Monday, July 11, 2016

War Production at Eclipse

by Erin Doane, curator

During World War II, the Eclipse plant in Elmira Heights was part of the United States’ “arsenal for democracy.” Eclipse started making bicycles and coaster brakes at the plant in 1895. In 1938, the company became a division of the Bendix Aviation Corp. and began the switch from producing bicycle parts and engine starters to ordnance for the war effort. Over the course of the war, Eclipse Machine Division produced anti-aircraft shells, automatic time fuzes for the anti-aircraft shells, and 20mm aircraft cannons. It also continued to make Bendix starter drives for military vehicles, as well as, aircraft magnetos and fuel injection pumps for the B-29 Super-Fortress.

Eclipse Machine Division executives, 1943
The wartime production boom created thousands of jobs in the area. In January 1940, the Eclipse Machine Division employed 715 people. Just three years later, in January 1943, it hit its peak payroll of 8,594 workers. Most areas of the country were suffering from a labor shortage with so many people serving in the military. At Eclipse, 1,249 men and 152 women had gone off to fight. 36 of them died in service. Because of the labor shortage, many of the plant’s new employees were women. In fact, there were more women working as hourly-rated employees at the plant at one time than there were men.

Eclipse employee packing fuzes in a crate, 1942
Manufacturing work had traditionally been done by men, so Eclipse officials had to recruit women for jobs that had never been open to them at the plant before. One of their campaigns to draw more women into factory work was a bit condescending. In it, various jobs at the plant were compared to typical women’s work at home. June Nolan was able to weld contact points on aircraft magneto coils because the iron was so similar to the one she used to curl her hair. Mrs. Edith Houston could bake coils in a small oven at the plant because she baked cakes back home in her own kitchen. And Mrs. James E. Hemenway could wind magneto coils even though her only vocational background was tying corsages in her florist shop.

In 1941, Eclipse opened a modern air-conditioned plant with over 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space to meet the high demand for its wartime products. Employees at the new plant built 5,000 Army mechanical time fuzes and 3,000 Navy fuzes each day. Eclipse was the first company to mass produce the intricate automatic time fuzes that exploded anti-aircraft shells at desired altitudes. Three shifts of works produced the fuzes around the clock. By the end of the war, Eclipse had produced over 23 million of them.

Eclipse plant in Elmira Heights
Automatic time fuzes produces by Eclipse
The plant also produced 600 20mm aircraft cannons each month. Eclipse contracted with the War Department in 1940 to produce the cannons. Previously, the gun had been made in France and there were only three samples of it in the United States. Engineers at Eclipse used the existing guns to reverse-engineer the pieces. They measured and drew them, acquired the types of steel and fixtures needed, then tested their designs. In 1941, it is said that golfers playing the 6th hole at the Mark Twain Golf Course often heard muffled explosions as the Eclipse engineers tested the aircraft cannon in their underground range. The final plans for the cannon were then distributed by the Army to other contractors who also produced the cannons.

Army-Navy "E" award ceremony
On September 25, 1941, Eclipse Machine Division was one of the first companies nationwide to receive the Army-Navy “E” Award. The award was presented for excellence in the production of war equipment. Eclipse was awarded four more over the course of the war – two in 1942, one in 1943, and one with four service stars in 1945. At the award presentation ceremony, the plant received an award banner to display at the facility and each employee received a pin commemorating this shared honor.

Army-Navy "E" banner
"E" award pin
The total war contracts for the Eclipse Machine Division during World War II amounted to $176,800,000, or over $2 billion today. The Elmira Heights plant produced millions of 1.1 projectiles, 23,100,000 automatic time fuses for anti-aircraft shells, 22,500 20mm aircraft cannon, 10,775,000 anti-aircraft shells, 52,000 magnetos for aircraft, and over 22,000 fuel injection pumps.

Employee catching a ride to Eclipse

5 comments:

  1. It's hard to believe that many employees worked at that plant....sad to think that the prosperity came from war contracts....

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  2. I did not know the Former Eclipse Plant and current Purolator Plant was once a thriving Military supplier during the War and how many hundreds of employees they had at one time, apparently we had several BIG companies back then, but I don't think anyone other than current Corning Glass has even close to that many employees today

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  3. My Father, was a Research Scientist at Eclipse in Elmira Heights and Stromberg Carlson in Rochester... during the War... He was involved in the development of several projects... of the utmost secrecy at the time... He developed radar jamming devices which allowed the Allies to fly sorties undetected... He even had his picture in Life Magazine while involved in the war effort.

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