Will County’s Deadly Blast Marker Gets a New Home

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A crowd will gather Saturday at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County around a bronze statue of a 1940s laborer wearing a helmet and carrying a lunch box.

Simply dressed, the grim-faced figure could represent workers just about anywhere in the last century. But it was designed to give lasting substance to 48 men who were vaporized in an explosion 80 years ago when the site was a munitions factory supplying Allied efforts during World War Two.

When the statue and concrete plinth bearing the names of civilian workers who have lost their lives in the line of duty will be welcomed into a new home this week, it will also mark the convergence of several interrelated storylines.

“There are all sorts of nuances to this story that make it truly remarkable,” said Joe Wheeler, archaeologist and heritage program manager at Midewin.

The main one, of course, concerns that tragic night eight decades ago when workers lost their lives as anti-tank mines were loaded onto a boxcar in what was then known as Elwood Ordnance Plant.

Wheeler said around 2 a.m. on June 5, 1942, the plant was operating at full capacity.

“It was exactly the same time as the Battle of Midway in the Pacific, so it was a high stress time,” he said.

Even during the night shift, there were dozens of workers near the loading operation.

“Right after their lunch break, there were two explosions in a row, and it killed 48 of the 78 arsenal workers in an instant,” Wheeler said.

It’s an event that Midewin Heritage Association president Carol Ference of Homewood can relate to. As a 5-year-old growing up in Hammond, Indiana, she suffered the side effects of a major explosion at the Standard Oil refinery in nearby Whiting that killed two people.

“I was in bed,” she said. “I smelled it, I could see the smoke from our back porch. My mom said she could see the flames. I don’t remember much, but it leaves an impression.

The Will County explosion was perhaps even more memorable. Contemporary reports indicate it smashed windows in Kankakee and was felt as far away as Waukegan.

Identifying those killed was a haphazard process, as there was little to work with. A man was identified by a ring on the partial remains of a hand. Others were presumed dead simply because they never returned home or to work.

“It took them a while to sort it out,” Wheeler said. “Ultimately, 48 death certificates were issued by the Will County Coroner.”

But it was wartime and there was work to be done, Wheeler said, and uninjured workers in other areas of the plant were back at work an hour after the blast. The buildings were well spaced from each other to guard against an even worse disaster.

Among the uninjured workers was a young man named Elmo Younger, who had hopped on a Southern bus circa 1940 in search of better prospects. A few months after the Elwood explosion, Younger was drafted into the army, survived the war, and returned home as a sergeant.

“He was active in the community for 50 years, a true civic activist,” Wheeler said.

Meanwhile, ammunition production was consolidated into what became the Joliet Arsenal in 1945, although the ammunition was only produced during the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1993, the arsenal was officially declared inactive.

It was then that Younger’s civic interests came full circle. He was appointed to a commission that would help determine the fate of the arsenal’s ownership, and in 1996 20,000 acres of the factory were turned into Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Other parts became the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and an industrial park.

Like Whiting’s outburst with Ference, the 1942 explosion had left a big impression on Younger, and he began planning and fundraising in 2000 for a marker that something big had happened on this land, that people had lost their lives here in the effort to win a war overseas. A few years later, a bronze statue of an arsenal worker arrived from where it had been cast in England.

The workers who had been killed were civilians, so the statue and base engraved with the names of the 48 workers killed in the explosion as well as five others involved in fatal accidents on the property during World War II, do were not allowed in the National Cemetery. Eventually, the owners of the adjacent industrial park donated a small plot for the statue, and it was installed near the cemetery, but not on the cemetery property.

“It was about two years before the statue was stolen,” Wheeler said. “That amount of bronze, for scrappers, was quite appealing.

“So Elmo embarked on another fundraising effort, leading a committee of former arsenal workers.”

The theft was discouraging, but it provided an opportunity to correct a part of the statue that had annoyed some of the former workers.

“They did get the guy with the helmet, but he was holding a square lunch box, like a kid would use it,” Wheeler said. A worker’s lunch box was a more serious affair with a domed top that housed a thermos for drinks or soup.

Younger and his committee raised an additional $30,000 plus shipping from England for a new statue with a suitable lunch box for the workers, which was relievedly reassembled on the empty pedestal.

A few years later, the original statue appeared on a farm in Braceville, a small town in Grundy County. But it had already been replaced by a better model, so the dockyard workers’ committee donated the salvaged statue to the village of Elwood, who placed it in a park.

Over the years, work to restore Midewin to a grassland ecosystem continued, as its past as an armory faded further into the past. A service road that once carried traffic in front of the new statue was rerouted, and all of a sudden it was “in the distance and easy to miss,” Ference said.

“It was in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “There was no interpretation, just a statue sitting there. If you wanted to know what it was, you had to stop your car and get out and walk.

Ference’s predecessor as president of the Midewin Heritage Association, Lorin Schab, met with Younger and Midewin director Wade Spang at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the explosion, where Midewin’s management was “convinced and cajoled” to move the statue to the storage near where the munitions factory had been, Wheeler said.

It took five years.

“Part of that was setting up a proper venue, and that took unscheduled funds,” Wheeler said. “There were a lot of small steps associated with it, and a lot of them had to happen with little funding.”

Meanwhile, Schab, a former Orland Hills mayor who was a Midewin expert and enthusiast who led frequent tours of the former munitions factory area, died in 2019. And Spang retired and moved.

“But the promise remained,” Wheeler said, and when the statue and base are rededicated on Saturday, they will be accompanied by interpretive panels giving the information Schab used to give during his visits, as well as some benches donated by Schab’s family.

And Elmo Younger, who was there the night of the explosion 80 years earlier and recently celebrated his 100th birthday, is also expected to be present at the ceremony. He will be joined by the family and descendants of his colleagues who were killed that night.

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As other remnants of the property’s days as an ordnance factory are being phased out, Ference is pleased that the statue finds a home in Midewin proper, and in particular that it is placed near the bunkers” igloo” which are among the few remaining traces of this. time.

“We always thought we had to leave something to remember that before Midewin, for 50 years, there was an arsenal,” she said. “Having the statue there and the signage explains what it is.”

It also serves as a reminder of a mindset from another era.

“Everyone was dedicated to the war effort,” Ference said. “Everyone got involved and did their part.

“They were certainly victims of the war. It happened; we don’t want to glorify it, but we don’t want to minimize it either.

The rededication ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. on June 4 at the Iron Bridge Trailhead in Midewin.

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on Southland. He can be reached at [email protected].

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