The Uncle, the Bomb, and the Beer Hall

Every family seems to have a few stories that they’ve talked about so many times over the years that they think everyone knows it … then they forget to tell the younger generation. This sort of thing happened to me a number of times over the years, but one of the oddest was the day my dad told me about Denver’s bomb.

After looking at old photos of his parents’ house, he started talking about his childhood in the early 1940s. He told me how his parents would give each of the kids a dime on Saturday nights and send them uptown. A nickel would get them into the movie theater, and the other nickel would buy them each a Coke and a bag of popcorn. After the movie, they’d go to the local tavern to meet their parents. My grandparents weren’t much for drinking, but they loved to dance. The kids would wait for the music to end, then they’d all walk home together.

I remarked how funny it was that they didn’t mind little kids hanging out at a bar like that.

Dad said, “Well, that was my uncle Denver’s tavern, you know. The one he bought after he got blown up.

“Wait, what?”

You remember, the big bomb. During the war.”

Of course. Throughout my life, my parents would say “you remember” in reference to things that happened decades before I was born, that I could not possibly have remembered. Since all the people mentioned in this story were born and raised in Iowa and I was reasonably certain this uncle had never been in the military, I was stumped. It took some cajoling to get dad to retell it, because he was convinced everyone knew the story.

It happened a few days after Pearl Harbor, in rural Iowa.

While the war was raging in Europe, America beefed up its military preparations. They constructed a 60 million dollar munitions factory near our hometown and nearly 20,000 people moved into the area to work there. It’s amazing how fast they brought it to life. The Iowa Ordnance Plant started construction in November 1940 and by September 1941 it began production.

Two months later, America officially joined the war and the plant had to double their efforts to produce enough ammunition. Naturally, they cut corners.

My great-uncle Denver was assigned to the line that built mortar shells. As he told it later, the room was designed for two assembly lines, but shortly after Pearl Harbor they decided to add a third line. This involved bringing in several new tables and folding chairs and, since the line couldn’t quite fit into the room, Denver and a couple other people were actually sitting out in the hall.

That’s when the TNT melting unit exploded.

No one knows exactly what went wrong that day, December 12, 1941, but the catastrophe lead to 9 dead, at least 20 injured. Since so many people were rushed to the hospital with TNT splattered all over their clothing, the hospital hastily created “No Smoking” signs – the first time they’d ever had to think of such a thing.

Uncle Denver wasn’t dead, and he wasn’t among those listed as injured, but he got a whopper of a story out of it.

Since he was working on the table that stretched out into the hall, he was shielded from part of the blast. It shot him up into the rafters, along with part of the wall. He was dazed, disoriented, and probably a little concussed. When he managed to get himself down, he started walking and didn’t stop until he got home, ten miles away.

This was a Friday, so he deliberated all weekend, then called his boss Monday morning to quit. The boss was just thrilled to hear he was alive. Denver didn’t have a phone at his house and they didn’t know how to reach his next of kin. Since nobody had seen him walk off, they’d listed him as “missing or dead” all weekend.

Denver never went back to the plant. A handful of other men who’d survived the blast quit as well. To his surprise, the government sent him a hefty check along with a note that basically said, “Our bad!” He used it to open the tavern he’d always dreamed of owning.

I can only imagine the pandemonium of trying to deal with this catastrophe back in the 40’s, before cell phones or decent forensics. In the days after the accident, the Waterloo Sunday Courier reported six confirmed dead, two unidentified bodies, and seven missing persons. They went on to say that the plant officials were “doubtful if the two unidentified bodies were those of any of the missing, but did not explain how this premise was reached.”

That is a bit of a stumper, when you think about it.



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