Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center
We're conditioned by 70 years of visual propaganda -- whether from the government, or Madison Avenue -- to imagine we know all about Rosie the Riveter, that WWII hammer-swinging, torch-brandishing "We can do it" poster gal. But hearing about wartime industry from people who actually lived through it shows how much we don't know.
"Women were the best welders. Men were not as careful," says one shipyard boss in a short documentary shown at Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.
The secret's out, in Rosie's Home Front Theater. Women, with an eye for meticulous detail and needlework-hardened hands, built better welded vessels (at least, aesthetically) in the shipyards of World War II America. Sloppy but serviceable man-welds didn't sink ships, but were said to be easy to distinguish from the work of the talented females who joined the Allies wartime workforce in large numbers in 1941-1945.
That insight and many others are presented at the only national park exclusively devoted to the war's civilian effort. And it seems to be attracting a different audience than you might typically find at a traditional armament-fest military museum.
The park is in a semi-urban setting, points-of-interest spread out among active businesses, warehouses and residential areas. It includes the best preserved array of structures from war year manufacturing. There is a visitor's center, a memorial park, the old Ford Assembly plant, and a still floating "victory ship" docked at Shipyard No. 3. We recommend starting at the visitor's center in the old Ford plant oil house to see the exhibits and grab a free map for touring other sites.
During the darkest days of the two-theater conflict, German U-boats racked up sinkings of merchant ships and their vital supplies, while the Japanese Navy parried with the US Navy and sank numerous vessels. To win, shipbuilding on a scale never before seen became a necessity.
While every American port had a vital role, Richmond's four Kaiser shipyards achieved a production rate that bested them all (and even today has not been surpassed). The four shipyards built 747 vessels during the war. Kaiser introduced and perfected a modular construction approach that cut the time to build a complete ship from six months to about three weeks (and one record Liberty ship, the Peary, was built in less than five days).
"Wendy the Welder" was technically the nickname used in Richmond (welding supplanted much of the riveting work), but the Rosie the Riveter moniker was coined in a song in 1942, and survives as the popular shorthand for home front female labor.
As a National Park installation, in California, in Richmond, the narrative has been broadened and made more inclusive, telling the story of women and minorities. Rosie propaganda art produced by the government were reflective of the time, explains one National Park ranger, handing around a sample poster with a white man in a suit grasping the shoulders of his wife in her factory apron and bow snood: "I'm Proud my husband wants me to do my part." Another poster preemptively admonishes workers with a skulking cartoon insect: "Don't be a job hopper. Our soldiers are sticking to their guns. STICK TO YOUR JOB!"
Though the overall narrative is of a nation unified in resolve, incidents of inequality, labor strife and generally crappy situations are not glossed over. Richmond was a boom town, swelling to four times its population in a few years, straining abilities to house tens of thousands of workers. Private homes rented out spare rooms.
"Hot beds" were lodgings where three workers, on 8-hour shifts, would sleep in the same bed at different times.
The defense industries eventually caught onto the benefits of employing diverse races, genders, seniors, people with disabilities -- changes that otherwise would have moved at a snail's pace. The war industry and Henry Kaiser helped pioneer day care for children of working mothers, and prepaid healthcare for workers. And yet, women on average were paid far less than men doing the same jobs.
The Richmond story isn't just about ships -- 55 war-related industries were humming along full bore in the city and port. The huge Ford Motor assembly plant, built in 1930, was retooled to produce nearly 50,000 military jeeps. The plant was also a tank depot, used to put the "finishing touches" on 91,000 armored vehicles.
Well-designed interactive galleries in the visitor center, completed in 2014, deploy pasty "life cast" figures of workers, sound effects, and visual displays to detail the home front experience. Visitors learn about scrap metal collecting, see a mural of 1940s downtown Richmond, hear air raid sirens, and read the recollections of women responding to the nation's call for female workers.
A photo op Rosie sits on factory steps, eating out of her lunch pail. A couple of welder's masks are arranged so visitors can stick their heads in and peer at film of welding torches in action. You be the welder!
The Home Front Theater, in the basement, presents short documentaries full of historic film clips, narrated by interviews of workers, managers, and labor leaders.
Visitors on Fridays may meet a few real-life "Rosies," who volunteer to hang out and talk about old times.
After the war ended in 1945, 90% of production was cut. The armaments weren't needed, the men had returned, and the collective sentiment in the country was that veterans had earned the opportunity to return to the workforce.
Most of the Rosies (85%) left their wartime jobs, but they never left the national consciousness as symbols of patriotism and dedication.