Ferne Chambers Krans: Building WACO Gliders
Ferne Chambers Krans was born in Minot, North Dakota, and came to Minnesota in 1936 to attend art school. When World War II broke out, she took a defense job at a military glider factory located at Wold Chamberlain Field in Minneapolis. Ferne's job was to help assemble the large WACO glider aircraft that would play an important part in such operations as the Normandy Invasion and Operation Market Garden. Ferne was interviewed for the Minnesota's Greatest Generation Project in June 2008 by historian Ben Petry and her son, Konrad.
Oral History Excerpts
BP: And how did you end up working at the glider factory? And what was the name of the glider factory?
FK: [DePonti Aviation Company, Inc., one of four locations in the Twin Cities where gliders were made] ...I just went out and applied. I was working at The Dinky Dime, over in Dinkytown [near the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis campus], and I heard about this glider factory and they were paying a lot more than I was getting at this dime store. ...You just went in and filled out an application and if they took ya, they took ya.
BP: How did you hear about it, do you remember? Was it an advertisement?
FK: I lived in a house that had a lot of people, renters, an apartment house. I found out that they made a lot more than I did, so I went out there and applied and I got a job. ...They were looking for people to work on gliders. This was a new factory. We worked in a real old hanger, and it was so cold we wore long johns and mechanic coveralls. I worked with all kinds of people.
BP: What was your first day like?
FK: Out there? Bad. I was ready to quit, [laughing] because I hadn’t worked manually before, though my father was a carpenter and I knew all about hammers and pliers and stuff like that...
BP: Were there a lot of women at the time?
FK: Oh, yeah. There were a lot of women, yeah. A lot of men, too. ...I was amazed how some of these men could make jigs and stuff to make these gliders, because they’d never been made before.
BP: What was the procedure for going to the factory?
FK: We just went through a place where they had kind of a gate you went in. Of course, after you worked there you had your own badge to get you through.
BP: Did you have training beforehand?
FK: No. Well, they just knew that I knew a few things about tools that most girls didn’t, and they assigned me to this one section...and they taught me how to rivet, and I riveted. I was with another girl for awhile, and we made aileron tubes for the gliders.
BP: Tell us about a typical day at work.
FK: Well, you got up real early in the morning, and sometimes I drove, and sometimes I had other people that came and picked me up. It was cold, it was so cold in that factory. We only made about one glider a month. It was terrible. It must have cost the government millions for those gliders. They were only a one-deal, you know; they only used them once. That was it. In all my years, even since then, I’ve only talked to one man, one soldier that was ever on a glider.
KK: And you made aileron tubes all the time you were there?
FK: Yeah, I drilled them. Yeah. ...Drilled them and riveted them.
KK: What did they look like; the aileron tubes?
FK: They were about that long [gestures, about one foot in length]. ...They had a hole in the middle and on the ends, and if they weren’t right - they had to be in pairs, and they had to be exactly, because they’d have to go on each side of the glider, and they’d have to be exact to work. Sometimes we would get them back - the Army rejected them and we had to drill them over again. ...Each department made one thing, like my partner and I did the aileron tubes, and somebody else did something else. ...They had women there that were working with, like the wings were made out of a very fine material. They had a crew of women that sewed them. It was a big deal.
BP: So this toolbox that you have here, did you have this the first day?
FK: Nope. I bought it at Sears, I remember. I had my own tools in there.
BP: How many hours did you work?
BP: Eight hours a day. Five days a week, or six.
FK: Six, and they’d like you to work seven.
BP: Did you ever work seven?
FK: Once in a while. You got double pay then.
BP: What was your weekly salary?
FK: I don’t have any idea. But it was a lot more than working at The Dinky Dime, I tell ya. ...They wanted me to go into the office and I said, “No.” I wanted to go out on the line because you made more money out on the line than you ever did doing office work.
BP: What was the percentage of men to women in the factory at the time?
FK: Oh...I don’t know. It was pretty equal. There were a lot of retired men who couldn’t go in the Army or something, or [were] 4-F’s. Most of [the women] were older than I, and some of them had worked in factories before, and I’d never worked in a factory. Yeah, it was a mixed bunch.
BP: When you were at the glider factory, did you have a sense that this was something really important that you were doing and that you were really contributing to the war effort?
FK: Oh, yeah.
BP: So when a glider was finished – you said it took a month for a glider to finish?
FK: They threw open the end of the hanger and they moved the glider out. ...We had a big party, the first one, yeah.
BP: Was there a lot of publicity about what you were doing?
FK: No. In fact, it was kind of hush-hush, really. And we would have government inspectors come in quite often. ...We had an Army inspector that was there all the time. That walked around in different departments.
BP: How was the relationship between the men and the women at the factory? Any incidents?
FK: Well, with me, that’s how I got in the Marines...This girl left and then I had a man come, and I taught him the job, and when it came payday I found out he made more money than I did. And that made me mad. And he said, “after all, I have a wife and a child,” and whatnot, and I said, “I don’t care. I’m doing the same job. I even taught you your job, and I get less money than you do?!” And he said, “Well, after all, why don’t you join the WACS?” And I said to him, “How come you’re not in the Army?” He said, “I’m 4-F.” And he said, “Why don’t you join the WACS?” And I said, “I wouldn’t join the WACS. If I went in the service I’d join the Marines.” He said, “You’d never make it in the Marines.” And I said, “We’ll see.” On my way home from work that day I stopped into the Marine office, and within a week I was a Marine.
BP: Did you go back and tell him that?
FK: Oh, you bet!
BP: Now, when you were about to leave the factory...that day, was there any idea that you were going to do that beforehand - leave the factory and look for other work?
FK: No. It just came… I was indignant that he would get more money than I would, when I was doing the same job and I had taught him the job.
BP: So for the most part were people on their best behavior?
FK: Oh yes, they were a good gang.
Krans, Fern Chambers; Ben Petry and Konrad Krans, Interviewers, Ferne Chambers Krans Oral History Interview, 2008.
DePonti, Angelo, Angelo DePonti papers, 1929-1991. Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection.