It’s Remembrance Day this Sunday and I will always associate this day with my mom and dad.
My dad was in the Signal Corps with the Canadian Army during World War II and my mom was the War Bride from Holland who followed him back to Canada after the war ended.
Because of them, I grew up with the ghosts of WWII.
Although Remembrance Day is typically devoted to remembering those who have fought in the various wars over the years, and especially those who have lost their lives, I’ve lately come to develop a new perspective on this day.
Last year around this time, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Barbara Dickson – the author of a Canadian book called Bomb Girls. I am currently in the process of reading this book.
She had written about the thousands of people – predominantly women – who filled the hastily built factories in the 1940s to make ammunition during WWII. In Dickson’s words, the book was about “the women behind the men behind the guns”.
In Canada, the largest of these munition factories was build in what was then farmers’ fields in Scarborough – referred to as Scarboro at the time, and now a part of Toronto – not far from where I used to work.
Dickson has told a fascinating story that provided a glimpse into the wartime years on the home-front. Although the statistics from the Scarboro munitions factory (sorry, but I’m going there) may not be particularly special by today’s production standards, they would have been extraordinary in 1941 – at least in Canada.
These are some of the facts of the Scarboro facility:
Called Project 24 and later known simply as GECO (General Engineering Company), the plant was operational in under 4 months and fully completed in only 236 days. It was comprised of over 170 buildings that accommodated everything from production to shipping and receiving, change rooms, medical facilities and cafeterias.
The plant included almost 5 kilometres (3 miles) of underground tunnels. These tunnels carried the service lines for electrical, water, etc so that once production began, repairs and maintenance could be completed as required without introducing a hazard to the production area. It almost goes without saying that handling highly explosive materials requires elimination of every additional risk possible.
They operated 24 hours a day, 6 days a week for 4 years without a single serious accident in spite of handling gun powder and other highly explosive matter.
At the height of its production, the Scarboro plant had 5,300 employees. Towards the end of the war, the women outnumbered the men 9 to 1.
The women who worked in the High Explosive section of the plant were distinguishable by their yellow hair and hands – stained from working with Tetryl – a solid yellow powder. Tetryl was an explosive compound used to make detonators during WWI and WWII.
By the time the war ended, the Scarboro plant alone had produced 256 million units of ammunition with a 99% quality rating. As you can imagine, ammunition that fails to detonate when required – or detonates when it’s not supposed to – would have been a major handicap, so the reliability of the munitions was critical.
In today’s world of 6-Sigma*, 5S Lean**, and highly automated processes, 99% quality may not sound very impressive, but considering that these were completely manual processes that involved upwards of 100 distinct tasks, this level of quality is nothing short of amazing.
The area where this factory was once located is now all shopping malls and Big Box outlets.
The Scarboro factory and the women who worked there are the invisible heroes of the war effort. As Dickson noted in her book, these women eventually returned to peace time life with no recognition, no fanfare, and no medals to recognize their contribution.
So today I recognize these women and the many thousands of others who worked in similar behind-the-scenes jobs to ensure the Allies would win and men like Frank Sisco could go back home.
(*) Six Sigma was developed in the 1980s and is a data-driven methodology for eliminating defects in any process. Six Sigma refers to six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit. In other words, a 6-Sigma process would be 99.999999% accurate.
(**) 5S Lean refers to the 5 steps of Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain in order to eliminate the 8 types of “Lean” waste – Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-Utilized Talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra-Processing.