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Monday, September 24, 2007

Make sure you watch "The WAR"

I'm a great admirer of Ken Burns' work. His documentaries on the history of jazz, and baseball should be required in all schools and his latest series entitled "The War" is set to be another instant classic.

The documentary is on based on personal accounts of World War II and the impact the battle against the Axis powers had on the nation. For those who don't know, Waterbury played a very significant role in supplying the military with much needed equipment (even providing parts for the atomic bomb. Burns takes note of the Brass City talks a great deal about the contribution residents of Waterbury gave to the war effort throughout the film.
Waterbury, Connecticut: A gritty industrial city of approximately 100,000, situated at the confluence of the Naugatuck and Mad Rivers in central Connecticut, Waterbury had been the center of the American brass industry since the early 19th century. By the 1920s, more than a third of the brass manufactured in the United States was made in the Naugatuck Valley, and Waterbury came to be known as the “Brass City.” Its skilled workers turned out screws, washers and buttons; showerheads and alarm clocks; toy airplanes and lipstick holders; and cocktail shakers.

Waterbury was populated by successive waves of immigrants, primarily from Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe and Great Britain. By 1930, nearly half of Waterbury’s population was foreign born. It was a city of close-knit, ethnic neighborhoods, where many residents remained their entire lives. Families packed into triple-decker homes, factory row housing and boarding houses, surrounding lively commercial districts with ethnic markets and bakeries, churches and movie houses.

The city, like the rest of the country, endured hard times during the Great Depression, as industries imploded and thousands were thrown out of work. But all that changed when America began to gear up for World War II, and local factories retooled for war production. The Mattatuck Manufacturing Company switched from making upholstery nails to cartridge clips for the Springfield rifle, and soon was turning out three million clips a week. The American Brass Company made more than two billion pounds of brass rods, sheets and tubes during the war. The Chase Brass and Copper Company made more than 50 million cartridge cases and mortar shells, more than a billion small caliber bullets and, eventually, components used in the atomic bomb. Scovill Manufacturing produced so many different military items, the Waterbury Republican reported, that “there wasn’t an American or British fighting man … who wasn’t dependent on [the company] for some part of the food, clothing, shelter and equipment that sustained [him] through the … struggle.”

Because of its concentration of war industries, Waterbury was believed to be a strategic bombing target for the German Luftwaffe. Waterbury Clock — which would later be known as Timex — built a new plant in 1942 to accommodate the military’s demands for mechanical time fuses and other aircraft and artillery equipment. The new factory was nestled among the Middlebury hills and could be flooded and covered with water in the event of an invasion. Its roof was painted with a tromp l’oeil mural of trees, water and grass to deceive enemy bombers. In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Waterbury hurriedly appointed air wardens to coordinate a local response to an air raid. The local barbers’ association volunteered to equip the city’s barbershops as first aid stations.

More than 12,000 men and 500 women from Waterbury served in the armed forces during the war; the mayor saw them all off at the railroad station. Each man received a prayer book and a carton of cigarettes, courtesy of the Shriners; 282 of those who served lost their lives.

The civilian men and women of Waterbury contributed to the war effort in hundreds of ways, large and small. War bonds were sold from “Liberty House,” set up in the middle of the town green on the site where similar bonds had been sold to help defeat Germany during the First World War, and local residents bought $270 million worth. They also collected 68,500 pounds of rubber; 5,097,421 pounds of scrap metal; 8,255,640 pounds of paper; and 150 tons of waste fat.

The end of the war spelled the beginning of a sharp decline of Waterbury’s manufacturing base. Military contracts were cancelled in the months leading up to the Allied victory; within a week of V-J Day, 10,200 employees had been let go from Waterbury factories. Many would be rehired when the factories re-tooled for civilian production, but thousands of jobs were permanently lost. By the 1950s, plastic and aluminum had replaced brass for many uses, and cheaper labor overseas competed for the remaining jobs in brass manufacturing. By 1980, there were fewer than 5,000 workers remaining in the Naugatuck Valley’s brass plants.

There will be a discussion of "The War" this Friday at 7 o'clock at Barnes and Noble in Danbury. If you're watching the film, live in the area, and want to have a chit-chat with others who are also viewing the documentary, come on down.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday madness

Sorry for the lack of posts here but I've been quite busy with covering stories in Danbury.

I'll promise to get things back on track soon.