Although chronologically, this post may be out of sequence, it will be one of several that I plan to write about my grandmother, Helen Louise Chambers Boling, who died at age 32 when my dad Frank Burton Boling was 16, and long before I was ever thought of.
It was my dad’s 13th birthday when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941). Immediately, there was an outpouring of America’s young men from factories and offices who lined up at military services recruiting stations. And, America’s young women got in the lines at those factories and arsenals to back fill those vacated jobs. These women produced military hardware and became known as Women Ordnance Workers or, WOWs. The Rosie the Riveter video below, symbolizes those who wore bandannas, hard hats and coveralls, and pulled the same weight as many of the men in their lives. They operated heavy cranes, milling machines, and countless other heavy tools that most of them had never heard of before the war. They also bagged gunpowder, made weapons, crated ammunition and did whatever else asked of them so that their fathers, husbands, sons, and sweethearts could win the war and come back home.
Already estranged several years from her husband, Jesse, and their three young children Frank, Delores, and Barbara, Helen Louise Chambers Boling was one of those women. She went to work at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds (APG) in Baltimore, MD. APG is the U.S. Army’s oldest active proving ground, established on October 20, 1917, (six months after the U.S. entered World War I). APG’s location allowed design and testing of ordnance material to take place near contemporary industrial and shipping centers. The proving ground succeeded the Sandy Hook Proving Ground, which was too small for some large weapons being tested. During World War II, staff at APG grew to a peak strength of 27,185 military and 5,479 civilians.
All fields of research, development, and training expanded. To meet the heavy workload of wartime, APG facilities grew as workloads swelled at the Ballistic Research Laboratory and materials production achieved increasing prominence in the nation’s scientific community. The automotive and armor testing activities were greatly enlarged, and the antiaircraft gun testing mission expanded. Family stories handed down tell me that Helen Boling worked on these gun production and testing activities.
The Maryland Historical Society confirmed for me that large houses in Baltimore City were converted to boarding houses/apartments to accommodate the increases in workers at APG. My grandmother’s death certificate from March 1944 confirmed that she lived on the East Side of North Eutaw Street in Baltimore (then known as Hamilton Terrace). Unfortunately the building where she lived no longer exists.
APG’s technological contributions to the war effort include the world’s first digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC), the first man-portable antitank weapons system (the Bazooka), and the first system-wide practical applications of Statistical Quality Control. These sophisticated statistical quality controls theories created by Bell Laboratories were first applied through Ordnance material procurement contracts in World War II. And, the “Rosie the Riveter“ movement received credit for helping push the number of working women to 20,000,000 during four years of war, a 57 percent jump from 1940.
Based on the whispers and mysteries that surround Helen Chambers Boling’s life and death, I’d say her work in these factories probably gave her the only sense of achievement she had. Helen was a teenager when she married Jesse Boling and she gave birth to her first two children when she was 17 and 18, followed by a third at age 22 in 1933. About 15 months later, she abandoned her babies and her husband. The girls never saw her again. My dad, Frank, who was about 11 or 12 then , ran into Helen on accident when he went home with a school friend and found Helen there. I can’t imagine the emotions that went through him at that time. The next time my dad saw his mother was when he sneaked into the W. W. Chambers Funeral Home where she was laid out. Since my dad Frank was the oldest of the children, his father worked and took to heavy drinking, the task of raising his sisters fell on him, starting at the ripe age of 5. His sisters were 4 and 15 months old. So there are no pictures that I am aware of my dad, and his sisters before their late teens, no pictures of Jesse, his dad, and definitely no pictures of his mother, Helen.