Arsenal of Democracy: A History of RIA from WWI to WWII
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Col. Leroy Hillman the commander of Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois during World War I. Under his watch the arsenal employed over 13,000 civilian workers. He was a popular commander who was known for taking care of the employees at the arsenal by improving their quality of life by leading housing construction and other infrastructure improvements in the area. Hillman died of complications from Spanish Influenza in 1918. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Arsenal of Democracy: A History of RIA from WWI to WWII
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – In 1919 Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois was contracted to build 100 Mark VIII tanks. The tank was the first heavy tank produced in the U.S. The first was finished on Jan. 5, 1920, and the last was completed six months later June 5. The tanks were in service until 1932, when they were withdrawn from service. Today, only three tanks remain, one in Great Britain, and two in the U.S., owned by the Army. One of the American tanks was returned to RIA May 10, 2021, the other is a part of the Armor and Cavalry Training Support Facility at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Arsenal of Democracy: A History of RIA from WWI to WWII
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A World War I-era Soldier poses with a Springfield M1903 rifle at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. After the poor performance of the Krag-Jorgensen Rifle during the Spanish-American War the U.S. Army realized it needed a new rifle. Production on the new rifle, the Springfield M1903, began at the arsenal in December 1904. By the time the U.S. entered World War I, 843,000 rifles had been produced at Rock Island and the Springfield (Massachusetts) Armory. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

This is the third of six articles looking at the 160-year history of Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. The first article looked at the arsenal from its establishment as a military fort to the end of the Civil War. The second article focused on the arsenal’s role in supplying the Army during the Spanish-American War and leading up to World War I. This article will examine the arsenal’s history from 1917 until 1942. The fourth article will look at the arsenal during WWII and the Korean War. The fifth will look at the arsenal from the mid-1950s to the end of the Cold War. The last article will focus on the Gulf War to the present.

ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – The Spanish-American War, and the subsequent Philippine-American War was Rock Island Arsenal’s baptism of fire. These engagements transformed the post from a sleepy backwater to a modern 20th Century arsenal.

One of the first changes to the arsenal was a new mission – manufacturing a new rifle for the Army.

During the Spanish-American War U.S. Soldiers were equipped with the Krag-Jorgensen Rifle. However, this weapon proved woefully ineffective against the superior Mauser M1893 rifle used by Spanish forces.

During the Battle of San Juan Hill, 750 Spanish regulars, using the Mauser M1893 rifle, were able to delay the advancement of nearly 15,000 American troops, which included Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, as well as cause nearly 1,400 American casualties in the first few minutes of the battle.

As a result of this, and other battles in the war where Spanish troops were able to hold off vastly numerically superior American forces, the U.S. Army recommended replacing the Krag rifle with a new rifle – the Springfield M1903,

Production of the new rifle began at the arsenal in December 1904. By the time the U.S. entered World War I, 843,000 rifles had been produced at Rock Island and the Springfield (Massachusetts) Armory. The rifle would remain in active service through the Korean War and is still popular with military drill teams, most notably the U.S. Army Drill Team, and color guards due to its balance.

The early 20th Century marked the beginning of the “American Century” as the United States started to become a world power as it acquired overseas possessions in Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico after victory in the Spanish-American War.

To maintain a colonial empire the U.S. military would need to become bigger with a more up-to-date weapons system. This meant the arsenal had to massively adjust its production and manufacturing capabilities.

This adjustment meant that even in peace, the arsenal was running at an almost war-time pace.

To do this, the arsenal had to revamp their machinery, tools, and manufacturing processes, as well as adjust their production and manufacturing policies to avoid falling behind and not being ready for the next war.

The next war, World War I, was a war unlike any other war before.

World War I began on July 28, 1914 and ended on Nov. 11, 1918. The United States was a major supplier of war materiel to the British and French forces, but remained officially neutral until April 2, 1917, when then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the German Empire in response to German naval attacks on American merchant ships.

The war led to a rapid mobilization of civilian resources to escalate the pace of combat. New industrial technology changed the way war was fought.

World War I saw the introduction of trench warfare, new equipment like the tank and machine gun, the use of the airplane for both reconnaissance and for aerial-to-aerial and aerial-to-ground fighting, submarine operations, poison gas, as well as unprecedented numbers of men needed to fight.

To be successful in this war the U.S. would need to produce vast numbers of war materials. The arsenal rose to the challenge; scores of new employees were hired – many of them women.

World War I is noted as being the first war where women were “drafted” into the workforce to fill jobs vacated by men. This also rang true at the arsenal. During the 18 months that the U.S. would fight in World War I, record numbers of women were employed here. By the end of the war women would make up 10% of the workforce.

In 1914 the arsenal employed 1,800 men and 175 women. By the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917, employment at the arsenal had increased to 3,600 men and 300 women. Employment would continue to increase at a rate of around 300 people per month for the duration of the war.

Women played a vital role in America’s success during the war. Without women working in factories many men would not have been available for military service, and our success and future standing as a world power may have been altered.

During the first year of the war female employees at the arsenal were limited to clerical work. However, this changed in May 1918 when 100 women were hired to work in the factory. By the time the war ended in November, 1,417 women were employed making artillery shells, ammunition, and clothing.

“Rock Island Arsenal was one of many arsenals that experimented early in the war with expanding the female workforce outside of clerical jobs,” said Kevin Braafladt, U.S. Army Sustainment Command historian in a March 25, 2022, article about female employees during World War I. “This was due to a fear of a shortage of male workers as a cause of the expanding war.”

As more and more people came to the region to work at the arsenal, they were met with lack of housing options. To fix this issue Col. Leroy Hillman, RIA commander, worked with officials from the “Tri-cities” to build more houses and stop renters from gouging arsenal workers with high rental prices.

Hillman also recognized that safety was paramount to keep skilled workers at the arsenal. In 1917, the Supply School, the Machine Gun School and the Motor Inspection School were opened at the arsenal and in 1918 a 155mm ammunition loading plant was constructed at the arsenal. This plant posed huge safety issues because the employees had never loaded live ammunition before.

Therefore, to make the plant safer, Hillman prohibited certain substances inside the plant, designated the types of clothing to be worn, and laid out standards to handle explosives and limiting visitors. His efforts made the plant safer for everyone, which made the factory more productive.

During the war other changes were made to improve workers lives and attract better employees. RIA, like many military bases then and now, also provided its employees with leisure activities, such as baseball games, dances, singing in choir groups and band music.

However, life at the arsenal wasn’t all fun and games; war materiel still needed to be produced.

The large numbers of war materiel needed to fight meant that it was impossible for RIA and other arsenals around the country to supply the need; so private factories were drafted to produce war material. Employees from RIA were sent to these factories to teach their workers how to produce it.

Once World War I was over, the arsenal began to scale back due to the demobilization of troops. In November 1918 there were over 13,000 people employed at the arsenal. By Christmas, 3,000 would be laid off, with many finding work in other areas around the region.

As the “roaring ‘20s” progressed the arsenal would face, “the lean years” as it reverted to the pace of a peace time arsenal.

Even though the arsenal was operating at a slower pace, it continued to innovate and improve it’s production capabilities, which enabled it to be better prepared to build war materials for the next war.

The inter-war years also saw physical improvements made to the arsenal.

Most of the improvements were building more storehouses which would allow the arsenal to make and store parts and equipment before war broke out, thus shorting the lag between war being declared, and being able to field the Army.

By 1921 the storage capacity had increased to nearly 3 million feet. This included 30 ammunition storehouses as well as eight vehicle storage facilities.

However, with all the new storage buildings the arsenal was running out of space on the island, so it began constructing storage facilities in Savanna, Illinois, which is 64 miles north of RIA.

In 1917 the Army purchased land in Savanna and created the Savanna Proving Grounds, a sub post of the Arsenal. Building on the grounds began in May 1918.

Savanna Proving Grounds was established to proof, test and store field artillery and ammunition. Testing was done using different calibers under various elevations and conditions to ensure that they would work properly when needed.

One of the lessons learned during WWI was the need to coordinate with other arsenals to ensure that all parts made were interchangeable. To accomplish this the Arsenal Ordnance branch was created.

Having interchangeable parts also meant that all parts had to be the same size and weight regardless of where they were made. During World War II the interchabeability of parts made it easier for Rock Island to assemble the parts that were sent from factories all over the country and it also made it easier to replace broken parts. This practice is still used by arsenals today.

While the arsenal’s bread and butter was in building small arms and personal equipment for the Soldier, in 1919 it took on a new building project that would change the face of warfare – building tanks.

In 1919, the Arsenal received an order to build America’s first tank – the 100 Mark VIII.

Tanks, or “landships”, as they were first known, were developed during World War I to try to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The first tank, nicknamed, “Big Willie” and later “Mother”, was produced by the British in early 1916.

On Sept. 15, 1916, “Big Willie” and 48 other Mark I tanks were used to mixed success during the Battle of the Somme. The French and German Army’s would soon begin building their own tanks.

While there were issues with these first tanks; they were slow and prone to break down, military commanders on both sides saw potential in them and realized that they would be essential in future wars.

To prepare for this, the British and American government's combined in a joint endeavor to produce a new tank, called the Improved Mark VIII tank, also known as the Liberty or International tank.

In the spring of 1919, the arsenal received an order to produce 100 Mark VIII tanks.

“In this joint effort Britain produced the armor and the United States concentrated on the engine and other mechanical parts,” said former Rock Island historian George Eaton, during a segment on Arsenal History Minutes. “Due to the quality of the product Rock Island Arsenal was designated the Army’s tank design center.”

As a result of this the arsenal, and the country was much better prepared for a future war, then it was for World War I.