By John B. SnyderOctober 1, 2012
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- Many people might believe that having supported our nation's uniformed men and women continuously since the War of 1812 is a pretty significant event, but that statistic may pale in comparison to the fact that two former Arsenal employees will soon turn or have recently turned 100-years-old. Given that the life expectancy of someone born in the early 1900s was only about 50, living to 100 is truly a remarkable achievement.
It is amazing that as the Arsenal prepares for its upcoming 200th anniversary, which will occur in July 2013, powerful stories are flowing back to the Arsenal from the living rooms of former Arsenal employees. These stories are not only helping today's workforce get a better understanding of the Arsenal's history, but also to get a renewed sense of appreciation for what they do today will affect future generations of Arsenal workers.
Ernie Blanchet from Troy, N.Y., and Frances Brooks from Schenectady, N.Y., stepped out of retirement this month in hopes that their stories will help inspire today's workforce to better understand that what they are doing today is bigger than them -- it is about maintaining the Arsenal's rich history and tradition. Frances turned 100-years-old last month and Ernie will turn 100 next June.
Ernie said that his father was once a machinist on the Arsenal during World War I and as a kid, he recalls walking along the Erie Canal that once flowed through the Arsenal. The Arsenal filled in its part of the Erie Canal more than 80 years ago.
As one of 12 children in his family, Ernie found that he had to go to work at an early age to help support his family. He worked in local textile mills for $12 a week and was even a caddy at the Troy Country Club. But he said that those jobs never provided him a sense of purpose as he went from job to job until 1941.
At age 28, and just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ernie landed a job at the Watervliet Arsenal.
"Things were quiet when I first arrived, but on Dec. 7, 1941, everything changed," Ernie said. "The first day I came to work after the Japanese attack there were armed guards at the gate and access between buildings had been tightened."
What the attack did to the workforce, however, was that it brought everyone together as a team, Ernie said. Within a few months, the Arsenal workforce went from a few hundred to several thousand workers.
As the workforce grew from one shift to three shifts, working seven-days-a-week, Ernie said there was a high sense of pride because everyone knew that each cannon made meant that more of our Soldiers would come back home alive.
He said that not everyone had an important position at the Arsenal during World War II, but that everyone was important.
Ernie enlisted in 1944 and served on a U.S. Navy Destroyer Escort ship until he was discharged after the war. He came back to the Arsenal after his discharge where he worked until he retired in 1971. During those years, his expertise was in quality control but somehow found time to start up an Arsenal Art Association, as well as run the Arsenal's pitch and put golf course.
Frances was the epitome of the American icon, Rosie the Riveter.
When World War II broke out, she and her husband, Carl, ran a beauty salon and barbershop in the Capital District. Business had slowed due to the war and when her husband enlisted in 1943, Frances said she felt compelled to do her part to support the war effort, as well as to provide for her family.
Although she did not have any mechanical training, Frances was quickly accepted as one of the more than 3,000 women who worked at the Arsenal during World War II. As can be understood, there was a shortage of able-bodied men in the Albany area to support the Arsenal's production line and therefore, women, from all walks of life, were welcomed into the Arsenal's workforce. They still are today.
After a short training period, Frances said she was rushed into the production lines as a machine tool operator. There was no time for apprentice training back then and whatever training she acquired came from the experienced machinists who worked side-by-side with her.
After the war ended, Frances joined her husband and reopened the beauty and barber shops. Although she closed her beauty shop in 1977, she continued to work into her 90s.
When asked how she would define her Arsenal years, she said, "They were some of the best years of my life. They were truly the good old days!"
From the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the Normandy Invasion in 1944, Ernie, Frances and the more than 9,000 Arsenal workers manufactured nearly 23,000 cannons with an on-time delivery rate of 99.6 percent. Those statistics would never be equaled.
The Watervliet Arsenal (pronounced water-vleet") is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility located in Watervliet, New York. The Arsenal is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States, having begun operations during the War of 1812.
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 has an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $100 million.