While the men were serving overseas in World War II, women like Josephine Klish were left behind to build the machines of war. For Klish, 96, of Hammond, that meant building Sherman tanks at the Pressed Steel plant on Terrence Avenue in Hegewisch.
“It was the war, and all the men were in the Army or defense plants," Klish said. "And all the ladies were left behind and we did whatever we could, work in defense plants, mostly, and that’s where I worked. I worked at the defense plant in Hegewisch, where I was born and raised.”
Klish’s story is worth telling so people today don’t lose this sense of what it was like during World War II. The stories of life overseas are often told, but life on the homefront, not so much.
Hers was a dirty job — literally.
“It was an assembly line, where they make the tanks, and after they made the tanks, they had to be tested. So in back of the plant where I worked there was an enormous mud hole," she said. "It was like 200 feet or maybe more than that — actually a mud hole, because you know how tanks operated — so they had to put the tanks in the mud and test them.
“So two or three tanks were tested at a time. Then they washed off the biggest part of the mud and brought them to the finishing department where I worked. There were four stations there, and each station always had a tank. There were two girls for each station. And we had the proper tools. There were pressure hoses, we had scrapers, and we had to get every bit of mud off of those tanks. And I mean every bit.
“The tanks had tracks instead of wheels, and that was real hard to do. But we had to do it, because they had to be painted. And after you got a tank ready, inside and out, the inside was sprayed inside and out, and the inside was a beautiful white like my walls.”
“And after that, they went to the paint shop and got painted, and after that they went out to the Army, where they got put into what they were made for. It was very interesting and very good and very nice for me, except we never had a day off. We worked 10 hours a day. We worked Saturdays, we worked Sundays, we never had time off because there weren’t enough women or anybody left over to do any work — because all the men were in the Army.”
Those long shifts were rough.
“I’d come home and cook something,” Klish said. “My husband worked shift work (he was deferred four times because he was needed at the steel mill), and sometimes we didn’t see each other for three, four days. We saw each other laying in bed or sometimes, but it wasn’t a night where you could sit around and talk or go anywhere because you were committed to the Army.”
But they got through it.
“The only good thing about that is you’re young when you’re going through it, because if you’re older you realize everything. But if you’re young, you just go with the flow and you do whatever you’re supposed to. And that’s what I did.”
Klish cleaned about three tanks per shift, depending on how well the initial cleaning at the mud hole went.
“We never understood why they had to be so pretty and spotless and painted before they go out to the Army and put back in the mud,” Klish said.
But that time came to an end, and so did Klish’s job in the defense plant.
The day the war ended, she and her sister-in-law-to-be were raking the front yard preparing to put in a lawn.
“All of a sudden, whistles began and all kinds of noises,” Klish said. "And we stood around, and people ran out of their houses. A man came with a horse and a wagon, and he was hollering, ‘The war is over! The war is over!’ and we could hardly believe it. But everybody came out, and there was dancing and laughing, and they were kissing, and everything else.”
That’s an experience rarely felt since then. The collapse of the Berlin Wall is perhaps the only comparable experience, at least in my lifetime.
The United States has been at war many times — most of the time — since then, but the experience hasn’t been the same.
Klish's story — the nation’s story — is why I’m so eager to see the steel mills on our lakeshore remain open. We might need them again for a similar war effort.
If you get a chance to talk to anyone who lived through World War II, encourage them to talk about their experiences. You’ll learn a lot.