It Happened In Richmond (A reprint of Vol. XXI, Art. 9 – two years ago today.)
Almost 70 years ago something extraordinary happened in Richmond, California. Richmond was a quiet town of some 20,000 residents as World War II approached, but early in 1941 a radical transformation began to take place – as a result of FDR’s Emergency Shipbuilding Programs.
Access to the deep water of San Francisco Bay and miles of previously undeveloped shoreline made Richmond the location of choice for a wartime industrial complex dominated by the largest and most productive shipyards in the entire world.
Population boomed to over 100,000 to support the war effort with never-ending three shifts a day, seven days a week. Hayfields were rapidly converted to the largest public housing project ever constructed in the United States, and with millions of men in uniform and out of the workforce for the duration, tens of thousands of women were recruited to do what had previously been considered to be “men’s work”.
The problems stemming from women going to work in great numbers; immigration, resettlement and the struggle to provide housing and basic services; women carrying the family responsibilities; children going to daycare; early health care for workers and their families; and the impact on these families remaining in a community like Richmond, all combined to create a supremely significant story in American history.
A network of schools and childcare centers was thrown up overnight to care for and educate the children of these working women. The nation’s first HMO, now Kaiser Permanente, was founded to keep the shipyard workers healthy. Needing still more workers, Henry Kaiser scoured the country for recruits, finding still more willing volunteers in the rural African-American sections of the South.
Arriving in Richmond by the trainloads, farm workers and share croppers were easily retrained as welders and equipment operators, and in a matter of days they were building Liberty and Victory ships. 747 ships were built in Richmond, coming off the ways at a clip of more than one a week toward the end of the war. One Liberty ship, the Robert E. Peary was built in just over four days, setting a record that, to this day, has not been surpassed. [As you may recall, we noted in our Vol. X, Art. 5 commentary, that a successor USNS Robert E. Peary, the fifth ship in the Navy’s T-AKE program, is now being readied for fleet operations at San Diego’s NASSCO.]
The shipyards in Richmond produced more ships, faster and better, than had ever been done in the history of shipbuilding. Tens of thousands of the nation’s unemployed flocked immediately to the region because revitalized shipbuilding programs demanded immediate job creation.
There is an even more desperate need of jobs in this country and only an Emergency Shipbuilding Program could be effective enough to accommodate our millions of unemployed. We need radical transformations throughout this nation – like the one that engulfed the sleepy town of Richmond – and only the construction of our patented container ships can effect such positive change.