Tuesday, June 13, 2017

TOP STORY >> City father recalls work at WWII ordnance plant

Jacksonville experienced a jobs and building boom 75 years ago when the Arkansas Ordnance Plant, along with five others in the state, produced parts for explosives used in World War II.

Jacksonville resident Odes Goodsell, 88, was 16 when he worked eight months at the AOP as a materials handler starting March 1945. He unloaded materials from freight railcars into warehouses (Warehouse Row Street) and loaded trucks with supplies to the production lines five days a week.

“I made 39 cents an hour. That’s $3.20 a day. That was a good raise compared to $1 a day at the farm,” Goodsell said.

Many people, mostly women, came to Jacksonville for the work and higher pay.

In 1941, the War Department approved the immediate construction of the $33 million, 6,895-acre ordnance plant operated by the defense contractor Ford, Bacon and Davis of New York.

Within nine months the plant went into operation from 1942 to 1945 with 12 assembly lines making fuses, primers and detonators. It made 80 percent of the detonators used in the war. The plant had 476 buildings, water and sewer systems, a railroad, paved streets, a fire department, a police department, a hospital, laundry and horse stables.

“It was amazing how big the plant was, how fast they built it and then shut it down,” Goodsell said.

Before the war, Jacksonville’s population was 400. In August 1943, the plant had 12,600 people working three shifts, one fourth of them African Americans.

Goodsell’s dad, Albert, was a security guard. His brother, Roy, who is 94, worked on building foundations until he was drafted into the war. Goodsell’s sister Reba and his stepmom, Edina Parks, both worked on the production line.

Many employees used shuttle buses and trains to get to work. Housing was in short supply.

“It was unreal with the amount of people in Jacksonville,” Goodsell said.

Goodsell rode to the plant from Roosevelt Road in the back of Gus Griggs’ truck with three other passengers.

People slept in tents, under trees and in cars. Some homeowners rented beds. Dormitories for women were built along West Main Street at the new high school site.

At the McArthur Drive split are 25 former plant administration houses.

The Sunnyside Addition had 375 prefabricated homes and duplexes built to house 500 families. A 200-unit trailer park was near where First Arkansas Bank and Trust’s West Main Street branch is today.

Relics of the Arkansas Ord-nance Plant can be found in Jacksonville.

The Jacksonville Museum of Military History sits on the former plant’s administration building site. The original structure burned in 1945.

The small gray building next to the museum is the only guard house from the ordnance plant known to exist. There were 13 houses at entrances to the plant. The Goodsell family restored the guard house to honor his brother Roy, who was a security guard there.

The post office building along West Main Street was the plant’s cafeteria. Bart Gray Manor Apartments was the hospital. The Jacksonville courts building was the fire station. Where West Main Street splits into one-ways was a plant entrance. On Municipal Drive, the closed Tires for Less was the carpentry shop and beside it was a lumber warehouse. The Cripple Creek Flea Market row had offices there.

Many warehouses off South Redmond Road were used by the ordnance plant.

The thick concrete structure behind the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District bus lot once housed explosive powder used in detonators.

Some of the plant’s buildings locations are fading memories. An ice house was at Crestview Plaza. The Chili’s restaurant on West Main Street was the plant’ s laundry.

Chicken Country was the fueling plant. On School Drive the vacant fenced property next, to the orange mini-storage units was the employment office.

“It was called the bull pen. You waited here until you got called up,” Goodsell said.

As the war was ending, employment decreased and the plant closed in 1946. The population dropped to 2,500 people.

“You could buy a house in Sunnyside for $50,” Goodsell said.

Goodsell and a few employees were kept on after the war to close the plant.

“Where the air base control tower is now, we had to take new surplus supplies, hospital beds and tools to the tall hill and dump and burn it. They felt redistribution would hurt local sellers,” Goodsell said.

The Leader is seeking surviving ordnance plant workers to share their stories of working in Jacksonville during the Second World War.