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Working at the Shell Plant
©Louise Pettus, 2001

During World War II the United States Navy gave U.S. Rubber a contract to build an ammunition assembly plant on a tract of land of more than 2,260 acres in the Steele Creek area of Mecklenburg County.

At its height the plant (locally called the “Shell Plant” or the “Bomb Plant”) had more than 12,000 employees, over 90% of them women. Men were the mechanics, guards, janitors and warehouse people. Only women worked on the conveyor line, filling the shell cases—16 shells to a can.

Fifteen women weighed the powder and put it in the shell case. Some of the women rolled 4-in. strips of lead foil which acted like grease on the inside of the shell casing. Two of the lead foil rollers were grandmothers. In fact, many of the women were grandmothers.

Mae Pettus Griffin was one of these. She later said that she had never before done “public work” but she had 3 sons and 2 sons-in-law in service and she felt it was her duty to back them up.

She was not alone. Almost all of the women had only done house work or field work previously.

Buses collected the workers 7 days a week for the 3 shifts that came from Lancaster, Kershaw, Rock Hill, Richburg, York, etc. in S. C. and Gastonia, Concord, Albemarle, Monroe etc., in North Carolina.

Woodrow “Toby” Wilson of Indian Land in Lancaster County was one of the building foremen. He still remembers some of the rules. Smokers could smoke only in the cafeterias. No matches could be brought in but cigarette lighters were placed at intervals for the convenience of the smokers. The cafeterias were about 200 ft from the main plant. Everyone wore insulated safety shoes. The men wore uniform coveralls with no pockets. The women wore uniform dresses.

The floors were concrete and kept shiny. Every 10 feet there were big doors built for easy exit in case of explosion. None of the machinery was electrical (although there were electric lights). All machines were run by air. There weren’t any major explosions and only one accident. One of the women workers lost her left arm. Powder was so sensitive that if any were left under the fingernails, lighting a cigarette would blow away the fingers. The plant won a number of safety awards.

At first, workers on an 8-hour shift were turning out 8,000 rounds of ammunition. At their peak they were producing 29,000 rounds a shift. Still, there was not have enough labor to run but two “load lines.” There was the capacity for a third line but labor was scarce.

Then something happened that would have been unthought of in normal times. Black women were hired to “man” a shift on the third line. Toby Wilson was put in charge--the only southerner to be a foreman. The other foremen were northernors sent south from other U. S. Rubber plants.

Mr. Wilson says he had one of the best, hardest-working crews in the plant. From boyhood he was used to working alongside black workers in the fields. He thought about how they always sang as they worked. He asked his crew if they would like to sing while they worked. They did and they sang so enthusiastically and well that they attracted the attention of U. S. Rubber officials and other foremen who would come to hear them.

After VE Day (May 8, 1945) all other shell plants in the U. S. closed but the Steele Creek plant stayed in full production until VJ Day (Aug. 15, 1945). Even then the plant did not completely close. A work force of 150-170 people stayed on until June 30, 1957 reconditioning the unused shells returned by naval ships.

Today, after being in the hands of private investors for a number of years, the 2,260 acres is known as Arrowood Industrial Park close to I-77 with Westinghouse Blvd., a major throughfare.

Many thousands of people go through or by Arrowood every day, few of them aware of the time and circumstances of the Bomb Plant.