True Stories Of WWII Women Inspired Novel Based At Springfield Armory

Jul 17, 2019

A new historical novel, "The Wartime Sisters," brings to light a community that thrived at the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, during World War II.

Author Lynda Cohen Loigman said the Springfield Armory was not just a place where weapons were made. It was a vibrant community where women played a big role.

The story focuses on two sisters who work at the armory and don’t get along.

Lynda Cohen Loigman: There were [13,500] people working here at the height of production, 42... percent of whom are women. There were sports teams here. There was a baseball team and a football team. There were dances. There were all kinds of bond drives. You know, to work here was to be a part of something bigger.

Inside the stocking shop at the Springfield Armory in May 1943.
Credit Springfield Armory NHS, 3915-sa / National Park Service

Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPR: What were some of your considerations when you thought about writing fiction about a real place? What did you have to do to make it work as a writer?

In order to sort of further the plot, I had to take certain liberties with some of the factual events that occurred. So there was a fire that occurred at the armory that was a real fire. But I had to change the timing of it to make sure that happened once my character had arrived here, so that she could be accused of potential sabotage. It wouldn't work if the fire took place before she ever got here.

There was also a really important concert — it's a crucial scene in my book — a concert when Benny Goodman came to play at the armory. And he really did. He came with a radio show called the Victory Parade [of Spotlight Bands], and they traveled the country to different defense plants and army bases to build morale during the war. 

But I had to change the timing of that as well, because it actually took place in the fall, and I changed it to the spring of 1943, because it was just going to drag out the book for too long. So I did take some liberties with the timing of events. But both of those things actually happened.

Lynda Cohen Loigman, author of "The Wartime Sisters," at an exhibit at the Springfield Armory.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

What does the book's title mean to you?

It has so many meanings. It's so layered.

The sisters are at war with each other. The country is at war. And it's also about the greater sisterhood of women who work and live at the Springfield Armory. So it has those sort of three meanings.

Why did you want to write a book about sisters that did not get along? The elder sister was jealous of the younger sister. Why did you want to write that book?

I kind of have drawn a lot of inspiration from my mother's family, because my mother moved from Brooklyn to Springfield, Massachusetts, and that is the path that the sisters in my story take.

My mom had two sisters and they all got along. They weren't estranged the way the sisters in the story are, but they definitely had moments — weeks and months when one wasn't getting along with another one.

But I was fascinated by my mother's relationship with her sisters throughout my whole childhood. I would listen in on the phone conversations. There was something about the three of them that I just found endlessly captivating, and I think it was because I didn't have a sister of my own.

Why make the central characters Jewish?

Well, I'm Jewish. I come from a Jewish background. When my mom was 18 years old, she moved from Brooklyn to Springfield. They used to tell me stories of Brooklyn when I was a little girl, and I thought Brooklyn was this incredibly fascinating, colorful place, because those stories were all so happy and so rich and lively.

After they moved, the stories of their childhood became these Springfield stories, which were darker stories. They weren't happy to have moved. They felt like they were exiled to the North Pole.

One of the themes my mom would kind of talk to me about was how different it was to be Jewish in a place that wasn't Brooklyn, New York.

It wasn't that there weren't Jews in Springfield at that time. There were a lot of Jews. There was a very vibrant Jewish community in Springfield, but nonetheless it was different from the Brooklyn, New York, Jewish community.

You grew up in Longmeadow in the 1970s and 1980s. Did you know the armory?

I didn't know the armory at all. To the extent that I knew it when I got older, I thought, very mistakenly, that it was one building. I had always assumed it was just this one factory building where they made guns.

I had no idea that it was this enormous campus. There was officer housing here. I had no idea of the very long and sort of illustrious history. I didn't know that George Washington commissioned it. I knew nothing about any of that.

High School student Priscilla Bryant puts spacing inserts in Garand clips at the Springfield Armory circa 1943.
Credit Springfield Armory NHS, negative number TEMP-272 / National Park Service

Florence Johnson of Southwick, Massachusetts, examines her certificate of merit at her station in the assembly department in April 1942. Johnson was the first woman to receive such recognition at the Springfield Armory.
Credit Springfield Armory NHS, 3169-sa / National Park Service

Is there one big idea you would like readers to walk away with?

To me, it really is primarily about these two sisters. And I think in all of my writing, one of the things that I really want readers to take away is that there's kind of never just one side to any story.

That's why I like to write. I like to think about different stories that are going on in each individual character's mind.

That's what I want people to take away — to sort of think in a more compassionate way, in a more empathetic way, which I think is so important in the world that we're living in right now; to think about everybody else's story instead of only thinking of your own.

Keep up here with the NEPR Summer Fiction Series.