Working on the war effort at Vancouver's Kaiser Shipyard

Clark County residents recall their service helping build America's fleet

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Sunday: related story

From Vancouver to war in the Pacific: Local veterans recall service aboard ships built at Kaiser in Vancouver

Did you know?

• The former Kaiser Shipyard is now the site of Columbia Business Park, south of state Highway 14 along the Columbia River. A viewing tower and interpretive panels are at the Henry J. Kaiser Shipyard Memorial at the boat ramp in Marine Park, 4500 S.E. Columbia Way.

photoHarry Hendricks holds a Kaiser shipyard ID badge with a photo taken when Harry was a 14-year-old shipyard worker. Hendricks lied about his age so he could get a job at the shipyard. The photo was taken Aug. 15 in Vancouver.

(/The Columbian)

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Peggy Sater was just 16 when she went to work at Vancouver's Kaiser Shipyard. Harry Hendricks beat her by two years; he was 14.

Hendricks worked the graveyard shift at Kaiser, then went to school in the afternoon at McLoughlin Junior High, which had so many students they had to double-shift.

Sater and Hendricks were among the tens of thousands of men and women (and the two teens stretched the definition) who worked at the Vancouver shipyard during World War II.

The industrial center east of the Interstate Bridge produced 141 vessels of five different types, but the escort carrier was its biggest single product line. Fifty Casablanca-class carriers were built here, making it numerically the biggest class of aircraft carrier in naval history.

All the ships launched in Vancouver in 1943 were aircraft carriers, and production was in full swing that summer. On Aug. 17, 1943 — 70 years ago Saturday — the USS St. Lo was launched, while the keel was laid for the USS Hoggatt Bay. Work was taking place, at various stages between those two production milestones, on 11 other escort carriers. And a few of the ships that had been launched were getting outfitted so they could be commissioned.

The shipyard eventually employed 38,000, making it the county's biggest ever employer.

Throng of 75,000

An even larger group of people provided one of Vancouver's big events of any era: the throng of 75,000 that watched first lady Eleanor Roosevelt launch the USS Casablanca on April 5, 1943.

Dorothy Rivoli said she was part of that celebration, and remembers Mrs. Roosevelt arriving in a limousine.

The way she describes it, Rivoli's role in building an aircraft carrier had something in common with making a dress.

"I was a template marker in the plate shop," Rivoli said. "We laid patterns on the steel and drew the outline with a big crayon."

In the next step of the process, "They'd burn them with cutting torches," Rivoli said, and those pieces would eventually become part of a Navy escort carrier.

The assembly-line approach was created by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who also had two shipyards in Portland.

It took a lot of people, and ship-building experience was not required. Don Millar, a student at Vancouver High in 1943, worked at the Vancouver Barracks' military hospital and at a fruit cannery before Kaiser hired him as a painter's helper. He eventually wound up car-pooling to work at the shipyard with his father.

"My dad worked at the state employment office," Millar said. "People with no education were coming in," and his dad would line them up with shipyard jobs.

"They'd get more money than he was making, so he went to work at the shipyard," Millar said.

Lied about his age

"Everyone was working in the shipyard," recalled Hendricks, who was 14 back then. "I knew school guys that were there. I thought, I'm not 16, but I can handle that. So I phonied up my birth certificate."

Hendricks whited out the year he was born — which was 1928 — and inked in 1926.

He was 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, he said, so people at the hiring hall didn't have any qualms about putting him to work stringing electrical wire inside the ships.

When Hendricks showed up for his first shift, he met the other members of his work crew.

There were two journeyman electricians, but it wasn't long before they were drafted. That left the 14-year-old boy, a wino, a young woman who'd just graduated from college, and two grandmothers who'd left farms in the Midwest for shipyard jobs, Hendricks said.

"The older ladies were afraid of climbing ladders, the college girl wouldn't walk on a plank that was 40 feet over the water, and the wino was there three days a week," Hendricks recalled.

Peggy Sater, who was Peggy Snead back then, had graduated from Ridgefield High School at 16 — she skipped two years — and was attending Clark College when war broke out.

"I listened to President Roosevelt's speech on my little radio and didn't go back to school." Sater got a job at the shipyard in March 1942, working in the identity-badge department.

Yes, mother knows

When someone at the personnel office heard about her, Sater said, "He came to where I was working, pointed his finger at me, and asked: 'Does your mother know where you are?' I said, 'Yes, she does.'"

Sater spent three years at the shipyard. Her last two years were on the outfitting dock. After the carriers were launched, there still was a lot of work to be done, and that took place at the outfitting dock.

Sater worked the graveyard shift, from midnight to 8 a.m., and issued parts to pipe-fitting crews.

"Each ship had a specific list of fittings and valves. They were allowed so many, and then no more. They'd try to talk me out of an order," Sater said.

There was a learning curve. It took about five months to get the USS Casablanca ready to launch, and three more months to get it commissioned.

Sater, by the way, wasn't part of the 75,000-person throng that watched the first lady break a champagne bottle on the bow of the Casablanca.

"I worked graveyard, so I was probably sleeping," she said. "At one point, we worked seven months without a day off."

After that first escort carrier was produced, the pace picked up. Eventually, the shipyard was able to shave the time needed to produce an aircraft carrier from eight months down to about 31/2 months.

Harry Hendricks, the former 14-year-old shipyard worker, sounded proud of the way his team responded to their particular challenge, running electrical wire.

"Luckily, I'd been around construction a bit with my father. This is wiring, I don't know how it works, but I know where it goes and how it gets there," Hendricks said. "I learned how to read blueprints."

The wino was a good worker when he showed up, Hendricks said. The college grad who was afraid of heights turned out to have a valuable skill.

"She was really good at drawing something in three dimensions. We figured out what we wanted, and she'd draw it out and get it made."

Rivoli, who marked steel in the plate shop, said that she felt a real sense of accomplishment.

"I felt very patriotic," Rivoli said. "In my small way, I was helping."

Moonlight on the river

"For a young person like me, it was very exciting," Sater said. Occasionally, she would find herself standing on an empty flight deck in the middle of her graveyard shift, admiring the reflection of the moon on the Columbia River.

But she also understood why she was standing on that aircraft carrier.

"I knew it was going to war," Sater said, and that empty flight would eventually be filled with warplanes.

Her own brother went to war, Sater added, and landed at Okinawa -- one of many battles in the Pacific where the Vancouver-built escort carriers served with distinction.

Dorothy Rivoli's husband, who was her supervisor in the plate shop, was drafted into the Navy.

Don Millar became a tail-gunner on a B-17 bomber.

"I flew 19 missions in Europe," he said. "Actually, it was 181/2. We were shot down on the last one."

After bailing out, Millar landed in French-held territory and the war in Europe ended a month later.

At 16, Harry Hendricks wanted to get into the Navy, so he — what else? — lied about his age and enlisted. He was booted out and finally was able to sign up when he turned 17. The war was over by the time he went to sea, but his Navy years gave Hendricks an opportunity to look across the water at some of the aircraft carriers he'd helped build in 1943.

That wasn't the only carryover of his war years.

"I've lied about my age so many times," Hendricks said, "that I've had to ask my wife how old I was."

View videos of Peggy Sater and Don Millar remembering their time at the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.