Most customers who frequent Aniol’s Hardware store in Hegewisch will get rung up by a 95-year-old woman named Helen Aniol.
What they might not know is Aniol was one of many women who built tanks during World War II.
“She was of short stature and could get into the tanks to inspect them so that’s what she did,” laughs her son, Mike Aniol.
“The tanks were here, down the street,” Helen Aniol said, pointing. “I was 20-years-old and on my own. I looked at it as just a job. I didn’t know how long it was going to last. We worked in groups. We made sure everything was in order inside. We had to close the front windows and throw the tarp over them to ship them to Europe - it was busy, busy, busy. We made some of the best tanks. My husband said they were better than any of the tanks over in Europe.”
According to the book, “Pressed Steel: An American Company’s Contribution to Victory in World War II,” in June of 1940 a British tank commission arrived in the United States with the mission of procuring thousands of tanks from American production as quickly as possible. It was part of the “Cash and Carry”program adopted by the Roosevelt administration to aid Great Britain in procuring war material.
In 1941, both Pressed Steel Car Company and Pullman Car Company received contracts from the British Commission to build 500 M3 Tanks each.
Aniol worked at Pressed Steel Car Company, which was located in Hegewisch.
In between ringing up customers at the hardware store, during a recent interview, Aniol flipped through old papers tucked away in manila folders.
“You see this boy? He and his brother were killed two weeks apart – the only sons this woman had. That war wasn’t necessary. Why couldn’t they talk it out?” said Aniol. “I used to have a list of boys who died from this area. You’d be surprised at how many there were.”
After working on the tanks for two years, Aniol learned that her boyfriend, Joseph Labedz, was killed in action in 1946.
“I just quit the tanks and went into the service – I had to get away from everybody,” said Aniol. “You just go downtown and they ship everyone to various spots. I was shipped to Rome, N.Y.”
Aniol stayed in the Air Force until the end of the war, which was about two years. She decided to go back home to Hegewisch where she met her future husband, Stanley Aniol, shortly after. Stanley was home after serving in World War II. They had a family and eventually opened up Aniol’s Hardware Store.
“People come in here and they call her ma,” said Mike, who was four-years-old when the store was getting built.
“I always had a job - I was always busy,” said Aniol. “This is a family business and it will always be.”