Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rosie the Riveter and Henry J. Kaiser

Day Trip to Rosie the Riveter and WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.

It has been a busy summer with teaching summer school and getting ready to start teaching history, civics, and economics at a new school in August. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t take the opportunity to take a few day trips around California. One Saturday earlier this summer, Sheila and I took a drive up to Richmond, California, to visit the Rosie the Riveter and WWII on the Home Front National Historical Park.

Richmond, California is just north of Oakland and Hayward on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The area was once heavily industrialized and it has a noteworthy history from World War II. Just a few miles further northeast is the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial (a topic for another trip report) in the city of Martinez, and a little further northeast is the city of Pittsburg, California, where Camp Stoneman was located. Camp Stoneman was a staging area for troops shipping out to the Pacific Theater during WWII and during the Korean War. Notables departing from there included the 503rd PIR during WWII and my dad during the Korean War.

Richmond was an excellent choice for this park. During WWII the city was home to four Kaiser shipyards and a Ford plant that built tanks and jeeps. In all the city could boast 56 different war industries. The yards were built from scratch beginning in 1940. Thousands of workers flocked to California from the Dust Bowl, the South, and all over the United States. The city of Pittsburg grew from a population of 24,000 to 100,000 in a matter of months. Families lived in tents and trailers until the city's infrastructure caught up with the population boom. Housing, schools, and medical facilities had to be built along with the mad rush to produce the equipment of war. Some of the workers had construction experience
from the large Depression era projects like Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams. But very few had any experience building ships and many had no industrial experience at all. The yards on the west coast were integrated. Thousands of workers were African American and Hispanic. Twenty-five percent of the workforce were women, living up to the familiar icon "Rosie the Riveter." And although it was not easy, great strides were made for and by labor, civil rights, and women. People came together to do great things for the war effort. The ultimate example is the Kaiser Shipyard construction of the liberty ship Robert E. Peary in 4 days, 15 hours, and 25 minutes, a world record accomplished in November of 1942.

The genius and drive behind these accomplishments was a man named Henry J. Kaiser. Kaiser started out as a road builder in the 1920s. He was a key player in major building projects like the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River during the Depression. Kaiser was an entrepreneur in the truest sense. He bid and won a contract to build ships for Great Britain in 1940 without having a shipyard to build them in. He brought his construction crews down from the Grand Coulee project to begin work on the shipyards in Richmond. When he needed cement and couldn't get it, he started a cement plant. When he needed steel and couldn't get as much as he needed, he built steel mills. When his workers needed medical care he built a hospital and sponsored a health plan, again something never before offered to workers. Kaiser Permanente medical consortium has survived to be one of the giants in the medical services industry today. Henry Kaiser was a problem solver, no doubt about it.

Unfortunately, after the war the Kaiser yards closed. As a result, Richmond went through tough decades of poverty and crime. However, during the latter part of the twentieth century, much of the abandoned industrial infrastructure was removed, and an environmental cleanup took place. Where three of the four Kaiser shipyards stood is now a public marina, park, and blocks of new condos and townhouses. Rosie the Riveter is a partnership park between the National Park Service and the city of Richmond. The city built the Rosie the Riveter memorial in Marina Park in 2000. A bike path connects the memorial to the NPS visitor center next to the Ford plant and Shipyard number three whose buildings are still standing. It is only a one mile walk between the two. It is a pleasant walk with views of the San Francisco skyline. The visitor center is a nice little museum where you will learn more about World War II on the home front and the Kaiser Shipyards. You can also go on board the SS Red Oak Victory, a victory cargo ship being restored and docked at the pier by Shipyard #3.

Still a work in progress, eventually the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front Historical Park will include a sample of worker housing, the child development centers built for Kaiser workers, and the first Kaiser Hospital. It's hard to imagine what the area looked like with four shipyards and a Ford assembly plant all working at full capacity. But the park is certainly worth the trip. To know more, I definitely recommend a book I picked up in the gift shop:
"Build 'Em by the Mile, Cut 'Em off by the Yard, How Henry J. Kaiser and the Rosies Helped Win World War II" by Steve Gilford

No comments: