The Proximity Fuze: How Ipswich women helped win WW II

The former Ipswich Mills, now owned by EBSCO, was the site of one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Second World War. The VT proximity fuze (variable time fuse) resembled tubes found in radios, and made it possible to detonate antiaircraft shells in the proximity of their target, rather than on impact.

Fearing that the secret of the invention might fall into enemy hands, the very existence of the proximity fuze was top-secret, second only to the Manhattan project (which developed the atomic bomb). For most of the war, the Pentagon even refused to allow use of the proximity fuze by the other Allied nations.

Proximity fuse
Proximity fuse, WW II

Production of the miniature tubes was granted to Sylvania Electric Product, the only company capable of the required quality and quantity. Sylvania plants in Pennsylvania, Ipswich, and other areas were retooled to manufacture the devices. The job of producing the fuzes was primarily given to women, who assembled the delicate parts by hand by the hundreds, a tedious job that strained the eyes. The women were not told what they were working on, and the work was done under such secrecy that they were searched when they entered and left, and were not allowed to enter the plant with a purse. David Wallace reported that not even the Ipswich Police or Fire Department were permitted to enter the building.

Parachutes and Petticoats: Evocative Women's Stories from WWII

Parachutes and Petticoats: Evocative Women’s Stories from WWII (Honno Voices)

In 1943, 36,000 of the fuses were fired, and were responsible for the destruction of 91 of 130 attacking Japanese planes, protecting ships and servicemen from Kamikaze pilots. When German forces began systematically destroying London in 1944 with V-1 rockets, the technology was shared with Britain, and by the final day of Germany’s 80-day attack, only 4 of 104 bombs succeeded in reaching their target.

In December 1944, Germany launched a ground attack which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Allied forces responded by bombarding German ground forces with shells equipped with proximity fuzes, spraying shrapnel as they exploded over the heads of the German troops. Gen. George Patton credited the proximity fuze with victory in Europe.

Some Ipswich people who worked on the proximity fuzes

  • Roslyn (Comeau) Amerio
  • Gerry Benjamin
  • Mary Blunda
  • Virginia Bower
  • Ethel Makos Campbell 
  • Helen Christopher
  • Mary P. Conley
  • Margaret Courage
  • Elizabeth Gangi
  • Marie-Anne (Martel) Hall
  • Phyllis B. (Garrette) Hills
  • Doris (Martel) Hinckley
  • Kay Kellie
  • Jennie Catherine Kozeneski
  • Evelyn Strok Lachowicz
  • Bessie Lampropolous
  • Lorette Marchand
  • Virginia Marcorelle
  • Florence Marshall
  • Audrey Martineau
  • Theodore Melanson
  • Kitty Crockett Robertson
  • Victoria K. Scibisz
  • Alyce Somers
  • Jean Sullivan
  • Helen E. Thurber
  • Wilbur E. Trask
  • Evelyn Strok Lachowicz
  • Marie Lorraine Kelley (Cook)
  • Please use comment box to add more names to this list.

1944 Ipswich Town Report: Electrical Department

“There was generated nearly 8 million K. W. hours of electricity at the Power Plant during the year 1944, an increase of 21 per cent over the previous year. This was done with the same machinery and labor as we had in 1942 when the output of K. W. hours was 5 1/2 million and represents an increase in the three year period of 32 per cent. The Town was fortunate in having installed in 1941 a new generating unit without which we would not have been able to supply the demands for electric power called for by the Sylvania Plant and Robinson’s Shipyard.”

By 1945, hundreds of women across America had assembled over eight million proximity fuzes for the war effort. The Town of Ipswich, like communities across the country, held scrap metal drives, participated in rationing, and the nation grew 40% of its produce in victory gardens, working together to help assure Allied victory.
Camp Agawam, photo courtesy of Bill George, who says that this WWII army camp was located off of Old England Road.
Camp Agawam, photo courtesy of Bill George. The WWII army camp was located off of Old England Road.
Photo from Tales of Olde Ipswich by Harold Bowen. By 1943 the Ipswich Civilian Defense Organization had 683 volunteers. Shown here are Fred Sturtevant (front left), George C. Weagle, Dana Parsons (2nd row left), Alfred Kotek, Charles Weagle, Martel, Hubert Tougas (3rd row, left), Percy Dort, Don Bugdon, George Deveau, Richard Chapman, Millard Tarr, Jack Clogston (rear left), Ray Horsman, Louis Marchand, Louis Clements and Dick Greenleaf.

In May 1945, the war in Europe ended with the defeat of Hitler’s armed forces. When news reached the town of the surrender of Japan in August, an impromptu parade was held downtown to celebrate the victory. Thirty Ipswich men and one woman gave their lives in service to their country.


20 thoughts on “The Proximity Fuze: How Ipswich women helped win WW II”

  1. Fascinating details about local involvement in WWII preparation. These women look happy in their work. But, oh, how deadly these fuses were….

  2. My mother had a job singing the Sylvania radio theme song during that time with I think a quartet. Lorette Marchand of Ipswich. I still know the song from her singing it for us.

  3. Annie Scott Lynch who lived at 16 Elm Street. Annie’s war work and the actual house are featured in the National Museum of American History exhibition Within These Walls…

  4. Virginia Bower, a summer resident of Little Neck, worked one summer at the Sylvania plant building proximity fuzes. She always said it was a secret weapon.

  5. My grandfather, Henry Trask Cowles, worked at the Sylvania plant in Ipswich after he retired as a professor of agriculture in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. My mother says he fixed fuzes that didn’t look right upon inspection.
    Very interesting article; it’s true no one knew exactly what they were making while they were working there.
    They learned more about the fuzes after the war, but my grandfather was always a little bit vague about them.
    Sincerely, Susan Cowles

  6. My mother, Ruth Horn, worked on this project. She was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma 20 years ago. When the doctor asked where she had worked she replied Sylvania. The doctor asked her what she did. She said she didn’t know, it was a secret. She thought she was soldering the tips of lightbulbs. After she had died I did some research into her employment at Sylvania and discovered that she was actually making proximity fuses. I also discovered that the material she had used to solder was beryllium. Beryllium does cause lung cancer and it can have a 60 year latency period. I believe that this is what killed my mother. I’m not sure if any of the other women who worked at Sylvania at the time contracted Malignant Mesothelioma but if they did they should be honored. I registered my mother in the WWll Women’s memorial in DC. I believe that all the women listed above should be honored and listed in the WWll Women’s Memorial. God bless them all.

  7. Looking through my mother’s papers, I find a card that originally held a pin. The card is from the Bureau of Ordinance, U. S. Navy which extends congratulations, and an “E” insignia to the men and women who participated in the production of the proximity fuze. It seems this card originally held an Army-Navy E insignia. Anyone else who’s mother worked on the proximity fuze find information about the company getting the Army-Navy E emblem, and our mothers receiving “E” insignias?

  8. My Mother, Elizabeth Gangi, from the neighboring town of Topsfield supervised these unsung heroes at Sylvania. So proud of her and would love to honor her memory by having her listed.

  9. Anna vantine worked at john Hopkins applied laboratory in Maryland for33 years
    Also worked on the TV fuse she is in the company’s newspaper. Richard saunders I lived with her the last 7 years of her life. 407 860 2871 she was 85 when she passed.

  10. I always wondered how they worked. and the spray over water when they burst . The water always looks like it was being sprayed with something, it was, sharapnel!

      1. absolutely a shock wave. It it alway bugged me how they worked, and then when you see one explode near a plane, over water, you see weird sleet like stuff going down, as the plane gets mangled, exploded. Almost like pebbles, except they were substantial chunks of steel shards!

  11. Pat Vlahos, my mother, also worked there for years. Unfortunately I don’t have the exact dates.

  12. Yes!
    Annie Scott Lynch is featured at the Smithsonian for living at the Elm Street House and working on the Proximity Fuze

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