Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Peterson: Story of long-forgotten Richmond war tragedy deserves to be told

The fire broke out shortly after 2 a.m. in Dormitory O, a segregated housing unit for Kaiser Shipyard workers at 11th Street and Potrero Avenue in Richmond.

A city housing authority patrolman, seeing the flames, fired shots in the air to awaken the inhabitants. Fire crews arriving on scene found the nearest hydrant rusted and useless.

An estimated 30 men escaped the inferno in the early morning of Jan. 10, 1944. Eight were consumed by the flames. The tragedy was reported in newspapers across the country along with breathless bulletins from World War II battlefields around the world. But when the eight victims were buried 11 days later, it was as if they took their story to the grave with them.

 Betty Reid Soskin rediscovered it.

Reviewing photos related to the Port Chicago magazine explosion, which occurred six months after the dorm fire, Soskin, 94, a National Park Service ranger assigned to the Rosie the Riveter Historical Park, couldn't understand why eight caskets were not covered with an American flag. When she learned the eight caskets were from a different disaster, the dorm fire, she was stunned -- both by the magnitude of the tragedy and its lack of a historical profile.

"I started blogging about it," she said. "Nobody in Richmond knows anything about it."

Now she wants everybody to know about it.

"I'm determined these men are going to be the face of the 37,500 people who died supporting the war effort on the home front," she said.

It's a tall order, but Soskin is a uniquely qualified advocate. Born in New Orleans, she moved to California when she was 6. She learned history from her great-grandmother, who was born a slave in 1846 and lived to be 102. And she witnessed history, specifically Richmond's explosive transformation from a quiet town of 20,000 to a vital, wartime boom town of more than 100,000.

Soskin worked as a clerk for a segregated union. She was never a "Rosie the Riveter," that designation reserved for white women who took on nontraditional roles in the workforce during World War II. But decades after the last Rosie returned to postwar normality, Soskin continues to tell their stories as part of her job.

Her work drew the attention of former U.S. Rep. George Miller, who invited Soskin to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. Last December, she introduced Obama before the lighting of the national Christmas tree. On both occasions, she carried a photograph of her great-grandmother.

Last week, in a more low-key environment, Soskin gave a PowerPoint presentation on the dorm fire to the Richmond City Council.

"I wasn't asking for any action," she said. "I was asking to spread the story."

Spreading the story would be prelude to her dream of a bronze sculpture in nearby Martin Luther King Park for the eight men who perished in the fire: James Manney Jr., Neal McDowell, Frank Morris, Fred Shepard, James Shepard, Preston Stubblefield, O.D. Wheeler and Ernest Williams -- all members of Boilermakers Auxiliary 36. All were young and from out of the area, and only one was confirmed married.

Soskin believes the lack of local survivors was one reason the story failed to endure. Also, "People were so busy building," she said. "There was not time to take note of strangers, because they were all strangers to each other."

Soskin believes that in reviving the story of the dorm fire, other important historical stories are told as well. For starters, the colossal scale of the war effort on the home front.

That workforce was on the job 24 hours a day, every day of the year except Christmas. It produced 747 ships during the war.

These people had to sleep somewhere. Dormitories were only part of the solution. Because work continued around the clock, the same bed could be rented by three people.

"They called them hot beds," Soskin said. "People also would buy tickets to sleep in the movie theater seats overnight."

Also, many of the imported workers were of color. While they might have found Richmond to be more progressive than the South, it was still 1944. The unions to which they belonged were segregated.

A memorial, Soskin said, "would give dignity to black workers. It's an important piece of the homefront story. But getting people connected to that period can be an uphill battle."

By Gary Peterson for the Contra Costa Times. Read the original article, and view many great images, here!

 

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

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