A bright flash. A sharp boom. A mushroom cloud. As Arthur Hall helped his father unload a haystack on the family farm in Garrettsville 70 years ago today at approximately 11:55 a.m., the very ground shook beneath his feet.
March 24, 1943, was a day etched in the memory of those in the area who lived through it.
With World War II in full swing, the massive explosion at the Ravenna Ordnance Plant was the kind of terrifying experience people were accustomed to reading about in the newspaper or seeing on newsreels directly from Europe or the Pacific. Now, it was in their backyard.
In all, 11 men were killed in the blast, which destroyed one of the arsenal's containment igloos.
Hall, who was 15 years old at the time, vividly recounts the moments following the blast.
"We were probably about three miles away from where the explosion occurred. I had my back to the arsenal when I felt the whole stack shake," Hall said. "My dad happened to be looking straight at the arsenal, and he gave a yelp. I could see a big mushroom cloud starting to form over there.
Workers load shells in an igloo at the Ravenna Arsenal. On March 24, 1943, 2,516 clusters of 20-pound bombs detonated, killing 11 men.
Photos courtesy of Ralph A. Pfingsten
"Obviously, we knew something serious had happened," he said.
Exactly what happened, however, remained a mystery for the better part of six decades.
A veil of secrecy
Though seen, heard and felt throughout the region, details following the 1943 explosion were few.
Built in 1940 by the U.S. government to manufacture and house ammunition used in the war, the arsenal occupied about 18,500 acres of land spanning Portage and Trumbull counties. At the height of its use in July 1943, the arsenal employed 23,301 men and women.
Garrettsville resident Jeannette E. Wilson Marvin-Hall's parents, Emma Mae and John Wilson, were two of those employees. Emma Mae began her work in 1942 as a truck driver for the arsenal in an effort to help with the war effort, following John who helped build structures on the property.
"I had three brothers who fought in the war, so my parents always felt like, whatever they could do to help bring the boys home, they wanted to do it," Marvin-Hall explained.
A 14-year-old at Freedom Township High School in 1943, she was sitting in study hall when the shockwave hit.
"It shook that brick building very firmly and rather violently," she said. "We weren't allowed out of our seats and we weren't allowed to go to the windows. In fact, my next class was canceled and we were told to go to the library and get books to read until the buses came."
Other schoolmates had fathers who worked at the arsenal, but Marvin-Hall was alone in having both parents there. The teachers and principal did their best to comfort the shaken students, but the tension was thick in the classrooms.
"We wanted to talk, but our principals and teachers told us, no, we would find out when we got home. We were not to discuss anything," she said. "We would find out from our parents."
Once home, Marvin-Hall waited anxiously for word on her parents. The prevailing fear melted away when the door cracked open for the first time.
"My father got home early, but my mom didn't get home until around 7:30 that night," she said.
To be sure, knowing her parents were uninjured in the blast was of utmost importance, but little else was discussed, even upon her mother's return home.
"She had tears in her eyes and she wouldn't talk to us," Marvin-Hall said. "She did talk to my father, because he knew what had happened, but we learned not to ask questions when it came to the arsenal. No one did. It was just something you didn't talk about."
Years later, she learned that her mother not only witnessed the explosion but was asked to help clean it up.
"She told them, 'I have a son picking up body parts in the South Pacific and I'm not staying here picking up body parts.' The 11 guys that were killed were her buddies," Marvin-Hall said. "My mother could never talk to me about it, and my father didn't encourage me to talk to her about it, either. It was a tragedy that she suppressed in her own mind, because they were her friends who died."
Due to the incident having happened at a government facility during wartime, the public remained in the dark as to what happened and the cause of the disaster.
It wasn't until the early 2000s when the information about the explosion was declassified and made available.
How it happened
According to the unclassified documents obtained by the Tribune Chronicle, a crew of about 20 men was assigned to unload four boxcars containing cluster bombs into a 60-foot storage igloo on the arsenal site. A trailer filled with the 20-pound M-41 cluster bombs was backed into the doorway and onto an apron.
The boxes of bombs were then stacked by teams of two from the back of the igloo to the front. Each crate weighed approximately 168 pounds
As the noon hour grew near, the crew was unloading the final few boxes. The report states the accident was likely the result of a dropped box and a faulty fuse on one of the bombs.
"It is believed the fall of any bomb having an armed fuse from a height of three feet would have been sufficient to have initiated the first bomb explosion," the report states. "The bomb nose fuse M-110 had a bad history."
What is clear is the reinforced concrete structure was 95-percent filled at the time of the accident. A total of 2,516 cluster bombs containing approximately 41,000 pounds of TNT were detonated, blowing the steel door off the igloo and 1,800 feet forward, and hurling concrete fragments as far as 3,800 feet.
Martha J. Waite's father worked at arsenal, and she recalls his description of the chaos in that moment.
"He was having to dodge stuff," Waite said from her home in Hiram. "The stuff came at him like mad. He was just trying to get out of the way."
The shockwave traveled across the area and was felt in Youngstown, more than 30 miles to the east.
The blast killed 10 men instantly. The final victim later died in the hospital. Three others in an adjacent igloo also were injured, but the blast was largely contained by the design of the igloo structure.
Dirk Remley, an assistant professor at Kent State University, has done extensive research on the explosion. He explained why the igloo-style structure was so effective.
"The igloos were built to keep the chemical compounds in the munitions cool while also providing safety," Remley explained. "No one other than those directly involved was killed and there was minimal damage to other igloos nearby. I think those speak to the safety of the igloos.
"I learned from someone who worked there during the Vietnam War that the igloos were to be used as bomb shelters, further suggesting their safety," he said.
Why it happened
While the unsealed government report notes poor management of the bombs by employees and a defective fuse as the likely primary causes, Remley believes the tragedy could have been averted if communication of safety procedures had been more clear.
"I keep coming back to the issue that workers must not have fully understood why they needed to be careful and that administrators may not have understood that the workers used an unsafe approach to unload," Remley said. "If they had known that there was less tolerance associated with the particular fuse, I assume workers would have used the safe method they had been trained to use generally and not tried to rush to finish before lunch.
"If administrators knew about the unsafe method, I assume they would have discouraged it generally and been able to understand how workers could be more careful unloading that particular shipment," he said.
Ravenna resident George Newberger concurs. Newberger worked at the arsenal on Load Line 2 from 1941 to 1943, directly handling TNT and loading shells.
"The TNT looked like it was shredded rice and it was wrapped in water-proof paper," Newberger said. "Even so, sometimes it was lumpy and we had to put it through a screening mechanism. It would screen all the big lumps and those would go down into what looked like a big sandbox."
He noted that workers would often have to break apart these lumps of TNT in order for them to screen properly.
According to Newberger, the sense of danger decreased the more explosives a worker handled, and it was easy to adopt a false sense of security.
"You just kind of got used to it," Newberger said. "You were assured that it was safe, so you just sort of resigned yourself to that fact. They talk about all these safety procedures and the manual, but we never saw any of that. Maybe the supervisors did, but none of us ever got any of that," he said.
Still, Remley said the faulty fuse should always be looked at as the primary cause.
"If it didn't happen at an igloo, it may have happened elsewhere train while in transit, plane encountering turbulence, or on an airfield while it was being loaded," Remley said. "So, that defect should have been addressed before the fuse was used generally."
Seven decades later, the site of the explosion that rocked Portage, Trumbull and Mahoning counties sits on an unmaintained section of Windham Township. Among the overgrown weeds and ragged bushes where Igloo 7-D-15 was located, there is no marker noting the historical significance of this piece of land.
For those who know the background of the Ravenna Arsenal, however, this plot will always remain sacred ground.
Without a doubt, Remley said the events of March 24, 1943, forever affected U.S. Army safety policies.
"Manuals were changed to articulate more explicitly what kinds of safe practices to use and what kinds of unsafe practices not to do," Remley said. "Documents also integrated many more visuals and phrasing that workers could understand better."
Remley noted the incident at the Ravenna Arsenal was unique, because most arsenals around the country at the time were either used for storage or manufacturing. This facility conducted both operations.
"It was dual-purpose," Remley said. "I'm unaware that anything like (the accident) happened anywhere else."
According to Marvin-Hall, the event can be looked back upon positively, as well. Even though the disaster resulted in the loss of lives, the community maintained a code of silence. This was out of respect to the government and a communal sense of involvement in the war effort.
"That's the way the families were then, not just our family," Marvin-Hall said. "It was important that the neighbors' sons who were in the service, they supported each other and we just lived as a family that didn't talk about that. That meant not talking about the things that happened at the arsenal."