War, Plague, and Courage: Spanish Influenza at Fort Benjamin Harrison & Indianapolis

Spanish Influenza hit Indiana in September of 1918. While the virus killed otherwise healthy soldiers and civilians affected by WWI in other parts of the world since the spring, most Hoosiers assumed they were safe that fall. Still, newspaper headlines made people nervous and health officials suspected that the mysterious flu was on their doorstep.

Howard Chandler Christy, “Fight of Buy Bonds,” poster, 1917, Indianapolis Marion County Public Library, Special Collections, accessed digitalindy.org

In April of 1917, the United States joined the Allied effort. Residents of Indianapolis, like most Hoosiers, largely united around the war effort and organized in its support. In addition to registering for military service, the National Guard, and the Red Cross, they organized Liberty Loan drives to raise funds and knitting circles to make clothing for their soldiers. Farmers, grain dealers, and bankers met to assure adequate production and conservation of food.  They improved the roads in order to mobilize goods for the war effort, including a road from Indianapolis to nearby Fort Benjamin Harrison located just nine miles northeast of downtown Indianapolis. This penchant for organization would be extremely valuable throughout the bleak coming months.

Indianapolis News, August 17, 1916, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The U.S. Army constructed Fort Benjamin Harrison over a decade earlier with the intention of stationing one infantry regiment there. However, with America’s entry into the war, Fort Ben (as it was colloquially known) became an important training site for soldiers and officers. It also served as a mobilization center for both Army and National Guard units. In August 1918, just prior to the flu outbreak, the War Department announced that the majority of the fort would be converted into General Hospital 25. The Army planned for the hospital to receive soldiers native to Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois who would be returning from the front as wounded, disabled, or suffering from “shell shock.” By September, the newly established hospital was ready to receive a few hundred “wounded soldiers returning from France.” But the soldiers stationed there began to fall ill.

“Fort Benjamin Harrison Post Hospital,” n.d., in Stephen Bower, A History of Fort Benjamin Harrison, 1903-1982, accessed archive.org
Indianapolis News, September 26, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On September 26, 1918, the front page of the Indianapolis News announced unidentified cases of illness in training detachments stationed at the Indiana School for the Deaf, the Hotel Metropole, and Fort Benjamin Harrison. The detachment at the deaf school denied that men were infected with the deadly Spanish Influenza that was on the rise as soldiers returned to the U.S. from the front. The medical officers instead claimed “the ailment here is not as serious as that prevailing in the east.”

Despite this reassurance, the high number of cases was alarming. The major in command of the detachment issued a quarantine. The lieutenant from the hotel detachment also claimed that none of the illnesses there were caused by Spanish influenza.  He referred to the cases as “stage fright,” as opposed to a full outbreak of the disease.  At Fort Benjamin Harrison, sixty men suffered from influenza, but the Indianapolis News reported “none has been diagnosed as Spanish influenza and no case is regarded as serious.”  The medical officers there reported “An epidemic is not feared.”

Indianapolis News, September 26, 1918, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While the front page reassured the city’s residents that there was nothing to fear and that the military had everything under control, a small article tucked away on page twenty-two hinted at the magnitude of the coming pandemic. The body of twenty-seven-year-old Walter Hensley arrived in the city from a naval training detachment on the Great Lakes. He had died of Spanish Influenza. Only a few weeks later, Indianapolis would be infected with over 6,000 cases with Fort Benjamin Harrison caring for over 3,000 patients in a 300 bed facility before the end of the epidemic.

The Motor Corps of St. Louis chapter of the American Red Cross, 1918, Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, accessed influenzaarchive.org.

Indianapolis was not alone in its unpreparedness, as little was known about the strange flu.  Influenza was certainly not uncommon, but most flu viruses killed the very young, sick, and elderly. The 1918 influenza, on the other hand, killed otherwise healthy young adults ages twenty to forty – precisely the ages of those crowded into military camps around the world. Furthermore, the disease could spread before symptoms appeared. Infected soldiers and other military personnel with no symptoms amassed in barracks and tents, on trains and ships, and in hospitals and trenches. As troops moved across the globe, so did the flu. It took on the name “Spanish influenza,” because unlike France and England, Spain did not censor reports of the outbreak.

“An Early Morning Wash, Fort Harrison,” in Benjamin D. Hitz, ed., A History of Base Hospital 32 (Indianapolis: Indiana Red Cross, 1922), accessed IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship.

While many modern historians and epidemiologists now believe the pandemic likely began in a crowded army camp in Fort Riley Kansas, Americans in 1918 feared its spread from Europe and took some unlikely precautions. On July 3, 1918, the South Bend News-Times assured its readers that a Spanish passenger liner that had arrived in an Atlantic port “was thoroughly fumigated and those on board subjected to thorough examination by federal and state health officers.” Such measures did little to stop the flu, however, and by September 14 the South Bend newspaper reported on several East Coast deaths from Spanish influenza. On the same day, the Indianapolis News printed a notice from the Surgeon-General Rupert Blue, head of the U.S. Public Health Service, offering advice for preventing infection. These public notices became routine over the following months of the pandemic. Among methods listed for preventing the spread of the disease, Blue recommended “rest in bed, fresh air, abundant food, with Dover’s powders for the relief of pain.”  He also warned of the “danger of promiscuous coughing and spitting.”

Hanlon [artist], Halt The Epidemic, 1918, poster, United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, George F. Tyler Poster Collection, Temple University Libraries.
Over the next few days, newspapers reported that the nation’s training camps were infected. On September 17, the Richmond Palladium and the Indianapolis News reported “approximately four thousand men are in quarantine today as the result of Spanish influenza breaking out in the aviation camp of the naval training station” on the Great Lakes in Illinois. The following day, the South Bend News-Times reported that “Spanish influenza now has become epidemic in three army camps” with 1,500 cases in Massachusetts, 1,000 in Virginia, and 350 in New York. The military scrambled to meet the needs of the infected and anxious citizens awaited a response from the government’s health services.

Indianapolis News, September 19, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On September 19, 1918, Surgeon-General Blue sent a telegraph to the head health officer of each state requesting they immediately conduct a survey to determine the prevalence of influenza. In response, Dr. John Hurty, Indiana’s Secretary of the Board of Health, telephoned the local health officials in each city requesting a report. Hurty warned that the flu was “highly contagious,” but stated that “quarantine is impractical,” according to the Indianapolis News. Instead, he offered Hoosiers this advice:

Avoid crowds . . . until the danger of this thing is past. The germs lurk in crowded street cars, motion picture houses and everywhere there is a crowd. They float on dust, and therefore avoid dust. The best thing to do is to keep your body in a splendid condition and let it do its own fighting after you exercise the proper caution of exposure.

Dr. John Hurty, photograph, n.d., Purdue University Archive, accessed Historic Indianapolis.

One week later, hundreds of men were sick with influenza in Indiana training camps. Again Hurty offered the best advice that he could while advising citizens to remain calm. However, he had to admit: “It has invaded several of our training camps and will doubtless become an epidemic in civil life.” He advised:

If all spitting would immediately cease, and if all coughers and sneezers would hold a cloth or paper handkerchief over their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing, then influenza and coughs and colds would almost disappear. We also must not forget to tone up our physical health, for even a few and weak microbes may find lodgment in low toned bodies. To gain high physical tone, get plenty of sleep in a well ventilated bedroom. Don’t worry, don’t feast, don’t hurry, don’t fret. Look carefully after elimination. Eat only plain foods. Avoid riotous eating of flesh. Go slow on coffee and tea. Avoid alcohol in every form. Cut out all drugs and dopes . . . Frown on public spitters and those who cough and sneeze in public without taking all precautions.

Indianapolis News, September 27, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Most notably, in this same September 26 front page article in the Indianapolis News, Hurty stated that Indiana had “only mild cases . . . and not deaths.” This would soon change.

Despite these public reassurances, Hurty and other Indianapolis civic leaders knew they needed to do more to prepare. Since little was known about how the flu spread, these men tried to keep the city safe using their intuition.  A clean city seemed like a safer city, so they organized a massive clean up. On September 27, the Indianapolis News reported:

To prevent a Spanish Influenza epidemic in Indianapolis, Mayor Charles W. Jewett today directed Dr. Herman G. Morgan, secretary of the city board of health, to order all public places – hotel lobbies, theaters, railway stations and street cars – placed at once in thorough sanitary condition by fumigation and cleansing.

The article noted that in other cities local officials had been unable to prevent widespread infection and that Indianapolis should learn from their failures and “get busy now with every preventative measures that can be put in operation to make conditions sanitary so that infection will not spread.”

Indianapolis News, September 30, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

By the end of the month, influenza had reached the civilian population. Officials continued to discourage people from gathering in crowds and encouraged anyone with a cough or cold to stay home. The News reported that Indianapolis movie houses had begun showing films on screens in front of the buildings instead of inside the theaters.

“Bird’s-Eye View of a Portion of the Army Post,” in Stephen Bower, A History of Fort Benjamin Harrison, 1903-1982 (Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana: Command History Office, 1984), accessed archive.org.

Meanwhile, the numbers of infected men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose. By the end of September, officers in charge of the base hospital reported that there were “about 500 cases of respiratory disease” at the camp. Although newspapers still reported that it was unclear whether these illness were indeed Spanish influenza, it was clear that the situation was growing dire. Because so many nurses believed Indiana was safe from the pandemic and volunteered to work out east to fight the virus, the fort’s hospital only had twenty trained nurses to care for the hundreds of sick men. The Indianapolis News reported that enlisted soldiers were “being employed as nurses” and that one battalion of engineers had been completely quarantined. Meanwhile, notices of soldiers dying from influenza and related pneumonia began to fill the papers of Indianapolis newspapers.

Base Hospital 32 [which had trained and mobilized at Fort Benjamin Harrison was sent to France before the outbreak] in Benjamin D. Hitz, ed., A History of Base Hospital 32 (Indianapolis: Indiana Red Cross, 1922), accessed IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship.
By October 1, the number of sick men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose to 650 cases. The Indianapolis News reported, “No new troops are arriving at the engineer camp,” and “fifty engineers were lent to the base camp hospital yesterday to act as orderlies and clerks and to release medical corps for service as nurses.” The article concluded, “The hospital needs a number of trained nurses.” While the bodies of Hoosier soldiers stationed at camps around the country arrived in the city, Fort Benjamin Harrison had yet to lose one of its own.  Less than a week later, that changed.

On Sunday night, October 6, 1918, ten soldiers died in the fort’s hospital bringing the total for the week to forty-one deceased soldiers. Four civilians died from influenza and six more from the ensuing pneumonia. At the fort, officials reported 172 new cases of influenza (bringing the total to 1,653 sick soldiers). Of these, the base hospital was attempting to care for 1,300 men.

Indianapolis News, October 7, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In response, Dr. Morgan announced “a sweeping order prohibiting gatherings of five or more persons.”  The front page of the News read, “PUBLIC MEETINGS ARE FORBIDDEN,” and noted that all churches, schools, and theaters were closed until further notice. Only gatherings related to the war effort were exempt, such as work at manufacturing plants and Liberty loan committee meetings. The prominent doctor even discouraged people from gathering at the growing numbers of funerals, encouraging only close family to attend. In October of 1918, Indianapolis must have looked like a ghost town.

Indianapolis News, October 7, 1918, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The sick desperately needed nurses and nowhere more than at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Two front page Indianapolis News headlines for October 7 read, “Ft. Harrison Soldiers in Dire Need of Nurses,” and “Graduate Nurses Are Needed for Soldiers.” The News reported that at Fort Ben “soldier boys are dying for lack of trained help” and that the “few nurses in service are worn to the point of exhaustion.” Officers of the local Red Cross worked to redirect nurses who were awaiting transport overseas to the local effort against influenza, while the women of the motor corps of the Indianapolis Red Cross were busy transporting needed supplies by automobiles.

Motor Corps Member in Formation at Fort Benjamin Harrison, photograph, 1918, Indiana Red Cross, accessed IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship.

The rest of the newspaper that day was filled with reports on school closings, cancelled meetings, the numbers of sick in various counties, and funerals. The plague was peaking and Fort Benjamin Harrison suffered the most. While most residents of Indiana stayed far away from the infected camp, the brave women of Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne took their nursing skills into the heart of the epidemic. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported on October 7, the same day the Red Cross called urgently for nurses, “10 Local Nurses Respond.” The paper continued:

Willing to risk their lives in the nation’s service in helping combat the ravages of Spanish influenza, ten Lutheran hospital nurses left the city . . . for Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis, Ind., where they will enter service in the military base hospital, which is very urgently in need of qualified nurses to aid in fighting the epidemic.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 8, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The following day, the Sentinel published a picture of the brave nurses and the local paper praised their “patriotic devotion to place their training at the disposal of their government even at the risk of their lives.”

Red Cross Workshop, photograph, 1918, Indiana University Archives, accessed blogs.libraries.indiana.edu

The same day, a medical officer from the fort hospital told the Indianapolis Star that several trained nurses had reported for duty “within the last few hours to relieve the situation” and that “everything that can be done for the boys is being done.” The Star reported that the officer was responding to “wild rumors” that the soldiers were not getting adequate care. However, the Indiana Red Cross and Board of Health knew that more nurses were needed. On October 11, the Fort Wayne Sentinel shared Dr. Hurty’s report that “during last night thirty soldiers had succumbed to the ravages of the epidemic at Fort Harrison, some of them expiring before their uniforms could be removed from them.” One of the men was Captain C. C. Turner of the medical reserve who had been sent to the fort from another camp only a few days before to help combat the influenza outbreak. His records had not even arrived yet and his relatives could not be contacted.

American Red Cross Influenza Mask Bundles and Bag, 1918-1919, ID#6119.9.1-4, Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

The situation at the fort prompted Dr. Morgan and several other leading doctors of the city to issue a statement. The doctors praised the efforts of the hospital staff and volunteers.  They stated:

The medical staff of Camp Benjamin Harrison has succeeded in fourteen days in expanding a hospital of about 250 beds to one of 1,700 beds by occupying the well-built brick structures formerly used as barracks. These they were able to equip adequately with the assistance of the American Red Cross which . . . proved itself able to supply every demand made by the army on the same day the request was made.

The doctors reported that the hospital had treated 2,500 patients in the previous two weeks. Despite their heroic efforts, the epidemic persisted.

Indianapolis News, October 11, 1918, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The city also bolstered its efforts as the number of infected rose to 1,536 civilians. On October 11, the Indianapolis News reported 441 new cases of influenza in a twenty-four hour period. In response, Dr. Morgan announced that the city board of health “enlarged the order against public gatherings of every description” and that the Indianapolis police department would enforce the order. “Dry beer saloons,” which were prohibition era gathering places, were closed. Department stores were prohibited from having sales and would be closed completely if found too crowded. Finally, the board of health directed its officers to post cards reading “Quarantine, Influenza,” on houses containing a sick person. The next twenty-four hours brought the city 250 new cases and the fort 47 new cases of Spanish flu. In that same period, twenty four young men died at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The epidemic was peaking.

Indiana State Board of Health, Influenza: How to Avoid It, circa 1918, broadside, Indiana State Library Broadsides Collection, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

A week later there was some evidence that the virus began to relax its grip on the fort, if not the city. The Indianapolis News reported that while the previous twenty-four hours had brought twenty-eight deaths to the city, the fort suffered only four. And while the city reported 252 new civilian cases, the fort reported only twelve new cases. Since the fort was struck by influenza before the city, civilians must have seen this decrease at the fort as a good sign. The plague had almost run its course.

On October 30, Dr. Hurty announced that the closing ban would be lifted in Indianapolis. Newspapers reported the lowest number of new cases since the start of the deadly month and Fort Harrison reported that not one person had died in the previous twenty-four hours. Schools could reopen Monday, November 4 and people with no cold symptoms could ride street cars and attend movie theaters. Through the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, there were small resurgences of the epidemic. Morgan ordered the wearing of gauze masks in public and discouraged gatherings. However, the worst had passed, and the war had ended.

Indianapolis Star, November 24, 1918, 6, Indiana State Library, microfilm.

As Indianapolis began to return to normal, the damage was assessed. On November 24, 1918, the Indianapolis Star tallied the state’s loss at 3,266 Hoosiers, mostly young men and women. This massive loss of citizens in their prime also left 3,020 children orphaned. The War Department also assessed the losses at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The Surgeon General reported that General Hospital 25 at the fort treated a total of 3,116 cases of influenza and 521 cases of related pneumonia. The hard work of the medical staff and brave volunteers transformed a fort designed to care for a few hundred injured men into a giant hospital caring for thousands.

Panoramic View of Indianapolis, 1918, Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.

The city also benefited from leadership of the committed men of Indianapolis and the State Board of Health, as well as cooperative citizens.  According to the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, “In the end, Indianapolis had an epidemic death rate of 290 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest in the nation.” The center attributes the city’s relative success to “how well Indianapolis as well as state officials worked together to implement community mitigation measures against influenza,” whereas in other cities “squabbling among officials and occasionally business interests hampered effective decision-making.” Indianapolis leaders presented a united front, shop and theater owners complied despite personal loss, and brave men and women volunteered their services at risk to their own lives. Somehow only one of the heroic volunteer nurses stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison lost her life.

Indianapolis News, May 7, 1919, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hospital 32 Nurses in Welcome Home Day Parade, photograph, 1919, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

On May 6, 1919, the Indianapolis News replaced columns of text detailing the influenza-related losses with jubilant articles about the city’s preparations for Welcome Home Day.  Trains unloaded Hoosier soldiers still carrying their regimental colors. Indianapolis decked herself out in red, white, and blue. On May 7, 1919, 20,000 men and women walked in the welcome parade that stretched for 33 blocks. Many, like the men and women of Hospital No. 32, trained and mobilized at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Many had survived the Spanish Influenza, nursed the sick, or lost a friend to the pandemic. Not a single article mentioned it.  The city was ready to move towards peace and healing.

Indianapolis News, May 7, 1919, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

For further reading and linked resources:

“Guns, Germs, and Indiana Athletics, 1917-1920: How Did the Great War and the Great Pandemic Affect Indiana Sports,” Blogging Hoosier History.

Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine

 

Guns, Germs, and Indiana Athletics, 1917-1920: How Did the Great War and the Great Pandemic Affect Indiana Sports?

In September 1918, the sports reporter for the Bloomington Evening World wondered how the expanded Selective Service age range (revised to include 18-21 year olds) would affect the local high school basketball team’s prospects. Only two of Bloomington high’s players were young enough to be exempt from draft registration. A month later, the World reported that the influenza epidemic had incapacitated six of the squad’s fourteen players. The intrusion of World War I and a worldwide influenza pandemic disrupted the lives of many Hoosiers. In particular, this article explores how war and the Spanish flu affected Indiana athletes and sports. The Great War and the Great Pandemic had calamitous short-term effects on Indiana athletics, but long-term benefits in developing athletes and sporting culture in Indiana.

In September 1917, these thirty-nine civilians from Blackford County were drafted into military service for WWI. They are posed on the courthouse grounds in Hartford City. Source: Indiana Historical Society.

A month after Congress declared war in April 1917, the legislature passed the Selective Service Act re-instituting the military draft. The first draft registration began in June 1917 for men ages 21-31. A second draft registration occurred a year later in June 1918 for those who had turned 21 since the last draft, and by September 1918 Congress expanded the conscription ages from 18-45. Indiana as a state contributed 130,670 soldiers to the conflict, over 39,000 of them volunteers. Indiana University claimed that 35% of their alumni and current undergrads had enlisted. Purdue University and Rose Polytechnic in Terre Haute stated that over 12% of their alumni were in the service, whereas Butler College [changed to university in 1925] and Quaker affiliated Earlham College counted around 2% of their graduates at war.

Enlistments of college men would ultimately erode the short-term quality of college athletics. A March 1918 article in Indiana University’s Indiana Daily Student reckoned that enlistments and the draft would reduce the number of quality players for the upcoming football season. At Wabash College, several athletes left school at the close of the 1917 football season and enlisted, including multi-sport star Francis Bacon. A Crawfordsville Journal reporter assessed that these athletes had attributes that would make them excellent soldiers. The reporter wrote, “Training, alertness, physical fitness and courage to tackle a hard task and stick to it along with the habit of “team work” have all contributed to their advancement [in the military].” Meanwhile in Lafayette, a Purdue sports reporter held out hope that Purdue’s athletes could avoid military service. He wrote, “If Uncle Sam can do without several of Purdue’s basketball stars until the present season is over, Purdue should be able to look forward to a very successful season.” Uncle Sam could not do without, and Purdue lost the athletic services of several basketball players as well as basketball Coach Ward Lambert, a future Naismith hall-of-famer, to the military.

1917-18 Purdue basketball team. After being conference runner-up in ’17, Purdue fell to .500 in Big Ten play in ’18 without Coach Ward Lambert to guide them. Source: Purdue University Debris yearbook, 1918.

College athletics experienced great uncertainty during the war, especially regarding the loss of student athletes to the military. South Bend News-Times reporter Charles W. Call calculated that 13 of the 15 Notre Dame basketball players from recent years were in the armed forces, which was a higher service percentage than any of Notre Dame’s four major sports. Among Call’s statistics was multi-sport athlete, and basketball captain-elect Thomas King, who, in October 1917, awaited a summons to Camp Zachary Taylor, the mobilizing center for Indiana recruits near Louisville.

Similar to Notre Dame, IU lost three-sport letterman, and 1917 team basketball captain, Charles Severin Buschman, to the Army when he graduated at the end of the spring semester, enlisted, and received a captain’s commission in September 1918. College athletes who became officers in the armed forces came as no surprise to DePauw University coach Edbert C. Buss, who had seen seven of his football eleven* enlist. He assessed the military value of athletics and said, “We feel that college athletics is as big a factor in developing our men as any other department in the university, and it is a well known fact that army officers are picking football and basketball men for some of the most important branches of service.”Arguably the most-famous Indiana college (or ex-college) athlete to be drafted into the Army was 6’4” basketball sensation Homer Stonebraker of Wabash College. College authorities stripped Stonebraker of his collegiate athletic eligibility his senior season in 1917 because he violated his amateur status. Although not an active college athlete, the Army’s drafting of Stonebraker carried such importance that the New York Tribune and the Boston Herald both carried news items on the matter.

Indiana University’s 1916-17 basketball team. Three-sport athlete and basketball captain, Charles Severin Buschmann (seated front row with the ball), graduated and immediately enlisted in the Army. Source: Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

An Indiana Daily Student reporter surveyed the college athletic landscape at IU in 1918, and wrote the following:

Athletics at Indiana, like all other activities, have been materially affected this year by the war. Not only has the status of the primary sports been changed but nearly every one of last year’s stars who were eligible to play this year are in the service, and the participants for this season must be culled largely from the ranks of the inexperienced.

Curiously, even while experienced college-age men were leaving academia for the military, college enrollment grew. At IU, student enrollment increased, even though the quality of their athletics decreased. The Daily Student in October 1918 reported the largest enrollment in the history of the school with 1,953 students; 1,100 of that number were freshmen, and 875 of the freshmen were men, or 600 more males than the first year class enrolling in 1917. More males enrolled to take advantage of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) classes that were also available at Purdue, Notre Dame and other college campuses around the state. The 1918 freshman class at IU also saw a decrease in female enrollment: 695 down from 780 in 1917. The university authorities speculated that the decreased number of female enrollees was due to young women entering the workforce to take the place of men going to war.

Student Army Training Corps, DePauw University, Greencastle, Ind., 1918. Source: Indiana Historical Society.

The SATC proved a mixed blessing for the campuses that housed the corps. The War Department initially advised that intercollegiate football in institutions with SATCs be discontinued as a war measure. This policy would allow students to devote 14 hours a week to military drill and 42 hours a week to studying military tactics. Wabash College was without a SATC, and had no such time demands. The Crawfordsville college planned to proceed uninterrupted with their football schedule. The proposed change did not go over so well in football-crazed South Bend with first year coach Knute Rockne. The War Department ultimately backed off their initial proposal and instead set limits on travel, mandating that only two away games could be played during the season that would require the team to be absent from campus for more than 48 hours.

Another change the war prompted was changing freshman eligibility rules. Freshmen were eligible to compete in varsity athletics at smaller schools like Wabash and DePauw. Larger schools like IU, Purdue, and even Notre Dame prohibited freshmen from playing on the varsity. While not concerned with varsity athletics specifically, the War Department encouraged mass athletics participation by every enrollee in the SATC so that “every man . . . may benefit by the physical development which . . . athletics afford.” The Daily Student reporter assessed this development:

Sports on a war basis will probably lose some of the excitement and glamour, but the benefits derived from them will be much greater than it has been in the past. Not a favored few, but the mass of the student body will profit by the advantages thus afforded.

Notre Dame Coach Rockne opposed freshman eligibility. The South Bend News-Times explained Rockne’s position: “men . . . might be strong football players but not genuine college students.” Representatives of the Big Ten and other Midwestern college athletic associations met in Chicago and voted to allow freshmen to play in 1918. While Rockne may have opposed the measure in principal, in practice it was a good decision since he had only two returning lettermen including the famous George Gipp. Among the freshmen Rockne coached in 1918 was Earl “Curly” Lambeau from Green Bay, Wisconsin.

University of Notre Dame’s football team, 1918. Back row: Coach Knute Rockne, Charles Crowley, Early “Curly” Lambeau, George Gipp, Raleigh Stine, Frederic Larson. Middle row: Eddie Anderson, Maurice “Clipper” Smith, Captain Pete Bahan, Bernard Kirk, Heartley “Hunk” Anderson. Front row: Frank Lockard, Norman Barry, William Mohn. Source: University of Notre Dame Archives

Notre Dame’s need for athletes was not unique. At IU, only six players, including three who had never played football before, turned out for the team’s first practice. IU football coach Ewald O. “Jumbo” Stiehm remarked, “I have never before faced a season with so few experienced men to rely upon.” The Daily Student explained, “The teams will have to be built up almost entirely from green material, strengthened by men who had training on the freshmen squads throughout the year.” In Crawfordsville, seven Wabash College freshmen won varsity letters at the conclusion of the 1917 football season. To which the Crawfordsville Journal commented on the benefit, “This is an unusually large number of first year men to receive such recognition and the situation is brought about by war time conditions which have depleted the ranks of the older athletes. However, it is encouraging as it means that the majority of these men will be on hand to form the nucleus of next year’s team.”

As if the effects of mobilizing for war were not enough to inhibit Indiana athletics, the state also had to deal with an influenza epidemic. Indiana health authorities reported the first cases of influenza in September 1918. While the flu pandemic in Indiana was less severe than in other parts of America, it still afflicted an estimated 350,000 Hoosiers, and claimed 10,000 lives between September 1918 and February 1919. In October 1918, the South Bend News-Times reported on how the flu impacted college football:

Already staggering under the new military regulations, middle western football was dealt another blow tonight when a score of colleges and universities cancelled gridiron games scheduled for tomorrow because of the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Nearly 20 of the 30 odd games scheduled were called off. Reports received at Chicago indicated that some of the games had been called off because members of the teams were slightly indisposed, others because of probable attendance due to the influenza epidemic, and still others for the reason that it is feared crowds cause a spread of the disease.

Authorities cancelled the first three games on Notre Dame’s 1918 schedule on account of flu quarantines. Health officials even forced Rockne to cancel a practice. IU football coaches cancelled the team’s season finale, scheduled for Thanksgiving Day in Indianapolis, on account of the influenza situation in the capitol city.

The flu also affected high school sports. Bloomington High School expected to play their first basketball game of the season on October 18, but the city’s influenza quarantine forced the team to cancel games against Waldron, Orleans, Mitchell, Sullivan, Greencastle, and Indianapolis Technical. Coach Clifford Wells hoped that they could open their season on December 6 against 1918 runner-up Anderson. Hoping to stay sharp, the team played an exhibition game against an alumni team on November 17, but it was not much of an exhibition since health officials mandated the gym doors be closed to the public. The team succeeded in playing their first inter-scholastic game 43 days after their season was set to begin when they defeated Greencastle in Greencastle on November 29. The Bloomington team did not expect to play a home game until after the New Year on account of the flu.

Bloomington High School’s basketball team would win the 1919 state tournament despite a rocky season interrupted by flu and war. Their coach, Clifford Wells, was serving in the Navy reserves at the time. Source: Indiana High School Athletic Association Handbook for 1919.

At South Bend, the high school cancelled the first game of the season against Elkhart on account of the flu. They scheduled a replacement game against Michigan City, who had not practiced much indoors on account of the flu. The next game on the schedule against LaPorte was cancelled for the same reason. A replacement game against Valparaiso saw South Bend at half strength as one player was recovering from the flu, and two others had fallen ill.

While the Great Pandemic in Indiana officially lasted from September 1918 to February 1919, another wave of severe respiratory problems afflicted Indiana the following winter as well. In South Bend, there were 1,800 reported cases of the flu in January 1920. Notre Dame basketball coach Gus Dorais was among the afflicted and lay in the hospital for weeks. In his absence, Knute Rockne took over coaching the basketball team. Mishawaka High School lost a star player for the season on account of an attack of pneumonia that nearly cost him his life. At Goshen High School, basketball captain Clement McMahon recovered from scarlet fever, only to die a short time later from double pneumonia.

The effects of war and disease should have been enough to end competitive inter-scholastic sports for at least one season. Instead, Hoosier athletes played on. The ordeals Indiana sportsmen experienced at home and abroad strengthened athletic teams, developed sporting culture, and contributed to the growth of professional sports in the 1920s. As one observer noted, “On every side there is convincing evidence that the war has and will prove a great stimulus to sport.”

The playing experience first-year college athletes gained while upperclassmen were away became a competitive advantage to teams in the war’s immediate aftermath. As a Notre Dame sports reporter observed, Rockne made “a team out of a lot of fatheads” whose year of seasoning “will bring back the [glory] days [of Notre Dame].” Major college athletic associations rescinded freshmen eligibility after the war, but they allowed the athletes who had competed as freshmen to have a total of four years of athletic eligibility.

The combination of game-tested underclassmen, returning war-tested veterans, and an infusion of good athletes from the SATC who remained in college after demobilization produced extremely strong post-war teams. The best example of this was at Purdue for the 1919-20 season. Coach Lambert returned from his military service, which was enough of a boost in and of itself for the Boilermakers’ prospects. Several pre-war veterans returned to the court and joined four returning lettermen from the previous season. United Press reporter Heze Clark, who had followed college basketball for 25 years, forecasted a strong season for Purdue that should “net them not only the Big Ten Championship, but also western collegiate high honors.” Purdue ended the season as runner-up in the Big Ten, but they tied for the lead the following season, won the Big Ten outright in 1922, and continued to have strong teams throughout the 1920s and 30s.

The war’s aftermath not only created stronger teams it also gave an incredible boost to American sporting culture in terms of increased public interest and participation in sports. The fact that sports continued to be played during a war and in spite of a national health pandemic shows that sports meant something special to Americans, perhaps as an escape from worldly worries. In military camps, soldiers regularly engaged in boxing, baseball, basketball and football in military camps. In some cases, soldiers gained exposure to sports they never played, which developed not only new athletes, but also new sports enthusiasts. This was not unlike the growth baseball experienced after the Civil War when soldiers learned the game in camps, and brought it back to their communities after the war. One newspaper reporter assessed, “With thousands of Uncle Sam’s soldier boys equipped with baseball, boxing and football paraphernalia while in the service, thousands of young bloods coming [home] . . . will demand red-blooded recreations and pastimes on a larger scale than ever before and the country at large weary of death-dealing conflicts and grateful for the chance to relax, sports should thrive on a greater scale than ever.”

Purdue football fans celebrate a touchdown in 1918 by tossing their hats in the air. Source: Purdue University Debris (yearbook), 1919.

Reporters all around America drew the same conclusions. International News Service reporter Jack Veiock observed, “In spite of the war and the hardships it worked in college circles, the pigskin is being booted about by more elevens* today than in any season that has passed.” He observed that  public interest had not only increased for the sport, but participation exploded in colleges and army camps. Men who had never even tried the sport drove the increased participation. A syndicated article printed in the News-Times agreed, “Boys who came away from desks to go into the fight have come back trained men who will want to continue in good red blooded competition. . . . The war has made an athletic team of about four million men.” South Bend News-Times reporter Charles W. Call added,

This world conflict has proved a number of things but none more emphatically than that intercollegiate athletics, often as they have been questioned in time of peace, have made sinewy and adroit the army of a nation hastening to the ordeal of battle.

Another positive effect of World War I on sports was the growth and emergence of professional athletics in Indiana, including football, but specifically basketball. Professional football had a weak hold in Indiana in the early-twentieth century. Pine Village was a notable professional team before the war. After the war, Hammond was an inaugural member of the American Professional Football Association/National Football League from 1920-26.

Historical marker, Indiana Historical Bureau.

On the other hand, professional basketball in Indiana boomed in the 1920s. Todd Gould in his book Pioneers of the Hardwood: Indiana and the Birth of Professional Basketball just gives passing reference to the war and does not examine the impact war mobilization, male social fraternization, athletic competition in military camps, and demobilization had in the birth of professional basketball. During the war, an all-star amateur squad of members of the 137th Field Artillery, which was constituted of men from northern Indiana, fielded a basketball team in France to compete against other military units. Many such groups of athletic veterans would continue to play as league-independent teams, often with local business sponsorship after the war.

Indiana’s basketball star, Homer Stonebraker, made the acquaintance of Clarence Alter while serving in France. In pre-war civilian life, Alter managed an independent basketball team in Fort Wayne that competed against other independent clubs in the state. Alter and Stonebraker discussed joining forces after they were discharged. Their relationship became the basis of the Fort Wayne Caseys, one of Indiana’s most successful, early professional basketball teams. Alter recruited other veterans for the team, including Stonebraker’s old Wabash teammate Francis Bacon. Semi-professional teams cropped up all around the state in the 1920s in cities such as Bluffton, Hartford City, Huntington, Indianapolis, and Richmond. The athletes on these teams were often former local high school stars, but more often than not they were also veterans.

The Great War and the Great Pandemic changed sports in Indiana. In the face of severe, outside adversity, sports emerged from the war with greater popularity. In high school basketball, attendance at the state basketball tournament went from 2,500 before and during the war to 15,000 several years later. More racial diversity slowly appeared on high school teams because of the influx of African-American emigrants from the South during the war (although segregated black high schools were barred from IHSAA competition until 1942, individual black athletes could be on teams at non-segregated schools). Some military veterans returned to college and gave a boost to college sports fandom, if not actually contributing on the field of play. The veterans who returned home probably had a greater appreciation if not love of sports from being exposed to them in camp life. This rise in post-war interest in sports strongly contributed to the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s, and the adulation of sports heroes like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, and Rockne.

*“Elevens” is a term commonly used at this time to refer to the eleven players on a football team. Similarly, baseball teams were often called “nines” and basketball teams “fives” or “quintets.”

Northeast Indiana: “That Glorious Gate”

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Map of Fort Wayne, said to have been made on July 18, 1795, for General Anthony Wayne, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It is not unusual to hear people new to the Allen County, Indiana area mention that local history seems to be an exceptionally prominent topic.  Some suggest that this is because northeast Indiana was the stage for much of the nation’s early history.  It was through this county that a crossroads was shaped from natural formations that sent rivers flowing in each of the four corners of the compass.

From this point a traveler could move up the Saint Joseph River into Michigan or follow the Saint Mary’s River well into Ohio or head down the Maumee to the Eastern Great Lakes.  To the west too, much of this history unfolded because of a short land barrier over which travelers could portage to the headwaters of the Wabash River. It led directly to the Mississippi Valley and to the heart of the continent. Militarily, whoever controlled this crossway of trails, and the rivers they followed, commanded one of North America’s critical sites in the wilderness era. Savage battles were witnessed in the region and resulted in the displacement of the indigenous American Indian peoples.

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History of Allen County, Indiana (1880), courtesy of Archive.org.
Glorious Gate History Center Marker
Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society marker.

Popular history tells of battles such as those fought at Concord, Yorktown, and Gettysburg or developments such as the Wright Brothers’ first flight or Edison’s light. However, northeast Indiana’s region is filled with significant, untold stories founded by its unique location. The area is perhaps best described by Miami Chief Little Turtle in 1795 when he described the Three Rivers vicinity to General Anthony Wayne as “that glorious gate . . . through which all good words of our chief’s had to pass from north to south and from east to west.”

Historian Michael Hawfield once described this region:

“In later years, long after the wilderness had been tamed, transportation enterprises, financial corporations, and major manufacturing companies continued to be drawn to this crossroads in the heartland of the American marketplace and industry. Also, attracted to the crossroads were all those extraordinary and wonderfully ordinary individuals who conceived the inventions, made the components, drove the trolleys, designed the buildings, built the parks, and served in wars, put out the fires, developed the businesses, created the hospitals and much more.”

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Sentinel Building, Fort Wayne, History of Allen County, Indiana (1880), courtesy of Archive.org.

Signs of this lively heritage endure and represent a dynamic present and promising future, as summarized by Hawfield:

“There are churches of touching compassion and beautiful architecture full of meaning, and parks full of recreation, tradition, and natural beauty, and there are noble and curious monuments, the oldest buildings, and the grand homes of bygone magnates. These are the constant reminders of our origins, our challenges and our promise.”

Check out early interpretations of the region’s history with the History of Allen County, Indiana, published in 1880.

John Shaw Billings: “I Could Lie Down and Sleep for Sixteen Hours without Stopping”

John Shaw Billings portrait, n.d. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

We all know those people, who accomplish more in one hour than we do all week, who redefine “industrious” and excel at everything they try. Indiana native John Shaw Billings was the archetype, a visionary with seemingly infinite energy who revolutionized medical and bibliographical practices that endure into the 21st century. Billings stands among several Hoosiers who are profoundly influential, yet under recognized, including the inventor of the television Philo T. Farnsworth and creator of one of America’s first automobiles Elwood Haynes.

Billings was born April 12, 1838 in Allensville, Indiana; his family moved to the East Coast briefly in 1841 and returned in 1848. Ambitious from a young age, Billings made a deal with his father that, in exchange for forfeiting inherited property, his father would fund his college education. At the age of 14 and after intensive study, he passed the entrance exam for  Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he incessantly studied philosophy and theology at the college library. After earning his B.A., he entered the Medical College of Ohio at Cincinnati in 1858, where he undertook his thesis “The Surgical Treatment of Epilepsy” that would later inform his monumental bibliographical endeavors.

John Shaw Billings : an autobiographical fragment 1905 (facsimile copy of the original manuscript), courtesy of Archive.org.

Shortly after graduation, Billings’s training coincided with the start of the American Civil War, providing him with opportunities to apply his medical knowledge. In 1861, Billings traveled to Washington, D.C. and became a contract-surgeon with the military. Soon thereafter he was appointed assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, working at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. While there, his “extraordinary manual skill and boldness in dealing with difficult cases attracted the attention of the surgeon-general,” and he was put in charge of Cliffburne Hospital near Georgetown.

As a Civil War surgeon at several prominent battles–including the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg–Billings was tasked with establishing field hospitals, operating and treating wounded soldiers for hours while under fire, and transporting waves of injured soldiers from battle sites with limited equipment. Billings lamented the trials of his work, writing to his wife about the Battle of Gettysburg:

“I am utterly exhausted, mentally and physically. I have been operating night and day, and am still hard at work. I have been left in charge of 700 wounded, and have got my hands full. Our division lost terribly, over 30 per cent were killed and wounded. I had my left ear just touched with a ball . . . I am covered with blood, and am tired out almost completely, and can only say that I could lie down and sleep for sixteen hours without stopping. I have been operating all day long, and have got the chief part of the work done in a satisfactory manner.”

After the battle, Billings understandably left field work for a brief period due to “nervous tension and physical exhaustion.” In August 1864, Billings helped edit field reports that became the monumental The Medical and Surgical History of the War and eventually transferred to the Surgeon-General’s Office, where he remained until retirement in 1895.

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Albumen silver print, ca.1862, courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries blog.

As the war concluded, hospitals submitted surplus operating funds to the Surgeon-General’s Office; these funds were given to Billings to build up the Surgeon-General’s library, which later became the National Library of Medicine. Billings expanded the collection by writing to editors, librarians, physicians, and State Department officials requesting book donations, eventually increasing its holdings from 600 entries in 1865 to 50,000 by 1873. The scope of the collection soon required a guide to help researchers locate desired publications. Billings understood firsthand the difficulty of locating such sources, as his thesis research required intensive time, labor, and travel to libraries in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

With the assistance of Dr. Robert Fletcher, Billings devised a catalogue for the Surgeon-General library’s holdings, publishing the first volume of the Surgeon General’s Medical Index Catalogue in 1880. He hoped it “would spare medical teachers and writers the drudgery of consulting ten thousand or more different indexes or of turning over the leaves of as many volumes to find the dozen or so references of which they might be in search.” As new medical materials were published, Billings struggled to keep the Catalogue current, so he devised the Index Medicus, a monthly supplement that focused on new and select publications. The Index Medicus was the forerunner to the medical databases MEDLINE and PubMed.

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Surgeon General’s Library, ca. 1890. Billings sits at center table, courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Prior to Billings’s systematic efforts to compile and organize medical literature, researchers and physicians had few methods to effectively locate sources, including medical studies and reports on operations. The Index Catalogue and Medicus served as a nearly comprehensive clearinghouse of medical literature, both current and historical, whose contents could aid in medical education and diagnoses. Dr. Stephen J. Greenberg and Patricia E. Gallagher summarize the magnitude of Billings’s efforts in “The Great Contribution,” contending that “with only ink and index cards, they [Billings and Fletcher] tamed an enormous and complex technical literature in virtually every written language on the planet” and that the indices “paved the way for the great databases that now are the primary underpinnings for the medical research of the future.”

Billings’s efforts at the Surgeon-General’s library served as the beginning of his library work, which would one day lead him to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. For more information on Billings’s Civil War activities and establishment of the Surgeon-General’s library and corresponding Index Catalogue, see the Historical Marker Review.

Check back for Part II: “A New Era of Hospital Construction” about Billings’s involvement in the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital and how it revolutionized medical treatment and education.

World War II Comes to Indiana: The Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, Part II

Learn about Charlestown’s rapid transformation resulting from the WWII smokeless powder plant in Part I.
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Employment of women and African Americans at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.

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Power Plant Building 401-1 at the Charlestown ordnance facility, Image courtesy of Abandoned, http://abandonedonline.net/locations/industry/indiana-ammunitions-depot/

WWII defense needs quickly brought women into the labor force, particularly later in the war as men left factories to enter into combat. The New York Times reported on October 19, 1941 that “entry of women into the defense factories of the nation is something that is just beginning on a considerable scale . . . now they are utilized for a wide variety of tasks by at least nineteen large plants.” The article asserted that women surpassed male workers in “finger dexterity” and “powers of observation” and possessed “superior traits in number memory,” completing tasks like painting planes, covering oil lines and packing powder bags. The article also reported that thousands of women had begun to produce smokeless powder at plants in Indiana, Alabama and Virginia and that “care is taken to select only women who are emotionally stable for these hazardous tasks.”

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Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 1, 11, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

As with the nation, Indiana began employing women en masse at munitions factories and by 1944 the Indianapolis Star reported that while industrial work was once considered “unsuitable for women . . . this view has been abandoned since employers have found that women can and have been willing to adjust themselves to practically any type of labor if given the opportunity.”

Women were hired in large numbers at Charlestown’s ordnance facility and, while originally serving as mail runners and lab technicians, they eventually replaced men as powder cutting machine attendants. The bag-loading plant known as HOP employed 3,200 workers by December 1941, most of whom were women, who sewed bags and packed them with powder. By 1942, so many women worked at the Charlestown plants that the town had to rapidly expand child care facilities, enlarging the community center nursery at Pleasant Ridge Project.

In addition to child care, transportation proved an obstacle to women hoping to enter Charlestown’s workforce. The Charlestown Courier reported that women were prohibited from riding the “four special trains bringing employes to the Powder Plant. They have to find some other way to get to their jobs here.” Additionally, the New York Times reported that women working industrial jobs made “only about 60 percent of that of men doing comparable work.”

fam damily
Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 6, 2, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

“Trailer wives” in Charlestown felt they too contributed to defense efforts by relocating their families to ordnance towns where their husbands found employment. The Indianapolis Star described these women as a “gallant band who ‘follow construction’ in order to keep the family life being lived as a unit and not subject themselves and their husbands to the hardships of separation.”

Much like women in WWII, defense needs partially opened the labor force to African Americans. A questionnaire from the Indiana State Defense Council reported that from July 1, 1941 to July 1, 1942 those firms reporting African American employment experienced a net increase of 82% in the number of blacks employed. Initially African Americans worked at Charlestown’s smokeless powder plant primarily in janitorial and unskilled fields. However, by the end of 1942, due to a labor shortage, they found employment in various roles, such as chemists, plant laborers, and plant operators.

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John Williams, Nitrocellulose Department employee, after safety incident, Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 12, 5, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

Former plant employees stated in interviews that they witnessed little or no segregation, but that separate restrooms may have existed at one time. However, housing and schooling for African Americans in Charlestown was segregated and often in poor condition. Due to protests by some white residents regarding mixed housing units, a section of 130 units were separated for black workers with a 300 foot wide area. A 1942 Louisville Courier-Journal article about the deplorable state of Clark County African-American schools, particularly in Charlestown Township, stated that grade school students:

were broken out in a rash of goose pimples yesterday morning as they shivered at their antiquated desks. . . . A not unbitter wind whistled thru broken window panes and thru cracks in the walls of the sixty-five year old frame building as twenty-three students . . . huddled together and with stiffened fingers signed up for a year of ‘education.’

The boom afforded limited employment opportunities for African Americans outside the plant, despite earlier employer prejudice, which often barred them from working at local Charlestown businesses.

In the spring of 1945, after deliberation by the Army, War Production Board, and union officials, approximately 1,000 German prisoners of war were transferred to Charlestown to supplement construction of the rocket powder plant (IOW2), the third WWII ordnance plant at the facility. The Charlestown Courier described the POWs:

“Far from supermen, the German POWs employed on the Rocket Plant are predominantly youthful, many never having required a razor to date. They seem to be in good spirits and are healthy and husky. A surprisingly large number speak English and don’t hesitate to say they would rather remain in this country.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19, 1945 that the POWs had left the plant and returned to Fort Knox and other camps where they were “obtained.” Newspapers located by IHB staff did not report on the POWs’ contributions, but Steve Gaither and Kimberly Kane state in their report on the facility that it was “doubtful that the POWs contributed directly to construction.”

The massive Charlestown ordnance facility produced more than one billion pounds of smokeless powder in World War II, nearly as much as the “total volume of military explosives made for the United States in World War I” (Indianapolis Star Magazine, 1948). Output levels were so high that the military nationally recognized the facility’s production and safety records, conferring upon the plant the Army-Navy “E” Award, awarded to only 5% of the estimated war plants in the country during WWII.

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Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 9, 3, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.
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Indiana Ordnance Works Excellence of Performance Program August 10, 1942, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

National munitions production wound down with termination of the two-front war, which concluded first on May 7, 1945 with German surrender and Japan’s informal agreement to surrender on August 14, 1945. The plants at Charlestown gradually reduced payroll in August before eventually shutting down. The Richmond Palladium noted that after reductions “scarcely a wheel turned, or a hammer fell. Now there are just a few thousand ‘running out’ the powder which was in process, and putting the whole installation in weather-tight conditions.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19 of that year that Charlestown is “dying with the same gusto with which it was born.” The Richmond Palladium described Charlestown folding up “like an Arabian tent village,” as trailer caravans departed and workers returned to various states across the nation. Although the abrupt exodus shocked local residents, worried about maintaining their postwar economy, a trickle of new residents soon arrived, including veterans and their families. Boom town activity returned to Charlestown during the Korean and Vietnam wars when the ordnance facility again began producing powder, reuniting workers from the WWII era.

Charlestown’s 1940s ordnance plants illustrated how WWII energized local economies and afforded women and African Americans job opportunities. Accommodating the massive facility transformed Charlestown from a town to a city and led to its first sewage system,the resurfacing and improvement of miles of roads, and two major housing projects.

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View stunning 21st-century photos of the Charleston facility, such as this Air Test House, via Abandoned: http://abandonedonline.net/locations/industry/indiana-ammunitions-depot/

World War II Comes to Indiana: The Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, Part I

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Indiana Ordnance Works, 1940s, Image courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives.

The Indiana Historical Bureau recently completed research and marker text for the massive WWII smokeless powder plant in Charlestown, Indiana known as the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant. The plant received multiple military awards for production, transformed the local community and bolstered its economy, and provided job opportunities for women and African Americans. This historical marker helps fill a void in the State Historical Marker Collection by commemorating Indiana’s WWII home front and the contributions of Hoosier men and women to the war effort.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the Allied Powers desperately needed war supplies to combat Germany’s war resources, as the country had been producing material since the early 1930s. In response, the U.S. established an extensive ordnance system, hoping in part to stave off their own involvement in war. The Evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 and Fall of France in June greatly hastened U.S. efforts to construct ordnance plants and resulted in the establishment of the smokeless powder plant in Charlestown. Smokeless powder was crucial to combat because traditional smoke obscured combatants’ vision and revealed their location. Smokeless powder, made from colloided nitrocellulose, acted as the primary explosive propellant for various war ammunition.

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Cords of smokeless powder before being cut into appropriate sizes, 1940s, Image courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives.

Steve Gaither and Kimberly L. Kane contend in their comprehensive 1995 study, The World War II Ordnance Department’s Government-Owned (GOCO) Industrial Facilities: Indiana Army Ammunition Plant Historic Investigation, that the smokeless powder plant in Charlestown, referred to as the Indiana Ordnance Works 1 (IOW1), was one of the first ordnance plants in the nation established to meet WWII war material needs. The southern Indiana town of 939 residents was chosen as the plant site because of its inexpensive land, ready labor force, close proximity to railroads, massive water supply provided by the Ohio River and removal from the country’s borders to avoid bombing or invasion.

Former Charlestown resident Mary T. Hughes described Charlestown to the Indianapolis Times in November 1940 as a “quiet, easy going upland town-one of those southern Indiana towns where rambling homes line the shaded streets and the still peace of the afternoon is like Sunday.” Walter A. Shead similarly profiled the town in a December 1940 Madison [IN] Courier article, stating that Charlestown “has watched the years slip past through the century without even the quickening of a pulse-beat . . . most of whom are retired farmers, has lived the simple life undisturbed by modern conveniences or the quickened tempo of present-day life.” Unsurprisingly, the influx of thousands of workers and rapid industrialization shocked the small town.

Shortly after Congress passed funding for munitions production on July 1, 1940, the federal government awarded E.I. deNemours DuPont Co. a war contract to establish IOW1. The arrangement, known as a Government-Owned Contractor-Operated (GOCO) collaboration, was undertaken frequently in WWII. In GOCO collaborations, the federal government owned the ordnance plant and a business experienced in mass production was responsible for plant design, construction and operations. Soon after DuPont was awarded the contract, agents arrived in Charlestown to purchase properties including businesses, churches, farms and private residences to build the plant, affording local residents unheard of economic opportunities.

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Purchased house, Indiana Ordnance Works Real Estate Acquisition 1941, Charlestown, Indiana, Image courtesy of Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

When construction began that summer thousands of  workers from around the nation flooded the small community, hosting 30,000 transient workers at the peak of construction. An article in the September 13, 1940 Louisville Courier-Journal vividly described the transformation, stating:

“. . . farm houses were being wrecked. In that wreckage could be seen bruised and tangled masses of cultivated flowers, some in bloom, and imported shrubbery. The fields which this spring were planted in corn, soybeans and other crops were being subjected to the same treatment as if they had contained ragweed. Ears of golden yellow corn were being trampled underfoot by the  workmen or ground under the wheels of motor cars.”

In addition to the smokeless powder plant, the federal government worked with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in early 1941 to establish a bag-loading plant known as the Hoosier Ordnance Plant (HOP). HOP workers weighed, assembled and packed smokeless powder into silk bags. HOP, along with an uncompleted double-base rocket powder plant, Indiana Ordnance Works 2 (IOW2), drew thousands of construction and production workers to the area.

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Mixer House Building 208, 2014, Image courtesy of Abandoned Online.

Housing these workers became the town’s most immediate problem, as Charlestown had approximately 235 existing homes and one hotel so crowded that “you can’t get a room for love or money” (Gary-Post Tribune, December 1940). Indianapolis newspapers reported that new arrivals were so desperate for housing that they lived in trailers, cars, chicken coops, barns, lean-tos and even the town jail. A Charlestown Courier article colorfully reported in February 1941 “It may have been a hen house, wash house, wood house, garage or what have you for lo, these many years, but the minute it has been insulated, windows and chimney installed and Powder Plant workers have moved in and hung lace curtains, it becomes a guest house.”

Another immediate problem facing Charlestown was the town’s lack of rudimentary sanitation systems. According to a 1942 public health survey, prior to the plants’ establishment the town had no systematic trash or human waste disposal program. Additionally, Charlestown lacked a public water supply, depending primarily on private wells and cisterns. The absence of sanitary accommodations caused residents and officials to worry about epidemics. The 1942 survey reported “The dangers to health flowing from a congestion of workers drawn from north and south and east and west, eating and sleeping under the most elementary conditions, crowded into inadequate quarters and served by water, milk, and sanitary facilities designed for a small community can hardly be exaggerated.” The establishment of trailer camps, accommodating hundreds of workers and their families in close proximity, worsened these fears. Conditions proved so precarious that even the town jail was condemned and closed by the State Board of Institutions for sanitation reasons.

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Charlestown, 2014, Image courtesy of Abandoned Online.

The overcrowding of local businesses, infrastructure and sanitation facilities generated tension between local residents and transient workers regarding who should shoulder the burden. A Madison [IN] Courier article explained that “Native folks in Charlestown are a little dazed, for they hardly know just what to make of this hub-bub which has come to shake the even tenor of their ways, a manner of life which has endured for more than a century.” Locals often labeled newcomers “du Ponters” and their children as “powder children” in an effort to differentiate themselves. Conversely, Margaret Christie reported in the Indianapolis Star that many migrant workers resented the implication that locals considered them “’trailer trash.” Debates between local residents and transient workers played out publicly in letters to editors of local newspapers. For the most part, however, locals adjusted to the influx of transients and Charlestown permanently benefited from their patronage.

Check out Part II to learn about how the ordnance facility led to permanent improvement of the town, the use of German POWs, and how the plants ushered women and African Americans into the WWII labor force.