By Pamela Ramey, USAG RedstoneApril 2, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- A sign posted on Redstone Arsenal in the 1940s read, "What you see and what you hear -- when you leave, leave it here."
For Pauline Williams, some days, that's hard to do.
Williams, 94, is the only remaining survivor of the 1942 explosion and fire that destroyed Warehouse 642, which housed Huntsville Arsenal's first production pilot line of the M-54 thermate incendiary bomb. Approximately 30 people were injured in the fire, which killed Easter Posey, for whom the Easter Posey Recreation Area is named.
Even now, Williams' voice is filled with emotion as she describes the aftermath of that fateful night.
"I remember waking up and asking the nurse, 'Where am I' My arms and head were bandaged and I was wrapped in a sheet. I looked like a mummy," she recalled, "It was bad."
Williams suffered severe burns to her hands, legs and lungs, as well as losing her hair, fingernails and teeth. Her legs were disfigured, and she could walk only with the use of a cane. The pain in her legs has remained constant for the last 68 years.
The Army paid for all medical treatment received by the workers, but no other monetary assistance was offered. Williams said it was hard to make ends meet and to feed seven kids on her husband's sole income as a barber, but the time she spent away from her family during her lengthy hospital stays was even harder on her.
"I had to leave my babies and travel by train, bus or however I could get there, and stay for weeks at a time. I was in and out of hospitals for five years," she said, her eyes filling with tears.
"I took my first train ride, going to Memphis, to get treated for my injuries," she recalled. "I didn't know what to do ... the conductor had to tell me where to sit."
Despite the constant pain and loss of mobility caused by her injuries, Williams, like a true Soldier, never gave up. She raised her family, gardened and attended church regularly until just a few years ago. Her family, including a twin sister who is also still living, has remained a constant source of support for her throughout her life. Many of her children still visit her almost daily.
"I'm proud of my mother and how she and dad took care of us despite her health problems," daughter Patsy Johnson said. "I'm proud of what she did for the war effort, just like I'm proud of all our Soldiers."
All in all, Williams has good memories of her short time in service to this country. She said she loved her job and made a lot of good friends there. She kept in contact with most of them, often seeing them at the same hospitals she visited for her treatments. Unfortunately, the only other survivor of the fire, Melviney Foster, died a few months ago. Williams said she misses her friend and still remembers the day they met.
"We had three kids at the time, and my husband didn't make much money. I decided to get a job. I heard they were hiring down there, so I rode with my neighbor. I remember some man hollering, 'if you want a job, get on this truck.' Everyone else was getting on the truck, so I got on that truck," she said laughing.
That truck carried those workers, including Williams and Foster, to the assembly lines at Warehouse 642.
"Now, I'm all alone," she said as a tear streamed down her face. "I'm the only one left."