Dorothy "Dot" Finn
Dorothy “Dot” Finn was born in Longacre, West Virginia, during the Great Depression. She attended school in West Virginia before starting work in a TNT plant running ammonia conversions during World War II. Dot’s future husband also worked at the plant and remained on the home front due to his expertise as a chemical engineer. She married and then left the plant during the war.
In this interview, Dot speaks about growing up during the Great Depression and how her father managed to keep a consistent job in hard times. She discusses how she planned to major in physical education at West Virginia University, but ended up leaving two years into college to work during the war. She reflects on running ammonia conversions in the labs at the plant and how she met a young chemical engineer, who would later become her husband. Dot recounts her memories of rationing, Victory Gardens, and other aspects of wartime life. She ends the interview by sharing her advice and insights for the youth of today.
Running Ammonia Conversions in TNT Plant
I worked in the lab there at the TNT plant. There were, oh, probably a dozen; we were all women. We had male supervisor. But all the people in the lab that worked were women.
My main job was running ammonia conversions. What I would do, I would take a glass flask about the size of a grapefruit, go into the plant, get an ammonia sample—this is ammonia gas—and bring it back to the lab. I would run the analysis and give my analysis to the man that took care of the platinum screen that the ammonia would go through. This platinum screen acted as a catalyst; it was part of the process of a—well, it’s too detailed to go into all that. [laughs]
I carried it out into the plant where the ammonia pipe was. I would open the stopcock for exactly one minute, and get one minute of gas into this glass bulb. Turn it, stop it, take it. Then I would walk back to the lab. And that’s when I would run the analysis on the gas I had inside the bulb that I had.
There was one man in the lab. He had a little office just off of the lab where he did all of his work. He took care of a platinum screen that the ammonia passed through. When I go out to the plant to get the ammonia, this ammonia passes through a platinum screen, and that is part of the process of making TNT. Now, I don’t understand all the exact chemical reactions and all that.
But anyhow, after I would run the analysis on the ammonia gas, give him my analysis, he would use my analysis to determine whether to clean the screen, replace the screen, or what needed to be done to the screen. That was his job, but he used my conversion analysis to determine that.
So that was mainly what I did. We did other jobs, too, like things in the lab. But mainly, that was my biggest job.
Everything Changed After Pearl Harbor
Well, the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed, it was a Sunday morning and I was at church. And I came home from church and went in to the lunchroom, and it was abuzz. Everybody was talking, and I could tell, “What’s all the excitement?” And I found out, they said, “We are at war.” They said that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, the Japanese had bombed it, and that Franklin Roosevelt had declared war.
Almost immediately, everything on campus changed. I would go to class and the next week there would be an empty seat. And maybe the next week, another empty seat. The male population at school just started diminishing. It went down and down. The fellows had enlisted in the Armed Services.
By the time I left at the end of my sophomore year, I don’t know the percentage, but there were an awful lot of male students that had enlisted in the Army. We did everything; everything was geared to the war.
Everyone Banded Together to Win the War
I think that it gives us a better appreciation of our country. And particularly, when we look back and think of what all went on and what happened during that time, you really appreciate what a wonderful country we live in. We appreciate our freedoms more and you have a closer friendship with people. You realize how we all worked together.
It just seemed like the group that we worked with at the plant, all of us—I couldn’t call them gals because some of them were up in their 30s or maybe even 40s—but we had such a friendship. It was just a good relationship.
They just wanted the war over. And of course, they wanted to win the war. That was one of the objects of working, so they were hard workers. They didn’t complain; nobody complained about they had to do this or that. Because we just did our job, and we felt it was a worthwhile thing and good cause. [laughs] So it was just something we did.