It was the day World War II came home to Kankakee and Will counties — June 5, 1942.
In the Pacific, the Battle of Midway, for which Midway Airport is named, was raging. In North Africa, the British Eighth Army was holding off the German Afrika Corps.
In Elwood, 22 miles away from Kankakee, munitions workers toiled in shifts at the Kankakee Ordnance Works, west of Illinois Route 53, to make dynamite; and east of 53 at the Elwood Ordnance Works, which made shells, bombs and mines. Wages were good — $3.50 an hour by 1943 for many. At its peak during the war, the arsenal complex would employ 10,425. The Kankakee works would eventually turn out 1 billion pounds of TNT for the war. The Elwood location manufactured 926 million shells, bombs and mines.
Working at the plant was more than a job, said Lorin Schab, president of the Midewin Heritage Association.
"They were making munitions for the front line," he said. "They very much felt part of the war effort. There was a sign that said something like, 'Don't make a mistake. It may mean a brave man's life.'"
Early on a Friday morning, 30 or more workers at Building 10 on the Elwood side busily loaded anti-tank mines into railroad cars. They were pressure mines, set off when weight rolled on top of them. The mines were packed five to a box, with an additional tetryl fuse booster for each mine. Used in blasting caps, tetryl sets off the rest of the mine. Two railroad boxcars were already filled with mines and fuses. A third was nearly full. Perhaps as many as 12,000 mines — 57,000 pounds of TNT. It was 2:41 a.m. on a cool, 66 degree, night.
Then something went wrong. Exactly what happened will never exactly be known, despite an investigation. There was lots of speculation. Not enough training for a new employee? Carelessness by a longtime worker? Maybe a mechanical failure?
One account describes a small explosion, possibly in a bay of tetryl, followed by a devastating blast two seconds later. Survivor Cy Neverman, of Joliet, said "it was the loudest thing I ever heard."
It would take days to sort out exactly who and how many died. Remains were identified by fingerprints. Everyone had to be cleared to work at the plant. Two fingers were all that was left of one man, Lawrence McCawley, of Kankakee. Those remains were buried in a child's casket. So little was left of some others that a slight wind at the Deselm Cemetery would rock the caskets awaiting burial.
The final toll was 48 dead — 14 from Kankakee County.
Aftermath of an explosion
The boxcars were gone. There was a six-foot crater in the ground. In downtown Kankakee, the blast broke windows at the Chicago Store, Montgomery Ward's and the A&P. The plaster at the Big Four railroad depot on the north side was damaged.
The evening was too clear for a thunderstorm. Many felt it had been an earth tremor. People were shook or startled as far south as Watseka, as far north as Waukegan and as far east as Hammond, Ind.
The dead included Roy F. Tighe, a former mayor of Bradley. Earlier in the day, someone had asked Tighe what would happen if a bolt of lightning hit the plant. "We'd never know it," he said.
Twins Eugene and Endell Milby of Greensburg, Ky., students at Olivet Nazarene College, had never been separated for more than a day before the fatal blast. Eugene died. Endell was 200 feet away, on the other side of a wall. He survived with only a scalp wound and shoulder injury.
Harold Hawkins of Herscher, 40, left a wife and five children. Louis Trumble, 19, from Momence, had dropped out of school to start work and help his family after the death of his father. Now he was dead, too.
Leo T. Moran, 17, of rural Manteno had just graduated from St. Joseph Academy in Rensselaer, Ind. He was a neighbor to Warren Albert Rogers, 19, of Rockville Township. Both were only on their second day on the job when the blast killed them.
Survivors and a final toll
Some escaped death through flat-out luck, or circumstance. It was said several men were spared because they had taken the night off to attend graduations. It was that time of year. Kankakee held its elementary school graduation the evening of June 4 at Longfellow School. St. Patrick's High School, the forerunner of Bishop McNamara, would hold its graduation Sunday.
Neverman escaped injury and stayed at the plant to do maintenance. When he didn't check out, both Chicago and Joliet papers listed him as presumed dead. Neverman got a ride home later that morning. His wife had only been informed hours before that he was actually alive.
Ironically, at least two widows, whose husbands had died in the blast, later went to work at the arsenal. Charlotte Hammond of Deselm started working July 5, only a month after her husband's death. She had a car payment and few other choices. She wound up carrying mail between buildings. Isabel McCawley, widow of Lawrence A. McCawley, went to work at the plant packing TNT.
Wives who lost their husbands and children who lost their fathers did get compensation. The maximum benefit was $5,000. Lawrence D. McCawley, son of Lawrence A., remembered getting $5 a month from age 9 to age 18. Just before he finished high school, the amount jumped to $20 a month.
The tragedy went without a marker for nearly 60 years. In 2001, a life-size statue of a munitions worker with a lunch bucket and hardhat was erected just off the north edge of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. All the victims' names are inscribed on the base of the statue. The cost was covered through private donations and a state appropriation.