WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (October 2015) -- As the Watervliet Arsenal begins yet another machinist apprentice class this fall, which is a program that traces its history back to the days of President Theodore Roosevelt, some here wonder if this cohort will step up to the challenge as the apprentices before them have done in every major conflict since 1905.
Whether these eight apprentices know it yet or not, there is a tremendous burden on them.
After all, Arsenal apprentices have machined many of the weapons that were used by U.S. troops and their allies in such battles as Belleau Wood, Normandy, Midway, Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, Khafji, and Ramadi. Many machinists here truly believe that they, and their predecessors, have made the weapons that have helped hundreds of thousands of our troops to safely return from combat since the Arsenal began its production of military hardware during the War of 1812.
And so, unlike their apprentice counterparts in non-defense industries in this country, these apprentices have, in addition to being burdened with quality, cost, and delivery schedules, a personal responsibility and a sense of duty to support and maintain the Arsenal's rich and storied 202-year history of dedicated support to the nation's war fighters.
Apprenticeship is a big deal not only for the current batch of apprentices, but also for those who toiled in the machine shops long before there were computerized machines.
The Arsenal recently hosted 93-year-old Fred Clas to the post to provide him an update on what he calls "his arsenal." But as Clas talked about his 45-year tenure that began in 1940, his eyes lit up and one could feel his sense of joy as he talked about his days as an apprentice. Those days as an apprentice were, as Clas said, the finest days of his career.
The motivation of this team to join the Arsenal workforce is not unlike the motivations of earlier generations of apprentices -- they simply want a better life for themselves and their families.
Jamey Gray said that he had been a bricklayer for more than 15 years, but when the economy declined several years ago due to the recession he knew that his days as a bricklayer were over.
"This was a tough decision to change my occupation because bricklaying is a family business," Gray said. "I made that decision several years ago, but it just took me that long to get one of the few arsenal apprentice positions."
Another apprentice, who had a long work history prior to coming here, wanted to add more consistency to his life. Anthony Dudwoire had worked part time at the United Parcel Service for 15 years before accepting an apprentice position.
Several in this small apprentice class had, or still do, ties to the military long before they were selected to work here. Even with a military background their reasons for coming here were similar to others in the class.
"I served in the Army as an infantryman for several years and when I got off of active duty I went to work for the New York State government as an automotive equipment repairer and then as a mechanic in local car dealerships," said Stephen Pawlick. "I love to work with my hands but working in car dealerships killed my passion and so, I believe that I can get back to doing what I like to do through the apprentice program."
Pawlick also is currently a staff sergeant in New York's Army National Guard.
Whatever their motivations are, suffice it to say that these next four years will be tough, on them and on their families. The apprentices will undergo a challenging 8,000 hours of hands-on training at the Arsenal and four years of schooling at the Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y.
There is a senior class of apprentices who are in their final year of the program and will graduate in August 2016.
The Arsenal's apprentice program has since 1905 produced some of the finest machinists in the country, and there are strong expectations by many here that this class will be no different.
After all, something magical happens when an apprentice put his or her hands on an Arsenal production machine for the first time; it's as if the Arsenal's lifeblood, its history, its pride, flows from the cold steel and into their hands. Oh, what a wonderful burden to have.
The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812. It celebrated its 200th anniversary on July 14, 2013.
Today's Arsenal is relied upon by U.S. and foreign militaries to produce the most advanced, high-tech, high-powered weaponry for cannon, howitzer, and mortar systems. This National Historic Registered Landmark had revenue in fiscal year 2014 that exceeded $117 million and provides an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $100 million.