Growing up in Hamlin, West Virginia, Ruth Edwards worked in an expediter position at the Carnegie–Illinois Steel Company after graduating as valedictorian from her high school. At Carnegie-Illinois, she helped manufacture parts for battleships. During World War II, her future husband was a prisoner of war held by Japan. After the war, she held a secretarial job at the Carbide Corporation and later became the state supervisor of business education.
In this interview, Ruth speaks about her upbringing in West Virginia. She also reflects on her duties as an expediter at a battleship steel factory, and how this work changed her views on jobs and education. Ruth discusses her late husband’s World War II experiences, from his capture by the Japanese and his experience on the Bataan Death March to his miraculous survival and escape. She concludes the interview by speaking about her own influences from high school and how they have shaped her career and core values.
When the War Came to an End, the Riveters Dropped Everything
AM: I was extremely impressed that the varied pieces of equipment that they had used were still there seventy years later, just laying there.
AM: When the war came to an end, they just dropped everything and left and nobody ever even came up and cleaned it up? Is that right?
Dropped everything and just left. When the war was over, the plants shut down right then.
Her Husband and the Bataan Death March
When he was captured, he was on the Bataan Death March. And that lasted for days and days and days, and miles and miles and miles. But it wasn’t as far as it seemed because they marched them around and around, and they didn’t know exactly what to do with them because there were more of them than they expected.
So after that, they put him in a prison camp in a place called Cabanatuan, Camp Cabanatuan. I couldn’t spell it for you. [laughs] And then he went to several other camps: he was in Camp O’Donnell. And he was on the death ship where they didn’t expect any of them to live. An awful lot of them didn’t, because they were crowded in there and there wasn’t room to survive, really.
Then they got to Japan, and he was in Japan the rest of the time, in Tokyo. That’s where he was at the end of the war, and then they were liberated from there. He wasn’t really officially liberated because they didn’t get to them. The guards had found out they were liberated, the war was over, because the guards didn’t show up. They knew by the guards not showing up that something was going on. So they kind of liberated themselves, really.
The Man Who Saved Her Husband From the Death House
Malnutrition is what it is. Because they didn’t have anything to eat, just a little cup of rice, a very small portion of rice. And at one time, they gave him up for dead and put him in what they called the “death house.” And this was supposed to be like—well, it wasn’t like a hospital because they didn’t treat you. You was just there.
And there was a young man that passed by the window of that death house and saw him, recognized him, and asked that the Japanese officer—they had Japanese guards—if they would let him take care of Jim Edwards; that he’d go in and he would take care of him, and they wouldn’t have to bother with him. He wasn’t being fed or anything.
This guy’s name was Okpy Pack: O-K-P-Y, P-A-C-K. He was a politician and he had a way with people, so he’d learn to talk the Japanese into giving him a little extra portion of rice every once in a while. So he would sneak that in to him. He snapped him out of it. In fact, Jimmy wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for him.
Red Hot-Steel, the Furnace, and the Factory
[For] the heat-treating units, there were about ten or twelve of the furnaces. And they would get these large steel plates—parts of the battleship—and they would pick them up with a crane. The cranes were the width of the building. They were huge to me. And they would go down on the bay and pick up, put the steel plates in the furnace. There would be furnace operators, and they would keep that temperature turned up just as high as they could. It had to be kept at that temperature for so long, and that would get those plates red hot.
Then the cranes would come back and they would pick those plates up—those red-hot plates—and put them on those cranes and take them down. And they had, I don’t exactly know what you would call it—like a bay or a bin or what—of some type of solution. And they would drop those red-hot plates in that solution. In my mind, it was to harden that steel. And I guess that’s what it was. When they got that finished in, they would take them to the machine shop where they would be finished and then sent to wherever they were supposed to be sent.
But to me that was one of the most fascinating things there. I watched them do the drill bits; I watched them drill the holes for the gun barrels and all that. I watched it all. But I believe the furnaces were the most fascinating to me because of the way they did that steel to get it hardened, so that it would be strong and the way it was supposed to be. It was very, very interesting.
The Need for More Vocational Training Today
Well, I think a lot of times, we put too much emphasis on the fact that everybody is going to college. And everybody is not going to college. I believe that they need to have some field training also, call it vocational education or technical education or whatever. But there are an awful lot of our young people that do not want to go to college for one reason or another. Many of them go to college and they major in a field that they never work in. They’re not interested in that field.
So I like the technical colleges. I like to see the young people who aren’t gonna go on to college, I like to see them get into something that they can actually do. Call it field work, or call it skill work, or call it technical work, whatever you want. But I think there are just an awful lot that do not need to follow the college—they can follow the college curriculum, but have something else in mind also.