Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Betty Soskin: A living monument to WWII history

When visitors to a national park in California ask Betty Soskin what it was like on the home front during World War II, she doesn't have to consult the history books. She lived it.

Soskin, 93, is a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. The park tells the stories of many different groups of people in the U.S. affected by the war, from the agriculture workers who became shipbuilders to the Japanese-American citizens who were rounded up and incarcerated to the Mexican "braceros," or laborers, who took over farming operations after Japanese farmers were taken away.

Soskin is able to relate personal tales of racial segregation in the Jim Crow era, as a "primary source," she said. "I lived through the period this park represents."

Many people know of the "Rosie the Riveters"—the women who worked in factories when men went off to fight. Ranger Soskin tells a different side of that history.

"That was always a white women's story," she said. For most of the war, black women were not permitted to be "Rosies," Soskin said, until 1944 when some began to be trained as welders.

Despite a local shipbuilding industry abuzz with workers completing nearly 750 ships in less than four years, Soskin said she never saw a ship under construction during the war. She was a file clerk in a segregated union—Boilermakers Auxiliary 36.

"I was changing addresses on three-by-five cards to save democracy," she laughed.

"Black women were not freed or emancipated in the workforce," she said. "Unions were not racially integrated and wouldn't be for a decade. They created auxiliaries that all blacks were dumped into. We paid dues, but didn't have power or votes."

Soskin tells these and other stories at the park, working five-hour days, five days a week.

Twice a week, she attends the 15-minute orientation film called "Home Front Heroes" on the local California town's history during WWII. Afterwards, she speaks about what she experienced.

"I'm not trained as a historian. My presentations are based on my oral history," Soskin said. "A bottomless well of memories come up depending on questions the public asks. [The memories] are always on tap for me," she added.

"I'm privileged to add an authentic voice to American history at a time when those voices need to be heard. So much is pre-digested and fed out into a cliché-ridden world."

She also is conversant on the larger history of black migrant workers from largely agricultural Southern states who traveled west to work on farms and became shipbuilders instead, working side by side with white workers—part of an integrated workforce in a still-segregated country.

"There was no time to take on a broken social system," Soskin explains, relating the story of Henry J. Kaiser, known for revolutionizing shipbuilding and running war-time shipyards that could construct a cargo ship in an average of 45 days.

"The workforce Henry Kaiser brought in were all working under the fact of Fascist domination, and taking on the mission of their leader to build ships faster than the enemy could sink them," she said.

The Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park started out in 2000 as a memorial to the women who served during the war. Soskin was working for a California assemblyman, as a field representative in Richmond, when she sat in with planners from the National Park Service who were discussing how to develop an urban park paying tribute to the home front workers of WWII.

She realized she was in a position to share the untold stories, based on the history she represented. In 2003, she left her state job to become a consultant to the park. In 2007, she became a park ranger. At the age of 85.

"She inspires not just the people who come to visit, but those of us who work here," said Tom Leatherman, park superintendent.

"It's inspirational for me to see the passion she has for telling her story," he said. "We could tape or record her but interacting one on one is irreplaceable. It gives a depth of feeling, not just the facts," Leatherman said.

Soskin said working as a federal employee, with the support of a federal agency, "allows my voice to be heard."

Soskin is the oldest, full-time park ranger in the National Park Service, and she's fine with that. "It's a point of pride because life is still unfolding for me," she said. 

"I wake up every day wondering what I'm going to be when I grow up."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Read the original story here!

 

Rosie the Riveter Trust (ID # 94-3335350) — PO Box 71126, Richmond, CA 94807-1126 — (510) 507-2276

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