Decades ago, when I sailed my small sloop from Richmond, California, into San Francisco Bay, I passed ghostly artifacts of America’s monumental World War II industrial effort. Disused dry docks, rusting cranes, and abandoned buildings along the water front barely hinted at Richmond’s feverish wartime pace and importance.
The little industrial city, barely eight miles across the water from cosmopolitan San Francisco, launched an astounding 747 ships in just four years, more than any other shipyard before or since. Richmond’s factories built 49,000 jeeps and prepared 91,000 tanks and other combat vehicles for use in the Pacific theater.
The wartime industrial explosion caused Richmond’s population to jump from 23,000 to more than 100,000. Everything ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: shipyards, grocery stores, movie theaters, and, of course, bars. In all, there were fifty-six war industries in Richmond, more than any other city its size. Workers, white and black, men and women, many recruited in the agricultural South, over whelmed historic social barriers, working side by side whether they liked it or not because the war effort required it. One stunning statistic underscores that part of the story: 41 percent of Richmond’s ship yard welders were female, and many of those women were black.
Richmond, a city troubled by crime and racial tensions since the war, is beginning to relate its dramatic wartime stories, warts and all. Local citizens and politicians persuaded Congress to approve the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. It’s a cooperative effort by the National Park Service, the city of Richmond, Contra Costa County, the Rosie the Riveter Trust, and the Richmond Museum Association. The aim of the park is to tell how the home front was crucial to winning the war and how disparate Americans, especially women, came together in an enormous effort to make it happen.
The park is just getting started; for now the Visitor Center is housed in the lobby of Richmond City Hall. And if the words national park conjure up images of spectacular scenery in the great outdoors, Richmond may seem gritty. Nonetheless, a visitor with half a day and a willingness to strike out on his own will be rewarded with a moving account of how America succeeded in World War II—and how World War II in turn stirred changes that would launch the civil rights movement and women’s movement.
The National Historical Park is set up as an auto tour. A brochure containing directions and the history behind each point of interest can be picked up at the Visitor Center or on the Web (nps.gov/rori). First stop is the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, an abstract structure suggesting the bones of an inverted Liberty ship and prefabricated parts assembled by workers. Photographs and posters help tell the story. I particularly like the way quotes from women workers are chiseled into the sidewalk, such as this one: “A chaperone was hired to escort us to our workplace and herd us to the bathroom and lunch. They didn’t know how the men would react. But soon there were just too many of us.”
The memorial is in the center of what was Kaiser Shipyard No. 2, now a park and yacht harbor. Shipyard No. 2 was one of four in Richmond that were built from scratch at the beginning of the war. At Richmond, Kaiser Industries, partnered with Todd Shipyards, revolutionized ship building with mass production techniques. Parts were prefabricated and lifted to the dry docks by giant Whirley cranes that ran on tracks. So that unskilled workers could be trained to do repetitive jobs, tasks were segmented. The more than 90,000 workers built and launched Liberty cargo ships in two weeks, far faster than at shipyards elsewhere. Taking the record was the Robert E. Peary, a Liberty ship launched at Richmond four days, fifteen and a half hours after the keel was laid. One reason the ships could be built so rapidly was that they were welded together, not riveted—leading some to suggest the park more properly should honor Wendy the Welder.
Kaiser Industries at Richmond changed more than how ships were made. Daycare centers were established for workers’ children. Following a model first used in the 1930s during the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, Henry Kaiser set up a prepayment health care system for his employees. When the war ended and the shipyards shut down, others were invited to join. Today it’s known as Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest health plan.
Kaiser Shipyard No. 3 still looks something like it did during the war. Visitors can drive through but are not allowed to stop because it’s still a working port. But at the far end, you can park, take a walk around, and, for a five-dollar donation, tour SS Red Oak Victory, a ship launched at Richmond on November 9, 1944, as an ammunition carrier for the navy. Named for Red Oak, Iowa, whose National Guard unit suffered heavy casualties at the battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa, Red Oak supplied munitions to ships in the Pacific. At the end of the war, it was leased out to carry commercial cargo. It saw military duty again during wars in Korea and Vietnam before being mothballed in 1968. The Richmond Museum Association got the title in 1998, and volunteers have been restoring it ever since. “It will be the centerpiece of the park,” says Thomas Bottomley. He’s eighty-two years old, a World War II army vet, and one of the volunteers. “This is the major artifact that’s left over from all the ships built here.”
Red Oak, a Victory ship larger, faster, and more advanced than the Liberty ships, is in remarkably good shape. It was laid up carefully forty years ago and has received a lot of loving volunteer work since it arrived in Richmond. Restoration manager Tom Horsfall says that a $1 million federal grant has helped clean up the vessel, but the real goal—or perhaps hope—is to make the ship seaworthy again. “We could be operational in two years,” he says,“if we had a couple million bucks.” He tuned in a Korean station on the ship’s original radio to show that it still works perfectly.
Red Oak’s decks make a fine platform to see the area. Nearby is a Whirley crane used in the shipyard during the war. It’s parked alongside five dry docks where ships’ hulls were built. When the hulls were complete, the dry docks, technically called graving docks, were flooded, and vessels floated out. An art moderne–style ware house building stands nearby, still looking wonderfully avant-garde, though close inspection shows the nameplate falling off. And across the water in the middle distance is a stunning thousand-foot-long factory building with huge windows in which, starting in 1931, Ford built autos.
During the war, the Ford Assembly Plant was taken over to make jeeps and to serve as one of the nation’s three tank depots. These depots processed tanks, half-tracks, and other combat vehicles built elsewhere for shipment overseas. The Richmond Tank Depot handled all the combat vehicles used by the Marine Corps in the Pacific. Ford moved out of the structure, designed by the famed industrial architect Albert Kahn and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1955, and the building was no longer used after an earth quake damaged it in 1988.
The City of Richmond sold the building, and it is being redeveloped for twenty-first century businesses. Later this year, about a third of the building will be occupied by SunPower, a large developer of solar generating stations. Eventually, the National Park Service will have its visitor center inside the Ford Assembly Building’s soaring craneway facing the bay where trains carrying parts for assembly once were unloaded. Lucy Lawliss, a cultural resource manager for the National Park Service, admits that “it’s hard to say, because of Park Service funding, when we’ll have an operating center.”In the best case, she says, “we could have some thing as soon as ’08.”
Meanwhile, the Park Service is collecting the stories of Americans who worked to support the home front war effort: go to rosietheriveter.org/npsform1.htm and fill out the form. I’m thinking of doing that myself. Even though I was in elementary school during the war, I did grow a prizewinning Victory garden.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.