Elderly Veterans Restore WWII Ship

Boatswain Richard Giffor i i

Boatswain Richard Gifford operates controls while hoisting a core of steel cable out of the hold of the SS Red Oak Victory. Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times hide caption

itoggle caption Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times
Boatswain Richard Giffor

Boatswain Richard Gifford operates controls while hoisting a core of steel cable out of the hold of the SS Red Oak Victory.

Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times
The SS Red Oak Victory in 1944 i i

The SS Red Oak Victory waits for launching from Richmond’s Kaiser shipyards in the late 1944. Courtesy Richmond Museum Association hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Richmond Museum Association
The SS Red Oak Victory in 1944

The SS Red Oak Victory waits for launching from Richmond’s Kaiser shipyards in the late 1944.

Courtesy Richmond Museum Association
Lunch on the SS Red Oak Victory. i i

Volunteers eat lunch on the deck of the SS Red Oak Victory next to drying life jackets. Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times hide caption

itoggle caption Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times
Lunch on the SS Red Oak Victory.

Volunteers eat lunch on the deck of the SS Red Oak Victory next to drying life jackets.

Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times
Chief Engineer, William Jackson

Chief Engineer William Jackson in the Engine Room. Richard Gonzales, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Gonzales, NPR
Edith Louise Cook, Red Oak Stripper

Edith Louise Cook is one of the Red Oak Strippers. Her parents worked in the Richmond shipyards. She scrapes varnish to restore the wooden doors. Richard Gonzales, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Gonzales, NPR

On the quiet docks of Richmond, Calif., the horn of the SS Red Oak Victory blasts a defiant call across the San Francisco Bay. The ship was named after the small town in Iowa that suffered the greatest loss of life per capita of any American town during WWII. On its rusting deck, three elderly men strain to move a heavy steel staircase for repainting.

The men, veteran sailors and soldiers, average age 70, volunteer long hours in a decade-long drive to preserve and renovate the Red Oak as a floating museum. They want to honor the men and women who built these ships during WWII.

Shipyards, Then and Now

In the 1940s, the bay mudflats of Richmond were transformed almost overnight into the nation's most productive wartime shipyards. The entire tempo of shipbuilding was accelerated to fit the requirements of a country at war.

"I often think of the German, High German submarine command ... find[ing] out that the Americans, especially the ones in Richmond, California are now making these ships in three days, 15 hours and 30 minutes," says James Nolan, retired Navy captain. "That would be mind-boggling. They can't even put a torpedo together that fast."

The shipyards died when the war ended. Most are in private hands, and the rusting Red Oak is all that remains from a fleet of 747 supply ships built in Richmond.

The Red Oak Strippers

Saving the Red Oak is a personal labor of love for Edith Louise Cook, 77, who moved with her family from Oklahoma to Richmond when she was 14.

"We came here in September 1943 for my parents to work in the shipyards, so we stayed," she says. "I'm still here!"

Cook, her two sisters and a brother-in-law patiently restore the ship's aging wooden doors by scraping off decades old layers of varnish. She says it's her way of honoring her family's heritage and having a little fun along the way:

"Well, we're called the Red Oak Strippers! Just because they named us that, we strip the wood. We actually had some guys come on board looking for the Red Oak Strippers and my sister with her coveralls said, 'Well here I am,'" Cook says.

Older Operators Still Running

Up in the radio room, the ship's massive grayish green panel of dials and switches receives a Morse code signal from a source in South Korea via the ship's original radio.

Tom Horsfall, supervised the restoration of the ship's entire communications system. At 61, he calls himself a youngster among the aging volunteers. But to sit at this console is to live in the world of 1944, he says.

"To participate in a project like this you have to be a dreamer. You have to believe in the dream and if everybody feels that way, then it will happen." Horsfall says.

At 88, chief engineer William Jackson dreams of the day when he can re-ignite the Red Oak's rusting boilers.

"We're all seniors ... and we're trying to get this ship operational before we go because we've lost four or five people in the last four or five years and I don't know how long I'm gonna be around," Jackson says.

Full restoration of the Red Oak could take another five years. Money is short, despite a recent state grant. But what the volunteers really need is something that money can't buy: time.

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