Stateside 6: A Ship a Day

The amazing Richmond shipyard

By Roger Childs

The sheltered, deep waters off Richmond were ideal for launching new ships in World War Two. There was a great need for vessels to be rapidly manufactured as the United States was at war with Japan, as well as Germany and Italy.

There were actually four shipyards at the location across the Bay from San Francisco, run by the innovative and far-sighted Henry Kaiser.

Richmond started by building cargo ships, but later constructed Liberty and Victory vessels – 747 in all.

They came down the slipways at the rate of one per day in 1943 and once the keel was down, one ship was built in under a week!

Mass production miracles

The speedy production was made possible through pre-fabrication and assembly lines. Large parts of ships were put together in a Pre-Fabrication yard.

For example, deckhouses were built on roller runways:

The finished product was then moved on special tractor-trailers to the building site and lifted by crane onto the hull.

The prefabrication approach allowed relatively inexperienced workers to do simple repetitive tasks like welding, and the whole ship-building process was consequently much faster. Women became a key component of the labour force and by 1944 more than 40% of the welders were female. (See more on this in the Rosie the Riveter article. Scroll down to  May 17.)

A small city becomes a bustling industrial hub

Richmond’s population quadrupled in two years and at its peak 90,000 were working in the shipyards. As well as this, the city had over 50 war related industries.

The huge influx of people created huge accommodation problems. Housing was built rapidly, but nowhere near fast enough.

People sorted out places to “stay” in various creative ways:

  • in cars and caravans
  • on the back of trucks and in railroad cars
  • in hammocks
  • using “hot beds”: rented for eight hours a day according to shifts!

However, Henry Kaiser was determined to look after the welfare his workers. He built a field hospital and on-site first aid stations, and offered health care for a small fee from Kaiser Permanente Health Plans. He also provided day care for the employees children.

As time went on in the early 1940s Richmond’s work force became more cosmopolitan with Blacks, Hispanics and Asians working alongside Whites, and women took on jobs they had never done before, especially in manufacturing.

There were some shortages and racial issues. Blacks and other lived in segregated areas; there were food shortages and long trips to get to work, and Whites tended to be paid higher wages.

Nevertheless, there was huge pride in building ships in Richmond and the cooperative spirit in working together to win the war helped bring together Americans of every ethnicity on the home front and break down barriers.

Remembering the war stories

Statue of Rosie having lunch at the visitors’ centre

Today Richmond is the site of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.

It has many interesting features including

  • A visitor centre with plenty of information and exhibitions
  • A memorial which features a sculpture of a hull under construction
  • various historic buildings
  • a moored Victory ship: the SS Red Oak Victory

(Richmond is readily accessible from San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley on the BART trains.)



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