A gritty industrial city of approximately 100,000, situated at the Naugatuck and Mad Rivers in central Connecticut, Waterbury had been the center of the American brass industry since the early 19th century. By the 1920s, more than a third of the brass manufactured in the United States was made in the Naugatuck Valley, and Waterbury came to be known as the “Brass City.” Its skilled workers turned out screws, washers and buttons; showerheads and alarm clocks; toy airplanes and lipstick holders; and cocktail shakers.
“Waterbury was an industrial city,” Ray Leopold said. “A gathering place for some of the best mechanical, industrial talent probably in America. The talent there is just remarkable. There is no one nationality that seems to have a lead on it. They were Italian, Swiss, French, Irish, Asiatic, South American. This talent was very widespread.”
Waterbury was populated by successive waves of immigrants, primarily from Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe and Great Britain. By 1930, nearly half of Waterbury’s population was foreign born. It was a city of close-knit, ethnic neighborhoods, where many residents remained their entire lives. Families packed into triple-decker homes, factory row housing and boarding houses, surrounding lively commercial districts with ethnic markets and bakeries, churches and movie houses.
“Everybody watched out for everybody else,” Anne DeVico said. “If I went outside, five minutes later everybody in the whole neighborhood would know it because that’s what they did. They watched out for everyone. So it was wonderful. I loved growing up like that. But then when the war came, our boys started going into the war. And then it wasn’t so much fun.”
The city, like the rest of the country, endured hard times during the Great Depression, as industries imploded and thousands were thrown out of work. But all that changed when America began to gear up for World War II, and local factories retooled for war production.
“Waterbury at that time, during the war — you could almost compare it to a miniature Times Square,” Tom Ciarlo said. “It was never quiet because there were so many factories and each factory had three shifts so they’re going around the clock. You didn’t have cars because there were no gasoline stamps, so you had to take buses. So we had busses running up and down from the center of town to different streets all over the city going constantly. And there was always a humming in the city. There was always something going on, the restaurants downtown were always booming. So were the bars. Theaters were always full. There was always something going on.”
The Mattatuck Manufacturing Company switched from making upholstery nails to cartridge clips for the Springfield rifle, and soon was turning out three million clips a week. The American Brass Company made more than two billion pounds of brass rods, sheets and tubes during the war. The Chase Brass and Copper Company made more than 50 million cartridge cases and mortar shells, more than a billion small caliber bullets and, eventually, some of the components used in the atomic bomb.
“Waterbury was the brass center of the world and we had every factory going full blast,” DeVico said. “Especially because it was the war. The war was going on. So we had factories. Everywhere you looked there were factories. And everybody — when they got out of school — went into the factories.”
Because of its concentration of war industries, Waterbury was believed to be a strategic bombing target for the German Luftwaffe. Waterbury Clock — which would later be known as Timex — built a new plant in 1942 to accommodate the military’s demands for mechanical time fuses and other aircraft and artillery equipment. The new factory was nestled among the Middlebury hills and could be flooded and covered with water in the event of an invasion. Its roof was painted with a tromp l’oeil mural of trees, water and grass to deceive enemy bombers. In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Waterbury hurriedly appointed air wardens to coordinate a local response to an air raid. The local barbers’ association volunteered to equip the city’s barbershops as first aid stations.
In August of 1945 when the war ended, special services were held at every Waterbury church and synagogue. As a sign of profound gratitude for the good news, some Italian-American women climbed the hill to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on their knees.
“We didn’t want to go home,” DeVico said. “Nobody went home. We were down there until one, two o’clock in the morning. The busses stayed. The busses even stayed because they knew we had to get home. Nobody had cars then. But it was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful day.”
The end of the war spelled the beginning of a sharp decline of Waterbury’s manufacturing base. Military contracts were cancelled in the months leading up to the Allied victory; within a week of V-J Day, 10,200 employees had been let go from Waterbury factories. Many would be rehired when the factories re-tooled for civilian production, but thousands of jobs were permanently lost. By the 1950s, plastic and aluminum had replaced brass for many uses, and cheaper labor overseas competed for the remaining jobs in brass manufacturing. By 1980, there were fewer than 5,000 workers remaining in the Naugatuck Valley’s brass plants.
“It seemed that the war effort was one that would go on forever,” Leopold said. “And as the war began to draw to its conclusion, we then began to deal with the team that was making its way into the community, renegotiating all the contracts. By and large, it meant termination of these wonderful contracts that had produced money that they had never earned before and might never earn again. And Waterbury was an area very hard hit by this.”
More than 12,000 men and 500 women from Waterbury served in the armed forces during the war.
282 of those who served lost their lives.
Residents bought $270 million worth of war bonds.
They also collected 68,500 pounds of rubber; 5,097,421 pounds of scrap metal; 8,255,640 pounds of paper; and 150 tons of waste fat.