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Women shipyard workers honored today in Richmond

By Michelle Locke The Associated Press
Saturday October 14, 2000

RICHMOND – Phyllis Gould rarely thinks of the years she spent welding troop ship deck houses together in the shipyards of San Francisco Bay. Fifty-five years have passed since then, decades of marriage, divorce, child rearing and the myriad distractions of home life. 

But a whiff of the hot, wiry breath of metal melting and, suddenly, it’s all right there – the grimy, frightening, exciting days of waging war with a blowtorch. 

“It just zaps me back. I can see and hear everything,” she says. 

On Saturday, Gould and millions of other World War II women workers will be honored with the dedication of a Rosie the Riveter memorial in Richmond, the shorefront city that launched many of the ships that kept American sailors afloat. 

The memorial, at 441 feet the same length as the Liberty Ships the women helped build, includes a walk with a timeline of facts and memories from women workers. 

Congress has approved establishing the site, now a city park honoring women’s war work, as a national historic park. The legislation awaits President Clinton’s approval. 

“We never expected to be recognized,” says Gould’s sister, Marian Sousa, a World War II draftsman. “Everybody worked. They did what they could.” 

Gould was the first in the family to find war work. When her husband and his friends announced one Sunday they were going to learn welding to get jobs building ships, “I piped up, ‘Me, too!”’ 

She studied from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., but failed her first few job interviews in 1942 — running into the brick wall of a boilermaker’s union man who flatly told her, “No women and no blacks.” 

The third time she was turned down, “I started crying. And as I walked back to the room, there was a man sitting at the desk and he said, ’What’s wrong?’ and I told him and he said, ’Go back up there,’ and I did and I got a job.” 

In the end there were half a dozen women hired, much to the consternation of shipyard bosses — who hired a woman chaperone. 

“At first I think they were just kind of watching us with amusement,” she says. 

Gould was put to work tacking, putting a short weld on pieces of metal to hold them in place for the final work. She called on her embroidery skills to get the welds placed just so, working her way up to $1.20 an hour — “Oh boy, yeah, it was money.” 

The work was hot and dirty, but Gould had her little vanities. Behind her heavy mask her lips were lipsticked; her hair was tied up in a kerchief, but she made sure her bandanna matched the color of the shirt collar poking out from beneath her sweats. 

Gould did run into problems with one co-worker, a would-be “ladies man” who made the mistake of shining a flashlight on her, blinding her — “I had warned all of the guys on the crew, don’t ever do it because I’m going to swing on the next one that does.” 

She swung, knocking the supervisor’s shiny hard hat off his head. He lunged back, cramming her welding mask below her ears. 

For a while she got the worst assignments, welding in dark, cramped corners on the inside of the ship. 

“One night, he came sidling up to me and he said, ’Well, are you tired of it yet.’ I said, ’You know I’ll do it for the rest of the war if (the alternative) means honeying up to the likes of you.”’ 

After that, “I went back to my good work.” 

Sousa had a quieter time. 

She went to work in 1943 as a draftsman after a crash course at the University of California, Berkeley. She was too young, 17, but got the job after her mother — a war worker herself — lied for her. 

By that time, women war workers were commonplace, filling the jobs the sailors, soldiers and airmen had left behind. At the height of the war, women made up approximately 27 percent of the 100,000-strong work force at Richmond’s Kaiser shipyards. 

Part of Sousa’s work was correcting blueprints to match design revisions. 

“I remember just endless, endless papers of erasing two bunks and making them three bunks,” she says. 

But it was exciting work, and well-paid at $32 a week. 

The senior draftsmen “never looked down on us. They were really great. In fact, I was expecting my daughter and those men gave me a surprise baby shower.” 

Sousa quit when she was too pregnant to make the high first step of the old-style buses. Gould quit when the war ended. Neither ever went back to work outside the home, or felt the urge. 

“I never expected it to go on and I was quite happy to stay at home. Sometimes it’s hard for younger people to understand that point of view because now I think most girls expect to work, but we didn’t,” says Gould. 

Mostly, Gould doesn’t think about her years on the homefront lines. 

But then something will tug at her memory. 

“Sometimes I smell that smell,” she says, her voice trailing off. “It just puts me back there.”