Clark County residents recall their impassioned work at Kaiser Shipyard during WWII

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

Update

Hal Berven, one of the Navy veterans who was featured in The Columbian’s Aug. 18 story about Vancouver-built aircraft carriers during World War II, died Aug. 22. Berven was 90.

Did You Know?

The first aircraft carrier launched in Vancouver had two names. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt christened it the USS Alazon Bay on April 5, 1943, but the name was changed to the USS Casablanca

About 70,000 people were in the crowd on April 5, 1943, when Eleanor Roosevelt christened the first aircraft carrier built in Vancouver.

Seventy years later, a few Clark County residents can still pick themselves out of photographs that were taken that day … although it's a little easier for Mel Jackson than for most.

Jackson's photo shows two boys standing just a few feet from Mrs. Roosevelt, greeting her after a visit to the Kaiser Shipyard hospital; the 8-year-old boy on the left is Mel.

Eleanor Pearson has a photograph of the crowd that gathered to watch the first lady christen the carrier, and she can put her fingertip on the bandana-wrapped head of a welder among the first few rows: That's her, Pearson said.

Jackson and Pearson were among the people who contacted The Columbian following our recent stories about World War II escort carriers built in Vancouver.

Their contribution is obviously a point of pride for the generation that worked in the Vancouver shipyard. People in their 80s and 90s still are eager to share their stories about cross-country trips to get shipyard jobs. They can still provide personal glimpses into Vancouver's biggest work force mobilization. Will Kalmbach, for example, liked to eat his lunchtime sandwich while perched in an aircraft carrier's lookout tower.

That chapter in Vancouver's industrial history embodied the term "labor intensive." More than 35,000 people worked there at its peak, drawing families from all over the country.

Eight kids in the car

Jean Bean said her father came out first from Wisconsin to get a job, and then the rest of the family joined him.

"Mother drove out here with eight children," said Bean, who got a job as a bicycle messenger. "She was a brave woman."

Kalmbach said he was 16 when his family came here from North Dakota: "We arrived on Wednesday, applied on Thursday and went to work on Friday."

It's not surprising that only 2 percent of the employees had previous shipyard experience, as Kaiser historian Steve Gilford found.

But as a work force, they exceeded expectations.

George Vogel still has his copy of a letter from Henry J. Kaiser congratulating his employees for their goal-busting production. The company's best-guess estimate was 16 escort carriers by the end of 1943, the industrialist wrote; they delivered 19.

Of course, it was working out nicely for Vogel, too. The 16-year-old had been earning a dollar a day mowing a neighbor lady's yard. Vogel's starting salary as a electrician's helper was about 90 cents an hour.

It was some nice spending money for Vogel and his buddies.

"The first thing we'd do after work was go to Howard's Ice Cream on Main Street and get ice cream cones," he said.

Violet Siepak and Kalmbach are among the people who figured out how to do their particular assignments faster and better.

Kalmbach helped an electrician run wiring in hangar decks. When he figured out how to do it twice as fast, he got a 10-cent-an-hour bonus.

Siepak said her job as a sheet-metal journeyman included punching in fasteners. She helped her team devise a better tool for the job, Siepak said.

Too much welding

It wasn't all smooth sailing, production-wise. Bill Richmond's crew installed a flagpole on a ship, in front of a set of guns.

"It had a clamp on it, so you could loosen the clamp and lay the pole down, so the guns could shoot" without blasting the flag pole. When they came back to work the next day, somebody "had welded that damn clamp," Richmond said. "We had to take a chipping gun and chip away the weld."

Eleanor Pearson has her own memories of those pneumatic chipping guns. Her first job was scraping rust, but other workers were using chipping guns on the deck above her head.

"They were so loud, I'd lose my balance," Pearson said. That's when she decided to become a welder.

Pearson also worked for three months at the Higgins Industries shipyard in New Orleans, where landing craft were built. She has a photo from her stint there, too. A photographer asked Pearson and another woman to pose in front of an invasion craft. Pearson said she agreed to pose if she could get a copy of the photo.

On the day Pearson was part of the Vancouver shipyard crowd shot, "They had the christening around noon, so people would be able to use their lunch hour to watch it. I hurried over there and was lucky enough to get into the front row."

Don Cassady, who went to work at 15, still has his program from the launching. In addition to Mrs. Roosevelt, the dignitaries included the governors of Washington and Oregon, a rear admiral and Henry J. Kaiser.

Siepak was working that day but missed the launch. It was at a section of the shipyard called the ways, where the keels were laid.

Mother-in-law excited

"I was on the outfitting dock," Siepak said. "I got tickets for my husband and his mother; he said she was so excited that she ran after the ship" when it slid in to the river.

Jackson, the 8-year-old boy in that photo, was not on the job that day, but his dad was. That's how he wound up in the picture with the first lady.

"My dad was an ambulance driver at the hospital, and I used to go to work with him," said Jackson, who became the first athletic director at Prairie High School.

Jackson's dad knew where Mrs. Roosevelt would be leaving the hospital after visiting with injured shipyard workers. And that's where Mel was waiting for her, along with another boy.

As Jackson recalls the conversation, the first lady did most of the talking:

"How are you doing?"

"Fine," the boys replied.

"Nice to meet you," she said.

When Don Cassady remembers that day, it brings to mind another milestone.

"That's about a month before they found out I was not 16," said Cassady, who was working on the outfitting dock.

Cassady, like Bean, wound up on a bicycle, dodging forklifts while delivering messages to supervisors. Seventy years later, that aspect of Cassady's shipyard career once more is part of his life.

"I'm riding a bicycle again," Cassady said. "I've got 2,500 miles on it."

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