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As nascent national park in old California shipyard shows, wartime Rosies still riveting
Remembering Rosie F 5468425
Betty Reid Soskin, a community outreach worker at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park, looks out at the water from a dry dock area where woman worked during the war on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007 in Richmond, Calif. Soskin, 86, kept clerical records for the segregated union set up for black shipyard workers during World War II. - photo by Associated Press
    RICHMOND, Calif. — Fog drifts over the old shipyard, casting a veil over the shoulders of empty factories where thousands of women once thronged, welding and hammering and typing and filing as they put a lipsticked smile on the face of the war at home.
    This is the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park, a sprawling tribute to the sacrifices of a generation located in what was once a wartime boomtown on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
    As recounted in Ken Burns’ recent documentary ‘‘The War,’’ which details the impact of the war boom on cities including nearby Sacramento, Northern California was as swept up in the homefront mobilization as any region of the country.
    ‘‘There is no more charged period in history — hate, love, fear, despair, everything that goes along with a human emotion is just heightened during a period of war. No one was left untouched by this experience,’’ says Lucy Lawliss, a National Parks Service landscape architect who is among the people working to establish the park.
    ‘‘They almost waited too late.’’ — Mary Head, now in her mid-80s, a former Rosie who worked in the Richmond shipyards, on the declining number of surviving Rosies
    The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter is of a cheerful, blonde housewife. But many Rosies didn’t fit that image at all.
    For Betty Reid Soskin, a black woman already living in the San Francisco Bay area when World War II broke out, life on the home front meant confusion and change.
    Workers, male and female, were recruited from all over the country to work in the shipyards, including people from states where blacks and whites wouldn’t be sharing drinking fountains for another 20 years.
    Soskin went to work, too, keeping clerical records for the segregated union set up for black shipyard workers.
    These days, Soskin tells stories, her own and others’, as a community outreach worker for the Rosie the Riveter park.
    Soskin hesitates to call herself a ‘‘Rosie.’’ She didn’t wear a welder’s mask or build tanks or even know much about the massive effort going on at the Richmond shipyards. At the time, she didn’t really feel part of the war effort, filing cards and making address changes.
    Looking back through the prism of the civil rights movement, she sees it differently.
    ‘‘When you’re in the middle of that, you don’t have a sense of what you were involved in historically. I certainly didn’t,’’ she says.
    ‘‘But now, at 86, I look back and I can see the pattern as it swept across the country and can have the pride in that heroism of the people who suffered through that, who learned from that.’’
    ‘‘President Roosevelt said everybody go to work and find something to do. We went in there to work and to win the war and win we did.’’ — Kate Grant, a former Richmond shipyard welder now living in Oklahoma
    The Richmond shipyards produced 747 ships, an enormous effort that required round-the-clock shifts.
    Mary Head worked with the welders, knocking off the rough surfaces and priming paint for the next step of construction. She was a relief worker, stepping in when someone took a break or was late.
    She remembers the work as ‘‘greasy and dirty and cold. Honey, it was cooold,’’ she says, her voice drawing out the vowels.
    Step carefully down the crumbling steps that lead to the old ‘‘galleries,’’ long, multi-leveled chambers where hundreds of workers could work on the same ship at one time, and it’s easy to imagine just how hard and gritty the work was.
    ‘‘Even with pre-assembled pieces, it was a handcrafted industry,’’ notes Lawliss. ‘‘It required thousands of people doing individual jobs to assemble this huge thing.’’
    The Rosie the Riveter park is a work in progress. A memorial walkway, flanked by metal structures meant to evoke the hull of a ship, was dedicated in 2000. Park officials also were allotted space in a refurbished Ford assembly plant, a cathedral-like expanse of soaring, glass-paned walls. They hope to open an exhibit there soon.
    Visitors get a map and directions to the park’s landmarks, such as a housing development built for shipyard workers and Shipyard No. 3, home to the USS Red Oak Victory, an ammunition ship built in Richmond that is being restored by a volunteer group of World War II veterans.
    Among those who have visited the park is Kate Grant, a former Rosie who recalled her experiences in a telephone interview from her home in Moore, Okla.
    Grant was a tack welder and used to go 40 feet down to the bottom of the ship to lay beads of hot lead on seams. She worked the graveyard shift, 12 a.m. to 8 a.m., getting home in time to take care of her baby, who was watched at night by her younger sister.
    She had two weeks training and was outfitted with a hood, goggles, leather pants, gloves and instructions to stay wrapped up when the acetylene torch was going. She was careful; she never got burned.
    Her husband, Melvin, joined the Marines and was shipped overseas. She can laugh now about the can of Spam she sent him as a care package.
    But there was a serious side to her work.
    ‘‘I said, ’Honey, I feel like I’m building a ship for you to come home in.’’’
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