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Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel - Chapter 6

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While some Bethlehem Steel women did manual labor alongside men like John Wadolny, and some were secretaries like Althea Kulp, others had a role that reflected the company's urgent need for security. These women carried guns and kept watch for saboteurs.

Ethel Bogunovich of Hellertown, whose mother wouldn't let her go into Bethlehem during the riotous steel strike of 1941, was working in a security office at the plant two years later. But the feisty 21-year-old was eager to try something else. She wanted to be transferred to the outdoor security patrol, a job that would pay her nearly three times her current salary of $60 a month.

She had to learn to shoot, but caught on quickly. During a training session for prospective patrol women in 1943, Ethel hit the bull's-eye the first time she pulled the trigger of a .38-caliber revolver. The sure shot earned her a citation from the patrol chief and a spot on the force.

On the radio, country singer Al Dexter — and later Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters — had a song called ''Pistol Packin' Mama'' that shot to No. 1 like a bullet.

Lay that pistol down, babe,
Lay that pistol down.
Pistol packin' mama,
Lay that pistol down.

The women patrolling the plant liked the sound of it and called themselves the ''pistol packin' mamas.''

''I worked specifically at the main gate, checking in employees as they came in, checking their lunch bags and making sure they didn't carry any contraband or anything to that effect,'' says Ethel, whose married name is Gasda. The method of checking lunch bags for knives was to flatten the bags like a pancake.

Some security staff searched cars entering the plant for guns or knives. Ethel doesn't recall the company finding contraband but is certain that the security force was a deterrent to potential saboteurs.

Another duty was to prevent employees from working when they were drunk, which frequently happened on payday. Yet another was patrolling the plant in darkness, a task that Ethel, now 81 and living in Lower Macungie Township, found unpleasant.

''Well, during the night shift, say from 11 o'clock to 7 in the morning, it was rather dull. After all the employees were checked in, we had to do turns walking up and down the carpenter shop. There were lots of rats running up and down. … Of course I was afraid of them. But as the elderly gentleman on the police force said, 'What are you afraid of? You have a gun, a .38. You can shoot them.' But you were charged 5 cents for each bullet you used.''

Ethel had wanted to become a nurse, but her mother deemed nurses to be ''pot wallopers'' who did little more than carry bedpans, and Ethel canceled her job interview at nearby St. Luke's Hospital. Her mother didn't approve of Ethel's job at Bethlehem Steel, either.

''My daughter is a pistol packin' mama! My daughter!'' she exclaimed to friends. ''I'm ashamed to tell anybody what my daughter's doing.''

Ethel's father, Frank Bogunovich, a furnace repairman at Bethlehem Steel, was supportive. ''Honey,'' he said to his daughter, the fifth of six children. ''You do what you want.''

The flood of women and other wartime steelworkers led to new homes outside south Bethlehem, north of the Lehigh River, in places such as the sparsely populated area between Bethlehem and Freemansburg. It also prompted property owners, nudged by public officials, to offer rooms and apartments for rent.

Working with Bethlehem's banks, the U.S. government encouraged housing conversions. On May 3, 1943, the National Housing Agency for Properties announced it had arranged a lease with two property owners to provide space for war workers, the first of what agency officials hoped would be many more. The next day, Bethlehem's First National Bank and Trust Co. announced its ''Remodeling for Victory'' campaign, reminding property owners that ''idle houses and rooms are slackers in this war.'' Owners could get loans to make conversions.

The big mansions of Bethlehem Steel's founders — Robert Sayre's residence and the house where Robert Linderman and Charles Schwab had lived — were divided into rooms and apartments.

But like the company's earlier luminaries, its chief executive during the 1940s lived in a large house and kept a regal presence.

In 1941 and 1942, Eugene Grace's annual pay was $537,724, the highest in the nation after Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer, who made $697,048 in 1941. In April 1943, while announcing that The Steel's first-quarter earnings were only slightly higher than those for the same period in 1942, Grace said he was taking a 58.8 percent pay cut. That brought his total compensation for the year to about $221,600.

It was still a princely sum, and Grace was treated like a feudal baron. His comings and goings at the Bethlehem offices on Third Street were a finely orchestrated dance of precision and security.

A Bethlehem Steel police officer was perched on the building's roof, binoculars in hand. When he spotted Grace's motorcade, which consisted of Grace's chauffeur-driven car escorted by motorcycle policemen, a signal was buzzed to elevator operators in the headquarters building. The elevator attendants stopped at the nearest floor, and everyone got off and out of sight. The elevators descended to the granite-and-marble art deco lobby to await Grace's arrival. Emerging from his car, Grace would make his choice of elevator and ride up by himself.

As a result of rationing, Saucon Valley Country Club caddies had trouble getting to the golf course. Determined to play, Grace would have his chauffeur pick them up and drive them.


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