City honors ‘Rosie the Riveters’

By PATRICIA BROWN

The New York Times

RICHMOND, Calif. – It has been more than half a century since the photographer Dorothea Lange came to the bustling wartime shipyards of this long-beleaguered city across the Bay from San Francisco to chronicle the lives of real-life “Rosie the Riveters.”

“I’d never worked in my life,” Phyllis McKey Gould, now 79, recalled last week as she stood beside the new “Rosie the Riveter” memorial here, on the site of Kaiser shipyard No. 2. Gould and thousands of other women came to the Kaiser shipyards to work as welders and shipfitters in the war effort.

“I loved the look of welding, the smell of it,” Gould said. “You’d look through really dark glass and all you’d see was the glow. You moved the welding rod in tiny, circular motions, making half-crescents. If you did it right, it was beautiful. It was like embroidery.”

The memorial, built by the city and incorporating memories and photographs of Gould and other women in its design, is the first national monument dedicated to women who worked on the World War II home front. About 200 women who worked at the shipyards here attended the dedication.

Although Rosie the Riveter was a fictitious character, the image of a muscle-bound woman in overalls became an enduring wartime icon, embodying the nation’s can-do spirit, and was popularized in posters, war-bond promotions and the 1942 song, “Rosie the Riveter.”

But in Richmond, Rosie was real. “After they bombed Pearl Harbor, the next thing you heard was, ‘There’s shipbuilding in California,’ ” said Bethena Moore, now 83, who moved from Derrider, La., where she had been a laundry worker, to become a welder. A diminutive 110 pounds, she was given the dangerous task of climbing down a narrow steel ladder, tethered to a welding machine, four stories into the ships’ double-bottoms.

“It was dark, scary,” she said. “It felt sad, because there was a war on. You knew why you were doing it – the men overseas might not get back. There were lives involved. So the welding had to be perfect.”

At the war’s height, women, many of them black, made up more than a quarter of the shipyards’ 90,000 workers. From 1942 to 1945, nearly 500,000 blacks migrated to California, about 15,000 to Richmond alone.

Like many of Richmond’s Rosies, Moore was technically not a riveter. Riveting, a laborious, highly skilled task, was replaced at the Kaiser shipyards by faster prefabrication techniques during the war. Her arms, like those of many women shipyard workers, still bear tiny white scars from “metal sparkles,” hot slag that fell into her sleeves and gloves as she welded overhead. Many, including Moore, still carry their timeworn welding certificates in their wallets.

Her photograph is part of the memorial, designed by Cheryl Barton, a landscape architect, and Susan Schwartzenberg, an artist, which is intended to recall the unfinished frame of a Liberty ship, the type of troop and cargo vessels built here.

Women’s words are embedded in a granite walkway, which stretches 441 feet toward the water – the length of a Liberty ship – “to commemorate the scale at which women worked,” Barton said. Native rock roses, “a tough variety,” she said, line the path.

The war forever changed Moore and others. “Anybody could have done what I was doing in Louisiana,” she said of operating pressing machines at a laundry. “Building a ship was a different feeling.”

The city began redeveloping the site of the old shipyard No. 2 in the late 1970s, spending $15 million on the cleanup. The memorial may be only a beginning. Earlier this month, Congress passed a bill authorizing the establishment of a Rosie the Riveter/WW2 Home Front National Historical Park here. The proposed park would include and occupy historical structures, including a sprawling brick Ford assembly building and the crumbling concrete docks of Kaiser shipyard No. 3.

Time is of the essence, as the women whose memories are welded with wartime experience age. All the remaining Rosies “are getting on towards 80 years old,” said Frances Tunnell Carter, who founded the American Rosie the Riveter Association in Birmingham, Ala., two years ago. The group is a national network with more than 600 members. “It’s almost too late,” she said.

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