t was, in many ways, the pinnacle of American ingenuity, resolve, and sacrifice. And Vancouver played more than a small role in the effort that won World War II for the United States and its allies.
That history was recounted Sunday and Monday in a two-part series from Columbian reporter Tom Vogt. Detailing the role the city played in the war effort — and commemorating the 70th anniversary of the launch of the USS St. Lo from Vancouver’s Kaiser Shipyard — the stories evoked a bygone era through the memories of those who lived it.
There is a poignancy to their stories, from local residents who helped build the vessels to those who served on them while fighting Japanese forces across the Pacific.
For example, Harry Hendricks recounts how he lied about his age when he was 14 in order to secure a job at the shipyard. He would work the graveyard shift from midnight to 8 a.m., and attend classes in the afternoon at McLoughlin Junior High School.
In addition to building ships, the industrial center along the Columbia River east of the Interstate 5 Bridge also went a long way toward building Vancouver. The draw of the shipyard helped turn the area from a small town into a city, attracting residents with the prospect of good-paying jobs while it turned out 141 vessels of five different types.
At its height, the shipyard employed 38,000 workers, making it the largest employer in Clark County history. And while the tales of those employees reflect a significant part of America’s history, they also point out generational differences.
World War II was a time in which Americans embraced the level of commitment required to win a war on a global scale. Millions of people from across the country served in the armed forces, and millions more contributed to the war effort back at home.
But the commitment didn’t end there.
Citizens who didn’t directly contribute to the war effort did their part through the rationing of commodities — there were limits on how much gas or meat or coffee could be purchased, in addition to many other products.
The idea was to leave as many items as possible for use by military personnel overseas, with one patriotic slogan being, “There’s a war on, you know!” The war was not a faraway conflict being carried out in distant lands; it was felt at home every day.
That is a far cry from the efforts carried out over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, American leaders have attempted to conduct a war largely invisible to the people back home, other than those who have family members in the military. With no tax increases to support the wars and with little sacrifice required on the homefront, the current conflicts are an afterthought for far too many Americans.
As Harry Hendricks, the 14-year-old who worked stringing electrical wire inside the ships, told The Columbian, “Everyone was working in the shipyard. 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.”
Undoubtedly, Harry Hendricks wasn’t alone. America’s commitment to the World War II effort permeated every facet of society and extended beyond generational lines. It was a commitment that helped make a horrible conflict, the likes of which the world had never seen before and hasn’t seen since, a shining moment for the United States — and for Vancouver.