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Richmond Shipyards

Richmond, California, which had no shipyards at all prior to the war, produced more merchant ships during World War II than any other city in the US. The four Richmond shipyards with their combined 27 shipways, produced 747 ships, more than any other shipyard complex in the country. Richmond was home to 56 different war industries, more than any other city of its size in the United States. The city grew nearly overnight from 24,000 people to 100,000 people, overwhelming the available housing stock, roads, schools, businesses and community services.

Before 1940, the Six Companies organization, with Henry J. Kaiser as a key leader, were involved in major civil engineering feats, notably in building roads and dams, including Grand Coulee. As World War II approached, Kaiser began to think about turning his team of veteran construction people to shipbuilding, especially since the US Maritime Commission announced its plans to renovate the merchant marine, 90% of which was World War I vintage or older. Henry J. Kaiser had been building cargo ships for the U.S. Maritime Commission in the 1930s, and when orders for ships from the British government, already at war with Nazi Germany, allowed for growth, Kaiser established his first Richmond shipyard begun in December 1940.

Joining forces with already-established Todd Shipyards, Kaiser secured a contract from the US Maritime Commission to build five C-1 cargo ships in Tacoma, Washington. At the same time, the Todd-Kaiser partnership got an order from the British government to build 60 ships, based on an old tramp steamer design, that became known as Liberty ships. Thirty of these were to be built in Richmond, California, a site with the unequalled resources of deep water and unoccupied land. Construction of Kaiser's first Richmond shipyard began in December 1940, and by April 1941, the keel of the first ship for the British, the Ocean Vanguard, was laid.

In 1941, with the nation's declaration of war, three emergency programs for building Liberty ships were begun, initiating an era of shipbuilding of historic dimensions. Seven Kaiser-managed shipyards containing 58 shipways were built on the West Coast. Four of those yards, with 27 shipways, emerged from the mudflats on Richmond's south shoreline in 1941-42.

Here, in the shipyards, came into play all the dynamics of materials flow, the rhythm of operations and the management of masses of workers, that the company had learned in a quarter century of building roads and dams. New ships had to be produced much faster than ever before and traditional methods simply wouldn't get the job done. Shipyards had previously been thought of in terms of acres; Kaiser yards covered miles so that the mountains of materials could be handled efficiently. Fast welding techniques just about eliminated laborious riveting; the traditional piece-by-piece way of putting ships together was scrapped in favor of prefabrication. Finally, yards were laid out like assembly lines, with the steel and parts flowing smoothly from flat cars to completed vessels.

Competition between shipyards made record-setting commonplace. Keel-to-launching time was progressively cut to 27 days. The pace and efficiency of the mass production were dramatically demonstrated when the Liberty ship Robert E. Peary was constructed in 4 days, 15 hours and 26 minutes. In addition to innovative time-cutting techniques already developed, construction of the Peary utilized new ones, which were incorporated into future construction. These included using seventeen banks of welding machines on each side of the hull, pre-assembly of the deck in seven sections instead of 23, and complete outfitting of the deckhouses, down to bunks, fans and flooring, before assembly.

More than 747 vessels were built here in the four Richmond Kaiser Shipyards during World War II; a feat not equaled anywhere else in the world, before or since. All of Kaiser's shipyards together produced 1,490 ships, which amounted to 27 percent of the total U.S. Maritime Commission construction. These ships were completed in two-thirds the amount of time and at a quarter of the cost of the average of all other shipyards. The Liberty Ship Robert E. Perry was assembled in less than five days as a part of a special competition among shipyards; but by 1944 it was only taking the astonishingly brief time of a little over two weeks to assemble a Liberty ship by standard methods. Henry Kaiser and his workers applied mass assembly line techniques to building the ships. This production line technique, bringing pre-made parts together, moving them into place with huge cranes and having them welded together by "Rosies" (actually "Wendy the Welders" here in the shipyards), allowed unskilled laborers to do repetitive jobs requiring relatively little training to accomplish. This not only increased the speed of construction, but also the size of the mobilization effort, and in doing so, opened up jobs to women and minorities.

During WWII, thousands of men and women worked in this area everyday, in very hazardous jobs. Actively recruited by Kaiser, they came from all over the United States to swell the population of Richmond from 20,000 to over 100,000 in three short years. For many of them, this was the first time they worked and earned money. It was the first time they were faced with the problems of being working parents--finding daycare and housing. Women and minorities entered the workforce in areas previously denied to them. However, they still faced unequal pay, were shunted off into "auxiliary" unions and still had to deal with day-to-day prejudice and inequities. During the war, there were labor strikes and sit-down work stoppages that eventually led to better conditions. As one African American Rosie commented about the progress of labor and civil rights during this time, while huge gains had to wait for the post-war civil rights movement, the Home Front did, "begin to shed light on America's promise."

Rosie the Riveter -- World War II Home Front National Historical Park

Established in 2000, the Rosie the Riveter--World War II Home Front National Historical Park contains several historic buildings and the remains of the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards. The Rosie the Riveter Memorial, located on the former site of Kaiser Shipyard No. 2, now a waterfront park, honors the millions of women who worked in World War II defense industries and support services.

This new National Park commemorates a significant chapter in America's history: the World War II Home Front. Fully engaged in winning World War II, American women, minorities and men worked toward a common goal in a manner that has been unequaled since. Women affectionately known as "Rosies" helped change industry and had sweeping and lasting impacts. Many Rosies recounted how important their jobs were in welding these ships and how careful they were in doing it. They realized the lives of their husbands, brothers and sons depended on the cargoes delivered by these ships.

Rosie the Riveter--World War II Home Front National Historical Park, administered by the National Park Service, is still in development. It has a small Visitor Center in the City of Richmond's City Hall South where a Driving Tour Booklet can be obtained. The Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Marina Bay Park is open year round, dawn to dusk, as are the other city parks within the National Park's boundaries, as is the SS Red Oak Victory. Other sites of the park are in private ownership and are not open to the public.

As a "partnership park" with no land or buildings actually owned by the National Park Service, the success of Rosie the Riveter is dependent on collaboration with other government agencies and private property owners. Historic properties within park boundaries include Richmond Shipyard Number Three, Ford Assembly Building, SS Red Oak Victory, Atchison Village Defense Housing Project, Maritime Child Development Center and Kaiser Richmond Field Hospital.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:56:03 ZULU