Remembering ‘Rosie’ the Riveter

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, November 28, 2000

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Ollie M. Hawkins, a young woman in Flagstaff, Ariz., watched her three brothers and a cousin march off to war.

“I wanted to help bring the boys home – my boys, all the boys,” she says at her home in Oakland. “That’s why I came to California.”

Only 18, Hawkins wouldn’t be shipped out to one of the many battlefronts around the world. Instead, her war efforts would take place on the home front, in the shipyards on the shore of San Francisco Bay.

Now 84, Hawkins has finally seen her home-front work remembered, with the dedication last month of the new Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Richmond, where a quarter of the nearly 100,000 shipyard workers were women.

That memorial is the first step in a project that will create a national park in Richmond over the next three years: the World War II Home Front National Historical Park, due to open in 2003. President Clinton signed legislation Oct. 24 to begin creating the park.

Donna Graves is a private consultant to the National Park Service who was hired to work on the Rosie the Riveter Memorial. What she and the Park Service found in their research into “The Rosies” was that there was a much bigger story to be told.

“What we found is a story that is mom and apple pie,” she says. “It’s a story that’s so inclusive, it speaks to all kinds of people.”

In addition to marking the influx of women into the workforce during

the war, the new park will tell an even bigger story of how the shipyards were built virtually overnight by industrialist Henry Kaiser and his 100,000 workers, many of whom were African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and Asian Americans.

In that new environment, thrown together with a mission to fulfill, the workers found new lives, new careers and, ultimately, a new society.

Crews worked around the clock for the duration of the war, producing an average of one ship a week – a mind-boggling total of 747 ships in less than four years.

And they came from a society that was still racially segregated, and in which men’s spheres and women’s spheres were separate and largely unequal.

Hawkins, who is African American, speaks from experience. “It wasn’t very nice being African American in those days,” she says. “When you got off work, you’d go to Oakland to go shopping, and everywhere you’d go, you’d see ‘White Trade Only’ signs.”

But, she adds, the war effort changed that, first in the shipyards and ultimately beyond.

“In the shipyards you didn’t run into that prejudice,” she says, “because everyone was working side by side for the same purpose.”

Hawkins adds that in the shipyards, women were treated as the equals of men, as long as they got their work done. And that work was new to men and women alike. Most of those working as welders and boilermakers had never worked in industry before the war, and after less than a week’s training, they were thrown into their new jobs.

“The men didn’t make any fuss; we didn’t recognize any differences,” she said. “Once you were in position, the foreman would come by to make sure you were doing your job right, and if you were, it didn’t matter who you were.

“In my whole time working at the shipyard, I didn’t know anyone to get into fights,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “That’s more than I can say for the post office.” Hawkins worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Oakland for 33 years before she retired.

Despite that common cause, working on the home front was hardly easy, and many people made “the ultimate sacrifice” right at home in Richmond.

“The fatality rates in the shipyards were extraordinary; they were amazingly high,” says Ray Murray, who oversaw the feasibility study for the Home Front National Historical Park.

“You had a lot of heavy industrial processes, a lot of people who’d never done this work, and they were doing it fast,” he says. “So there was a high toll on the home front as well as on the battle front.”

The shipyard workers were creating Liberty ships (and, later, the faster Victory ships) that were 400-plus feet long, weighing more than 10,000 tons and carrying about 100 men and nearly half a million cubic feet of cargo. They supplied U.S. soldiers all over the world, and were crucial to the eventual Allied victory.

And they were created quickly: although the crews averaged the launch of a new ship every week, one, the SS Robert E. Peary, was produced in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes, which is still a shipbuilding record.

Another one of those ships, the SS Red Oak Victory, has returned to the place it was built, and now sits at a dock near Point Richmond. It hasn’t been in service since the mid-’60s when it was part of the merchant marine, and its gray paint is chipped and its parts rusted. But it is still operable.

About 70 volunteers from the area are working on the ship in hopes that it will become part of the national park.

Tom Bottomley, the ship’s clerk, guides a visitor around the huge ship, through quarters that are being returned to the shape they were in half a century ago.

“There were more than 100,000 people working here,” says Bottomley of Richmond’s shipyards. “And this is all that’s left of it.” Bottomley says that additional volunteers are welcome to join the crew refurbishing the ship. (For more information: 510-237-2933.)

The ship, once it is docked near an old Ford assembly plant across a small cove from the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, will be one of the unifying features of the sprawling park.

The park will necessarily be spread out, says Murray, because of the enormity of what went on in Richmond.

“Richmond, for a variety of reasons, was really the best place to tell this story,” he says. “The World War II home front altered the West Coast more than other sites around the country. It completely transformed Richmond.”

The population of the city of Richmond grew from 23,000 to nearly 130,000 in the course of a year. In addition to industrial sites for 56 different wartime industries, there were worker housing, schools to accommodate a quadrupled student population and day-care centers. A field hospital started by Kaiser gave life to the country’s first HMO. All of it was built to serve the workers who assembled ships 24 hours a day.

Hawkins remembers the feeling of working in this bustling shipyard, driven by an unprecedented sense of urgency and commitment.

“I worked the night shift,” she says. “My husband and I shared an apartment with people who worked the day shift, and when they were coming home to bed – our bed – we’d be leaving for work.

“When we got to the shipyard, people would be getting off the ships and our shift would be going on, and I used to look at the people coming over the overpass, all them in hard hats, and gee whiz, it was a lot of people.”

The sprawling story that the national park will tell is a challenge to the Park Service, says Murray.

“What we need is to create a sense of identity, which we’ll have to do with guides and interpretive signage,” he says.

The center of the national park will be the Ford assembly plant, an enormous auto assembly plant that during the war switched from making cars to making tanks. The plant is at Shipyard No. 3, the only survivor of the war’s four shipyards. In the auto plant’s 10,000-square-foot craneway, the Park Service plans to build the main visitors center. The rest of the building is slated for approximately $100 million worth of private redevelopment into commercial sites and live-work spaces.

With the Red Oak Victory docked near the visitors center, and one or two of Kaiser’s huge “whirlycranes” situated nearby, the park will gain a center. From there, the Rosie the Riveter Memorial is a short bayside walk.

Murray says that self-guided tours, probably with tape recordings, will be supplemented by van tours with a guide who will explain the layout of the shipyards. This will be necessary because most of the shipyards have been turned into the attractive Marina Bay district, an upscale neighborhood. Seeing the shipyards as they were will take a little imagination.

“Very little of the history is evident,” says Park Service consultant Graves. “But it’s a really exciting collection of buildings – not for their architecture, but for what they can tell us about what the war effort was like.”

While the day-care centers and a few other buildings are still standing, Richmond, after five decades as a Bay Area backwater, is benefiting from the region’s wildfire growth. And that means the Park Service is in a race against time to preserve remnants of the shipyards.

Richmond, says Murray, paid a heavy price for its participation on the war home front.

“When it became clear that we were going to win the war, the government shut the industries down, and people were out of jobs,” Murray says.

“The women were told to go home and start taking care of the house and their husbands, who were coming home. African Americans in particular were locked out of the factories, then the public housing was shut down, so people were very shut out. If you look at poverty pockets around the Bay Area to this day – Bayview/Hunter’s Point, Marin City, Richmond – there’s a direct correlation to where the shipyards were.

“Richmond has been an economic backwater, which is why a lot of this has been preserved,” he says. “Richmond deserves a Purple Heart because of the economic sacrifices the city made. I hope that the city can bask in some of the appreciation of what they went through.”

For her part, Ollie Hawkins is basking in that appreciation. She attended the dedication of the memorial, and was struck by how beautiful the site is. And it reminded her of a very special night in 1945.

“During the war, you couldn’t see San Francisco from Richmond,” she remembers. “All the hotel signs and restaurant signs were off. So when the war was over, on V-J Day, they turned all the lights on, and they were shining over the bay. It was beautiful.”

The new Rosie the Riveter Memorial stands in a peaceful park between two rows of new, stylish townhouses, ending in a marina filled with the yachts and sailboats of the Bay Area’s well-to-do.

But it stands on ground that, half a century ago, was the bustling Shipyard No. 2, where nearly 100,000 people, a quarter of them women, built 747 ships of war to supply American soldiers fighting World War II.

The memorial is hard to spot at first, which is odd, considering that it’s the same size – roughly 441 feet – as the Liberty and Victory ships that were built by the people it honors.

But approach it slowly, and it unfolds with enormous drama. By the time one reaches its bow, jutting into the bay, one has passed through a world of social change – not to mention the sacrifices of millions.

The Rosie the Riveter Memorial, dedicated last month in Marina Bay in Richmond, was designed by two Bay Area artists, Cheryl Barton and Susan Schwartzenberg, who were chosen out of a field of 75 artistic teams.

What they created is “a memorial in parts” says Donna Graves, the consultant who oversaw both the artistic competition for, and the construction of, the memorial.

“Taken as a whole, it evokes the size and scope – and import – of a Victory ship,” says Graves. “It was designed to evoke the scale of what people were producing in Richmond.”

The length of a Victory ship, it also suggests its shape. There are two structures, the first being the abstraction of a ship’s hull, based on the look of blueprints. That structure is covered in ladders to recall the shipyard’s scaffolding, as well as in photos of the women who worked as welders – ironically, most were not riveters, says Graves – in the shipyards. Fittingly, the sculptural shapes are welded, not riveted.

Further down the walkway rises a structure that evokes the stack of a Victory ship. In between are two gardens that take the place of the holds that carried supplies to U.S. soldiers all over the world.

Through them all runs a concrete walkway inlaid with quotes from women who worked in the shipyards, as well as with dates relating to the progress of the war and to the progress made by the female workers, many of them minorities who’d never had a chance at decent industrial jobs before.

Finally, the underfoot narrative reaches the end of the war as the memorial juts into the bay in the shape of a ship’s observation platform, mimicking the bow of a ship.

Gazing out toward the bay, one looks down and sees these words, engraved on the very front of the “ship”: “You must tell your children, putting modesty aside, that without us, without women, there would have been no spring in 1945.”