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Women on the WWII home front honored as heroes

By Mabel M. Tampinco Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday October 17, 2000

More than 50 years after being removed from their industrial jobs and told to “go back to their kitchens,” women from as far away as Oklahoma returned Saturday to a hero’s welcome in Richmond for the dedication of a war memorial built in their honor. 

Military planes flew overhead and hundreds of people cheered as the city dedicated its new Rosie the Riveter Memorial to the women who contributed to the country’s World War II efforts on the home front. 

“We could not have won the war without them,” said Richmond Mayor Rosemary Corbin. “And we’ve waited too long to thank them.” 

More than 100 “Rosies” – former riveters, welders and other shipyard workers during the war – walked through the memorial, which evoked the shape of the Liberty Ships that they helped to build.  

Some held on to walkers and others sat in wheelchairs as they stopped to look at black and white photographs of women wearing coveralls and brandishing welding torches. 

Others walked through the 441-foot timeline – the same length as a Liberty Ship – and read historical highlights and other women’s accounts. 

“I am so proud,” said Mary Head, a former welder who wore her old hard hat to the dedication. “I feel very blessed to be part of this memorial.” 

Marian Sousa, who worked as a draftsman, noted with pride how her story was on the memorial’s panels. The account related how Sousa had inspected ships and drew up their blueprints. 

“It was a time when people were patriotic,” said Sousa. “We wanted to serve the country in any way we could.” 

Ludie Mitchell, a Richmond resident and former welder, said she never realized the impact of her work at the shipyards – until now. 

“You didn’t think about it then. It was hard and I didn’t even know it,” she said. “I got up early in the morning and I didn’t even care.” 

Mitchell said that what really brought the message home to her was when she and former day care center worker Ruth Powers went to Washington, D.C., last August to testify at a Congressional hearing. Memorial project staffers were hoping that the women’s stories would convince Congress to pass the bill authorizing the creation of a World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond. 

And they did, said Rep. George Miller, D-Richmond, the bill’s sponsor. 

“I carried the bill,” said Miller. “But these two women made it happen.” 

Mitchell had apparently brought along her welder’s card, which she still carries with her everywhere she goes. 

Miller said that when Mitchell whipped out her welder’s card and showed it to everyone in the hall, “They just all melted, they were history.” 

The $550,000 memorial stands on the site of a former Kaiser shipyard. It includes two structures that outline the shapes of a ship’s hull and smokestack. The structures are lined with women’s stories and photographs that came from the women’s own picture albums. 

The timeline and some women’s accounts were sandblasted into a stone walkway, leading up to the edge of the San Pablo Bay. A lookout point was built just above the water to symbolize the bow of a ship. 

Susan Schwartzenberg, one of the memorial’s designers, said she was awed by the sight of the Rosies walking through the memorial, which she had conceptualized after listening to hundreds of women’s stories. 

“It was pretty incredible, I have to say,” said Schwartzenberg. “I heard their names (announced), and I wanted to meet them because their words are on the sidewalk, but I can’t get to them quick enough.” 

Former councilwoman Donna Powers said the memorial was Richmond’s humble attempt to recognize the efforts of women who have been very modest about their accomplishments during the war. 

Mitchell said she was just happy that the memorial had made her remember what it was like to live and work in Richmond during the war. 

“I thought I’d just safely tucked those memories away,” said Mitchell. “It was in my past, I walked right through it, and got to the other side, and that was it, all gone. But now, I’m so glad they stirred all that up and made me remember.”