Forged and forgotten: Twin Cities ammo plant helped win WWII

Assembly line
The assembly line at the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, c. 1940s.
Courtesy of New Brighton Historical Society

Seventy years ago, a B-17 bomber on the way back from Germany fell short of its base in the English countryside. Returning from a doomed raid, it crashed at Winkfield, a short training strip.

The crew got out, but the plane burned and left little more than some melted aluminum.

In the wreckage lay remnants of Minnesota's contribution to the war: a handful of spent .50-caliber machine gun shells left in the plane after a costly battle over the Third Reich's ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt. More than a quarter of the bombers sent on that raid were lost with their crews.

Hugh Gibbons, an English treasure hunter, stumbled onto the end of one of those missions last year. At the site, now a horse farm, his metal detector uncovered the brass cartridges stamped with a "TW." Gibbons traced the mark back 4,000 miles to the massive Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant.

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Built far away from a potential enemy attack, the plant was part of a Herculean effort to gear up for World War II. Running alongside Interstate 35W, about 11 miles north of downtown Minneapolis, the property's been known more recently as an industrial blight — even a pawn in the chess game over the new Vikings stadium.

At its peak, however, some 26,000 people, the equivalent of 1 percent of the state's population, worked there, and as many as 15,000 people worked a year and a half to build it, said Chad Roberts, president of the Ramsey County Historical Society. That's a workforce more than twice the size of Target's headquarters staff.

Back in the 1940s, plant workers churned out trainloads of .30- and .50-caliber ammunition, destined for troops and airmen in Europe and the Pacific. The site was mothballed after the war, but made ammunition again for the Korean and Vietnam wars. Production stopped there altogether about a decade ago.

Much of the site remains a military reservation, but Ramsey County has purchased almost a square mile — where the factories actually stood — and is cleaning it up.

"We bought 427 acres and we are in the midst of removing all the buildings and all the roads and utilities above ground and below ground and we will be done with this part of the project in spring of 2015," said Heather Worthington, the county's deputy manager.

After that, the site will go back to work as a mixed-use development with housing, shops and parks, said Worthington.

And, if it goes as planned, there will also be a commemoration of the site's contribution to the nation and its soldiers, airmen and sailors. Planners are thinking of naming new streets, putting up place markers, and even an interpretive center to remember the plant's history. It's a contribution to the war effort that doesn't get a lot of attention on Memorial Day.

Next month, Hugh Gibbons will do the same near Winkfield, remembering the crashed plane and its Minnesota ties.

"I've been able to find three people in the area that saw the plane come in that evening," he said. "They claim the plane was on fire. I'm not actually convinced about that. It may have been its landing lights were on, trying to signal to anybody on the ground to get out the way."

He's planning to include the debris from that long-ago wreckage in another memorial at Tally Ho Farm, to recognize a time when Americans rose to defend democracy, some flying in a B-17 and some toiling in a factory far away in Minnesota.