By John B. SnyderMarch 19, 2012
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- Before they became part of the Greatest Generation, they were simply men and women who struggled to survive the daily challenges of something called the Great Depression. Although they were often out of work, hungry, and depressed, millions of Americans somehow weathered through those years and some, even raised families. The fabric of America may have been tattered by nearly 10 years of tough economic depression, but it never gave way. Tom Lyons was part of that fabric then and we are better off today because he was.
Tom lives today just up from the Hudson River in a small city called Watervliet. Now in his 90s, Tom said he can't imagine living anywhere else.
Tom grew up in the early 1930s in a local boarding house with his mother and two sisters. As a child, he didn't have the playground that one would see today with great slides, sand boxes, and swings. His playground was the Hudson River. He said he loved that old river then and he still does today.
Although Tom rarely leaves his home due to some of the effects of simply being over 90, he said he often thinks about the great years he had in Watervliet and of a place called the Watervliet Arsenal.
The Arsenal is an Army-owned and -operated manufacturing facility that has been in continuous operation since the War of 1812. And after every military conflict since 1813, military budgets have ebbed and flowed, as well as the Arsenal's likelihood of survival.
The period from the end of World War I to 1938 was a time of significant belt-tightening at the Arsenal. After all, many believed that World War I was the war to end all wars. In those years, the Arsenal's civilian workforce numbers declined from approximately 1,600 during World War I to about 350 in 1938. The military numbers experienced just as a dramatic drop having gone from nearly 220 enlisted men and officers to just five officers by 1938.
But something happened at the Arsenal on Nov. 14, 1938, that forever would change the Arsenal, as well as Tom's life.
Army Col. Richard H. Somers took command on that day and he had the vision and foresight to see that war was coming. In less than one year after taking command, he had raised the Arsenal's workforce numbers from 350 to 1,000. Somers also reestablished the Apprentice School with an initial enrollment of 45. Due directly to Somers' initiatives, this was the first time in the Arsenal's history that it had ramped up its capability to support a nation at war before the first shots were fired.
Those actions taken by Somers opened the door for Tom, as well as for thousands of others, to move out the Great Depression and into a steady job. Tom started his work at the Arsenal in 1940. But not having any previous mechanical experience, Tom said he was placed into the newly restarted three-year Apprentice Program.
"What was great about the apprentice program was that we had to learn how to operate every machine at the Arsenal," Tom said. "When I graduated in 1943, I had the confidence that I could work in any section at the Arsenal."
Those were great years not only for Tom, but also for the Arsenal.
Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw has called the World War II period of time as the Greatest Generation for America. This is true for the Arsenal, too.
During the Arsenal's Greatest Generation years, its workforce numbers jumped to more than 9,300, about one-third of which were women. And from the time that Pearl Harbor was attacked to the landing on the beaches of Normandy, more than 23,000 cannons were manufactured with a better than 99 percent on-time delivery rate. Those numbers would never again be equaled.
"During World War II, we often worked seven-days a week and the Big Gun Shop was always full of cannons," Tom said. "What a great ride it was to work side-by-side with some of the greatest machinists the country has ever known."
But being a wartime machinist also paid huge dividends for Tom, but not in a monetary sense.
Once Tom had completed his apprentice training, one of his additional duties was to train new machine tool operators. The training went so good that one of his trainees married him in 1944.
Tom would eventually enlist in the Army and served from July 1944 to July 1946.
After the war, Tom remained at the Arsenal but slowly moved away from working the mill and lathe machines to a new passion called heat treatment. In fact, he eventually became the foreman of the Arsenal's heat treatment facility. His wife, Theresa, left the Arsenal after the war and went to work for a company called Montgomery Wards.
His passion for heat treatment would eventually take him out of the machine shops and into a newly formed Army research and design facility at the Watervliet Arsenal called Benet Laboratories. Tom is a Charter Member of Benet Labs having been one of the first employees of this new organization when it opened its doors on May 9, 1962.
Tom retired from Benet Labs in 1973 at age 52.
Watervliet Mayor Michael Manning said that Tom and Theresa are the exception rather than the rule today.
"In an era when families move every few years in search of better jobs or better schools for their children, a lifelong resident is typically only 10 years old," Manning said. "But Tom and Theresa have a 90-year investment in the city of Watervliet."
Today, Tom thanks the Army for a great pension that allows him to live a comfortable life. He said he thinks about the good old days as an apprentice when attended class alongside some of the Arsenal legends, such as Fred Clas, who was Director of Operations for 22 years, and Thomas Kucskar, who as Chief of Manufacturing during the Vietnam War supervised more than 2,000 workers.
But one of his finest memories of those Greatest Generation years is of a young woman who was the Arsenal's equivalent to "Rosie the Riveter." He and Theresa have now been married for 67 years.