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New~ Homefront heroes remembered on 75th anniversary of arsenal explosion

2017-06-07 02:06 [NEWS] Source:Netword
Guide:Midewin marks 75th anniversary of Joliet arsenal explosion that killed 48 workers

In June 1942, World War II was raging in the Pacific, the Battle of Midway was under way and closer to home in Will County, 48 people were killed and another 46 injured in an explosion at the Joliet Army Ammunitions Plant in Elwood. It was the greatest loss of civilian life at a munitions plant during the war.

A statue of a munitions worker, lunchbox in hand, was erected in 2001 near the entrance to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery to honor those killed and hurt as well as the thousands who worked at the arsenal through three wars – World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

It was here that family of the fallen gathered with members of the Midewin Heritage Association Saturday afternoon to honor those who gave their lives to the war effort and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the June 5, 1942, blast that rocked the entire region, from Waukegan to Watseka, in the wee hours of a Friday morning.

All that Keith McCawley has left of the grandfather he never kNew, Lawrence A. McCawley, is the ring he wore to work that day. That's how the family identified his remains; the stone the ring once held was lost in the explosion.

The Army compensated families who lost loved ones with a one-time payment of $5,000, McCawley said.

Nancy Rossmiller, of Plainfield, came to remember her great "Uncle Dean," Harold Dean Harper, her grandmother's younger brother, who was only 20 years old.

"There were no remains. He was blown to bits," she said.

"It's wonderful that they did this. They sacrificed a lot," Rossmiller said of Saturday's memorial. She said she doubts her family members are aware of the statue honoring the munitions workers, but she plans to let them know.

Bernie Levati was not alive when his uncle Frank Levati, the oldest of the four brothers in his father's family, was killed. The other three boys served overseas during the war and all returned unharmed, she said. Only Frank, who remained at home, died.

"The loss goes farther than that. I never got to meet my grandfather, who died a year and a half later of a broken heart," Levati said.

Families had to visit a warehouse at Cass and Joliet Streets in Joliet to identify their husbands, sons and brothers by their body parts, he said.

"Basically, there were just pieces of people," Levati said. "My dad said my grandfather was never the same after that."

Levati later worked briefly at the arsenal, during the summer of 1967, and said it was "spooky" to return to the site.

The arsenal was the biggest employer in Will County at that time, and this explosion was the "biggest tragedy in Will County," he said.

The Joliet Arsenal once spanned 23,542 acres along Route 53 in Elwood, housed 1,391 buildings and employed about 22,000 workers at its peak production in the 1940s, manufacturing TNT, according to historical and news accounts.

The explosion occurred at what was known as the Elwood Ordnance Plant, in building 10, where anti-tank mines were being loaded into railroad boxcars to be shipped.

"In an instant it became a 12-foot deep crater," said Lorin Schab, president of the Midewin Heritage Association.

The explosion was ruled an accident by a Will County coroner's jury, but the exact cause was never determined, he said.

"What we do know is the workers were doing more than a just a job. They were helping fight the war," Schab said. "They were on the homefront, supporting fathers and sons on the war front."

Efforts to erect the statue as a memorial to the munitions workers was spearheaded by Elmo Younger, of Morris, who worked at the arsenal then, but on a different shift, loading materials into a warehouse.

Classic photos: Joliet Army Ammunition Plant

Opened in 1940, the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant (formerly Joliet Arsenal) was a bustling munitions manufacturer during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The plant closed for good in the 1980s, and is now home to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

He was at home in Joliet when he heard the blast at 2:43 a.m. that June 5 morning, and he kNew there had been an explosion at the plant, he said. When he reported to work at 8 a.m., there was "debris scattered in different places."

"No one was allowed to go there because they were still finding body parts," he said. Younger was drafted into the Army in December 1942, and served three and a half years in Europe, achieving the rank of sergeant.

When he returned and learned nothing had been done to recognize the munitions workers, he launched a fundraising campaign to honor what he calls "homefront heroes."

The name of each worker is carved into the base of the statue, along with the names of two other workers killed at the arsenal in another explosion in 1945.

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