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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
They had a target on the south side of the Westinghouse building on E.5th St. where they would focus the binoculars.
What a wonderful article. My grandfather was part of the binocular making team. We have photos of him looking over the line as they were made.