Arsenal of Democracy: A History of Rock Island Arsenal from World War II to the Korean War

By Sgt. 1st Class Corinna BaltosJanuary 19, 2023

Arsenal of Democracy: A History of Rock Island Arsenal from World War II to the Korean War
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – One of the first research and development projects to come out of Rock Island Arsenal after World War II was the M20 superbazooka anti-tank weapon. Development of the weapon began towards the end of World War II when the success of the German Panzerschreck or tank scare, necessitated a complete redesign of the Bazooka. The first M20s were ready for use in June 1950, just in time for the Korean War. Over the next year it would produce 750 more to be used in the Korean theater. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Arsenal of Democracy: A History of Rock Island Arsenal from World War II to the Korean War
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Many Italian prisoners of war volunteered to assist the U.S. Army in building war materials during World War II. Working at Rock Island Arsenal and other depots and arsenals across the country afforded the prisoners better housing, uniforms, and food. (Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Corinna Baltos) VIEW ORIGINAL

This is the fourth 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. The third article looked at the arsenal from 1917 until 1942. This article will look at the arsenal during World War II 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. – In 1939, the fragile peace that had been forged after the end of World War I ended when the German army invaded Poland. While the U.S. was officially neutral, the War Department began planning for the possibility of war.

On Dec. 29, 1940, with most of Europe under the heel of the Nazi (jack) boot, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt vowed that the U.S. would become the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and supply Great Britain and the Soviet Union with weapons needed to resist German advances.

Realizing that the key to victory lay in the ability to produce vast amounts of war materials in a short period of time, the newly formed War Production Board identified private companies, such as the Ford Motor Company and the Lionel Train Company, that would be able to produce materials needed to make weapons and other military equipment.

Arsenals and depots, such as Rock Island Arsenal, were given the responsibility of providing technical supervision of the civilian plants to ensure tanks, artillery and machine guns were produced to specifications, as well as building of war materials.

However, before the arsenal could begin building war materials, they needed a place to store them. In April 1941, construction on Building 299 began. The building, designed to store ordnance, was as big as 17 football fields, and boasted an indoor rail track with interior docks which allowed an entire train to be loaded and unloaded within the facility.

While Building 299 allowed the arsenal to keep Roosevelt’s promise to supply our allies with equipment to fight Axis aggression, these requests depleted American forces’ supply of weapons and ammunition by 40% in 1941. This meant the U.S. military would have difficulty responding to a potential unprovoked attack on American soil.

The unprovoked attack that many feared happened on the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941. In response to the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, RIA ramped up production at its factories by operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The employees, so focused on producing war materials, would frequently not take lunch breaks, opting to eat a sandwich while working at their machines. This allowed the military to replenish the armaments needed to fight.

Working while eating paid off for the men and women working at the arsenal. On Sept. 30, 1942, the arsenal was awarded the coveted Army-Navy “E” (Excellence in Production) award for excellence in war production. The award, which featured a pennant that could be displayed for all to see, was designed to encourage industrial mobilization and production of war materials. By the end of the war, there were nearly 85,000 American companies eligible for the award; however only 5% earned it.

With the arsenal producing war materials at an increased rate, it was necessary to hire more people. However, due to the labor shortage of men due to the military draft, women were hired to work at the arsenal as “production soldiers” for the war effort. By the end of the war, women would make up 68% of the arsenal’s work force which peaked on July 7, 1943, with 18,675 employees. To put this in perspective, there are roughly 6,000 people currently working at the arsenal.

While record numbers of women replaced the men working at the arsenal, there was another group of people that also helped build munitions for the Allied war effort – former Italian prisoners of war.

During World War II, many Axis prisoners of war served their time in camps located in the U.S. After Italy signed an armistice with the Allied forces on Sept. 3, 1943, Italian POWs were given the option to serve in Italian Service Units and work on Army depots, arsenals, hospitals and on farms. Approximately 90% of the Italian POWs held in the U.S. volunteered for this duty, as it guaranteed them better housing, uniforms and pay.

On July 16, 1944, the 38th and 40th Italian Quartermaster Service Companies arrived at the arsenal to assist with many of the labor-related projects on the installation.

The Italians contributed to the American war effort by packing and shipping tank and motorized gun carriage parts, painting vehicles, and loading and unloading the railcars that arrived at the arsenal daily. During the 14 months the Italians worked at the arsenal, it is estimated that they accounted for over 30,000 hours of labor. The POWs would continue their work on the arsenal until Sept. 22, 1945, four and a half months after the war in Europe ended.

After the war, the arsenal, like the rest of the country, quickly reverted to peacetime status. Employment was reduced to 2,469 personnel by the summer of 1947. While many sections were placed on standby, ready in case of a future war, one section that continued to run was the research and development section. This allowed the arsenal to continue its role in both peacetime and war as the “Arsenal of Democracy”.

One of the first “R&D” projects to come out of the arsenal was the development of a new anti-tank weapon, commonly known as the “bazooka”.

Production of this weapon began towards the end of World War II, when the success of the German Panzerschreck, or “tank scare,” necessitated a complete redesign of the bazooka. The new design, the M20, was known as the “superbazooka” and was ready for shipment 13 days after the Korean War started. Over the next year, RIA would produce 750 more M20s.

“The M20 was superior to its predecessor in several aspects,” said George Eaton, then-historian with the U.S. Army Sustainment Command here, during an Arsenal History minutes segment for local Public Television, which aired on June 14, 2015. “Its improved warhead could penetrate double the armor of the World War II model. It was easier to handle in the field due to its two-piece assembly, and the improved site accuracy and range.”

While the research and development department were busy designing new weapons, the rest of the arsenal’s main priority was overhauling equipment, as well as improving and modernizing machines. This would enable the arsenal to return to emergency production mode more quickly and smoothly when war, once again, broke out.

Along with overhauling equipment, repairing roads, fences and water mains on the arsenal was a priority in the years after World War II – until war once again came to America.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea and pushed the Republic of Korea Army to the Pusan Perimeter. Upon hearing of the invasion, President Harry S. Truman, comparing the attack to Adolf Hitler’s aggressions in the 1930s, pushed Congress to agree to a military response. In August 1950, Congress appropriated $12 billion for military action in Korea.

With the United States once again at war, RIA spun up its manufacturing capabilities to support the military objectives of the Korean War.

As in previous wars, employment at the arsenal doubled in size during the first year of the war. Production of war materials also increased substantially at the arsenal. From mid-1950 to mid-1951, nearly 30 million items were produced at the arsenal for the war effort. The following year, production increased to over 40 million units.

While the “superbazooka” was RIA’s most famous contribution to the Korean War effort, other projects kept the arsenal humming. One of these projects was the Honest John Rocket, the first surface-to-surface nuclear-capable missile. Testing on the rocket began on June 29, 1951, and by 1954 Honest John battalions were deployed in Europe.

Even after the Korean War ended in 1953, the employees at the arsenal were unable to go back to a “peace time footing” because America was now engaged in a Cold War that was going to get hot very soon.