Park Celebrates WWII-Era Women

The yet-to-be completed Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, Calif., is located near the dockyards where thousands of people — men and women — were employed during the 1940s war effort. Park officials and a few of the "Rosies" who still live in the area talk to NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

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(Soundbite of movie, "Women in Defense")

Ms. KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Narrator) Yesterday, the pioneer woman helped win a continent. Today, with the same spirit of determination American women are working to save this way of life.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Katharine Hepburn, in a film reel during the build-up to World War II. For the first time, women were taking a central role in the nation's defense. Rosies, they were called, for Rosie the Riveter.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Thousands of workers crawl over the mammoth hulls of Navy ships in dry dock. Women in work overalls, their hair wrapped up in cloth, wield drills, hammers, welding torches. They're outfitting these battleships at a breakneck pace, not a day lost, sending hundreds of ships to the war in the Pacific.

This was the scene 65 years ago at the shipyards of Richmond, California, just north of Oakland. Today there's a national park here dedicated to these workers.

I'm standing in Shipyard Three. We can see San Francisco across the bay. But right in front of us is a humongous victory ship. This is a cargo ship, it's called the Red Oak Victory. It's grey, it's longer than a football field and several stories tall. It's docked here in Shipyard Three.

Ms. AGNES MOORE (Welder): When I welded, it was like over here.

SEABROOK: Show me.

Ms. MOORE: See, this is called a bulkhead.

SEABROOK: Agnes Moore is 88 years old. Neck scarf, wavy, brown hair - you would never believe this elegant woman was a welder. She points to a line of gray metal along a seam of the Red Oak.

Ms. MOORE: See the little ridges?

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOORE: Where you had to oscillate it all the time, as you went on up. And then where your rod ended, it always left a bulge like that. And...

SEABROOK: You can tell where someone's pulled out a new rod.

Ms. MOORE: Yeah.

SEABROOK: The Richmond Shipyards were a war-building machine in the 1940s. They churned out 747 ships - more than any other U.S. builder during World War II. At the height of production, almost a third of the workers were women.

Ms. MARIAN WYNN (Welder): My name is Marian Wynn. When I worked here, it was Marian Parsons. And we worked on (unintelligible) which is a little area just for us pipe welders.

SEABROOK: Wynn was among the oldest of 11 children. One of her brothers was killed in the war. She came to California from Minnesota.

Ms. WYNN: I wanted to go someplace, because we lived out in the country. And it was a small town and there wasn't that much to do. You couldn't get a good job. And this was an offer of a good job.

SEABROOK: Another part of the national park - a quiet, grassy hill - looks out over the bay. Canada geese fly north.

Park ranger Elizabeth Tucker describes Richmond before America entered the war; there was not a single shipyard here.

Ms. ELIZABETH TUCKER (Park Ranger): So they actually started building the shipyards here in 1940 and building the ships at the same time...

SEABROOK: Oh, wow...

Ms. TUCKER: ...while they were constructing the shipyard. Of course when Pearl Harbor happened, a lot more money poured into Richmond. So each year these shipyards in Richmond itself just kept getting bigger and bigger. So the city of Richmond went from about 24,000 people prior to the war to over a hundred thousand people.

SEABROOK: From every part of the country, people made for Richmond. It was hard work, but they were good-paying jobs, especially for women. Recruitment ads went out from newspapers, televisions, radios.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. KATE SMITH (Singer): Friends, it would be impossible for me or for anyone else to over-emphasize the importance of women in this war. But even more of us women are needed.

Unidentified Man: Thank you, Kate Smith.

SEABROOK: Agnes Moore was 21 when she heard an ad like that one.

Ms. MOORE: I got all dressed up in my best, you know? I was going to apply for this important job. And I walked in...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOORE: The receptionist said, well, you know, we have a lot of openings in the office. I said, no, I want to be a welder. That's an important job and that's what I want to do.

SEABROOK: That's why this is the right place for the Rosie the Riveter Memorial. The national park's director of interpretation is Naomi Torres. She and Park Ranger Tucker lead me to the centerpiece of the park, an enormous metal sculpture jutting up from the ground.

Let's walk through this. What is this thing we're seeing here? This looks like the hull of a ship flipped over so that the keel is up in the air.

Ms. NAOMI TORRES (World War II Home Front National Historical Park): That's right. And it is upside down because that's how the ships were built, or at least assembled.

Ms. TUCKER: And right over here is a really interesting thing. Women workers were highly valued because they were smaller. And here's an example of the kind of crawlspace they would have had to go through to get into the double bottoms of the ship and do all their welding.

SEABROOK: So here, right now, Naomi Torres is in a tiny little space in there. Would they have had to get into that little space through this two-by-one foot little portal here?

Ms. TORRES: Yes, they would have. I'm about 5'2" and it's still kind of small. Imagine being here with the welding torch or something like - I mean it was really tiny. And this is before all of the safety...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Right. There was no OSHA.

Ms. TORRES: There is no OSHA that existed. And so there were small spaces, there's oral histories we received where they had to go on the sides of the ship and people were held by their ankles...

SEABROOK: Oh, my god.

Ms. TORRES: ...hanging upside down, welding without any kind of safety measures.

SEABROOK: Agnes Moore remembers the dangers of welding ships all day long, especially when she had to weld parts up above her head on the ceiling.

Ms. MOORE: It was hard to keep the metal up there where it belongs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: You had the hot flag (unintelligible)

Ms. MOORE: Oh, yeah. Hot metal coming down. It would hit your neck and go right around your shirt collar, which you had everything as tight as you could. But it would still get inside your clothing and burn. So you know, all of us expected that. It just went with the job.

SEABROOK: It's stories like this that make the memorial so inspiring, says the park's Naomi Torres.

Ms. TORRES: What people know about is the war, but once you peel back that outer layer, there's all that support that was required to help win the war. And that was what happened here in the home front. And the memorial is about the only thing that remains that recognizes that part of that history.

SEABROOK: After the war, most Rosies went back to conventional work - school teachers or homemakers. Coming to this new memorial reminds Agnes Moore not of the hard labor but of the sense of purpose they felt.

Ms. MOORE: I'm glad that I was able to do something. And I have been told by Navy men I want to thank you for saving my life. Well, that took my breath away. And then he went on to explain that he was in Guadalcanal and he said that their supplies were running low. They didn't have anything to fight the battle with. They knew the Japanese were over on the other side of the mountain. And they thought they were just going to walk right over them.

And he said they got up one morning and they looked out on the water. And he said there was every kind of a ship you could imagine as far as you could see. Just ships everywhere. And he said we knew then that we were going to make it. And that - that just really - the idea that he would thank me when he was risking his life. I didn't risk anything. The men that went over there and fought the battles, they're the heroes. I don't consider myself a hero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOORE: I just was glad that I could do something that really needed to be done. And everybody else felt the same way. That's just the way we were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Agnes Moore says she misses that - that common purpose. She does not miss hot metal dripping from her welding rod, though she can still tell a good weld from a botched one and she'll show you. Her story and those of other Rosies are archived at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.

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