RICHMOND — Fundraising efforts have begun in earnest to send five women — including one from Fairfax — who served as defense workers in World War II to Washington, D.C., in April to meet Vice President Joe Biden.
The invitation was extended by Biden in a personal phone call in October after an extended letter-writing campaign of several years by Phyllis Gould, 92, a Fairfax resident who worked at the Kaiser Richmond shipyards during World War II.
RICHMOND -- They came to this city's national park from as far as Georgia and Germany, ages ranging from 4 to 83.
The draw was a rare Bay Area treasure, a government worker made famous by a government shutdown.
The historical markers are important embellishments to Richmond’s waterfront and a significant component of the new Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Punctuating over two miles of spectacular shoreline, they link several of Richmond’s parks and the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, as well as the Ford Assembly Building, future home for the National Park’s Visitors Center.
The markers describe a broad range of home front experiences and the dramatic changes that Richmond experienced during World War II – from the incarceration of Richmond’s Japanese-American community to the city’s lively wartime nightlife, advances in civil rights and other legacies.
In Richmond, war stirred thousands to roll up their sleeves and build new ships. They shared a single goal: to win against the enemy. War kindled fear and long-held prejudices, and America’s own citizens became suspect. Immigrants from Japan and Italy who’d lived in Richmond for decades were labeled "enemy aliens."
Japanese Americans were forced to shutter their businesses and piled onto trains, each passenger clutching the two suitcases they were allowed to carry. They were incarcerated, behind barbed wire, in Topaz Relocation Center, Utah. Italian-American families were split in two: non-citizens were forced away from the waterfront, while others could stay in Richmond. Yet citizens of both communities enlisted to defend US ideals. Despite the wounds of war, many who were sent away returned to Richmond. They rebuilt. The greenhouses filled with roses and carnations.
As war in Europe escalated, Parr convinced Henry Kaiser to build shipyards here. The enterprise further shaped the Inner Harbor into a tidy rectangle of pre-fabrication yards and shipways for the frenzied activity of building wartime vessels.
For the next 50 years, Lucretia Edwards and other activists launched petitions, raised money and convinced officials to open miles of wave-lapped shore. Each generation’s vision shaped the view we have today.
Although life in Richmond was a great improvement, Jim Crow practices followed migrants from the South. At church, at the movies, in Scout meetings and in the union halls, black residents were separated from their white neighbors.
By 1945, Richmond’s NAACP was one of the most influential civil rights organizations in the region. Their call for equality and interracial solidarity inspired the next generation of activists.
This marker uses its proximity to the founding place of Richmond’s NAACP to discuss racial discrimination on the home front and struggles for civil rights during and after the war.
This "forced melting pot" labored together in shipyard crews. Workers transformed discord into harmony, braving discomfort and danger to toil together, three shifts a day. To boost morale, Kaiser management organized lunchtime entertainment. Hollywood stars brought glamour to bare wooden stages, costumed dancers whirled and shipyard musicians in overalls and hard hats played swing and bluegrass. When the work was done, ship launchings celebrated shared accomplishment.
As patriotic anthems swelled and champagne sprayed over the new ship’s bow, each worker took pride in what they’d built, and could believe in the slogan “United we win.”
Three shifts a day, crowds from Richmond and surrounding cities made the journey to the shipyards, walking miles on foot, organizing carpools, hopping the shipyard train and hanging onto bus straps. "Downtown was suddenly just a mass of moving people of all kinds," recalled Phyllis Gould.
At shift’s end, the human tide changed direction. Shoppers jostled in the streets. Fingers snapped to blues bands at Tapper’s Inn; jitterbugged to "Jersey Bounce." Folks went to church, had dinner and a game of whist. Mexican movies played at Rio Theater and the Moose Club held a Friday night fish fry. The city danced with lights, music and Saturday night joy.
War work swelled the city’s population from 23,000 to 100,000 in three years. American Radiator and Standard converted from making "bathtubs to bombs."
Fifty-five other businesses produced everything from aviation fuel to vitamins for defense. Jobs outnumbered beds despite 25,000 units of federally-sponsored defense housing, so newcomers slept in chicken coops, cars and took shifts in rented “hot beds” still warm from the previous occupant.
With World War II officially ended, Richmond filled with celebration in September 1945. Years would pass before residents fully understood how much the war had changed their lives. A wave of new civilians bought homes and enrolled in college thanks to the "GI Bill."
Although "old-timers" expected them to go home, most wartime migrants remained in the Bay Area. Having fought for democracy, veterans of home front and battlefield would not accept second class status; the path to integrated schools, fair housing and workplace equity was worn by their marching feet. Women had succeeded at men’s work, and they wanted more.
From 1942 to 1945, the Ford Assembly Plant prepared tanks for the battlefront while Kaiser Shipyard Three, across the channel, added to the mechanical din. When the buildings turned to civilian life, cars rolled from the Ford plant; Shipyard Three became the first campus for Contra Costa College and later the Port of Richmond. Plans to level everything in sight, including Brooks Island, followed in the next decades.
Congress recognized Richmond’s national significance in 2000, passing this law: "In order to preserve for the benefit and inspiration of the people of the United States as a national historical park certain sites, structures and areas located in Richmond, California... there is established the Rosie the Riveter /World War II Home Front National Historical Park."
Richmond Shipyard #3 at Point Portrero on the west side of Harbor Channel consists of five historic buildings (machine shop, general warehouse, sheet metal shop, first-aid station and cafeteria) and its five graving/dry docks are still intact. The dry dock basins and buildings are little changed from World War II.
Richmond Shipyard #3 was designed and constructed by Henry J. Kaiser’s Firm as a permanent shipyard, which is one reason it is still relatively intact.
People came from all over the country to Richmond to work in the shipyards during the war. This led to explosive growth of the city, and a dramatic exchange between people of diverse ethnicities and cultures. Men and women of different backgrounds worked and lived side-by-side here. Although gender and racial discrimination did not end after the war, this experience dramatically redefined American society, and planted the seeds for the civil rights and women’s rights movements.
Miles of undeveloped shoreline and access to the deep waters of the bay made Richmond the location of choice for the largest and most productive shipyards during World War II. The US government and private industrialists became partners in new ways, laying the groundwork for what President Einsenhower later called the “Military/Industrial Complex.” Together they created innovative plants and production methods designed to rapidly supply the war effort.
As World War II approached, Richmond was a sleepy city of some 23,000 residents. Beginning in early 1941, however, the town underwent a radical transformation. This was a prime site for wartime production: the Santa Fe Rail line was already here, the expansive waterfront offered a deep water port, and there was plenty of available land. As shipyards were constructed, the population boomed to over 100,000. People came from all over the country to find jobs and to support the war effort.
This section of the Bay Trail winds through the former site of Kaiser Shipyard #3, now the Port of Richmond and a part of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Along the trail, you will see evidence of the war’s shipbuilding past: dry docks for ship assembly, rail lines, maritime machinery, a whirley crane, as well as historic ships. As you traverse the trail, imagine this place during World War II–thousands of people working day and night with the constant thundering noise of shipbuilding activity.
His contemporaries often described Henry J. Kaiser as someone who "never knows what he cannot do." New to shipbuilding, he revolutionized the industry. Kaiser shipbuilding applied, in an unprecedented manner and scale, mass production techniques such as pre-fabrication, which segmented job tasks and trained unskilled labor. Kaiser industries designed shipyards with more space for assembly lines and welding plates together. Using these innovative methods, workers built a total of 747 ships during the war here in Richmond.
These shipyards hold memories and untold stories of women who were part of the workforce during World War II. As they went to work in great numbers during these years, women juggled work and domestic responsibilities. Theirs are stories of success, sacrifice, and family. Some women were able to place their children in government sponsored daycare facilities. Most benefited from employee health care. However, at the end of the war, many faced unemployment or underemployment.
Sixty years ago, workers—some of them women—used to sit in the turret at the top of the Whirley Crane, operating the controls that caused the 110 foot boom to lift, move, and put into place the massive prefabricated sheets of iron that eventually became cruisers and battleships. After the war, this crane sat rusting on a pier for decades. The Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation eventually donated it to the City of Richmond after a coalition of Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park organizers lobbied to include the crane as an important artifact from the shipbuilding past.