November 25, 2010

Promise of jobs attracts wartime workers to West Coast shipyards

Chicago area welders wait for train to Richmond. National Archives photo by Jack Delano.

In the fall of 1942, thousands of New York area workers boarded Kaiser Shipyards recruiting trains in Hoboken, New Jersey, heading for Oregon. Around the same time, thousands of job seekers were catching trains from the South and the Midwest bound for Richmond, California. Still others uttered a hopeful prayer as they started up their jalopies or farm trucks and headed west. Looking to change their lives for the better, the skilled and unskilled took a chance that the West Coast dream was not an illusion.

They were leaving their hometowns where recovery from the Great Depression was elusive. If they had jobs, the pay was low. Many were deep in debt and saw higher pay in the World War II shipyards as a way to heal their ailing finances. Some were young and saw no future or excitement in their native states.

Individuals were desperately needed to build ships to help win the war. So it didn’t matter whether you were black or white or Asian or Hispanic — or if you had skills and experience. You could learn on the job, and if you did well, you could improve your position and pay. You didn’t even have to be healthy and strong — and many weren’t. You could seek medical care at the shipyards, and you could purchase the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, affordable comprehensive, prepaid health care for yourself and your family.

The shipyard life wasn’t all hearts and flowers. Worker housing was inadequate, and communities were overwhelmed with newcomers. But for many workers, migration to the West Coast opened up a new, optimistic world.

Mississippi mother of 11 becomes shipyard welder

Lucille Preston, reared in Clarkesdale, Mississippi (near Memphis, Tennessee), is a case in point. She first went to work on a plantation at age 12 or 13 babysitting for the wealthy owner’s children. Eventually, she cooked for the family every day and served at their elaborate parties. The generous family hosted her wedding when she married a man whose parents worked for the same prominent family.

When the couple’s sixth child was on the way, Preston’s husband, Willie, caught the California bug. “My husband just came home one evening and said that there was work in Richmond, California. ‘They’re opening up the Kaiser Shipyard, and I would like to go.’ So I said: ‘Why sure,’ ” Preston told Judith K. Dunning, oral history interviewer for a Bancroft Library project in 1985.*

Unidentified family awaiting a train in Chicago. National Archives photo by Jack Delano.

Willie sent for Lucille when he got an apartment in the war housing. She set out for Richmond on a train, eight months pregnant, carrying her one-year-old with the other four clinging to her skirt. On the platform, a kind conductor shepherded Lucille and her brood through the crushing crowd onto a car bound for California. From El Paso, Texas, to Richmond, Lucille stood holding the baby while the other children settled at the feet of nearby passengers.

At Richmond, the Prestons settled in their new home, Lucille gave birth and a month later she was working graveyard at the shipyards and learning how to weld. Willie worked swing shift so the two took turns at parenting. The couple had five more children over the next decade. After the war, Lucille operated a dress-uniform press at Treasure Island where she worked for 20 years.

Lucille told Dunning her only regret was that the expense of raising eight sons and three daughters kept her from building her dream house. However, most of her children went to college — one daughter has two master’s degrees — and they all have successful careers.

Government helps young men launch shipyard careers

Getting to California from other parts of the country seemed a pipe dream for many would-be welders. Kaiser Shipyard recruiters fronted train fare for many who came across the country with nothing. Workers could pay back the loan when they got their paychecks. For young men 16 to 24, the federal National Youth Administration (NYA), established by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935, collaborated with the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards to make the impossible dream possible.

The NYA paid for transportation to California. Once in Richmond, the young men were welcomed at the Richmond War Work Residence Center where they lived in dormitories and received two to four weeks of welder training. The pay for a month was $33.30, minus $22.50 for meals, dental and medical care, work clothes and equipment. After the initial period of “confusion, bewilderment and expense,” the men were placed in shipyard jobs, according to the Richmond Shipyard newsletter “Fore ‘N Aft.” By April 1943, the project had placed 1,500 welders in Richmond yards.

Diversity reigns in the shipyards

Throughout the war years, the West Coast shipyards attracted all kinds of people from all over the globe. There were actors, writers, lawyers, cowboys, farmers, housewives, shopkeepers, and doctors. Some were experienced at building ships and others had never seen one.

Here’s how the “Fore ‘N Aft” described the work force in April 1944: “We are all kinds of people, as you can tell by listening to us — Texas twang and Brooklyn brogue, down east Yankee and Carolina drawl, along with almost every language on earth from Polish to Swedish, from Syrian to Italian. It takes all kinds of people to build ships, just as it took all kinds to build America. Shoulder to shoulder, we’ll come through together.”

*Lucille Preston, “A World War II Journey: From Clarkesdale, Mississippi, to Richmond, California, 1942,” an oral history conducted in 1985 by Judith K. Dunning, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992.