War Time in Niles, MI

from Julia Anton Wiggins

Here is a story about what some in my family experienced during World War II as residents of Niles, Michigan. This story is neither exceptional nor unique. It is just the result of me talking to my Grandma.

I encourage everyone to talk to the Greatest Generation. They have much to teach us and will not be here long. Just ask for stories. You will be amazed. But hurry. You’ve got to hurry.

I am not putting the full names of anyone but my Grandma Ossmer. She granted me permission to tell her story. It never occurred to me to ask the others, but now they are dead. In respect for their privacy, I use their first initials only.


My Grandmother, Ethel Fitch Ossmer, worked in the Kingsbury munitions plant in LaPorte, Indiana, during WWII. Her job was making bombs.

Here she is in a group photo at the bomb plant. She is the short but scrappy lady in the front row to your left. A woman in her forties, she wears a mid length skirt and dark blouse and she is pointing into the camera’s eye.

Born a true Victorian lady, she never wore trousers, not even to make bombs.

She has something that looks like a model airplane across the top of her shoes in the photo below. Two of her sons were at war at the time, in Europe and the Far East.

Uncle B— stormed the beach at Normandy on D Day, was trapped in a shallow foxhole with a dead German, whom he used for cover, (I mean I would too!) and survived to become a highly decorated hero and later, a successful executive. He had a big beautiful family and lived a long happy life.

Uncle D—- escaped from a Japanese prison of war camp and returned to Niles for a job on the railroad. Not long after his return, he was crushed between two railroad cars during a switch operation on the tracks down by the ice house.

Another Uncle D (should we call him D Plus?) was a merchant marine. He survived the war and became a steeplejack, retiring to Brooklyn, Michigan, where he built his own house by hand and had a fieldstone fireplace. One of the rocks had a petrified lizard tail embedded in it. I hope it is still there.

Perhaps the little plane was a momento one of them sent, or gave to his mother when he was home on leave. In any case, in this photograph, my Grandmother has a war plane on her feet, and she is sending a message.




One day, the plant officials took all the ladies outside and posed them in a group. “Ladies! Send a message to go with those bombs! “ So they all posed looking warlike and fierce as a message to their enemy.

In this picture, Grandma O told me she was telling the enemy, “Here’s One in Your Eye!”

Although raised never to point one’s digit, she made an exception just this one time. The circumstances called for it, overriding nicety.

She told me they sometimes wrote notes on the bombs to support the soldiers who would use them. Often they would put on bright lipstick and give the bombs a big red kiss. Somebody else put ink on an old pair of high heel shoes and stamped footprints across the casing of a bomb. A note to the enemy (we stomp on you with our pretty little shoe) or a note to the soldiers (we’ll be here when you get home, Hon, and we will be lookin good) ?

Back to the picture. Please note Grandma O’s daughter B——- to her left in the coveralls. She is energetically emulating a machine gun. This eldest daughter was a scrapper, the story goes, until she found religion and straightened herself out.

My mind’s ear can hear her going

Thidadidathud! Thidadidathud!

While I did not know her at her scrappiest, I can hear her making that noise. Look at her picture and you will too.

We think another daughter, S——. is behind Grandma O’s right shoulder. It looks just like Aunt S——— but she seems older, thinner, and more careworn than she should have been at that time. Of course, the times were rough. She later recovered her joi de vivre, married a dashing cavalier on an airplane, had three sons, and was tragically widowed. She came back to Niles from Gleason, Tennessee, got a job running the eye doctor’s office, and bought a house on Regent Street, enjoying a long happy marriage with her sons’ sixth grade teacher, our beloved Uncle Harold R——-. She was also a well known realtor in town.

Grandma O said the money at the Kingsbury plant was great, plus they also got free housing and food.

She told me they were required to smoke Kool menthol cigarettes during breaks and lunchtime to “clear the lungs.”

So what if her hair turned green and her complexion yellow.? She was a single mother of a very large family and desperately needed the work. Plus she was serving her country.

In spite of all the toxins, the birth of 12 children, and the stress of widowhood and loss, Grandma O lived past her hundredth birthday.

We think she was 103. During the Depression and the war which followed, the family made themselves older or younger to suit the circumstances so we are not sure about her true age. The birth certificate was destroyed in a fire at the Baptist church some time in the 1920s.

I make no claim to historical accuracy in the details of this story. I am just recounting what my Grandmother told me.

We love her story just the way she told it and we don’t need anything more.

One last thing. Please take the time to scan this photograph to examine the faces and dynamics of these heroic women. My family only takes up one corner, but every one of them tells a story of her own.

One of those stories could be yours.


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