Pine Bluff’s Guy Lee Walker was proud to serve in America’s Army during World War II, fighting for his country in Africa, France, Germany and Central Europe. Pleased to be a truck driver, he nevertheless longed for more meaningful assignments, but as a black soldier in the then-segregated military, Walker realized his duty options were limited.
Despite that denial, Walker earned a European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Four Bronze Service Stars, an American Campaign Medal and a World War II Victory Medal. Then, after his discharge from active service, he would remain in the Army Reserve until 1950 while settling into a new job as a toxic materials handler at the Army’s Pine Bluff Arsenal.
PBA was integrated practically from its Dec. 2, 1941, groundbreaking. With Japan’s attack on America’s naval facility at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, just five days later, construction was accelerated and blacks and women were hired to assorted positions. Many of them were working off a farm or outside domestic roles for the first time, and their salaries significantly increased.
But the jobs were dangerous, as Walker’s children — including daughter Diann Williams, now Southeast Arkansas College’s vice president for institutional effectiveness and nursing and allied health programs — knew all too well. Walker was in close contact with stored munitions and chemicals and witnessed several explosions and fires that left several of his co-workers severely injured or dead.
Williams said that as minorities saw enhanced opportunities for advancement, her father was eventually promoted to a lead role in which he directed a number of employees in handling toxic materials, shipping and receiving munitions. He and his team would be repeatedly commended for their professionalism.
“He told of a day early during his time at the arsenal when a load of chemicals was received by truck,” Williams recently recalled.
After parking the rig, the driver promptly departed the scene, telling Walker that he “didn’t want to be anywhere around when they started moving that stuff.”
But Walker and his crew ignored the risk and did their jobs as always, Williams said, even though they had not been provided any safety gear at the time.
“We didn’t even have rubber gloves,” Williams said her father told her.
On another occasion, Walker came home with visible injuries to his chest and upper extremities, the result of an “incident” involving dangerous chemicals.
Walker would retire from PBA after 42 years of service. He passed away in 2005, happy that he had lived to witness the initiation of the Army’s effort to safely eliminate PBA’s stockpile and non-stockpile chemical agent, munitions and containers in a program that would receive international acclaim for its safety achievements.
Williams is appreciative of the outcome in which PBA’s last stockpiled munition was safely destroyed by the Pine Bluff Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in 2010. The incineration plant itself was then decontaminated and dismantled with agent-exposed portions undergoing disposal.
“I, like the rest of the community, am relieved that the chemicals have been destroyed,” Williams said. “I feel that we are a safer community as a result. Safety appeared to be of utmost concern throughout this entire (demilitarization) process. I am grateful for the care taken from start to finish.”
Williams is also grateful for the service and sacrifices of earlier arsenal workers who, like her father, were injured or exposed when safety techniques and practices weren’t the “top priority” they fittingly became.
She believes this group deserves to be saluted just as strongly as those who closed out the chemical munitions chapter here.
Surely, no one could disagree with that thinking.
Do you have a question on a local historical event or figure, or a story or a photo from Southeast Arkansas’ past to share. Email Rick Joslin at firstname.lastname@example.org.