Historical Markers
Eugene Gifford Grace [World War II] Historical Marker
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Eugene Gifford Grace [World War II]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
114 West 4th Street, Bethlehem

Dedication Date:
April 19, 1997

Behind the Marker

Bethlehem Steel Mill in Johnstown, Pa., June 14, 1937.  "Here is a general view of the Johnstown, Pa., plant, of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, another of the fronts in the battle between the C.I.O., and independent steel companies."
Bethlehem Steel Mill, Johnstown, PA, June 14, 1937.
By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Bethlehem Steel already was one of the nation's giants. Tracing its ancestry back to an iron works that opened in 1857, the company began making steel products in 1873. Incorporated in 1904, themarkerBethlehem Steel Company was soon producing oversize gun barrels for battleships and coastal fortifications and became one of a select few firms in the world to successfully make the special hardened armor used in the great powers" World War I battleships.

Oil on canvas of Eugene Gifford Grace
Portrait of Eugene Gifford Grace, by Frank O. Salisbury. circa 1933.
After World War I, Bethlehem Steel kept expanding, acquiring shipyards, other steel companies, coal mines, and iron ore mines, until by 1941 it was the nation's second-largest steel producer, after United States Steel, based in Pittsburgh. Bethlehem's holdings included dozens of plants across the nation, including facilities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Upon hearing of Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939, and the declaration of war by France and England, company president Eugene Grace is said to have informed his golf partners that "we are going to make some money." And, indeed, Bethlehem did just that. By war's end in 1945, Bethlehem Steel was the nation's largest defense contractor, and had produced an astounding 73.4 million tons of steel. Its shipyards built 1,085 vessels, from aircraft carriers and battleships to oil tankers, Liberty ships, and Victory ships. Bethlehem workers also repaired, converted, or serviced 37,778 ships. Early in 1943, Grace declared that he wanted his workers to build a ship a day, a goal that skeptics believed impossible. On December 31, a proud Grace, standing in the Bethlehem shipyard on Staten Island, New York, spoke via radio to workers at every Bethlehem subsidiary in the country. Acknowledging the 67,000 former employees who were serving in America's armed forces, he said, "Our effort is small beside yours, but we are going to keep up everlastingly at it, so that you may have the supplies you need when and where you need them." Grace then revealed that Bethlehem had launched 380 vessels in 1943, far and above anyone's expectations.

Two GIs at Bethlehem Steel Armor Piercing Sheel Exhibit, N.D.
GIs at exhibit of armor piercing shells manufactured by Bethlehem Steel, circa...
Bethlehem Steel employed 283,765 people in 1943, more than 31,000 of them at the company's headquarters plant in its namesake city. The steel giant manufactured bomb casings, armor piercing shells, airplane parts and engines, airfield landing mats to turn newly cleared land into an operational airfield, submarine air flasks, railway equipment, tank forgings, wire ropes and cables, and other materiel needed by the American armed forces. The company's fifteen-yard shipbuilding operation employed tens of thousands of workers, most of whom had to be trained as riveters, sheet-metal workers, electricians, pipe fitters, machinists, painters, and welders. To train its massive wartime workforce, Bethlehem Steel first gave new employees aptitude tests to determine each person's abilities, then sent them off for training. Facing a critical labor shortage as men were drained off into the military, the federal government declared that workers performing essential wartime occupations, especially those with families, were exempted from the draft. To meet its labor needs, the company sent recruiters to Mexico to bring immigrant laborers to help in the big steel mills. Women in increasing numbers joined the work force, with perhaps 25,000 going to work for Eugene Grace's company.

The entire wartime operation had to be carefully controlled to prevent chaos. Workers entered the plants at staggered times to prevent congestion, both on nearby streets and at the entry gates. Bus and trolley routes were packed with riders, and new parking lots were completely filled. Local communities were encouraged to renovate existing houses and subdivide larger ones to house the influx of men and women seeking jobs. Lacking enough men in Bethlehem's security force, Grace employed women, who proudly dubbed themselves "pistol packin" mamas" after the popular tune by country singer Al Dexter. Bethlehem's full production mode meant more money for the local communities. By 1943, the average Bethlehem employee was making $1.30 an hour. In spite of rationing's dampening effects on purchasing, local entertainment centers made money as both workers and soldiers on leave did what they could to relieve the tension of wartime life.

At the height of the American war effort, Pennsylvania led the world in steel production. The Pittsburgh area produced twenty-seven percent of the nation's steel. Forty-one percent of the nation's steel was produced within a half-hour train ride. Bethlehem Steel itself produced more steel than the entire output of England. As Grace later noted, it was "the miracle of American production that spelled the doom of the Axis [powers]" and led to American victory in the second world war of the twentieth century.

To learn more about Eugene Grace and the Pennsylvania steel industry markerclick here.
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