Monday, June 8, 2009

World War II: When Tacony Spoke and the World Listened

World War II: When Tacony Spoke and the World Listened
By Louis M. Iatarola


The sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II was marked with little fanfare the past August. Few locals still recall the depth of Tacony's involvement was Henry Disston & Sons, whose leadership in the community's efforts turned out to be the "last hurrah" for the family-owned company.

Although several notable Tacony industries could not survive the Great Depression, such as Gillinder Glass Works and Erben-Harden Woolen Mill, the mighty Henry Disston & Sons prevailed despite a reduction in its workforce from 2,500 tp 1,100. Sustained by a steel plant world-renowned for the strongest plating, as well as persistent new product development, the company was positioned well to benefit from the economic recovery of the late 1930's as the country prepared for its involvement in the war in Europe.

By 1939, conflict had broken out but the full-scale war had not begun. Germany had overrun Poland and Great Britain was trying nobly to hold back the German military machine. Russia had signed a peace agreement with Germany, which would be broken by Germany's invasion of 1941.

By the turn of the decade, the country was at a crossroad. Men like Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy were advocating support of Germany and the American peace movement. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood firmly behind Great Britain and advocated a military build-up in the country. Given the growing unrest abroad, it was a necessity that the United States government initiate military preparations for war.

In 1940, the United States Department of Defense looked to the Disston Saw Works to bolster its war preparation efforts. The federal government financed the construction of an armor plating plant on company-owned land at Tacony. Disston spent $250,000 on a new power plant and City Council allowed the government to strike Disston Street from the city plan from Wissinoming Street to the Delaware River for the construction of the plant.

The initial government order required the employment of sixty (60) additional workers, and the opening of the armor plating plant sparked resurgence in the local economy. The plant tripled its capacity by operating twenty-four hours a day with three shifts. Disston’s armor plate, famous for its strength and durability, was used in a multitude of applications including gun shields for artillery pieces, light weight seats to protect pilots from rear air attacks, armor for combat vehicles, tank, naval craft and planes, as well as test plates for checking bullet quality. In addition, between 1939 and 1945, Disston was the only American manufacturer of the two-man portable chainsaw, resulting in exclusive contracts proving crucial to the war effort due to the dense tropical growth of the South Pacific.

Tacony was the ideal place for the government to set up shop for reasons both strategic and symbolic. Tacony had always been pro-Great Britain in its sentiments since it was founded by Englishman Henry Disston in 1872. As early as 1879, British values and culture had dominated life in the community. In 1884, English culture became predominant when two hundred steelworkers and their families were imported from Sheffield, England to work at the Disston Saw Works. Soon, just as they had in England, they established Tea Houses in the community. During World War I, a full hospital first-aid unit from Tacony served in France supporting British troops. As late as 1940, about one thousand people gathered at Disston Playground demanding that the United States support Great Britain in the war against Germany.

In addition, Disston Saw Works had been a leading manufacturer in the country’s war effort dating back to the Civil War. In the period between 1861 and 1865, the firm produced armor plate for the Union Navy to use on the side of the wooden ships blockading the ports of the South. Again in World War I, Disston produced armor plates for cannons and ships. Clearly, the company and the community would be prepared to serve as a national example in following President Roosevelt’s request for the arming of America.

Given these circumstances, the government approved the building of a new armor plate plant to provide bulletproof steel for tanks, cannon, half tracts, and lightweight seats. A rally was organized by the Disston administration to lay the cornerstone for the power plant (dated 1940, it contained selected artifacts from the company) and to open the armor plate factory. The Mayor, high government officials, union chiefs and Disston management headed the speakers rostrum. Three thousand four hundred workers from the factory were assembled by the company for the event. Reporters streamed in from throughout the country to make it a national event. The pictures and stories from that day would become a call to the nation to prepare for war.

Published in Life Magazine’s July 7, 1941 special edition on The Arming of America, the nation was exposed to the enthusiasm of Disston workers who supported Roosevelt’s belief that war was coming and America needed to be prepared. Patriotism and preparedness were the themes in the article. A picture of Disston workers featured in the Life Magazine article would appear in local newspapers from Maine to California, in magazines, in movie theaters and eventually would be used around the world to show America’s patriotism and support of the war. Placed under a map outline of the United States, the picture was used as evidence that the entire country had the same fighting spirit. Also, the picture was displayed in offices, public buildings, and at public events throughout the country. A quote from the text beneath the photograph and caption from the Disston plant read as follows:

  • “…the county is awake, though not aroused. And there are growing signs that America is willing to show the grim purpose that Germany and Britain showed, growing signs that the love for freedom on this Independence Day is greater than the hope for comfort.”
The people of Tacony showed their support of Roosevelt’s initiatives in various ways. Many men worked two shifts due to labor shortages. Gasoline, butter and sugar were rationed, and rubber tires were recycled. Scrap metal drives were sponsored by the Disston Company and Hamilton Disston School. The elementary school named for Henry Disston’s eldest son raised funds to sponsor the “Disston School” bomber plane for the war effort. Parades and victory gardens were commonplace, and homes displaying the “servicemen star” in the front window let the community know that the family had lost a son in the war. Anti-aircraft gun positions were dug in Disston Park south of Magee Avenue with a platoon of soldiers to protect the Tacony - Palmyra Bridge.

Furthering Tacony’s place in World War II history was the famous heroism of local boy Al Schmid, who left his job at Dodge Steel to become a Marine. On August 21, 1942, during the battle of Tenaru on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, Schmid was blinded by a mortar shell while holding off four hundred Japanese aggressors. All of his comrades perished in the battle, and Schmid was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in his line of duty as a machine gunner. Gaining immediate national attention, a movie starring John Garfield as Schmid was made about his life titled “Pride of the Marines.” Tacony residents were thrilled by the daily spectacle of the movie’s filming in the vicinity of Tulip and Hellerman Streets.

In the years following World War II, patriotism continued to flourish in the community. A parade was traditionally led by the William D. Oxley American Legion Post, and continues to the day every Memorial Day. Disston Playground was the scene for full days of youth activities every 4th of July.

Today, Tacony History Day serves to continue the community’s patriotic traditions by celebrating our pride and rich history. All that remains of the Disston factory, which meant so much to World War II, are the crumbling buildings, empty lots or shells of the structures’ former glorious selves. Disston Precision, Inc., the singular remnant of a proud company, retains its specialized operation in an original two-story Disston building along State Road. The armor plating plant is now a building supplies warehouse and the power plant, celebrated with national fanfare in 1941, is a vacant shell exposed to the elements and overgrown with weeds. The adjacent Army warehouse facility has been demolished and will soon be improved with residential housing in the form of townhomes and mid-rise condominiums.

It is expected that the renaissance of new housing along Tacony’s Delaware riverfront will continue south from the former Army warehouse site, signaling the possible end to whatever physical reminders are left of the Disston factory. While one can remove the bricks, concrete, and steel which symbolize our rich industrial heritage, the place of Tacony in the annals of World War II history is firmly secure.

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