Holston Ordnance Works (HOW) sprawled over 6,000 acres along the Holston River in Sullivan and Hawkins Counties around Kingsport, manufactured a powerful explosive for the military during World War II. Construction of the munitions plant, at an original estimated cost of almost $77 million, began in 1942 and was not completely finished until January 1944. Managed by Tennessee Eastman Company (TEC), the Holston works produced Composition B, a highly explosive amalgamation of RDX (cyclonite, or Research Development Explosive) and TNT (trinitrotoluene), which was used by the Allies in detonators and as an ingredient for bursting charges in bombs and projectiles. RDX was too sensitive to be used alone and the combination with TNT created a more stable substance.
Holston Ordnance Works was fully operational by mid-1943 and the following year became the largest maker of high explosives in the world. At its peak, HOW employed nearly seven thousand people, 40 percent of them women. In 1943 TEC and HOW were awarded the coveted Army-Navy “E” for their contributions to the war effort. Employee morale was high at the Holston works, and the facility recorded only three work-related deaths between 1942 and 1945, none of them due to explosives.
The wartime economic boom that accompanied HOW was a double-edged sword for Kingsport. Massive industrial construction and the influx of thousands of workers displaced families and created serious housing shortages, but most townspeople accepted the inconveniences in a spirit of patriotism. Although the number of employees has never matched its World War II peak, Holston still operates outside of Kingsport as the Holston Army Ammunition Plant under the command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. The facility comprises 425 buildings on 6,117 acres.