ShareThis Page

During War, Women Take Over Federal Labs

Jeff Himler
| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 2:28 a.m.

TUNNELTON--Many local men answered their nation's call during World War II, battling against enemy forces on the front lines in Europe, Africa and the Pacific.

But a number of area women also did their part--serving their country on the production lines at Federal Laboratories, a plant in the Saltsburg-area village of Tunnelton which produced incendiary magnesium powder bombs, grenades and other munitions for America's military effort.

Working with those potentially destructive materials was fraught with danger--resulting in a few deaths and injuries at the plant.

But such incidents were few and far between. And, for the young women who kept the plant humming during the war, the relatively good pay and camaraderie with fellow employees were more important factors.

Among the plant's female workers were Helen Tuzi Machulsky and Nicoleta D'Angelo Woodruff, girlhood friends who grew up together in the Loyalhanna Township village of Moween and were hired at Federal Labs on the same day--Sept. 16, 1942--only a few months after they graduated from high school.

"When you were out of school and had a job, you felt good," Machulsky said.

"It was a nice place to work, the best place around here," she said of the Tunnelton plant. "They gave work to a lot of people from Blairsville and Homer City, too."

"I met a lot of new people I know still today," Machulsky said. But, "Many have passed away."

She has fond memories of L.R. "Red" McCoy, the auburn-haired man who was superintendent of the plant in the 1940s. "Everybody liked him," she said. "He was a nice man to work for."

Still, the women of the Federal Labs plant were breaking ground in the movement of female workers into non-traditional roles.

Sometimes it took an extra nudge to bring other items--such as wages--in sync with the times.

Machulsky recalled that she and her co-workers initially earned 42 cents an hour at the Tunnelton plant.

Woodruff remembers, in order to get the same 75-cent wage men earned, the women staged a brief demonstration during one of their lunch breaks: "We all took our coveralls off and went toward the main office. And (their spokesman) said, 'We want a man's wages because we're doing a man's work.' "

Machulsky noted the management seemed relieved that the women had no other demands. They returned to their posts without a work stoppage and soon were receiving the 75-cent rate.

Represented by the United Mine Workers, some workers advanced to positions paying 96 cents an hour.

Prior to the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Federal Labs had been developing tear gas bombs for law enforcement agencies, operating an existing plant at Tunnelton.

Once America entered the war, the company's new plant No. 3 was built nearby to begin production of four-pound incendiary bombs for the Army's Chemical Warfare Service.

It took only four months from breaking ground on Jan. 13, 1942, until the first bombs were shipped for use.

Buildings resembling large airplane hangars were spaced on the site in accordance with the American Table of Distances for explosive loading. Also, populations and quantities of explosives allowed in each building were guided by the Ordnance Safety Manual.

Initially, both men and women were employed at the No. 3 plant.

But most of the men soon were gone, joining the armed forces, and women took over most of their tasks.

Other than the plant managers, "It was all women except for a few men, who did the heavy work," Woodruff said.

Machulsky recalled some of the bombs produced at the plant were about a foot in length.

"We put them together and shipped them," she said. "It was interesting work. I didn't get bored."

The more dangerous and physically demanding steps of bomb production were reserved for men.

"The mix house (where a recipe of explosive powders was prepared) was off limits for us," Machulsky noted.

Men also took care of the tail end of the production process. Machulsky explained, "They were the material handlers," loading completed 500-pound bomb clusters into trucks for shipment.

Women eventually handled all the jobs in between.

"The ladies took over in the press room when the men went to war," Machulsky noted.

They used a machine to press powder into metal bomb casings.

Woodruff recalled, "It just looked like sand and you pressed it down," taking care not to press too hard.

In another area of the plant, she and her co-workers measured out powder and poured it into grenade shells that passed by on a conveyor belt.

She said, "We had boxes of empty grenades that came by, and we put enough powder in each one to get it (ignited)."

Other women insertrf firing pins in bombs.

According to a company promotional booklet, near the end of 1944, nearly 100 employees and eight former workers at the Tunnelton plant had left for military service--only a few of them women who served in non-combat roles.

A photo dating from about that time shows 35 of the Plant No. 3 workers, including just a handful of men.

That ratio was a bonus for the men who stayed home, Machulsky noted: "The boys were lucky because they had a lot of girlfriends there."

Woodruff made more than just friends at the Tunnelton plant; she met her late husband, Arthur, better known as "Woody."

Assigned to a building next to the one where his future wife worked, he later confessed that "he would watch me coming across the field in my little red coat, and he said (to himself) I was the girl for him, and I didn't even know him then."

The couple wed after Woody completed a World War II stint with an Army ammunition outfit.

Machulsky pointed out three of her brothers--Rudy, Frank and John--all worked at Federal Labs before reporting for service.

Rudy endured a stint as a prisoner in Germany.

Machulsky recalled some of the other women working at the plant weren't so fortunate: "A lot had brothers that were killed in the war.

"We all cried. It was like a family when you worked together."

Knowing that friends and loved ones in the service would remain in harm's way as long as the war lasted gave the women added incentive to meet their production goals for bombs and munitions.

While eight-hour shifts were the norm, "Sometimes we worked 12 hours a day to get a shipment out, and sometimes we worked on Sundays," Woodruff said.

Usually the workers brown-bagged it for lunch. But, she recalled, "Sometimes when we worked overtime, they would bring food in and cook it on a little stove."

According to a company publication, the plant had turned out seven million bombs by July 1944--one grenade or bomb for every soldier in the Army.

At that time, close to 500 were working at Plant No. 3.

On Oct. 24, the plant was honored for a total production of 10 million bombs and grenades.

It was the first Indiana County war plant to receive the Army-Navy "E" Award for production achievement of war material.

An accompanying flag was flown at the plant and employees received pins.

At about the same time, retooling and production was shifting from incendiary bombs to other Army ordinance suited for continuing combat in the war's Pacific theater.

Plans were made to recruit new workers from Indiana and run two buses specifically to bring them back and forth to the Tunnelton plant.

While production geared specifically for the war proceeded at Plant No. 3, former workers recalled tear gas production continued at another Tunnelton-area plant.

Woodruff and Machulsky both said they were able to tolerate the irritating powder used in Federal Labs' tear gas products.

"I was just sneezing, that's all," Machulsky said. But she noted it could take some time getting accustomed to the chemicals: "You cried an hour every morning until you got used to it."

Said Woodruff, "My sister, Helen, couldn't take it. She quit right away."

Machulsky believes women with blonde hair were particularly susceptible to bad reactions from the tear gas powder.

"They were too fair," she explained. "They'd break out and get burns across their stomachs."

So that the girls could stay employed at the plant, she said, "I went in and worked for them" when they were assigned to tasks bringing them into close contact with the powder.

So as not to irritate workers from other departments, those who worked on tear gas production rode in separate vehicles when employees carpooled to the Tunnelton plant from Saltsburg, Machulsky noted.

Whether working with the tear gas powder or the incendiary powder for bombs, the Federal Labs women were under strict safety guidelines at the workplace, including uniforms which were worn to limit their contact with the chemicals.

According to Machulsky, workers had to wear masks and a fresh set of coveralls each working day. Also, she said, "We wore safety gloves and goggles and a cap to keep the powder off your hair."

Still, after each shift, "We had to clean up real good."

Woodruff noted her mother would not allow her to wear a slack suit in public, thinking it improper for a young woman. But when her work required her to don a similar outfit at the plant, "She didn't say anything."

Woodruff added that the women wore shoes with brass pegs on the soles, which was meant to reduce friction that might spark the explosive powder mixed for the bombs.

Similarly, "There were no bobby pins or jewelry or bobby allowed," she said. Periodically, "They'd come and examine our hair."

"At the time, we didn't realize how dangerous it was," Woodruff said of their work at the defense plant. "It's a wonder we didn't get sick from" years of exposure to various chemicals.

But both women note they have remained healthy throughout their lives: Woodruff's sole visit to a hospital was to have her appendix removed, while Machulsky's only stay was for the delivery of a child.

By necessity, the Federal Labs workplace was smoke-free.

At a hilltop testing tower, inspectors discharged some of the bomb explosives to ensure they met wartime specifications.

Said Machulsky, "We got so used to (the booms), we'd just turn around and look at each other and keep on working."

In July 1944, the Tunnelton plant was lauded for having a top industry safety record.

But, Machulsky noted, "We had the buildings doors open wide and we were ready to run if something happened."

Years later, in 1966, when Plant No. 3 had switched its focus to the company's original specialty--tear gas production--an accidental explosion occurred that had a direct impact on Machulsky.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, three workers were injured when an explosion ripped through a reinforced concrete block building which was used for pyrotechnical mixing.

"We heard that boom all around town," Machulsky said. "Everybody went running up there."

Her brother, John Tuzi, then 47, was the most severely injured of the men. He was in critical condition in a Pittsburgh hospital before succumbing to his injuries--including burns over 90 percent of his body.

Another local worker who was severely burned, 22-year-old James Murphy, also died of his wounds.

Saltsburg's Al Frassenei, then 30 years old, recovered from burns to his head, neck and hands.

Machulsky still is unsure what caused the tragedy. Frassenei speculates that a spark set off fumes in the building during an equipment cleaning procedure.

Frassenei recalls that Tuzi "was making tear gas, right beside where we were making the powders."

He said Tuzi was entering the powder room when the explosion occurred: "He got blown out the front door. I ran through a small door at the opposite end of building."

As Frassenei escaped outside, "I saw the roof go up off the foundation."

Bombs and tear gas weren't the only products made locally by Federal Labs.

Protective body armor was produced in a small plant initially located in downtown Saltsburg, where Saltsburg Floral now stands.

Machulsky recalled that a sample of the metal-reinforced vests was displayed on a mannequin near the en-trance: "When you opened the door, you got scared; you thought it was a cop looking at you."

"We had four girls and a boss there," Woodruff said.

Machulsky cut out pieces for the vest using a pattern.

Woodruff stitched double steel plates into the shiny blue fabric. "You needed a heavier needle than you would use at home," she noted.

She also packaged and labeled the finished garments: "They liked my neat printing."

"We made shields, too, for when people were firing at the police," Woodruff added.

Working briefly in yet another department, Woodruff "assembled (tear gas-equipped) riot guns and put them together for policemen."

According to Machulsky, many of Federal Lab's female workers departed at the end of the war, including many whose husbands returned from the service.

But Machulsky and Woodruff were among others who stayed on through retirement.

Machulsky retired 12 years ago, after working 43 years. Woodruff continued with the company for 44 years, retiring at age 62.

After the war, both switched to better jobs at Breeze Clamp, a new division of Federal Labs which turned out various hose clamps. It was brought to Tunnelton when the company purchased a manufacturer in Illinois.

Woodruff advanced to the favorite job of her career there: keeping track of production records and providing machine operators details for filling customer orders.

During a series of ownership changes, local production of tear gas ended in the mid 1990s and the former Plant No. 3 complex was vacated.

In 2001, with help from state and local officials, the Breeze plant located across the road was purchased by its management team and Industrial Growth Partners of San Francisco.

The plant continues to employ 280 and recently installed a new power supply line, with assistance from Allegheny Energy and local and state government.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me