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Rosie The Riveter/World War II Home Front Musuem

February 26, 2018

Outside the entrance to what was the Kaiser Steel Shipbuilding Facility, Richmond, California

“Rosie the Riveter”
Song Lyrics

While other girls attend their fav’rite
cocktail bar
Sipping Martinis, munching caviar
There’s a girl who’s really putting
them to shame
Rosie is her name

All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history,
working for victory
Rosie the Riveter
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage
That little frail can do more than a
male will do
Rosie the Riveter

Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie
Charlie, he’s a Marine
Rosie is protecting Charlie
Working overtime on the
riveting machine
When they gave her a production “E”
She was as proud as a girl could be
There’s something true about
Red, white, and blue about
Rosie the Riveter

Everyone stops to admire the scene
Rosie at work on the B-Nineteen
She’s never twittery, nervous or jittery
Rosie the Riveter
What if she’s smeared full of
oil and grease
Doing her bit for the old Lendlease
She keeps the gang around
They love to hang around
Rosie the Riveter

Rosie buys a lot of war bonds
That girl really has sense
Wishes she could purchase
more bonds
Putting all her cash into national
Senator Jones who is “in the know”
Shouted these words on the radio
Berlin will hear about
Moscow will cheer about
Rosie the Riveter!
Paramount Music Corporation, NY,

A War That Changed The Country and the World

It was over a short period,  spanning the U.S. involvement in World War II ,when “it all came together,” a short time between the Depression of the 1930s and the advent of the Cold War in 1948,9 when the social fabric of the country itself underwent profound changes as did the U.S. role internationally. Those of who were born just prior to, during (myself – 1944) or just after the end of that war inherited a country and a world vastly different from the one our parents had grown up in as the U.S. rose to be the pre-eminent power in the world, and up until then, easily, the richest country in world history. During the war, the industrial machine with then top-of-line technology and managerial expertise produced a material bonanza of weapons, ships and planes all of which were continually modernized as the war progressed. From a material view-point neither the Nazis’ nor the Japanese militarists’ economic engine came close to U.S. war production which gave Washington a decisive advantage.

On a human scale, something also unprecedented was talking place. People from all over the country, isolated from one another by distance, accent and sociological position, were forced together, both in the military and industry to a degree that they never had before and would not since. It certainly didn’t end racial and religious discrimination in the country, but it blunted its edge quite a bit and set the stage for the great social movements that would explode in the 1950s and 1960s.

The historical realities of the day pressed White southerners to work alongside of Blacks. NY City Italians and Jews, Blacks, Boston Irish, farmers from Nebraska and Iowa, Chicanos from New Mexico and Native Americans from Arizona found themselves in the same military units, or working on the same factory floor. While it is true that familiarity can breed contempt, as the saying goes…more of then not it breeds something else – equality.

These connections would, in many ways, last far beyond the limits of the war itself. They would impact  what might be called “American cultural identity” – needless to say an ambivalent category then and now – but in those days what might be called a genuine sense of solidarity – forged in the immense and worldwide struggle against fascism – deeply marked the American social values that would carry over into the post war world. Class struggle, which had marked U.S. history up until that point, was temporarily toned down. The national challenge of winning the war and the post war boom brought major elements of the working class into a kind of relative prosperity they had never known. It would last 25 years or so before it began to erode, first slowly and then, starting with the Reagan Presidency, much more quickly. To the degree to which this country enjoyed inter-class, inter-racial solidarity on the battlefield, new kind of social relations – and values – were being formed. Old paradigms, particularly those of racial superiority and inferiority were completely discredited, both by the very experience of the war itself – the Nazi and Japanese racial war crimes – and by science itself.

But then this being a capitalist country, with all the glories and dark sides that entails, there were always limits to all this. What emerged from the shadow of World War II in the United States – the world of the late 1940s, 1950s – was romanticized, then and now. It was always a fragile thread – an imperfect utopia. The hard times of the Depression and the war were over, a new more hopeful, peaceful period had begun, the reality of which was more hopeful than it had been in the past.  So much of this sense of national unity and pride, imperfect as it was, has since eroded, today  intensified by the current jingoist-narrow nationalist presidency; but the slow slide towards the national polarization which today exists has been in the making for the better part of forty years, since the late 1970s. It started long before Trumpty-Dumpty assumed the presidency. He just sped up economic and social processes that were well along when he emerged the victor in his presidential contest with Hillary Clinton.

Changing Workplace Landscape Across The Country

During the war, the sociological trends reshaping the U.S. military – still one of the most integrated institutions in the country to this day – were also taking place in the work place. The size of the U.S. armed forces – more than 12 million personnel by the end of war – led to unprecedented labor demands on the home front. This resulted in a wholesale reorientation of the U.S. labor force as people of color and women, many previously denied access to better paying jobs in manufacturing flooded the war machine industries. The resulting severe labor shortage resulting from the military call up, combined with the unprecedented needs to expand production to meet wartime needs, led to major shifts in the nature of the labor market (as it is referred to ) took place.

Anyone who could, worked and socio-economic doors, previously closed, were opened, especially to people of color, and to women who flooded the work force like no time in American history and forced on what was a largely racially and gender segregated population – kicking and screaming to a degree – a considerable amount of integration, the likes of which the country had never known. The unemployment rates, which never really declined that much during the 1930s decade, collapsed. “Patriotism was the lure, yet in reality money and opportunity often trumped. American families were still struggling to survive the Depression. People did whatever was necessary to survive and feed themselves. And nothing paid better than the shipyards.”

No place in the country typified the radical changes taking place in the work force so much as the Permanente Metals CorporationRichmond, California (a Kaiser facility) in Richmond, California. At the height of the conflict there were a series of seven contiguous shipyards in Richmond that employed some 90,000 people at the height of the war; a quarter of them were women, many of those women of color. Over the course of the war a class of cargo ships were built there,  747 of them, “Liberty ships,”  as they were called. They were a large percentage of the 2711 merchant ships built altogether, easily the largest number of ships built to the specifications of a single design.

They were nicknamed “ugly ducklings: by President Franklin Roosevelt. Richmond was one of a number of sites where the government built merchant ships.The Richmond shipbuilding factory was one of eighteen American shipyards. Though British in conception, the design was adopted by the United States for its simple, low-cost construction. Mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, the Liberty ship came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output.The 250,000 parts that went into a Liberty ship’s construction were pre-fabricated throughout the country in 250 ton sections and then welded together at the ship yards. “Liberty ship: was the name given to what was technically called an ECW type ship designed for “Emergency” construction by the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II.

The quality did not often match the quantity of ships built.

Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie” that appeared on the cover of the May 29, 1943 Saturday Evening Post.

They could be sunk by one torpedo hit and many of them were poorly welded and broke in half at sea with crew and supplies going down with the ship.  According to the War Shipping Administration, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest rate of casualties of any service in World War II. Officially, a total of 1,554 ships were sunk due to war conditions, including 733 ships of over 1,000 gross tons . Still “The immensity of the effort, the sheer number of ships built, the role of female workers in their construction, and the survival of some far longer than their original five-year design life make them the subject of much continued interest.”Each Liberty cost about $2 million to build. The key parts to merchant ships were first pre-fabricated and then assemble at the Richmond plant. During the war it took on average two weeks to build a ship from start to finish, although one ship, the SS Robert E. Peary, was built-in a record four days.

Elsewhere along the Pacific West Coast, women were not only building Liberty ships but also warships. They were not only riveters but welders. “Welding classes were set up at local high schools, such as Benson High, and recruits graduated as welders in as little as four weeks, after learning how to weld vertical, overhead, angled and horizontal seams. The first women to enter the classes were assigned as assistants at the yard, finding themselves chipping bad seams, cleaning up the debris, or lugging huge cans of paint to the ways.”

Employing women, Mexicans and Blacks, in an industry previously reserved for white males was not easily accomplished. It could have been an explosive mix. But wartime needs necessitated government intervention in insuring that the tensions did not get out of hand,  the leadership of Henry Kaiser who knew how to build Liberty ships (and made a fortune doing so), and the struggles of women and people of color themselves, demanding the equality they deserved all helped to reduce racial and gender tensions enough so that the job could be done and the Kaiser shipyards could function as an efficient industrial machine. Understanding the needs of his working population, Kaiser instituted some of the earliest healthcare and childcare programs of the time. Later his healthcare programs would morph into Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest (and better) healthcare providers in the country. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin (related to me by Phil Woods), Eleanor Roosevelt was influential in getting Henry Kaiser to offer on-sight child care.

On the other side of the coin, as friend Doug Vaughan aptly noted elsewhere on social media:

The great defect in all such historical monuments (Rosie-The-Riveter Museum) is the celebration of patriotism as the great unifier in the war effort. There’s recognition of the sacrifices of “our” workers, the racism and sexism they faced, including belated mention of asbestos-related mesothelioma in shipyards. The letters and comments quoted on panels on the outdoor sculptures are especially compelling. But, as in the nuclear weapons complex, from uranium mining and tailings still seeping into groundwater at Cotter to fashioning plutonium triggers in gloveboxes at Rocky Flats, the costs are considered “worth it”, at least in the implicit calculation of costs and benefits absorbed in the proud “we won!” There’s even shorter shrift given to the rampant profiteering by corporate contractors that still dominate the world and the mess we have inherited thanks to their predation. Still, the exhibit is important for what it does say, as well as the silences we read between the lines and need to make explicit in the retelling.

Still, there was something happening in the country’s social fabric that would impact social relations in the country in more than a superficial manner. Women and people of color got a confidence boost. It’s not that they “learned” that there was literally nothing that white men did that they couldn’t do – they knew that all along – . The war experience just reinforced such knowledge.

An article on the “PopHistoryDig” notes:

The women who responded to “Rosie’s call” during the 1940s’ war years did all kinds of work.  In 1942, the Kaiser shipyards opened in Richmond, California, becoming a major shipbuilding center for the war effort.  A woman named Bethena Moore from Derrider, Louisina was one of thousands who came to work there.  In Louisiana, she had been a laundry worker.  A small woman of 110 pounds, Bethena was one of the workers who would climb down into the bowels of ships — sometimes four stories in depth — on a narrow steel ladder, tethered to a welding machine.  She did the welds on the ships’ double-bottoms.  “It was dark, scary,” she later recounted to a New York Times reporter in October 2000.  “It felt sad, because there was a war on.  You knew why you were doing it — the men overseas might not get back.  There were lives involved.  So the welding had to be perfect.”

Much of this history – and the experience of the Permanent Metals Corporation – are today preserved in a museum in Richmond, California right by the San Francisco Bay, the Rosie The Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park which I visited a few days ago. It includes exhibits from the Liberty Ship days, photos, posters, a few historical dvds for viewing. If lucky, you’ll have a chance to meet some of the few still surviving, “Rosies” – the women who actually worked in the plant during the war. They were there when I visited.

It was a popular song. 

The term “Rosie the Riveter” actually comes from a song written in 1942 by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, released in early 1943. It was played on radio, broadcast nationally. It was a part of a nationwide and multifaceted effort to recruit women into the workforce at the time.

The song became quite popular, particularly one version recorded by the Four Vagabonds, an African-American group — a version that caught on and rose on theHit Parade.  It seems likely that Saturday Evening Postartist Norman Rockwell heard this song, and possibly was influenced by it, especially since he wrote the name “Rosie” on the lunch box in his painting

Then in May, 1943 a painting of “Rosie The Riveter” done by Norman Rockwell was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The Kansas City Star ran images of Rockwell’s Rosie alongside pictures of Michaelangelo’s Isaiah, drawing more attention to it. Rockwell had used a local petit model for his Rosie, one Mary Doyle (Keefe),  but made her look more powerful and “Isaiah-like” than she was in real life. Rivet gun in hand, the painting has her stomping on Hitler’s Mein Kampf with one foot.  In classic – the media trumps reality American fashion – Mary Doyle, who died in 2015, was not a riveter but a telephone operator; she never participated in building a Liberty ship or any other war material. At the time she was 19, living in Arlington, Vermont, not Richmond, California. She was paid a whopping $10 – $5 each for two sittings.

Rockwell’s “Rosie” image was then used in a nationwide campaign to sell war bonds., the some of the money of which was used to build Liberty ships. Rockwell’s painting, however, is not to be confused with the “We Can Do It” poster.  That poster was republished in the early 1980s and has become something of an icon for independent working women. There has been some controversy as to who was the model for the the “We Can Do It” poster. Until recently, it was generally believed that the painting was of then 17-year-old Geraldine Hoff Doyle, a Michigan factory worker, painted by J. Howard Miller of Pittsburg. However, a 2016 carefully researched article by one James J. Kimble argues that Geraldine Hoff Doyle was not the original model and that one Naomi Parker of Alameda, California probably was.

Women employees at Tubular Alloy Steel Corp. gathered to listen to wartime pep rally speech by Army Pvt. John Adams of Detroit who was wounded in action in Buna (New Guinea) campaign.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. John Buttny permalink
    February 26, 2018 3:34 pm

    hi rob,

    great story.



    They tried to bury us… They didn’t know we were SEEDS.

    Mexican Proverb


    • February 26, 2018 3:38 pm

      Thanks John,. Am in Bay Area. Had nice visit with Carol T in Sonoma a few days ago

  2. William Watts permalink
    February 27, 2018 7:44 am

    Very informative AND interesting. Thank you.

    Was there pay equality?

    Sent from my iPad


    • February 27, 2018 7:46 am

      Pay equality – I’m pretty sure there wasn’t but will check

  3. March 1, 2018 9:30 am

    Rob, love the lessons you share when you visit California!!!

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