged freedom
Martha “Cork” Foster was thrilled to stand inside a sanctuary of clanging metal, glowing-hot steel and superhuman machinery.
It’s been six decades since Foster last visited the former U.S. Steel Christy Park mill in McKeesport, turning out foot-long artillery shells for U.S. Navy battleships. She was one of thousands of “production soldiers” in Western Pennsylvania who worked from 1943 to the end of World War II.
“I was scared to death,” said Foster, 79, of Clairton. “I trembled and shook because all these machines runnin’, these big cranes comin’ up over top of your head. It was noisy, noisy, noisy, bangin’, boomin’.”
It was a job that at first frightened her — and one that she wishes she could do again.
Backbreaking battles waged here — in “Victory Valley” — helped win wars in Europe and Asia. Now, like the veterans of Normandy and Midway, Bastogne and Guadalcanal, the women and men who worked in local mills and factories to win the war are dying out too.
It was the women, pensioners and boys as young as 16 who filled out the ranks of mills as the armed services sapped Pittsburgh’s labor strength. Just one U.S. Steel subsidiary, the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co., lost 32,000 employees to the service. The men who remained were those too skilled to be replaced.
That largely inexperienced, ragtag workforce carried the Pittsburgh region from the lingering doldrums of the Great Depression into heady days.
“Everything was there (in Pittsburgh) when you needed to make things,” said Charlie McCollester, director of the Pennsylvania Labor Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “It didn’t just produce raw and semifinished steel. It was a place where you could get anything you wanted.”
Within a year of the Pearl Harbor attack, U.S. Steel had broken 1,000 of its production records. The nation’s factories produced as much steel as Germany had in its entire buildup to war. Soon, Pittsburgh’s steel plants would produce more steel than Germany, Italy and Japan combined.
The region’s industrial barons boasted in a war-era book, “Men and Women of Wartime Pittsburgh,” that more tonnage passed through the city’s port than either the Panama or Suez canals. Ohio River shipyards held contracts for more than $1 billion in new landing craft and destroyers. Factories created everything from barbed wire to armor-plated battleships.
“Pittsburgh was extraordinarily significant,” said Lance Metz, archivist for the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of Industrial History being built in Bethlehem, in the eastern part of the state. “The Mon Valley was the center of the steel production in America during this period, and the single most important strategic material in America was steel.”
Today, pieces of U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works lie in rusting repose among the shops of The Waterfront. Cut into chunks of pricey scrap metal and fed into newer minimills, the Homestead Works once covered 430 acres — among the world’s largest — but has been reduced to a few individual pieces.
One remnant, painted beige and as tall as a two-story house, squats on a patch of grass in a parking lot behind the Lowe’s Home Improvement store. Weeds grow from its base behind a plain black chain-link fence.
This 12,000-ton press once rumbled Homestead’s hillsides as it forged steel for countless battleships, including the USS Missouri, on whose decks the Japanese surrendered to end World War II.
Former workers mark their places at the mill by what stands there now. For George Monk, who came into the mill as a 16-year-old “young commando” 60 years ago, it’s the rows of two-story condominiums near the river. Urelia “Rickie” Filipos, certified as a crane operator at that same time, worked closer to the Loews movie theater.
A federally backed $75 million expansion of the mill in 1941 covered 120 acres over ground now held by the theater, the Waterfront Town Center, Damon’s Grill, Mitchell’s Fish Market and vast swaths of parking lot, according to research compiled by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.
“Now they have a big shopping center there,” said Regina Kowalski, 87, of Millvale. “It was hard to believe all that was tore down.”
Kowalski, worried about her husband, who went into the service, headed into the mill on her doctor’s advice to find a distraction. She worked as a laborer at the Homestead Works, earning 86 cents an hour and spending her first day unloading bricks from a boxcar by hand.
For every woman who worked in the mill, she said, “at least one of the men was able to go into the service. That’s what we were more proud of. It was very important to make the steel to help the war.”
Nearly 60,000 women worked in Pittsburgh’s plants by the war’s end, a 153 percent increase from 1939, according to Joel Sabadasz, an industrial historian at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus.
War effort back home
Filipos still owns a memento of the mill experience — a green crane operator’s license, dated July 17, 1944, and bearing a black-and-white photo of her in a plaid work coat.
“I wouldn’t mind doing it again,” said Filipos, 83, of West Homestead.
Monk, 76, of Homestead, grew up in a brick row house across the street from the mill. The summer after turning 16, he walked through the gates and into a job as a laborer. When school started that fall, he crammed homework into study halls and worked from 4 to 8 each evening. He earned 79 1/2 cents an hour, and most of that went to his parents.
“The war did make for a lot of employment,” Monk said. “We made a lot of the steel for battleships and aircraft carriers. We made all that heavy plate. Homestead played a big part.”
Beyond Homestead — and even out of the famed Monongahela Valley — everyone in the region would have had some hand in war production, said Mark Brown, a labor historian.
Women changed the meals they cooked because of food rations held back for the soldiers. Block captains canvassed mill towns, going from house to house enlisting workers. Factories tuned to civilian products shifted to war machines.
The Aluminum Cooking Utensil Co. in New Kensington made cartridge cases, the Miller Printing Machine Co. in Pittsburgh produced gun mounts, and Consolidated Lamp and Glass in Coraopolis turned out torpedo air flasks.
Dravo Corp. on Neville Island and U.S. Steel’s American Bridge Co. in Ambridge became major builders of warships.
While serving in the Navy, Peter Maurin, of Lawrenceville, was sent home from Europe on leave and then told to report to Ambridge, where he joined a crew picking up a new landing ship for tanks, LST 286. They sailed it down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, around the Gulf of Mexico and across the Atlantic.
Maurin served on the ship during the Normandy invasion, first leaving tanks and machinery on the beachhead and then picking up wounded soldiers to treat at a makeshift emergency room in the ship’s hold.
His wife, Eleanor, served back home by threading rip cords into military parachutes at a former mattress factory on the North Side.
“Everyone in Pittsburgh was busy doing stuff,” said Brown, the historian. “Everyone’s life was clearly touched.”
An end to ‘big days’
Then even more quickly than the region had ramped up for war production in 1941, it stopped abruptly with Victory-Japan Day in 1945.
Some, like Filipos, who carries her crane operator’s license in her wallet every day, and Foster, who sweated over artillery shells in McKeesport, never fully recovered. It had been the best job they ever had and one they would take again even now.
Neither returned to the factory floor. They worked as barkeeps and nursing-home attendants, mothers and bus drivers.
“The V-J Day whistles were blowing and everything,” Kowalski said. “When we were leaving, they told us not to come back tomorrow. We were happy because the war was over.”
Foster celebrated the war’s end by visiting her boyfriend in Detroit, only to find her job was gone when she returned. Every one but a few skilled male workers had been laid off immediately.
Monk, like other boys, might have stayed on at the Homestead Works but was drafted into the Army. He served 15 months at the war’s end, never seeing any real action.
The men who had worked in the mill before the war earned seniority during their service, and many soon would be back to reclaim former jobs.
For Foster, that marked the last time for almost 60 years that she would feel the intense wall of heat that waves out of an open furnace or the rumble of red-hot steel plunging into a cooling bath. The flying cranes and towering machines that once frightened turned into fond memories.
Her work quickly turned to starting a family, raising four children and then providing for them, alone, when her husband died of a heart attack. She would support the family, in part, with a stack of $25 war bonds she earned at the Christy Park mill.
“Just as quickly as we were hired, we were fired,” Foster said. “Within a week, there wasn’t a girl in the mill. Our big bucks were gone, big days were gone.”
It was then, after the mill fell silent in her ears, that Foster — and countless others like her — cherished time working to support the war effort.