Mansfield Rises to Crisis: the Westinghouse Binoculars of WWII

In 1942, World War II was escalating dangerously and the US Navy was desperately short of binoculars. Within months, however, the Westinghouse plant in Mansfield shipped 100,000 pairs of highly calibrated heavy duty wartime binoculars to men at sea.

How was this even possible? The answer: focus, sacrifice, and a fierce will to persevere.

In Mansfield, the first step to meeting that exhilarating accomplishment was undergoing a punishing setback.

The iconic Westinghouse office building still standing in Mansfield was only four years old in 1941.

Just months before then, in 1941, as the threat of America’s entry into the European war was looming, the United States government asked the Mansfield Westinghouse appliance plant to stop making refrigerators.  

Most of the metallic materials going into household appliances were being reprioritized to manufacturing other products considered more essential to the nation’s defense in wartime—like tanks and bombers and battleships.

So one day they stopped making refrigerators at Westinghouse.  

This was no small sacrifice: in the 24 years that Westinghouse had been in Mansfield, as the factory grew from 125 employees to 5,000; and the local payroll grew from $125,000 to $9,500,000; the largest part of their identity came from manufacturing 20,000,000 appliances.

When the last pre-war refrigerator rolled off the line on April 27, 1942, it was stamped with the number #2,058,334. Everybody on the line signed it, and it was donated to the American Red Cross for their blood bank.

Aside from the production of refrigerators, the Mansfield Works of Westinghouse also housed the company’s Advertising Department. Every one of these ads appearing in Saturday Evening Post, Life, and other major US magazines of the 1930s and 40’s carried an address at the bottom referring all appliance customers to Mansfield, Ohio.

When Westinghouse hosted an open house in 1937 to let Mansfield see the recently completed office building on Fourth Street, one of their most impressive exhibits was this tower of refrigerators stacked on a brand new storage floor.

In January of 1941, the US government curtailed production of refrigerators in America by 55 percent. It happened just as Westinghouse hit an all-time high in appliance production, with a record number of employees.

Closing down the refrigerator department put 700 Mansfielders on furlough. For folks who lived through the staggering days of the Great Depression, a layoff looked like devastation.

But the workers weren’t idle for long, and while they waited, their factory floor was undergoing a renovation.

Government and industry had been ramping up months before Pearl Harbor to repurpose Mansfield’s appliance machinery, and with a couple million dollars in imaginative air conditioning, the Refrigerator Department became the Binocular Department.

How desperate was the Navy for binoculars? The military was asking individuals to loan their personal binoculars to the Federal Government.

Almost immediately as soon as American emergency defense economy kicked into gear, Westinghouse was granted a $3,173,975 contract to manufacture better eyes for the military.

Of all the 25 Westinghouse plants around the US, it was believed that Mansfield had the best resources and talents with which to handle the delicate operation. The production required extremely accurate machinery, and assembly demanded highly focused craftsmanship.

It was no small task to get the factory floor remodeled.  Assembling binoculars requires a particularly dust-free environment to keep any speck of lint from distorting a lens view.

Aside from the uniquely-designed air filtration system created for Building H, the 700 new binocular-makers had to wear specially starched clothing that was too stiff to collect dust. And women in the new department had to stop wearing makeup.  

Newspaper reporters kept trying to insist that doing without makeup was a hardship for the Mansfield women, but every actual quote from 1942 says exactly the opposite: that “soldiers going to battle is true sacrifice, but women going without mascara is a relief.”

From the Mansfield News-Journal April 27, 1942, “Sarah Emery is using a tiny vacuum instrument, which cleans dust from a binocular lens in the same manner that a household vacuum cleaner cleans the parlor rug.”

“In the Binocular Department, we were shown an automatic tool that performs 23 jobs and plays a vital role in the mass production of binoculars. Every hour this specially-tooled screw machine produces 60 parts so intricate in shape that 23 different dimensions are created and checked for accuracy to seven-tenths of a thousandth of an inch.”

In the Westinghouse year-end report from 1942 documenting over a half a billion dollars of war material delivered to the US war effort, it states:

“One Westinghouse plant–a peacetime manufacturer of electrical appliances–transformed the production of binoculars for the nation’s armed forces from a handcraft art to mass output with no loss in precision. The new field glasses have the additional advantage of having interchangeable parts.”

“Before Pearl Harbor, production of binoculars in the United States amounted to only a few thousand a year. Output now has jumped to several hundred thousands.”

Home front manufacturing was regarded by the US Military as no less important than any other kind of wartime service. It was known in headlines as the “Production Offensive.” This AP photo was reprinted in newspapers from coast to coast.

The war gave Westinghouse employees an opportunity to exercise their innovative imaginations, as seen here in AP news stories carried in dozens of newspapers around the US. Diapers and bobbins were two creative solutions provided by Mansfield women.

After Mansfield Westinghouse delivered 100,00 pairs of binoculars to the US Navy, it seemed as if the image of sailors with binoculars became particularly iconic for that branch of the military.

Only the first 100,00 binoculars from Mansfield went to the Navy, as an emergency allocation, and the rest were delivered to the US Army. In this wartime poster General Eisenhower shows off his Westinghouse lenses.

This Associated Press story was found in dozens of newspapers across the US, but with different headlines according to the paper, including:

VITAMINS TO HELP MAKE ARMY BINOCULARS

A 1943 full-page advertisement in the Mansfield News-Journal:

“You come over Ashland Hill and there, spread out before you, is Mansfield. You can see the whole picture of industries, homes, schools and churches. You’re bound to notice one particular cluster of buildings in the valley. Daytimes–from this hill view–these buildings seem quiet enough. But at night they are a blaze of light. That’s when you sense the 24-hour rhythm of a humming, hustling war plant. You know that vital work is going forward.

Tonight the sign on top of the main building is turned out. When peace comes, we will again turn on the lights that say “Every House Needs Westinghouse!”

Perhaps you’ve never thought much about the plant down there in the valley.

But that plant is vital to Mansfield.

And Mansfield is vital to that plant.”

In the 1940s there were 25 Westinghouse plants across the US, so Mansfield shared hometown pride in the iconic big W with other cities, and had to share credit for many of the appliances the company was known for.

But there is one very specific Westinghouse product you can find in the timeline of American History that was manufactured only in Mansfield.  These were the Westinghouse binoculars of WWII. If you’re lucky enough to find a pair, you can be absolutely certain it was hand-assembled in Building H on Fourth Street, on the Fourth Floor in 1942-45.






3 comments

  1. Mr McKee – thank you so much for sharing your love of Mansfield’s History with us. I was born and raised in Mansfield and my dad, Maynard G. Sams, worked at Westinghouse for 42 years. He was also a WWII Army veteran. He enlisted, left Westinghouse to serve, then returned there after his service. I have several of your books and have learned so much about Mansfield thru your writings….again, Thank you….Marsha L. Sams

    Like

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