As this Memorial Day — the time to honor those who died in the military while serving our country — draws to a close, we also want to remember another group who made the ultimate sacrifice defending our nation. These were Women Ordnance Workers (WOW) and men employed in the defense jobs in Elkton. On the home front, they carried out dangerous assignments, producing munitions that were needed to win the war.
People frequently talk about the big 1943 explosion at the munitions plants, but there were others, and a census or registry of civilian defense workers has never been compiled. It was perilous, and while non-fatal explosions occurred with some regularity, a few were lethal.
Following what was described as Maryland’s worst munitions plant explosion in 1943, the Morning News wrote in an Editorial (May 5, 1943), “There is a little which can be said that will console the families who have lost one or more members as a result of this disaster. Yet, if they will stop to reflect, they do have the comfort of knowing that their sons and daughters gave their lives just as surely and in a no less patriotic way than if they had died on the field of battle. They too were soldiers in the great cause to which America had dedicated itself and to the success of which it had pledged all its human and material resources.”
According to our preliminary findings at least twenty-two members of this group died in Elkton.
Feb. 21, 1940 – Before the United States formally entered the war, two men lost their lives, and fourteen other employees were injured in an explosion, which wrecked two buildings and damaged others at the Triumph Fusee and Fireworks Company plant. The plant employed approximately 500 people. For some time, the company had been chiefly engaged in the manufacture of airplanes flares and other pyrotechnic equipment on Government contract. Sheriff David J. Randolph and Deputy Ralph W. Robinson rushed to the plant as soon as they heard the explosion after calling for state police assistance. Only one ambulance was available in Elkton, and it carried several of the injured to the hospital
- Edward Knief, 38, Newark DE – died instantly.
- Charles Willard Gatchell, 32 of North East, died at Union Hospital
July 24, 1942 – Victor Vardaro, 37, of Bear, died at Union Hospital the day after he received burns while closing the door to the power grinding room at Vardaro Fireworks Manufacturing Plant. Vardaro was the manager of the plant, which was owned by his father, Alexander.
- Victor Vardaro, 37, Bear, DE
May 5, 1943 — The state’s worst fireworks-munitions plant explosion killed fifteen workers and injured about 60 more. A series of blasts were followed by fires that destroyed two plant buildings and spread to three other structures of Triumph Explosives, Inc.
The explosion occurred in a building that was used to manufacture tracer bullets. Seconds later an adjoining building blew up. Fire companies from five communities aided plant firemen in battling the flames. Later, fire broke out in a canteen filled with employees and that too resulted in many injuries.
The plant hospital was quickly filled, along with a 25-bed Civil Defense Emergency Hospital setup on the grounds, but the more seriously injured were rushed to Union Hospital. Throughout the night medical personnel performed life-saving procedures. Later, Bodies were taken to the Pippin Funeral Home on East Main Street. Hundreds stood silently “outside under the old trees, which line the street,” as people entered the undertaking parlor to try to identify the dead.
Benjamin F. Pepper, President of the company, issued an appeal to the corporation’s 13,000-employees to return to work immediately. “We will do everything in our power to prevent any similar accident and to fight on with you harder than ever before,” was printed on red, white and blue signs posted in surrounding communities.
After a seventeen hour shutdown thousands of workers “hushed and grim-faced slowly filed through the guard gates at Trumpj Explosive. ending the seventeen-hour shutdown that followed the incident, the Evening Sun reported (May 5 1943)
May 5, 1943 –
- Willie Craddock, South Boston, VA.
- Mauhee Nediffer, Allentown Hills, WV.
- Susan Nolli, Eynon, PA
- Charles Millman, Camden, DE
- Della Truman, Cedar Grove, WV
- Ellis Simmons, Elkton
- Iva Young Ward, W.V
- Wilson Warner, Elkton
- Mrs. Hurley Galmore, Coatesville, PA
- Christine Erby, Raleigh NC
- Jake Peatross, Danville, VA
- Gilbert Poore, Warwick, MD.
- Harry Rias, Dover, DE
- Chester Whaley, Wilmington, DE
- Ivy Young, Ward, WV.
June 21, 1943 – Three men died in a flash fire at Triumph. They were dumping defective waste material in what is known as a fire pit, when an incident occurred.
- William Nelson Kellum, Carpenters Point
- Samuel Perkins, Still Pond
- William Smith, 37, North East
Sept. 6, 1943 – An explosion of undetermined origin wrecked a small building at Triumph Explosive plant about noon an 18-year-old.
- Lester Billings, 18, Wilkesboro, NC
The registry probably represents an undercount as the primary sources for this preliminary registry are city and local newspapers, and the papers may not have covered isolated incidents. We plan to continue adding information to this summary and will share it as we develop it.