September 4, 2009

Richmond shipyard workers suffered their own casualties of war

In 1942, eighteen year-old Lucille “Penny” Price joined the shipyard workforce with little idea what lay ahead for her. Read on to hear a poignant account of what those days were like and the daunting challenges Penny faced.

Building warships was a dangerous enterprise. Workers in the Richmond shipyards during World War II learned the hard way how easy it was to be injured when working at a furious speed to fulfill orders for sorely needed war vessels.

Richmond shipyard workers 1943
Richmond shipyard workers 1943

The odd mix of people who converged at the Kaiser shipyards added to the complexity and worry associated with the safety of workers of all levels of skill and socialization. The majority of them had little or no experience building ships.

There were black and white men and women from the agrarian southern states and other parts of the country. There were native San Francisco Bay Area women and men. There were men who had medical conditions that totally disqualified them from serving in uniform (Class 4F). There were handicapped workers.

Risky Business

Injuries minor and major were common. In fact, working in a shipyard was one of the most dangerous jobs in the wartime industries, more risky than the manufacture of tanks, aircraft, and explosives. The shipyards of America reported an average of 33 disabling injuries per million hours worked in 1943. (This compared favorably to the iron and steel foundries whose average accident rate was 40 injuries per million hours worked.) About 700 shipyard workers were killed during 1943 and 1944 in accidents in the nation’s shipyards.*

Some injuries were purely accidental, some were from carelessness, and others were simply vicious.

“It Wasn’t All Beer and Skittles…”

An eighteen-year-old Oakland girl, Lucille “Penny” Price, joined the shipyard workforce in October 1942. She made good money as an electrician and considered the wartime work a great opportunity. She sums up the experience in this casual understatement: “It wasn’t all beer and skittles.”**

Price, an electrician in Yard 3, was almost scared away from the shipyards when she witnessed a fatal accident on her first night of work. A guide was taking a group of new employees, including Price, on an orientation tour when they heard “beep, beep, beep,” the sound of a crane in motion. “The guide was telling us that when you hear that sound you get the heck out of the way and stay away,” Price recalled. But some other workers didn’t heed the warning sound, and as the crane lifted a heavy sheet of steel aboard a ship, one of the cables broke and the load slipped and killed several of them.

“I tell you I was ready to run, and so were the other people in our group of electricians,” she said.

Price was quickly reassigned to the relative safety of the electrical shop to give her time to get over the shock. She stuck it out and by Christmas was wiring C-4 transporters and LSTs (landing ship, tanks) and continued to work in the yards until early 1945. During her tenure there, she would experience many injuries herself.

Threatened by Male Counterparts

Now 84 years old and living in Windsor, Calif., Price recalls the time a “chauvinist” kicked a ladder out from underneath her and caused her to fall over a stack of pipes. The man who made her fall was fined and fired, never to work again in the shipyards. Penny was taken to the shipyard Field Hospital where she was treated for two cracked ribs.

Price also recalls that men also liked to sneak up on her while she was working from a plank stretched across the open deck with six floors below. “They’d make the board vibrate and that scared the hell out of me.”

Male shipyard workers’ poor treatment of their female counterparts was not uncommon. “When women managed to enter jobs that seemed still to be the prerogatives of men, they were sometimes mistreated; “harassed” is the word we would use nowadays,” said Columbia University professor Alice Kessler-Harris in an interview on PBS.

“Men often played tricks on women by sending them for tools that did not exist. Men also sexually harassed women by whistling and cat-calling to them as they worked. Most of the resistance and hostility towards women workers disappeared as the novelty of women workers wore off, the labor shortage got worse, and women proved themselves, according to Susan M. Hartmann, author of The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s.

Victim of Double Pneumonia—Before the Days of Penicillin

Penny Price was also a victim of double pneumonia that developed after she was caught in a dark corner on the same level as a dozen hostile workmen during an air raid warning drill. Price had been doing some wiring by herself above the shaft alley when the “whoop, whoop” of the siren came and the lights went out. She huddled in a space near a boiler for two hours, shaking with fear as the burly workers made comments like: “Wait ‘til I get my hands on that little chick over there.”

Lucille "Penny" Price 1943

When the drill was over, her leaderman, Charlie Ryder, swooped her up from the spooky pit. She couldn’t stop shivering, so her coworkers gave her coffee to warm her up. “To this day, I can’t stand the smell of coffee with cream in a paper cup.” She “upchucked” the coffee that night at home and returned to work the next day thinking she was fine. But the shaking returned, and she was taken to the field hospital where they took a chest X-ray and diagnosed double pneumonia.

This was in March 1943 before penicillin was available to civilians. At the Oakland hospital where our doctors were perfecting the treatment of pneumonia, she was given a “horrendous” clear liquid (probably horse or rabbit serum) every few hours. That liquid along with oxygen therapy cured her of the mysterious pneumonia.

During the war, Permanente physician Morris Collen experimented with the treatment of pneumonia as he managed a large number of shipyard cases. By the end of the war, Collen had published his findings and earned a national reputation as a pneumonia guru. His prestige was such that he was able to get some of the first civilian penicillin in 1944 to save the lives of the 7-year-old daughter of a shipyard worker in Vancouver, Wash., and a young man in a Richmond yard.

Hospital Visits—Much Too Frequent

Throughout her time at the shipyards, Penny Price was injured numerous times and was a frequent visitor to the First Aid Station and the Field Hospital. “I was in and out of the Field Hospital like a yoyo,” she said. She frequently cut herself using a linoleum knife to cut electrical cable. She vividly recalls the inside-out eyelid treatment administered when she got bits of steel mesh from the cable in her eyes. She also recalls that when working around fiberglass she sometimes got particles down her neck that irritated like a thousand flea bites.

Penny Price today
Penny Price today

Her most serious injury was caused by an accidental explosion that knocked her down from the ship’s superstructure onto the deck below where workers were using acetylene torches to shrink the deck. As a result of the fall, she suffered burns and an injury to her knee when it struck a bolt on the deck. She was burned so badly that she had to return for treatment for nine months before her leg was healed. “I still have scars on my leg to this day,” she said. She returned to work after a short hospital stay wearing a splint on her knee wound.

Price remembers an inspector coming around to urge the workers to follow the Maritime Commission safety rules to avoid injuries. “He’d show us a glass eye and say ‘do you want one of these?’” We’d shudder, and he would say: ‘then, wear your goggles!”

Safety Program Launched in 1943

In 1943, the U.S. Maritime Commission launched a safety program that ultimately reduced the injuries per million hours worked in the shipyards to 23.2 in 1944. “The work of the (commission) was of value in two ways & #8212; by allaying fears that working in a shipyard was more dangerous to life and limb than working somewhere else, and by making this true through insistence on a high standard of protection and precaution,” wrote Frederic Lane in his 1951 book Ships for Victory.

*Of the 655 reported private shipyard fatalities in the nation during 1943 and 1944, vehicles or loads striking workers was the second most common type of accident (25 percent) after falls (39 percent). Half of the “strike by” accidents involved cranes.

**'Beer and skittles' is shorthand for a life of indulgence spent in the pub. Skittles, also known as Ninepins, which was the pre-cursor to ten-pin bowling, has been a popular English pub game since the 17th century. This definition is according to the Phrase Finder, a United Kingdom Web site: www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/230200.html.

— Ginny McPartland