Where war stories and Bethlehem Steel meet

The Morning Call's narrative history of Bethlehem Steel

 One of my favorite chapters in Forging America: The Story of Bethlehem Steel is the one about the company’s tremendous role in World War II. As project editor and one of the writers for The Morning Call book, I was able to weave in the experience I gained from my series, War Stories: In Their Own Words.

Thousands of World War II veterans had worked for the steel giant in south Bethlehem. I focused on one of them, John C. Umlauf. He came from Schuylkill County, graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown and worked in Steel’s press forge shop with his brother in 1940. They made 18-inch-thick armor plate and 40-foot-long gun jackets for warships.

After America entered the war, Umlauf joined the Navy and became an officer. On D-Day, he helped command a gunboat that fired on the German defenses on Utah Beach. http://www.mcall.com/news/warstories/all-johnumlauf,0,632655.story

He was 84 when I interviewed him early in 2003 at his home in west Allentown for a story that would run on the D-Day anniversary that year. At the same time, I was working on Forging America, which would come out as a tabloid insert in a Sunday paper at the end of the year, marking Bethlehem Steel’s collapse after nearly a century of steelmaking.

Umlauf’s intimate connection with both “The Steel” and World War II made him a good fit for Forging America. (You can order the book at https://secure.mcallcommunity.com/store/pages/steel.php) He helped put a human face on the work done by the nation’s top military contractor.

What we didn’t have for the tabloid version that came out in December 2003 was a Bethlehem Steel employee who would go off to war and come into contact with a Steel product he had helped make. In the paperback version now available, we have such a man.

A. Richard Metzger of Essex, Conn., contacted me in 2004. As a Steel employee in 1941, he worked on air-flask forgings for submarine torpedoes. He became a foreman in the Bethlehem shop where air flasks were tempered – and given a number. In the war, he served on a submarine that fired torpedoes while on patrol in the South China Sea.

“Upon review of the records which accompanied each torpedo,” I quote Metzger in the Steel book, “I found to my surprise that I had in fact helped to heat-treat some of the air flasks.” 

Sad to say, both veterans are gone. Umlauf died in 2007. Metzger died last September.             

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