It’s almost a kind of ritual for youngsters to play with or wear their fathers’ (or mothers’) military uniforms. I loved to unearth and wear parts of my father’s World War II Navy uniform, and I especially liked his khaki jacket and black trench coat, perfect accessories for a suburban punk rocker in the late 1970s.
Lifelong Roebling resident Donald Jones can relate, as he used to play with and model his father’s World War I uniform and steel helmet, which he recalls was way too large for his head.
Jones also remembers that, like many men of the early 20th century, his father, Alvin Jones, didn’t like to talk about his time “over there.”
“My father was in school, but World War I beckoned, so he joined the Army at age 17 and was stationed in France in an anti-aircraft unit,” Jones says. “No, he didn’t talk about it, but I knew he had his uniform and helmet up in the attic, and I used to put them on and walk around, play with the other (Army) things.”
Now these items, including a World War I doughboy’s kit bag, a blue star service flag, dog tags, and a “welcome home” button are part of the exhibit “Roebling in Wartime,” on view through 2016 at the Roebling Museum, at the former plant site on Second Avenue in Roebling (a 30-minute trip south from Princeton on I-295).
John A. Roebling’s Sons Company (J.A.R’s Sons) is well known for crafting the steel cables used in the construction of the beloved Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges, among many other spans. But its wire rope and other products were essential in the United States’ military efforts during both World Wars I and II. The exhibit, which opened in May, explores the impact of the two world wars that transformed the company and its workforce.
“Roebling in Wartime” was co-curated by Jones, an original member of the Roebling Museum board of directors, and Martha Moore, president of the board and also an original member. The exhibit was made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
“(It’s especially timely), since it’s the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II,” says Moore, who is a great-great-great granddaughter of John A. Roebling, the designer and builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. “Because the Roeblings are so associated with bridges, people don’t necessarily think about the other kinds of wire products that were so important during wartime. It gives viewers a new perspective, not only that these products were made in New Jersey, but (more evidence) of the ingenuity and industry of the Roebling company.”
“There are emotions ranging from angst to nostalgia about how the United States’ manufacturing has been misplaced as far as making things in the world,” she adds. “So when you go to an exhibit about what the country was capable of making and did make, it’s enjoyable and it makes people feel good.”
Wire rope was critical to military weaponry. In World War I, John A. Roebling’s Sons made millions of feet of galvanized wire rope to deploy some 70,000 mines in the massive the North Sea Mine Barrage that stretched from Scotland to Norway, to guard against German U-boats.
The company also produced more than 4 million feet of wire rope for the Adriatic Sea Mine Barrage, plus three million feet for protecting harbors and fleets of ships on the home front.
“If you can picture a mine, the mines float near the top of the water and have to be anchored to the bottom of the sea, and then consider that the North Sea is thousands of feet deep in some places,” Jones says. “Most people don’t know that Roebling produced millions of feet of wire, and when I say millions, I’m not exaggerating.”
“Aircraft cords were also made at Roebling, in both wars, and were used for many applications, such as the wire to catch the planes landing on aircraft carriers,” he adds. “Wartime was a major challenge for the mills like Roebling.”
Steel anti-submarine and torpedo nets — comprising thousands of steel grommets looped together — also brought a boom in manufacturing to J.A.R.’s Sons, in both wars. One huge net protected New York Harbor.
Both wars brought prosperous times to the company as well as the company town. For workers, there was an abundance of opportunity for overtime as production went on night and day.
“During World War II some of my relatives were working on these steel nets, and it was piece work, so if you could make those grommets fast enough, you could make enough money to live well,” Jones says. “A few of my relatives were very successful.”
“One of my uncles rode around in a new Buick,” he adds. “People in town would say, ‘Where did you get the money to buy a Buick?’ and he’d say, ‘I worked on the nets.’”
One of the more interesting aspects to “Roebling in Wartime” is the World War II story of how hundreds of male workers went overseas to serve in the armed forces. Their wives, mothers, sisters, and even daughters and nieces took their places in the Roebling mills, as women joined the company workforce in significant numbers for the first time. These were real-life “Rosie the Riveters.”
The exhibit also features a video, crafted by Moore — a former national political reporter for “USA Today” — where two lifelong Roebling residents, former company workers and World War II Navy veterans, remember their time in the plant, producing the steel grommets for the anti-submarine and torpedo nets.
George Pukenas and Claude Cardi, who are both in their 90s, recall that you had to work fast and that making the grommets required teamwork. The company’s goal was 150 grommets per shift, but Pukenas recalls that they were soon making 200.
Jones, who is 86 and lives in Roebling with his wife of 36 years, Gloria, was a little too young to serve in the armed forces during World War II, but he was swept up in the wartime spirit.
“I was in Florence Township High School, experiencing all the war activities around me, and so wanting to be in the service,” he says. “Young fellows back then really wanted to join the service; we couldn’t wait to be old enough to join. But the war was over before I graduated in 1946.”
He graduated from Temple University in 1950, majoring in fine arts and minoring in history, and was drafted into the Army for two years.
He says his father came home from World War I long before there was any kind of GI Bill or financial support for veterans’ education, but he was determined to go to school and make something of himself.
“My father wanted to get an education, so he went to (what is now) Rider, where he studied accounting and several other subjects,” Jones says. “That gave him an advantage when he applied at Roebling, where he started working in their offices. He didn’t talk about his work very much, but I remembered that when he went to work, he wore a necktie and not workman’s clothes. Eventually he became a supervisor in the physical test lab.”
Jones retired about 20 years ago, after a long career as director of marketing for Hill Refrigeration, manufacturers of commercial refrigerators. The company is now called Hill-Phoenix and is located in Georgia.
“They were once the second largest employer in Trenton,” he says. “When I retired, I had more time for local things, so I joined the Roebling Historical Society, and I got hooked on it. It’s grown and become a big part of the second half of my life.”
“Martha is a talented writer, and we’ve worked on four or five exhibits at the museum,” Jones says. “For this exhibit we did research together and I used my personal experience with the wars. The most difficult part was what not to say or include.”
As far as that doughboy’s kit bag and other items from World War I — which look to be very well-preserved — Jones had almost forgotten about his father’s wartime belongings, things he cherished as a child.
“Many years passed before I even looked at it my father’s things from the war again, but they came in handy for the exhibit when we needed artifacts,” Jones says. “I was delighted to dig out my father’s mementos.”
Roebling in Wartime, Roebling Museum, 100 Second Avenue, Roebling. On view through 2016. April through August, Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; September through December, Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., $5 to $6. 609-499-7200 or www.roeblingmuseum.org
Patriotic Celebration Day Parade, Saturday, July 11, noon. Starts at Front and Oak streets in Florence.
Sixth Annual Roebling Museum Car Show, Saturday, July 25, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. $5. Children under 12 free, 215-752-0484 or www.movinonkruzers.com.