ST. LOUIS • Stamping machines punched cartridge casings from brass sheets. Automatic loaders rammed in powder and slugs. Boxes clanged along conveyors. Test firings added to the whirling racket.
So it went 24 hours a day, seven days a week during World War II at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant, the world's largest maker of .30-caliber and .50-caliber ammunition for rifles and machine guns. At its busiest, in summer 1943, nearly 35,000 people worked on the 291-acre complex of 300 buildings and bunkers at 4300 Goodfellow Boulevard, on the city's northwest edge. Production peaked at 250 million cartridges a month.
Workers ate in 22 in-house cafeterias. They rode "Cartridge Plant" bus routes. Women made up half of the workforce.
And then it ended. On June 27, 1945, managers announced they would cease production Sept. 1. Layoffs began the next week for the 16,000 remaining workers, who could still churn out 140 million cartridges a month.
Scoffing at assurances of work elsewhere, union chief Robert Logdson said, "Workers can't eat talk. They must have jobs." But everyone knew the day would come. Adolf Hitler was dead two months. American Marines and soldiers were cornering the last defenders on Okinawa. Japan lay ahead, but American bases were bursting with cartridges.
The St. Louis Ordnance Plant had made 6.7 billion of them.
Back in 1940, the neighborhood along Goodfellow was just developing. A new city park had been dedicated to David Hickey, the first St. Louisan killed in World War I. But with another war threatening, the government wanted land fast, including Hickey Park.
"I'm certainly not going to cut any more grass," said James Ahern of 6119 Stratford Avenue, whose new bungalow was in the way.
Groundbreaking was in January 1941. The Post-Dispatch ran a photo spread Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, of progress at the $110 million construction job. (News of Pearl Harbor reached here by radio at 1:31 p.m.). Production began nine days later.
Payroll and output grew. The plant produced 1 billion cartridges by October 1942, and its second billion six months later. There were periodic layoffs when production outpaced the supply of brass.
The plant was an early civil-rights flashpoint. After 300 black protesters seeking production jobs marched outside on June 20, 1942, managers agreed to put blacks on a segregated production line. Not until December 1944, over the protests of some white workers, did the government order full integration.
Later, the government used some buildings to store military records, and resumed production during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"People don't realize it, but we almost lost the city of St. Louis," deputy fire chief Lou Stauss said of the April 2, 1976, inferno.
An aerial view taken on June 27, 1941, of the expanding site for the St. Louis Ordnance Plant. The view is to the southeast, with the Chevrolet plant at Union Boulevard and Natural Bridge Avenue in the middle background. The area marked with an arrow shows where construction has begun on the original 133 acres. In the foreground, bounded by Bircher Boulevard and Stratford Avenue, shows land subsequently bought by the government to allow for a larger ammunition factory. The open land at Stratford and Goodfellow Boulevard was David Hickey Park, a park the city had dedicated only two months before in the memory of the first St. Louisan to be killed in World War I. The Ordnance Plant grounds soon took in the houses to the left as well, covering 291 acres with about 300 buildings, including 49 large ones. (Post-Dispatch)