Ruth O'Donnell
Birthday: May 15, 1918
Birthplace: Town of Monroe in Adams Co., Wisconsin
Family: Arthur and Pearl Bloomfield
Occupation: Housewife and late operator in powder house

Co-worker at Baraboo Plant

Co-workers of Ruth O'donnel.

Ruth O'Donnell

From 1941 to 1945 millions of women went off to work, while their men went overseas. Women such as "Rosie the Riveter," became famous figures all across America. By 1945 women composed 36% of the workforce. The war would not have succeeded as it did, without this strong backing at home. Civilians bought war bonds, rationed food and gas, and even changed their hairstyles. The "Victory do" was a hairstyle that did not require the use of metal pins. Victory gardens and other such events were everyday occurrences. Ruth O'Donnell was in the midst of all of this. This is her story.

Ruth O'Donnell was twenty-three years old and married with two children at the beginning of World War II. Although her husband was exempt from service because he was a farmer, she was not left unaffected. Ruth's cousin Judy was expecting while her husband Jimmy was off fighting Hitler in Europe. Because of this, Judy came to live with them. In March of `44, Ruth decided to begin working at the powder plant in Baraboo. She worked three shifts a day for ten days and then had four days off. Judy stayed home and watched the children while Ruth earned a little extra money and helped the war efforts. "(I was) paid a dollar an hour…better than a department store. Forty dollars…boy, I never thought I was going to make that kind of money!" However, it was not all fun and games. She recalls the nervousness she felt her first day at the job, or rather her absence from it. "My first day I didn't go. I got sick…oh, I was so upset! I didn't think I could do it, you know. I couldn't do it. But then the second day I got better."

Once she did pull up the nerve to go to work, she discovered it could be dangerous and often times sickening. Their job was to make the rocket powder for the airplanes and to manufacture explosives for missiles and bombs. "You had to be very careful. No sparks. Nothing to set off the powder. We even wore a special kind of shoe that didn't make any sparks. Because of the smell from the nitroglycerine, the first two or three weeks you were there, you were sick. You had such headaches you couldn't stand it. One girl quit. She couldn't take the headache. But you got used to it…I guess it got into your system." Although she herself was never in any accidents, there were girls in other buildings who worked with even more dangerous things. The buildings were covered like bomb shelters with dirt and sectioned off. "On one shift, we saw the place where it blew (up the day before), but I don't think there were that many people in there. They never let two big crews in at once." Ruth was never really fearful for her life. "Everybody thinks that nothing's going to happen to them. Although it shakes you up when someone gets hurt…I didn't think it would happen to me." There were no benefits for the family if there was an accident.

Ruth did get many good memories out of working at the plant. There were girls from all over the country and the camaraderie was strong. "We had good times…we had real good people to work with. It was an experience to me, because I'd been a farm girl all the time and had lots of friends in the neighborhood, but I didn't know these strange people. There was one girl from the South. Her name was Azalea…I'll never forget her. And she talked with such a Southern accent!" She also recalls a male co-worker. "You know one man and all these women…they gave him such a rush! He didn't know how to handle it! They (the girls) thought if they could get close to him, they wouldn't have to do all the heavy work." A rest was always nice. "I remember one time a whole bunch of big fat military men gave us a pep talk about how we were helping the war effort. We liked it because we got a chance to sit down."

The military men were right about them taking pride in their war efforts, though. "Before I started working I collected aluminum cans and pans. There was an old pan out there that we fed the cat and dog with and we cleaned it up and gave it to the war effort. Everybody pulled together in that war. That was one time the United States was united." She recalls that her second child Kathy had polio at the time and the neighbors all gave their gas stamps so they could take her to Madison for treatments. "Everyone was generous even though they needed the gas stamps themselves." Rations were generally enough to get by on, but Ruth says, "We never got enough sugar, because we were so used to making cakes and pies and anything we wanted. That's when I learned to drink coffee without sugar. And we couldn't get tires for the car. Once they wore out you were kinda out of luck. You stand there with all your sticker things saying, `is this trip necessary?'" There were other items that were scarce during the war. "The hardest thing I had to do [during the depression] was wear cotton stockings! And we didn't get nylon stockings during the war because of all that detergent!" As far as entertainment went, they did the same neighborhood things they always did. "…birthday parties and dances on Saturday night, movies at Adams…we weren't very far from Delwood and there was a nice dance hall down there. We did an awful lot more dancing than you kids do. Ball room dancing…jitterbug came in about that time too. That was a war thing.

During all of this time, Judy's husband, Jimmy, was still overseas, and they were worried about him, even though they heard from him regularly. "We were always concerned. Where was Jimmy? What was he up to?" It was just something that they had to deal with, though. "She knew Jim would go into the war because he trained at Camp McCoy and most of the boys there were leaving. There weren't any stateside jobs…especially around here. When Julie [Jim's daughter] was born, she [Judy] couldn't get to talk to him so she put it in the Stars and Stripes…that was their magazine. He found out that he had a new baby but she forgot to put whether it was a boy or girl! Jimmy called home and he said, `what have I got? Boy or girl?' He called from way overseas!"

Ruth got her news about the war from the radio by tuning in every evening. She also read the Milwaukee Journal. "When they bombed Pearl Harbor, we heard that on the radio first thing. That was a catastrophe. It was a Sunday afternoon and we had gone to my mother's at the store where I grew up. And she had the radio on and ohh…I couldn't believe it! What's gonna happen! What's gonna happen! We were worried about our men! Are they going to go off to service? We didn't know what was going on. Because we really…the country wasn't ready to fight a war. That night we went to the movies. I don't remember the show, but we stopped into the bar there for a couple of beers, and this one guy was setting over the bar with this radio in his lap. He had two boys in Pearl Harbor. I'll never forget that. Both of them went down." Before Pearl Harbor no one had wanted to get involved. "Nobody wanted it. Everybody thought they weren't going to be in it. There's no way we're going over there in Europe to get killed off like we did in the other war, the First World War. There was stuff in the paper about the things Hitler was doing, but that was in Europe. We were more interested in the Prince of Wales than we were in Hitler. We really thought it was in Europe. The world wasn't that small back then. We knew how he was running over Poland. We knew how every week or so he had another country conquered. We kept upon the news, but there was just no way…we were never going to get into that war. If they wouldn't have bombed Pearl Harbor we probably still would have been saying that. But, boy, do something to the Americans and there're not going to just sit around and take it!"

When Jim got home from the war, he told terrible things that happened in the war. "One thing he told that stayed with me so much…it was Germans, I suppose…it had to be the enemy hiding in a basement or cellar…and they wouldn't come out so they just took the hand grenades and threw them down in there. Jimmy told us about that. There'd be lanes and lanes of people walking along the road, sitting, or whatever. And the tanks and stuff would come along and if they didn't get out of the way, they'd just run right over them. I especially remember his telling about throwing the grenade, though." A lot of the kids that Ruth went to grade school with died, mostly in the South Pacific, including her brother-in-law and a very close cousin. "I wrote an awful lot of letters. Anybody that I knew (who) was in the service I tried to keep up with and write to them, because I missed them too. They were on the same area in the South Pacific. They weren't on the same ships or anything but they did know that they were in the same area…and they'd talk to each other with their mikes when their ships would get close to each other."

The war dragged on, and eventually the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ruth says, "It shortened the war. It was terrible for the Japs, but they started the darn war in the first place! Just think of the soldiers we would have lost to get to Japan. It was a horrible thing, but it saved a lot of lives. I don't know…it shortened the war. It would have been difficult to take the area and the conditions over there were so bad. Boys came back with just stumps of fingers from jungle rot. It was bad. We were thinking, `Oh my gosh! Are we going to win? Can we win? How can we win when we're losing all these soldiers, all these sailors, all these ships?'"

Of course, America did win the war. Two or three weeks after the atomic bombings, Ruth and the other workers were told they were done and the factory was shut down within a week. "It was awful quiet after all the people and being at the plant." Ruth drew unemployment when it close, fifteen dollars a week for six months. "My Cousin Judy, her baby was born and Jim came home and she left and everything settled right back down. I was making gardens like always."